On the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, Humphrey Hawksley has been trying to find the modern heirs to those guitar-hero singer-songwriters who wrote so many anti-war anthems in the 1960s. Lyrics once tackled the trauma of the Vietnam generation – but does America today have any appetite for ballads about war in Iraq or Afghanistan?
A massive neon light shaped like a guitar protrudes from a building along the Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee. Underneath, bathed in the flashing blue lamp of a delivery truck, a street singer with a stubbled beard and black T-shirt, plays a familiar song that I can’t quite place.
“It’s not me that started that crazy Asian war,” he sings to a small circle of passers-by. “But I was proud to go do my patriotic chore.”
I put some dollars into his tip jar. “What’s the song?” I ask.
“Kenny Rogers. 1969.” His eyes gleam with enthusiasm. “So tragic. A Vietnam vet gets crippled. Back home he watches his girlfriend dress up to go out on the town while he has to stay in. He pleads with her – Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, it’s called.”
He nods thanks as others drop more dollars into the jar.
“What about now?” I say. “Any songs about Iraq, Afghanistan?”
“Can’t think of one.” He shrugs and runs his fingers over his guitar strings to begin his next song.
Iraq and the spectre of Baghdad’s collapse is filling the airwaves counting the human cost and the struggle of troops returning home. Forty years ago with America’s attempt to democratize Vietnam failing, protest movements swept the country led by young musicians like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Joan Baez.
Nashville is known as America’s Music City and the Broadway is a main road flanked by neon-decorated bars with names like Whisky Bent, Tin Roof and Legends. Bands hoping for the big break play from cramped stages, their raw music spilling out into the humid night. It’s a place where Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn meets Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire and where musicians have drawn inspiration from issues of poverty, inequality and race.
And, of course, war. But where is the war music now?
“We’re not writing any of that stuff,” says the heavily-bearded Stephen Mollere of the Relentless Mules as they pack up after a set. The mule was the work animal of the cotton plantations and with a banjo, mandolin and resonator guitar, they play a style called blue grass. “It’s just not commercial anymore,” he adds.
Further along, Jim Hayden, a jazz singer with the geeky bespectacled look of Buddy Holly agrees. “People don’t seem to want it. But maybe……” He pauses hesitant on what he’s about to say.
“Go on,” I nudge.
“You know we have the Patriot Act over here and people remember how the FBI tracked John Lennon for his anti-war songs and then he got shot….” He tails off, embarrassed at his own conspiracy theory. “Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen have done stuff. But they’re dinosaurs. I don’t know, music against the war is being unpatriotic and people don’t want that.”
Earlier, I’d asked the same question in the small town of Tupelo in Mississippi where American flags fly from lampposts and where Elvis Presley was born in 1935 and grew up in a two room clapboard shack.
The mayor, 38-year-old Jason Shelton, lived in the same poor part of town and went to Elvis’ old school. He described how Elvis’ childhood experience of race and poverty helped him take music to a new level.
“But your question about songs from these wars,” he said “Nothing really comes to mind.” He gets out his I-Pad and logs onto his Facebook page. “But let’s see. I’ll send a message and ask around.”
While in Nashville that evening, there’s a response to the mayor’s message from Darby McCuller, an Iraq veteran, who has a band called Dry County Tragedy. He sends me a rough recording of a song he’s just written, a tribute to his best friend killed by a roadside bomb.
It has a slow, haunting melody. You never thought this ‘ol world would turn out so cruel, goes one line and describing coming back from the war You wake up screaming…. Yesterday a Hero. Yesterday is gone.
“All that hero hype,” says Darby when I call him. “All those medals. For what?”
“Are there any other songs?” I ask.
“There’s got to be, but I don’t know them,” he replies. “Young folks today are all on their phones and computers and you don’t get music from that.”
A colourful sculpture emblazoned with the faces of legendary singers marks one end of the Broadway, where a guitarist who must have been in his seventies plays an old Joan Baez protest song.
“Those issues ain’t solved,” he says when I ask him. His wonderfully alive, craggy and layered face breaks into an upbeat smile. “But there’ll be someone out there who’s writing a song about these wars. It’ll be from their soul and suddenly the song will be there and it’ll take us all in a storm.”