Protest Song of the Day: ‘War Song’ by Graham Nash and Neil Young
To recognize the power of protest music, acknowledge its role in keeping dissent alive and how musicians translate social issues and systemic problems into song, The Dissenter has launched a daily feature that highlights a protest song every weekday. The project was on hiatus last week but now it resumes.
Former Senator George McGovern died yesterday. McGovern, known for his presidential run in 1972, is a person most liberals or left-leaning Americans, who supported him, are still proud to have voted and campaigned for during that election. They do not care that he lost because, unlike many politicians, he had a soul and most would argue he never lost that soul.
During his ’72 presidential campaign, a song was recorded by Neil Young and Graham Nash. The Stray Gators backed Nash and Young.
The song called “War Song” did not name McGovern. It did, however, contain a lyric that was an unmistakable reference to McGovern: “There’s a man/Says he can/Put an end to war.” It was played at fundraising concerts for McGovern.
In the song, Young sings, “In the morning when you wake up/You’ve got planes flying in the sky/Flying bombs made to break up/All the lies in your eyes.” He makes an awkward reference to the shooting of George Wallace, as if to suggest this is all a part of the culture of violence the war in Vietnam is fueling. He goes on to highlight the barbarity of the Vietnam War: “Burn that jungle down/And kill those Vietnamese.”
The words may not be from any one perspective, but, for at least this part, it is as if the thoughts of a drafted and disaffected soldier, who wants to come home, are being channeled. McGovern is that man, who will bring the troops home. As McGovern declared in his campaign, “Come home, America. Come home from the wilderness of needless war and excessive militarism.”
The song is an artifact of the period, a testament to the passion McGovern inspired in people during his ’72 campaign. The lyrics are simplistic. Some of the lines sound a bit forced and were perhaps the first thing that came to mind and were written down. Still, owners and those in positions of power must have feared the message. Like “Ohio,” it was banned by a number of radio stations.
The message’s simplicity carried some resonance in recent years because the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars led more than a few Americans to wonder if they were reliving history. And it made them remember when antiwar forces lined up behind McGovern. It made them think, “What if George McGovern had actually won?” Would America have waged two wars? Or, would there be so many undeclared conflicts being waged by America today?
The Dissenter will be putting one of these up every weekday morning. If you have requests for songs that should be featured or if you have a protest song you recorded, which you would like to see featured, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
And all previous Protest Song of the Day selections can be found here.