Ed Sanders in his brilliant Grammy Award winning sleeve notes for the “Chords of Fame” compilation album, wrote that “Phil’s career can be seen as that of a singing historian”. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in I Ain’t Marching Anymore. Phil puts himself, and by extension his generation, at the heart of the history of American warfare. Starting in the American Revolution, through the battles to tame the West, the U.S. – Mexico War, The American Civil War, The First World War and in the plane flying over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And after all that – “now they want me back again”. This is Phil’s response.
There is also a final verse – concerning not war but “labor leaders” and United Fruit as well as one of Phil’s finest stanza’s – “Call it peace or call it treason, call it love or call it reason – but I ain’t marching anymore” – suggesting that the forces of peace should look beyond simply opting out, but think about opting-in elsewhere.
It’s a song positively laden with history, wordy and played in a slightly awkward time signature – yet as Jac Holzman said; “It was a natural. It was easy to remember, it was catchy and it was singable. All those good things”. Holy Moly! Phil had written a classic!
The usual clichéd accusations thrown at protest songs in general and Phil’s in particular, are that in being so vital at the time of writing, through the passage of time, their vitality ebbs away. This song is different. It’s very definitely a song about the Vietnam War, yet doesn’t mention it once. It’s a song set more surely in 1965, as the numbers of American’s fighting in Vietnam began to rise at ever more alarming rates, yet it’s point of reference are distant, but certainly not dimmed. It is also very definitely timeless – in a way that so many of Phil’s early songs most definitely aren’t.
“Oh I marched to the battle of New Orleans”
The Battle of New Orleans is considered one of the key American victories of the American war of Independence. Commanded by General Andrew Jackson and his men, between December 1814 and early January 1815, U.S. troops fought the invading British under the command of General Sir Edward Packenham;
“Packenham, contemptuous of Jackson’s motley array of frontier militia men, creole aristocrats, free blacks and pirates, ordered a frontal assault at dawn on January 8 1815. His Redcoats emerged out of the morning fog and ran into a murderous hail of artillery shells and deadly rebel fire. Before the British withdrew, about 2000 had been killed or wounded, including Packenham himself, whose body, pickled in a barrel of rum, was returned to [his] ship, where his wife awaited news of the a battle”
(from ‘America : a narrative history’ by George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi, 2000)
Victory in this battle stopped the British from seizing back land that the U.S had acquired via the Lousiana purchase, including New Orleans.
As much as this was a seminal event in the birth of an independent United States, Phil may also have had in mind Jimmy Driftwood’s ‘The Battle of New Orleans’, as sung by (amongst others) Johnny Horton and Pete Seeger.
“I’ve killed my share on Indians in a thousand different fights”
This quote may suffice here –
“The more I see of these Indians, the more convinced I am that they all have to be killed or maintained as a species of paupers”
– General William Tecumsah Sherman, 1867
“I was there at the Little Big Horn”
Also known as Custer’s Last Stand, The Battle of the Little Big Horn is a story of blundering military incompetence, not all that dissimilar to the more modern military blundering as seen in Vietnam and Afghanistan. At its heart is a gross underestimation of enemy and terrain.
In the summer of 1876, Sioux and Cheyenne Indians joined forces , left their reservations and chose to fight together against the continued intrusions into their lands.
On June 25, the Seventh Cavalry, led by George Custer, attacked a Sioux village, ignoring orders to wait, not realising (or bothering to find out) that the village contained warriors that outnumbered their troops. Another group of Custer’s men, led by Marcus Reno, was sent to attack the Sioux village from the Little Big Horn valley – without fully appreciating the hazardous terrain that led in their path.
Reno’s men fought for all of ten minutes before retreating.
The Sioux and Cheyenne warriors then turned on Custer’s men. Custer ordered his troops to shoot their own horses to create a barrier. To no avail. Custer’s men lasted less than an hour. It is an event that has been called the worst American military disaster ever. (Although if one were feeling particularly pedantic you could point out that both sides were American, so it was also an American victory, but anyway…)
White retribution was severe. Within a year the Sioux and Cheyenne pact was broken and the Sioux nation lay in tatters.
“I heard many men lying/ I saw many more dying”
Two somewhat clichéd quotes spring to mind. A line often attributed to Churchill is definitely apt – “In war the first casualty is truth”.
Kipling also followed a similar theme –
“If any question why we died/
Tell them because our fathers lied”
Which brings us neatly on to – “It’s always the old who send us to the war…”
“For I stole California from the Mexican land”
The U.S.-Mexico War was fought between 1846 and 1848. Prior to the war vast areas of what would later become the Western and South Western United States, including California, was controlled by Mexico. The war began initially thanks to the Bear Flag Revolt, a rebellion by US settlers in California and really got cracking when President James Polk’s attempt to purchase California failed. In February 1848, once the mantle of rebellion had been taken up by U.S. forces, Los Angeles was captured and California ceded to the United States.
The “bloody Civil War” was the American Civil War which was fought between 1861 and 1865, which was bloody indeed and not at all civil. Neither was the First World War, or the “battles of the German Trench” . The phrase the “war that was bound to end all wars” refers to President Woodrow Wilson’s speech announcing US involvement in the First World War. The intention of the phrase was that, with Western civilisation in peril, this war would establish an everlasting peace and prevent future war. If only.
The “final mission in the Japanese Sky” was another such attempt, equally successful.
“United Fruit screams at the Cuban shore”
United Fruit sought, and largely succeeded, to monopolise the Central American Banana trade. The influence that it had over the governing of numerous Latin American countries led to the coining of the phrase Banana Republic. For “United Fruit” read “Yankee Imperialism”. It’s not a happy tale.
Through brutal business tactics (some legal, some not) and political influence (some legal, some not) United Fruit (an amalgam of various businesses established in 1899) came to own and control vast areas of countries such as Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Cuba and Guatemala. Prior to the Second World War United Fruit owned some 3,000,000 acres of Central America, in addition to control of export infrastructure such as railroads and 65% of all Banana exports to the U.S.
In 1954 United Fruit instigated the overthrow of democratically elected Guatemalan President Guzman, whose plans for land re-distribution ran contrary to United Fruit’s business plans. United Fruit returned the favour to the CIA by donating two of its ships to the CIA as part of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. The day after the invasion, The New York Herald tribune wrote that “As invasion forces rolled ashore in Cuba…the stocks of American firms whose assets were seized by the regime of Fidel Castro rose sharply”. None too subtle stuff. Thanks to the failure of Bay of Pigs, Castro reclaimed the land previously owned by United Fruit in Cuba.
United Fruit also got their own Phil Ochs song (named simply United Fruit) – released on “Broadside Ballads Volume 10 – Phil Ochs Sings for Broadside”. And a lovely little song it is too, it’s pretty melody allied to a simple lyric imbued with a sense of foreboding;
“Now some will pick the fruit of the vine
While others will go to the mountain
And eat the fruit of the hillside
And learn the way of the rifle,
Wait for the time.”
United Fruit’s empire also inspired Pablo Neruda to write a poem entitled “United Fruit Co” in 1950;
“With the bloodthirsty flies
came the fruit company,
amassed coffee and fruit
in ships which put to sea like
overloaded trays with the treasures
from our sunken lands”.
United Fruit later changed its name to United Brands and, after it’s president jumped out of the window of his 44th floor office, Chiquita Brands International.
While the song takes us hurtling wildly through time and place, its central crux is definite, unignorable and easy to grasp. I had given up thinking about this song, worried that I simply couldn’t do it justice with my little writings and musings. Then the Eleventh of November came along, known in Britain as “Remembrance Sunday”. A day to pay tribute to the fallen heroes of the two world wars. At least that’s what it was.
Now it feels more like propaganda – the shoehorning of tributes to fallen soldiers of modern wars seems to be missing the point. It angered me that it angered me. This confusion of wanting to be respectful and yet stay true to me own beliefs wasn’t something I felt comfortable talking about . I knew for a start that had I been alive between 1914 and 1918 I would have been forced into service. Those young men who fell are me. Not to say I have any bravery in me. I would have made a terrible soldier. I dare say some of those who fought were also terrible soldiers, somehow making more acute the feeling of respect.
Yet I cannot imagine ever, ever, ever joining the army now. A million people marched through London to protest at the modern warfare being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. The exploitation of the names of the dead and wounded have become a buffer between the collective anger of the masses and any meaningful discussion on the role of the Army today. I am different to the modern soldier because I made a decision, a decision that wasn’t possible for so many of those who fought in the “war to end all wars” – I decided that I ain’t marching anymore. On the 11/11/2012 I listened to Phil’s song with a new sense of what it really means. And yet again a nearly 40 year old song helped me make sense of the madness around me.