Friday, 20 November 2009

Songs of the Vietnam Conflict

By James Perone


Historian Ray Pratt describes "Draft Dodger Rag" and its contemporary "I Ain't Marching Anymore" as quickly having achieved "anthem status" in the peace movement. Pratt also writes that Ochs's albums All the News That's Fit to Sing, containing "One More Parade," and I Ain't Marching Anymore, containing both "Draft Dodger Rag" and the title song, became "essentials of the record libraries of activist students and early opponents of the war" (Pratt 1998, 176).

"Draft Dodger Rag" consists of several stanzas, each constructed of two identical eight-measure phrases, in which the singer details a litany of ailments and perversions he has that, he hopes, will make him unfit for military service. The "Rag" is actually misnamed; it contains no classical ragtime syncopations at all. What it does contain is a boom-chuck style guitar accompaniment (in Ochs's recordings of the song) suggesting the left hand part of a piano rag, and the type of dotted rhythms found in the post-ragtime, early jazz piano work of Jelly Roll Morton. In terms of the anti-war movement and the war resistance movement, the song's appearance coincides with the first of the publicized draft-card burnings related to Vietnam and the start of mass attempts to avoid the draft by seeking Conscientious Objector status and various types of deferments. The history of this resistance movement is detailed in journalist/draft resister Roger Neville Williams' book The New Exiles: American War Resisters in Canada (Williams 1971).

Easily Phil Ochs's best-known and best-remembered composition on the subject of the Vietnam Conflict, "I Ain't Marching Anymore" found a home at numerous anti-war rallies from 1965 through the end of the war. Ochs's magnum opus was printed in Broadside #54 (January 20, 1965) and Sing Out! 16/1 (February-March 1966). While right-wing writers called the song "notorious," "un-American propaganda" (Noebel 1966, 225, 226), and "subversive" (Allen 1969), a presumably left-wing writer in a letter to Broadside stated, "Phil Ochs speaks more than any other American I know of today for a segment of American youth which is discontented and restless and can not find the channels through which to register their discontent and bring about needed changes" (O.S. 1965, 12). Ironically, at about the time of the publication of "I Ain't Marching Anymore," Ochs himself told a Village Voice interviewer, "I'm writing to make money. I write about Cuba and Mississippi [and presumably Vietnam] out of an inner need for expression, not to change the world. The roots of my songs are psychological, not political" (Eliot 1979, 93).

Despite the reasons for Phil Ochs's songwriting, despite the deep feelings some listeners had about songs like "I Ain't Marching Anymore," despite the concern expressed by right-wing writers over the politics of Ochs, and despite the commercial popularity of folk revival and folk-rock in the early and mid-1960's, even an anti-war classic like "I Ain't Marching Anymore" made virtually no commercial impact. In the case of Ochs, context reigned supreme, and the context for Ochs's music was live performance, primarily at peace rallies. The more politically charged the atmosphere when Ochs performed his anti-war songs, the better they were received. As noted rock critic Greil Marcus writes, "That's why when Phil Ochs gets up to sing protest songs to people getting ready for a demonstration, telling them that they are right and that their opponents are wrong, he always sounds flat and empty compared to the singing that begins when the cops move in" (Marcus 1969, 91-2). By the time of "I Ain't Marching Anymore," Ochs was supplanting Bob Dylan as the favorite protest singer of the anti-war movement. As sometimes Broadside contributor Paul Wolfe wrote in reviewing the two musicians and their impact in the protest movement, the comparison between Ochs and Dylan at the time was "meaning vs. innocuousness, sincerity vs. utter disregard for the tastes of the audience, idealistic principle vs. self-conscious egotism" (Wolfe 1972, 148).

"I Ain't Marching Anymore," an up tempo protest number, usually sung by Ochs to his own guitar accompaniment, finds the musician picking out various American snapshot battles of the past, the Battle of New Orleans, the German trenches of World War I, the dropping of the atomic bomb, and so forth, responding that with what he has learned about the futility of war, he has decided that he will not march anymore. The song's chorus clearly paints war as a generational issue, with the older generation always being responsible for initiating wars, and the younger generation always suffering the deaths associated with those wars. The song was important not only at the more general peace rallies, but played an important role in the early resistance movement, voicing the feelings of draft resisters and military deserters.

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