Memorial Day first rose to prominence at the end of the Civil War back in 1865. National recognition of what was originally called Decoration Day, started by a group of 2800 former slaves, met with failure in 1868 as many Southern states refused to acknowledge any type of memorial. The alternate name, Memorial Day, emerged in 1882 and was nationally accepted after WWI. It took the Federal Government, however, 102 years after that first gathering to declare Memorial Day a federally recognized holiday honoring our fallen soldiers. Memorial Day is a day of remembrance and I suspect may songs have been inspired by the event. Below is a list of my 10 favorite, be they honorable, or not.
10. George M. Cohan was, perhaps, the first real superstar in music. In 1917, upon hearing the United States declaration of war upon Germany, wrote the song – ‘Over There.’ ‘Johnny get your gun… take it on the run… Hear them calling you and me… Every son of Liberty.’ The song was hugely popular amongst WWI soldiers and equally as popular again in WWII. It’s catchy tune and heartfelt lyrics inspired many a young man to answer the call to arms.
9. Katherine Lee Bates wrote a poem and Samuel B. Ward composed the music to America’s most widely recognized song, ‘America, The Beautiful.’ Need I say more.
8. Zor and Zam where two little known kings who called for war and were introduced to the world by the Monkee’s. The song was written by Bill and John Chadwick and begins with the marching snare drum and vocals of Mickey Dolenz. The song builds and explodes with brilliant surprise.
7 In a song written by Reynaldo Benson, Alfred Cleveland and Marvin Gaye, the soulful R&B tune, ‘What’s Going On,’ shot straight to number 2 in 1971. Marvin Gaye’s questions reflect the questions of many who honor our fallen. For a haunting re-make, visit Cyndi Lauper and her sounds of war illustrating this softer remake.
6. George M. Cohan’s ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ was another feel good, calls to arms song, very popular amongst troops in the Second World War. Much of Cohan’s music rang through the country like a Beatles hit. Hear it once and you can’t get it out of your head.
5 John Lennon lived for a world free of war. In 1970 he released ‘Give Peace A Chance,’ a lyrically silly song with a chorus that turned into a national anti-war anthem in protests begging to return our troops home and alive.
4 ‘Find the Cost of Freedom’ by Neil Young illustrates the cost of war and may be the truest reflection of a song for Memorial Day. ‘Find the cost of freedom/buried in the ground/mother earth will swallow you/lay your body down.’
3. Bruce Springsteen takes the occasion to remind us of those who didn’t die fighting for their country, but never-the-less, gave their lives in the chart topping ‘Born In The USA.’ Perhaps we do need to do more for those who return.
2. Irving Berlin wrote the beautiful ballad, ‘God Bless America.’ ‘God Bless America/my home sweet home.’
1. Set to the tune of a popular British drinking song by John Stafford Smith, in 1814 the poet Francis Scott Key wrote ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ our National Anthem. No disrespect to either Francis Scott Key or our nation, but there may be no better rendition of the casualties of war than the widely known gut wrenching guitar version of Jimi Hendrix on a stage in Woodstock NY where a generation in turmoil gathered for three days of peace and love in a nation ripped in half by war. Three years later, students at Kent State would be gunned down protesting war. Memorial Day is a day to honor our sons and daughters fallen in times of war. From the Campus of Kent State to the Towers of Manhattan, our soldiers are not alone in falling.