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.