Why I hate peace songs

The Civil Rights movement had the best political songs ever. But the peace movement has generally had boring songs. I blame it on Woody Guthrie. When he was with the Almanac Singers, he wrote a bunch of songs calling for peace. The chorus of one such song went like this:

Peace, peace, peace, peace, peace, peace, peace.
I can hear the bugle sounding,
Roaming around my land, my city and my town;
Peace, peace, peace, peace, peace, peace, peace….

Fourteen interminable repetitions of the word “peace.” It isn’t one of Guthrie’s best songs.

And ever since then, folk singers think that the best way to write a song about peace is to copy Guthrie, and us the word “peace” over and over again. Sy Miller and Jill Jackson do it in their song “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” Joanne Hammil does it in her otherwise lovely song “Circle the Earth with Peace.” [I changed my mind about Joanne Hammil: see below.] Lui Collins does it in her song “Peace on Earth.” Jim Scott does it in his song “Taking a Step for Peace.” These are all songwriters whom I generally like, but these particular songs just don’t cut it.

(Songwriters and singers, please take note: singing the word “peace” over and over again does not inspire me to work for peace; instead, it just bores me and annoys me. Singers and songwriters, please take further note: a good political song either tells a story, or it calls for action; but simply repeating a word over and over again does not make for a good song.)

Compare the above songs, if you will, to the Gang of Four’s “I Love a Man in Uniform,” a peace song in which a narrator tells why becoming a soldier is so compelling. This is a song which actually deepens our understanding of the way the military exploits people:

The good life was so elusive,
Handouts, they got me down;
I had to regain my self-respect
So I got into camouflage.
The girls, they love to see you shoot…

Problem is, “I Love a Man in a Uniform” is kinda hard to sing without that funky bass and rhythm guitar and those hip backup singers.

And that seems to be the pattern for peace songs. On the one hand, you have singable songs with inane lyrics. On the other hand, you have great songs that aren’t singable by ordinary people.

And if I can’t sing, I don’t wanna be a part of your peace movement.


Update 7 March 2009: I was in a workshop today led by Joanne Hammil, and she had us sing “Circle the Earth with Peace.” She wrote this song for use with kindergarteners and the primary grades, and there are fun hand motions that go with it, that really add to it. Now I am a fan of this song, and would gladly teach it to a children’s choir or an intergenerational ensemble. As always, context is very important for music.

9 thoughts on “Why I hate peace songs

  1. Bill Baar

    I was a wobblie. Along with Pat Murfin….

    The Almanac singers cut two albums withing 12 months: one anti war during the Stalin-Hilter pact (Songs for John Doe March 1941), and then one pro war after Hitler invaded Russia (Dear Mr. President 1942) including Gutheries “Ruben James”.

    So, Mr. President, / We got this one big job to do / That’s lick Mr. Hitler and when we’re through, / Let no one else ever take his place / To trample down the human race. / So what I want is you to give me a gun / So we can hurry up and get the job done.

  2. E

    Or you could think of the repetition as an invocation, a yearning of the heart through the voice to make peace real. In that context, the repetition is powerful. As written poetry, it is not particularly compelling.
    ps I used to think of that Gang of Four song when I was working in downtown NYC as a paralegal and seeing at all the Wall Street guys in their suits (uniforms).

  3. Patrick Murfin

    Why is it that anti-war songs are generally so much better and more powerful than generic “peace songs?” Probably because they come face to face with hard human realities instead of noble, if vague, generalities. Think of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” And note how much more moving the song is when sung by been-there-done-that Marlene Dietricth than by sunny Peter, Paul and Mary. “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye” will rip you guts out every time. And there the songs that come out of the very specific experiences of different wars. There are many, but my favorite is “And the Band Played Waltzing Mathilda” (the Gallipoli song) by Eric Bogle.

    That doesn’t mean it impossible to write a good peace song. Lloyd Stone did it when he set “This is My Song” to the tune of “Finlandia” in 1934. You can find it in the hymnal. And you know what? He didn’t mention peace until the last line.

    Oh, and by the way, at least one stirring, handclapping anthem from the civil rights days, does double as a peace song—“Down by the River Side.”

  4. Dan

    Scott @ 1 — The Wobblies rock.

    Jean @ 2 — Yeah… HUH.

    Bill @ 3 — I think Guthrie’s peace songs weren’t recorded, but were a part of their live performances. I’ll have to check on that.

    E @ 4 — Yes, but then we’re moving more into peace chants — which is where I’d put one of my favorite peace songs, Marvin Frey’s “I’ve Got Peace Like a River.”

    Patrick @ 5 — I don’t particularly care for “This Is My Song” because Finlandia sounds too much like a dirge to me, but “Down by the Riverside” is just about the best peace song there is.

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