Monday, 4 November 2013

Travelin' Soldier

Speaking of annoying songs, here's one that's really annoying.

Two days past eighteen
He was waiting for the bus in his army greens
Sat down in a booth in a cafe there
Gave his order to a girl with a bow in her hair
He's a little shy so she gives him a smile
And he said would you mind sittin' down for a while
And talking to me? I'm feeling a little low
She said I'm off in an hour and I know where we can go

So they went down and they sat on the pier
He said I bet you got a boyfriend but I don't care
I got no one to send a letter to
Would you mind if I sent one back here to you?

I cried, never gonna hold the hand of another guy
Too young for him they told her
Waitin' for the love of a travelin' soldier
Our love will never end
Waitin' for the soldier to come back again
Never more to be alone when the letter said
A soldier's coming home

So the letters came from an army camp
In California then Vietnam
And he told her of his heart
It might be love and all of the things he was so scared of
He said when it's getting kinda rough over here
I think of that day sittin' down at the pier
And I close my eyes and see your pretty smile
Don't worry but I won't be able to write for awhile

One Friday night at a football game
The Lord's Prayer said and the Anthem sang
A man said folks would you bow your heads
For a list of local Vietnam dead
Crying all alone under the stands
Was a piccolo player in the marching band
And one name read but nobody really cared
But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair

This isn't really my usual stuff, but then I often listen to stuff that's not my usual.  I don't mind a bit of country if it's done well, as this one is.

That's not what's annoying.

I also have a bit of time for the Dixie Chicks.  I like that they play their own instruments instead of their management hiring blokes to do it for them while they look pretty out front.  And I like that when they were promoting this song in 2003 they mentioned that they were ashamed George W Bush came from Texas - and stuck to their guns even as they were being banned from the playlists of half the country music stations in the USA. 

That's not why this song's annoying either.

The song was originally written in 1996 by US country singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, who just happens to be the brother-in-law of Dixie Chick Emily Robison, seen here stage right playing the dobro.  He was inspired by someone he knew being called up to serve in Iraq.  The Dixie Chicks polished it up for commercial airplay and released it as a single in 2003 as the US (with Australia in tow) was going to war in Afghanistan.  It shot to Number 1 in the US country charts before it was scuppered by the controversy. 

Part of what makes this song so annoying is that its tear-jerking tricks are on full display.  There's nothing subtle here, it's all right out in the open.  Country music is made for tear-jerking, with the mournful sound of the dobro and fiddle, the sugary harmonies and simple, accessible chord patterns. 

The lyric is pure fiction, its little details designed to relentlessly tug at the heartstrings.  The innocent young couple drawn together by chance, the bow in the hair, the rendezvous at the pier.  The young man who apparently has no family or friends, the young woman who may or may not have a boyfriend (the chorus is partly in her voice so I guess that's a "no").  The comforting letters and images, the wise elders trying to spare her the inevitable heartache, the lonely girl in the band uniform crying beneath the grandstand while everyone else gets on with the game as if nothing happened.  It's like Robison had a list of all the things that would make his listeners cry and checked them off one by one as he wrote the song.

But even that is not the most annoying thing about this song. 

What's most annoying is that it works.  Every time I hear it I feel like crying.  Even as I hear the tricks unfolding, bright and brazen in their jangling obviousness, the tears spring to my eyes.  These techniques did not become tricks of the songwriters' trade for no reason.  People write sad country songs because they work.  Clever comedians can send up the genre all they like, a good sad country song is a powerful cathartic experience.  Every now and then we all need one.

There's no time we need them more than a time of war.  Because if you strip out the fantasy elements Travelin' Soldier is telling you about things that really happen.  Young men really do get sent off to war.  Young women who love them really do have to stay home, fearful about what will happen.  Often these young men get killed and the young women are left weeping, whether under a grandstand or at home in bed.  Often these young women have had time to marry the young men, and they have children who grow up never knowing their fathers.  It's desperately sad and when we have finished weeping we should be angry, angry enough to join the Dixie Chicks in disowning the people who make it happen when it could just as easily have been avoided. 

The last Australian soldiers are coming home from Afghanistan this week, after ten years of largely fruitless struggle.  Forty of them have been sent home in coffins over the course of the war.  Countless people of all nationalities have died, none in greater numbers than Afghanis themselves.  Ten years on, the country is no safer than when the Americans and their allies (including us) first launched the invasion.  If I was a Texan I would disown Bush as well.  Instead I have to content myself with disowning John Howard.

Still, if I were asked to nominate a song to be played as they head for home I wouldn't pick Travelin' Soldier, much as I admire and hate it.  Instead I would pick this beautiful song by Jason Isbell, titled Dress Blues.  Not only is it a sad country song about a dead soldier (with that extra tincture of anger that Robison and the Dixie Chicks keep under wraps) it's actually a true story about his schoolmate Matthew Conley (pictured above).  His wife and the daughter he never met are still alive and as well as could be expected in Alabama.  You can read about it here

Enjoy.  Weep.  Be angry.

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