Tuesday, February 21, 2012

When John Brown Went Off To War

"Then conquer we must, for our cause is just..." ~Francis Scott Key

Here in Duluth, John Bushey's Highway 61 Revisited has become a fixture for many radio listeners. The show airs on KUMD each Saturday evening at 5:00 p.m. and has been nicknamed by some as "the Dylan hour." If you're unfortunate enough to miss your favorite program, the good part is that it re-airs on Mondays from five to six, or during drive time for your home commute if you're not working overtime.

Bushey does an admirable job with the program, which frequently has rare clips from concerts or rare clips from interviews. He sometimes plays music by other musicians who have done covers of Dylan's material, and sometimes will play the studio version of a song Dylan recorded when young and follow with the same song performed live later in the artist's life.

Last night we heard older and later versions of A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, one of the great songs of all time. Bushey notes that the song was written during the Cuban missile crisis, and that "every line could become a song in and of itself." I concur. Another song that we heard older and newer versions of was John Brown.

I remember the very first moment I heard the latter version of this song. A salesman whom I had done business with took me to lunch nearly fifteen years ago and when I jumped into his car he said, "You've gotta hear this." Like myself he had grown up in the Sixties. If adolescence is challenging, adolescence while your country is in a war that doesn't make sense is especially so.

George Eliot once wrote, "We must not inquire too curiously into motives." That's the problem right there. We're born with inquiring minds. We are always wanting to ask "why?" We're too young to understand that this is considered impudent by our elders.

I'm not sure of the origins of "Just War Theory" but the ideas came to the forefront with Viet Nam. To say that such probing is irrelevant does nothing to bolster our confidence.

So the songwriters who gave us words, raised questions. How many times must the cannonballs fly before they are forever banned? And how many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?

Dylan's "John Brown" germinated in soil such as this. It hearkens back to another war protest song from an earlier time, "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda." It personalizes the matter in a storyline that hurts.

John Brown

John Brown went off to war to fight on a foreign shore
His mama sure was proud of him!
He stood straight and tall in his uniform and all
His mama’s face broke out all in a grin

“Oh son, you look so fine, I’m glad you’re a son of mine
You make me proud to know you hold a gun
Do what the captain says, lots of medals you will get
And we’ll put them on the wall when you come home”

As that old train pulled out, John’s ma began to shout
Tellin’ ev’ryone in the neighborhood:
“That’s my son that’s about to go, he’s a soldier now, you know”
She made well sure her neighbors understood
She got a letter once in a while and her face broke into a smile

As she showed them to the people from next door
And she bragged about her son with his uniform and gun
And these things you called a good old-fashioned war
Oh! Good old-fashioned war!

Then the letters ceased to come, for a long time they did not come
They ceased to come for about ten months or more
Then a letter finally came saying, “Go down and meet the train
Your son’s a-coming home from the war”

She smiled and went right down, she looked everywhere around
But she could not see her soldier son in sight
But as all the people passed, she saw her son at last
When she did she could hardly believe her eyes

Oh his face was all shot up and his hand was all blown off
And he wore a metal brace around his waist
He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she did not know
While she couldn’t even recognize his face!

Oh! Lord! Not even recognize his face

“Oh tell me, my darling son, pray tell me what they done
How is it you come to be this way?”
He tried his best to talk but his mouth could hardly move
And the mother had to turn her face away

“Don’t you remember, Ma, when I went off to war
You thought it was the best thing I could do?
I was on the battleground, you were home . . . acting proud
You wasn’t there standing in my shoes”

“Oh, and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here?
I’m a-tryin’ to kill somebody or die tryin’
But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close
And I saw that his face looked just like mine”

Oh! Lord! Just like mine!

“And I couldn’t help but think, through the thunder rolling and stink
That I was just a puppet in a play
And through the roar and smoke, this string is finally broke
And a cannonball blew my eyes away”

As he turned away to walk, his Ma was still in shock
At seein’ the metal brace that helped him stand
But as he turned to go, he called his mother close
And he dropped his medals down into her hand

Copyright © 1963, 1968 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1996 by Special Rider Music

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