Greatest Blues Songs About War
This Memorial Day Weekend, as we remember the armed conflicts that the United States has taken part in, our victories and especially our losses, it seemed like a relevant time to write a piece on the greatest blues songs about war. Music has always had something to say about war, whether it be a patriotic boost to American pride or a sharp criticism of war in general. And while war isn’t one of the most common themes in the blues, the blues certainly hasn’t been silent on the issue either. Here are five of the greatest blues songs about war that are without a doubt worthy of your time and attention:
- Lightnin’ Hopkins – “War Is Starting Again”
Lightnin’ Hopkins was a Texas country bluesman of the highest order. Stylistically, he often sang in a talking blues style, but that is in spite of the fact that he had a tremendous, powerful singing voice. Lyrically, he would tackle themes that included black life in the segregated south as well as less political topics including having bad luck in love. His approach to the blues lent him a considerable palette with which to paint a picture of the personal effects of war on a human being. At the start of the song, the singer’s reaction to the beginning of a new war seems to be essentially negative. He considers the panic that mothers will feel and the losses that many wives will sustain as a cost. In addition, he claims he’s been to war before and opines that he definitely doesn’t want to go back. But by the end of the tune, he changes his basic attitude because his lover’s boyfriend is going off to war, leaving her available to the singer. This, he admits, “is a better break for me”.
2. John Lee Hooker – “War Is Over (Goodbye California)”
The Mississippi-born John Lee Hooker, the Boogie Man of the Blues, is perhaps most famous for his electric interpretation of classic acoustic Delta Blues, but also incorporates a mixture of talking blues and Hill Country Blues as well. His boogie style of playing is deeply rooted in the piano boogie-woogie rhythms of the 1930’s and ’40s. His is often a one-chord blues boogie that burrows deep into the groove and never lets up. Though he has played in many styles, it is perhaps this above all that propelled him to superstar status in the blues. “War Is Over (Goodbye California)”, however, is a more traditional 3-chord acoustic blues piece that deals with the aftermath of war for a soldier. He is flat broke. His friends now want nothing to do with him, although they were all too happy to be around when he had money. He says goodbye to California, leaving without optimism for his future prospects. It’s a haunting song that moves one to feel empathy for the plight of the singer. And that’s why it’s on our list of the greatest blues songs about war.
3. J.B. Lenoir – “Vietnam Blues”
Next on our list of the greatest blues songs about war list is “Vietnam Blues” by J.B. Lenoir. Blues Hall of Famer J.B. Lenoir was an integral musician on the Chicago blues circuit during the 1950’s and ’60s. Known for his very high-pitched voice as well as the politically charged songs he sang including “Eisenhower Blues”, a controversial song during its time. His most famous for was the 1955 hit “Mama, Talk to Your Daughter”. “Vietnam Blues” is a slow, acoustic number that contrasts the personal problems that the singer is having at home with the plight of the soldiers overseas in Vietnam. He prays to God to help his brothers that are fighting for his country, and criticizes what he sees as the hypocrisy of a President that pays lip service to peace but yet continues to wage war. It’s a biting song, and a great piece of blues.
4. Junior Wells – “Vietcong Blues”
Junior Wells was a tough-as-nails harmonica player and blues singer who would captivate a crowd and sing the blues from deep within his soul. Although he is probably best known for his work with Buddy Guy, Earl Hooker, and Muddy Waters, Wells had the ability to create amazing solo work. “Vietcong Blues” is a fine example of this. Another slow burner, “Vietcong Blues” features some eminently haunting vocal and harp work from the soulful bluesman. The singer, who has a brother over in Vietnam, is critical of the war effort, but also critical of those who are disrespectful to their country. “My brother’s in Vietnam / People don’t you know just why I’m singin’ these blues / You might have no respect for your country, darlin’ / But that’s why, that’s why I’m singin’ these blues” sings Wells. The tune is bolstered even more by its searing guitar riffs, which permeate the song throughout its five minute run time.
5. Big Joe Williams – “Army Man in Vietnam”
Big Joe Williams is a notable Delta Blues musician who was distinctive for playing a nine-string guitar. A blues Hall of Famer, Big Joe Williams’s sound has been described by one blues historian, Barry Lee Pearson, as “The most buzzing, sizzling, African-sounding music I have ever heard,” and also as, “a gifted songwriter,” and “powerhouse vocalist”. “Army Man in Vietnam”, which features legendary blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, deals with the very personal difficulties of sending young men off to war, but also problems global in scope: he expresses fears that atom bombs will be dropped in the midst of the broader Cold War that was occurring. It’s a heavy, passionate expression of a man’s soul in times of war and rounds out our list of the greatest blues songs about war.
-Brian M. Reiser