VETERANS’ DAY SONGS IN COUNTRY MUSIC
By Art Menius for WXDU-FM radio special November 1989
WORLD WAR I
Jimmie Rodgers: “The Soldier’s Sweetheart” The Bristol Sessions Side 1, Track 5 Recorded Bristol, TN 8-4-27.
Rodgers’ first recording for Ralph Peer. Rodgers had been doing Tin Pan Alley covers in Asheville. Peer asked for songs that could be copyrighted. Rodgers recalled reworking an old ballad to the tune of “When the River Shannon Flows” in memory of boyhood friend Sammy Williams, killed in the great war. Tacitly pacifist message fit the 20s. Compiled more than composed.
WORLD WAR II
Ernest Tubb: “Soldier’s Last Letter” E.T. Favorites Side 1, Track 4, recorded 1943
Composed by Tubb and Sgt. Henry “Redd” Stewart, long time vocalist for Pee Wee King. Mother’s sorrow at learning of son’s death in combat.
Molly O’Day: “Teardrops Falling in the Snow” The Unforgettable M.O’D. Side 1, Track 1, recorded 12/16/46
O’Day, born 1923 in Pike County, KY, considered greatest female country singer by Art Satherly. Mac Wiseman on bass in recording debut. Retired from music in 1952 with husband Lynn Davis. Considered one of the two most affecting songs about tragedy of war by Bill Malone. Mother’s trip to train station to retrieve son’s corpse.
Molly O’Day: “A Hero’s Death” The Unforgettable Side 1, track 5
A similar song that sound’s as if it dates from much earlier conflict than WWII.
Elton Britt: “There’s A Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” 60 Years of Country Music, Side 2, Track 5, recorded 3-19-42
Recorded when things looked grim for the Allies, two months before the great turning point at Midway. Released as a B side, it became the most popular WWII theme country song and the first official country gold record in 1944. Born in AR 1917, went to LA at age 14 after winning talent contest. Recorded 50+ LP’s and 672 singles, but never topped this success. This tale of a crippled hillbilly boy who wanted to do his part crossed over to pop audience, selling 1.5 million copies and a like number of sheet music.
Johnnie Lee Wills: “Smoke on the Water” Tulsa Swing, Side 2, Band 2, track 5 [MUST BE CUED AUDIBLY] 1951 radio transcription
Recording ban in effect during most of WWII caused many war songs to either not be recorded or done so after the war was over. Also, very much of this material has never been reissued on LP or CD or even 45. Bob Wills had several WWII songs that have never made it onto his many, many reissue projects. Zeke Clements, the Alabama Cowboy, a major star of the Opry during the 1940s and the voice of Dopey in the Walt Disney “Snow White” movie, wrote this song shortly after Pearl Harbour, and his recording was the top country record of 1945. Defiant American optimism incarnate.
Bob Wills “G.I. Wish” 31st Street Blues Side 1, Track 6, radio transcription for Ascot 1945
Deals with the daily life of the American Soldier in WWII. Tommy Duncan lead vocal.
Bill Boyd: “American Patrol” 78’s tape #2, Side A, pre-cued.
Boyd, born in Texas 1910, cut some of the finest western swing for Bluebird during the 1930s, with “Under the Double Eagle” a major hit, popularizing the Austro-Hungarian anthem with country listeners. After 1939 his success, musically and commercially, waned although he kept cutting for RCA until 1950, but only 1 post-war hit, 1949’s “Lone Star Rag.” This cut is, of all things, a topical instrumental!
Whitey & Hogan: “The Ole Gray Mare is Back Where She Used to Be” Early Radio, Side 2, Track 5, mid-1940s WBT radio show
A whimsical look at the tribulations of life on the home front.
Judy Canova: “Goodnight Soldier” The Women, Side 2, track 7, recorded 10/9/44.
A comic who recorded both pop and country material discovered by Rudy Vallee. Cover of a Patsy Montana song. Presages the pop crossover sound of country music’s future.
Karl & Harty: “When the Atom Bomb Fell” Atomic Cafe, Side 1, track 2 [MUST BE CUED AUDIBLY], recorded 12/4/45
Gotta have an Atom Bomb song on any veteran’s day show. One of the earliest brother duet’s, Karl Davis & Harty Taylor were long time stars of the WLS National Barn Dance, 1930 until early 50s.
Jimmie Osborne: “Thank God for Victory in Korea” Voice of Free America, Side 1, track 2, released 10/2/50.
Osborne, a Kentuckian, had a big hit for King in 1947 with his debut, “My Heart Echoes,” and followed it up with a topical Gold Record smash, “The Death of Little Kathy Fiscus,” whose memorial fund received 1/2 the royalties. Spent the next ten years alternating topical and love songs with no further success. After Rock ‘n’ Roll hit he topped himself in 1957. This song was released just in time for the Red Chinese counterattack.
Kirk McGee: “Missing in Action” 78s tape #1, Side B, pre-cued.
Sam & Kirk McGee from sunny TN were Opry old timers, appearing regularly from the 1926 on with Uncle Dave Macon and then he remarkable Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith. They toured with a variety of Opry stars and recorded on their on. Kirk McGee recorded this, probably in the early 50s, for the Tennessee label. He remained on the Opry until his death at 84 in 1983. The saddest song we’ll hear tonight.
Bill Monroe: “Rotation Blues” Monroe CD Vol. 2, Track 7
A very rare topical song from Monroe. In fact, topical songs are rare in bluegrass and rather contrary to the general tenor of the genre. Recorded on 1 July 1951, when Decca executives Paul Cohen and Owen Bradley were trying, without commercial or artistic success, to dictate material to Monroe. Composed by Lt. Stewart Powell, an officer in Korea, this was a cover of an Elton Britt release on RCA. Carter Stanley (gtr), Rudy Lyle (bnj), Ernie Newton (bass), and Gordon Terry (fdl).
Red Allen & the Yates Brothers: “A Purple Heart” 45
A mid-1960s County release by Allen, a remarkable bluegrass singer from Dayton, OH. Worked with the Osborne Brothers and recorded widely from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s. Worked the bars of Ohio and DC, but never achieved big success on the festival circuit. Produced by young David Grisman with Porter Church on banjo.
Don Reno & Benny Martin: “A Soldier’s Prayer in Vietnam” 45
When Red Smiley’s declining health forced the break-up of popular King artists Reno & Smiley, Don Reno cut one solo album for Dot, with whom R&S had signed in 1963), and went in 1966 with Monument for his final stint on more or less major label. Among his least memorable or remembered material.