As one half of Jan and Dean, Jan Berry wrote some of the most fun pop music of the pre-Beatles era.
On his own he wrote one of the nastiest pop songs of the Sixties.
Universal Coward was his riposte to peacenik musicians who sang of peace at a time of war;
“He’s young, he’s old, he’s in between,
And he’s so very much confused,
He’ll scrounge around and protest all day long,
He joins the pickets at Berkeley, and he burns up his draft card,
And he’s twisted into thinking that fighting is all wrong”.
It really is a depressingly dreadful song. The worst part of it however is that it’s premise is totally flawed. The notion that cowardice is at the heart of the anti-war movement, that it is cowardice that stops a person from fighting in a war that he doesn’t believe in, is illogical. Besides, the anti-war movement grew out of the Civil Rights movement and one thing they were never labelled was “cowards”. Trouble makers, yes. Cowards? Confronting the most hateful, violent racism was anything but. As many of the Civil Rights leaders made clear, opposition to the war in Vietnam was an extension of Civil Rights, but that relationship was far from straight forward. Martin Luther King spoke of the concerns that had been raised to him that much of the energy of the Civil Rights movement was being channelled into the anti-war movement. The issue was two-fold – on the one hand Johnson’s government was making concessions to Civil Rights (The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was just a start) while at the same time getting deeper and deeper into the war in Vietnam. It was also the case, as uncomfortable as it may have been to admit, that while white college kids had thrown themselves into what was essentially somebody else’s battle with regard Civil Rights, if they didn’t oppose the war in Vietnam, the war in Vietnam would bite them in the arse, big time. The draft was real, and getting bigger all the time. As Jeffrey Alexander wrote in the Harvard Crimson – “ Students who were unmoved by the questionable morality of the Vietnam war were stung into activism by the personal threat of the draft”.
In 1965 105,000 draftees were inducted into the U.S. Military. In 1966 the total rose to 339,000, with half of those drafted serving in Vietnam. (Worth noting here is that during the first year of active involvement of the U.S. in the war 20% of U.S. combat casualties were African American, despite African Americans comprising only 13% of serving personnel (Anderson).)
Funnily enough a number of Phil’s contemporaries went one step further than Phil (who went to a Military Academy) and actually joined the U.S. Army or Navy – Tom Paxton, Country Joe and even Edwin Starr. Perhaps though that is all beside the point. It isn’t courageous to fight in a war, it’s just doing what you are told. Jan Berry never did get around to enrolling by the way.
The real cowards are those that choose not to fight in a war that they DO believe in. This is where Phil’s Draft Dodger Rag comes in. Sure, it’s a something very like a “comedy-song”, but he nails it.
One of the oddnesses of this song is that it’s actually factually accurate. Draft avoidance (or “resistance” as the draft-dodgers would have it) became a hot topic in the mid-sixties, as Michael Foley’s excellent piece “Confronting the war machine : draft resistance during the Vietnam War” illustrated. Anti-war groups and Civil Rights groups offered counselling to anyone who felt that they “could not in good conscience comply with the Selective Service System” and helped potential draftees dodge the draft, not by ill- means, but by taking advantage of the system itself. These groups (Foley uses the example of the Boston Draft Resistance Group) would lay out the possibilities for deferment, much as Phil does in the song, as Foley writes;
“They looked for men who were still too young (“Sarge I’m only 18”); who had physical ailments (“I got a ruptured spleen…I got eyes like a bat, my feet are flat, and my asthma’s getting worse”); who were homosexual (“I always carry a purse”); who could get a hardship deferment (“think of my…sweetheart dear, my poor old invalid aunt”); who were enrolled in college or graduate school full time (“I’m going to school”); or who were qualified for work in the national interest (“and I’m working in a defence plant”).
Foley continues; “rather than counselling men to refuse to cooperate with the draft” they were told to “over-cooperate”. Ha! Of course, that isn’t want Draft Dodger Rag is about. Rather, it’s about those who advocate a war that they are unwilling to fight in themselves. The key lines of the song aren’t the jokey desperate dodge tactics, but the political statements that precede them.
Our protagonist is “just a typical American boy from a typical American town” who “believes in God and Senator Dodd and keeping old Castro down”. Senator Dodd by the way is Democratic Senator Thomas J. Dodd, a leading anti-Communist who criticised Kennedy for his soft stance on Cuba and supported Nixon’s tactics in Vietnam. He goes on “I hate Zhou Enlai and I hope he dies” a reference to the first Premier of China, a role he held from 1949 till his death in 1976, not quite as long as J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI.
This is knee-jerk right-wing politics, the “better dead than red” brigade. Politics that could, as in this instance, run contrary to one’s natural inclinations. The American Right has long been the politics of confrontation. In Phil’s song we meet the Right-wing coward in all its glory.