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Steve Holtje: May 7, 2006

My favorite anti-war music. Anti-war, not pro-peace. There is a difference of focus even if the intent and the goal are the same, and (perhaps inevitably) it’s the anti-war material that’s harder-hitting.

  1. Benjamin Britten – War Requiem
    A massive work using an adult choir, a children’s choir, three vocal soloists, and a large orchestra, this provides less comfort and more emotional disturbance than any other requiem due to the way Britten, an avowed pacifist, interweaves the chilling poetry of Wilfred Owen, a British soldier who died in combat a week before the end of World War I. Britten’s own 1963 recording on Decca remains historically important and features his soloist choices (Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, British tenor Peter Pears, and German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), but Richard Hickox’s 1991 reading on Chandos has much better sonics (now on SACD as well) and equally effective soloists: soprano Heather Harper (who subbed for Vishnevskaya at the 1962 premiere when the Soviet government wouldn’t allow the latter to participate), tenor Philip Langridge, and bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk.
  2. Bob Dylan – “Masters of War”
    The most bitter, clear-eyed indictment of war ever penned. Dylan’s contempt for the manipulators who incite others to fight for elite interests is plain in not only his lyrics but also his acrid singing. He also wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Talking World War III Blues,” and the nearly as acerbic “With God on Our Side,” but still, “Masters of War” is the apex of anti-war protest songs.
  3. Phil Ochs – “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”
    Being opposed to war means nothing if it’s not backed up by one’s actions. But Ochs isn’t being selfish; quite the opposite. He won’t march anymore because he’s evaluated all the other times we’ve been told to march, looking back over the course of American history: “It’s always the old to lead us to the war/It’s always the young to fall/Now look at all we’ve won with the sabre and the gun/Tell me is it worth it all.”
  4. Edwin Starr – “War”
    Barrett Strong’s lyrics may not be scintillating analysis or great poetry, but they get the point across with telling bluntness: “War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”
  5. Pete Seeger – “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”
    An anti-Vietnam War ode illustrating the “slippery slope.”
  6. Black Sabbath – “War Pigs”
    The lumpenproletariat translation of “Masters of War.”
  7. Motorhead – “1916”
    Another Englishman looks at the profligate waste of life in World War I: “Athirst for the Hun, we were food for the gun/And that’s what you are when you’re soldiers.” I bet Lemmy admires Wilfred Owen’s writing. Needless to say, this rocks harder than Britten.
  8. Irish Traditional – “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye”
    American listeners will hear the tune and think it’s “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” but the (probably) earlier version has a much darker view of Johnny’s homecoming: he’s armless, legless, and blind. It’s a reminder that the vast majority who suffer in war are the lower classes, whether dragooned or merely driven by economic straits. This song may be over 200 years old, and has a complicated history mixed in with a vast web of conjecture. For lyrics, see The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem and Mary Black are among many Irish artists who recorded folk versions, but my favorite is the dramatic Alice Parker choral arrangement that Robert Shaw recorded (listen here).
  9. Metallica – “One”
    Metallica takes the same idea, strips the humor out, and replaces it with horror, bombast, and searing, relentless pain.
  10. Michael Franti & Spearhead – “We Can Bomb the World to Pieces”
    Franti’s refrain observes, “We can bomb the world to pieces, but we can’t bomb it into peace”; his verses that prove he’s deeper than a catchy slogan. The “Armageddon Version” adds heralded reggae rhythm section Sly & Robbie as co-producers.