From ‘Dixie’ To ‘God Bless The U.S.A.': Country Music At War

Ever since commercial country music was born in the early 1920s, war has been a lyrical theme.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks on America, several patriotic songs have appeared on the country music charts. Alongside Cyndi Thomson’s “What I Really Meant to Say,” country fans are hearing a newly recorded song by Aaron Tippin, a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Faith Hill and a group sing of “America the Beautiful” featuring Toby Keith, the Oak Ridge Boys and Lyle Lovett, among others.

This latest wave of patriotic fervor from the country community will come as no surprise to longtime observers of the genre. Country artists and country songwriters have a long tradition of weighing in when the U.S. finds itself at war.

The Early Years

Commercial country music was born in the early 1920s, in the aftermath of World War I (1914-1918). Reflecting a nation determined to return to peacetime normalcy, country recordings of the 1920s and 1930s had little to say about war in general or America’s past wars.

For every song recorded about the Spanish-American War (“Filipino Baby,” “The Battleship Maine” among the handful) or the Great War (“The Kaiser and Uncle Sam,” “The Rainbow Division” and even one side of Jimmie Rodgers’ first recording, “Soldier’s Sweetheart,” which recalls “that awful German war”), there were several about the great conflict fought two generations earlier on American soil, the Civil War (“Memories of the South Before the War,” “Dixie” and many others), usually told from the Southern point of view.

World War II

From 1939 to 1941, America for the second time in a generation found itself surrounded by a world at war. The fight to stay neutral failed when Japan attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor. That “date which will live in infamy” was recounted by Denver Darling in “Cowards Over Pearl Harbor.”

Prolific songwriter and recording artist Carson Robison, always fond of the event ballad, became almost the muse of World War II, penning and recording such songs as “Here We Go to Tokio, Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor,” “We’re Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap” and the double-sided “Hitler’s Letter to Hirohito”/”Hirohito’s Letter to Hitler.”

The runaway patriotic hit of the war’s first year was by another New York recording artist, Elton Britt. “There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” told the tale of a crippled mountain boy who wants to “help to bring the Axis down a peg.”

Largely a Southern regional music before World War II, country music entered the national consciousness during the conflict as Southerners sent to the far-flung battlefronts and those migrating to domestic war-industry jobs in Michigan, Illinois, California and elsewhere took their music with them.

Many songs celebrated the war effort, and plenty more no doubt would have but for the timing and duration of the long musicians union strike. A ban on new recordings began on August 1, 1942 (eight months into the war), and lasted more than two years for some major recording companies.

When the strike finally ended, the war was still being fought and country artists had lost none of their patriotism, as evidenced by Tex Ritter’s “There’s a Gold Star in Her Window,” Eddy Arnold’s “Mother’s Prayer” and “Did You See My Daddy Over There,” Ernest Tubb’s “Soldier’s Last Letter,” Gene Autry’s (himself a pilot in the Asian theater) “At Mail Call Today,” and Bob Wills’ “White Cross on Okinawa” and “Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima.”

Korea

Anti-communism was the theme as America found itself fighting communist aggression in Korea from 1950-1953. Lulu Belle and Scotty added big government, inflation and taking the Fifth Amendment to the list of domestic evils on par with the foreign communist menace in “I’m No Communist” in 1952. Little Jimmy Dickens and others sang “They Locked God Outside the Iron Curtain,” and Terry Preston (Ferlin Husky) was just as intent on his own kind of lockout, singing “Let’s Keep the Communists Out.”

Red River Dave McEnery, ever the topical balladeer, reworked T. Texas Tyler’s 1948 hit “Deck of Cards” into “The Red Deck of Cards,” a description of Communist attempts at brainwashing, while Eddie Hill’s “I’ve Changed My Mind” told of a brainwashed American prisoner of war who came to his senses and went home.

The unique conditions of Korea found ample expression in country songs of the period. Tubb sang of “A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge” and hit big with Arthur Q. Smith’s “Missing in Action.” Britt and Bill Monroe each recorded “Rotation Blues,” with Britt adding his description of “Korean Mud.” The Louvin Brothers, though not yet the stars they would become, sang from experience of going “From Mother’s Arms to Korea.” Jimmie Osborne celebrated the 1953 armistice (optimistically, some would say) with “Thank God for Victory in Korea.”

Vietnam

America’s next war found GIs in the jungles of Vietnam. American involvement there would be longer (1965-1973) and costlier than in Korea, and the war proved far more divisive at home. Dozens of record labels, major and independent, released hundreds of songs and recitations about the war in Vietnam.

The first major hit came from Johnny Wright, whose version of Tom T. Hall’s “Hello Viet Nam” (1965) topped the country chart. Kris Kristofferson penned “Viet Nam Blues,” in which the speaker is sickened by an encounter with an anti-war protester, for Dave Dudley. Stonewall Jackson shamed protesters as “these men who’d rather live as slaves” in “The Minute Men Are Turning in Their Graves.”

Nagging questions about America’s war aims in Vietnam are reflected in the country songs of the time. As early as 1966, Charlie Moore and Bill Napier sang “Is This a Useless War?,” and the same year Dudley’s recording of “What We’re Fighting For” found a ready audience. Perennial war commentator Tubb recorded Red River Dave’s answer to the war aims question in 1965 on “It’s for God, Country and You, Mom (That’s Why I’m Fighting in Viet Nam).” This triad has been invoked in every American war — witness Artemus Ward’s complaint from the days of the Civil War: “the song writers air doin’ the mother bisness rayther too muchly.”

Few doubted the heroism and bravery of the men serving in Vietnam, and one of them, Barry Sadler, immortalized his own service branch with the biggest hit to come out of the war, “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” Country music’s hero of this war would not be a general like Douglas MacArthur in Korea, but a lieutenant — court-martialed for his part in the My Lai Massacre — William Calley, who was lionized in more than one country recitation at the time of his 1971 conviction.

Loretta Lynn sounded one of the first negative notes in her poignant “Dear Uncle Sam” (1966), in which she informs her government, “You don’t need him like I do.” Her mentors and benefactors the Wilburn Brothers later weighed in with “Little Johnny From Down the Street” (who “died in a foreign land all alone”) and “The War Keeps Dragging On.”

Even Merle Haggard’s immortal anthems “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” from 1969-1970, were more anti-protester and pro-America than pro-Vietnam War. Walter Bailes and the Sullivans were among those who tired of the indecisive fighting, and they voiced these sentiments in “Bring the Boys Home.”

Middle Eastern Crises

The Iranian hostage crisis (1979-1981) never flared into war but generated a great deal more country music commentary than would the Gulf War 10 years later. Among the memorable tunes: “Take Your Oil and Shove It,” “A Message to Khomieni” and “Ring the Bells of Freedom.” The prolonged crisis, which ended with the release of American hostages on the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated (January 20, 1981), spawned a patriotic furor that was perhaps best captured on the Charlie Daniels Band’s “In America.”

Iran’s longtime enemy, Iraq, became America’s enemy when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwaiti oil fields in 1990. Hank Williams Jr.’s “Don’t Give Us a Reason” pointedly warned Hussein of an American response. Tippin’s “You’ve Got To Stand for Something” was one of the few chart hits dealing with the brief conflict, along with Bill Anderson’s reworking of the aforementioned “Deck of Cards.” Donna Fargo recorded “Soldier Boy,” and Jerry Martin’s “Letter to Saddam Hussein” peaked after the war was fought.

Operation Enduring Freedom

In the early days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, Tippin recorded a new version of “You’ve Got to Stand for Something.” He also has hauled out a song he wrote with Kenny Beard and Casey Beathard two and a half years ago, “Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly.” He rushed it to radio and will release it October 2 as a commercial single, with all proceeds going to the American Red Cross.

Martina McBride stepped up in a variety of situations to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a chorus of her hit “Independence Day.” Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” landed on the country and pop charts, and Greenwood has jetted around the country to sing his song at memorials and large gatherings. Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks and Willie Nelson all performed September 21 in the nationally televised special “America: A Tribute to Heroes.” Daniels has updated, reworked and re-released his “In America.”

Many country songwriters — no doubt stirred by the violent attacks, the loss of life, the swelling of pride in the country and anxiety about what might come in the future — are setting about the task of turning their feelings into songs.

“This song is an opportunity to speak to people,” Tippin said of his new recording. “I hope it will be an inspiration to the soldiers, the men and women about to be [soldiers] and the Americans at home. And I hope it will help our country heal.”

Country music historian Ronnie Pugh is the author of “Ernest Tubb: The Texas Troubadour” (Duke University Press).