The old anti war ballads are new again

An anti-war collaboration between a famed ‘60s counterculturalist and the Bard of the Yukon has recently resurfaced.

An anti-war collaboration between a famed ‘60s counterculturalist and the Bard of the Yukon has recently resurfaced.

Country Joe McDonald is thrilled with the piece, and hopes it continues to build a fan base.

War War War is the American rock musician’s obscure 1970 album of Robert Service poetry put to music.

It was recently re-recorded live at an outdoor festival in Castlegar, BC, honouring Vietnam War resisters.

Consisting mainly of poetry from Service’s Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, the album is a powerful journey throughout all the different human stages of war.

McDonald is well-known for his 1965 anti-Vietnam protest song Fixin’ To Die Rag, which acquired legendary status after being performed live at the 1969 Woodstock music festival.

McDonald still performs the song at festivals, and is heavily involved in the contemporary anti-Iraq war movement.

“I’ve been part of the anti-war movement for, gosh, 40 years,” he said.

War War War was a commercial flop; the album only existed on vinyl for about 10 years.

“We sold way less than a 100,000 copies,” said MacDonald.

But for years, McDonald has received requests from fans looking to obtain a copy of the now-discontinued album.

(A used copy of the record can cost upwards of $150 on Amazon.com .)

Blocked from re-release by the original publisher, MacDonald’s 2007 recording was done to resurrect the music and bring it to a wider audience.

Consisting mainly of poems from Service’s Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, the album is a powerful operatic journey throughout the different stages of war.

Through nine acoustic songs, the album follows soldiers, munitions makers, refugees and grieving fathers.

The Man from Athabasca is a haunting ballad about the journey of a northern Canadian trapper to the trenches of northern France. 

In one passage, the man regales French soldiers with stories of Canada while war rages around them.

“And I tell them of the Furland, of the tumpline and the paddle,

      Of secret rivers loitering, that no one will explore;

        … While above the star-shells fizzle and the high explosives roar.”

War Widow is laden with typical Robert Service sarcasm: the war is praised for ridding an overpopulated society of young men.

The album ends with The March of the Dead, a poem imagining a parade of resurrected war dead crashing the jubilant celebrations of a Boer War victory celebration.

The song is a fitting finale because, even with all the heroism and sacrifice of war, at the end “all you’ve got is a bunch of dead people.”

From beginning to end, the album is “interesting and typical of the memories of people who experience war,” said McDonald, who has spent extensive time with Vietnam War veterans.

A former military-man himself, McDonald’s career has always sought to take anti-war stances from the perspective of the soldiers.

Recorded in only two days, McDonald still sees the album as a masterwork from “on high.”

“Just last year when I sang them all together … I thought, ‘man, this is great stuff, the most powerful anti-war musical piece I’ve ever heard in my life.’”

“That I had a part composing it is unbelievable,” he said.

I just did it because I was inspired, because it was fun, and I’m amazed that it’s (lasted this long)

The advantage of looking at war through the experiences of the First World War is that it can be examined beyond the context of politics, said MacDonald.

“We develop issues around current wars … but with WWI we have the luxury of distance, and we can all agree that this was fucking horrible.”

Media surrounding more recent conflicts can still be tainted by personal feelings of anger, patriotism and resentment, said McDonald.

War War War (live) is available through Apple’s iTunes or countryjoe.com

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