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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Patriotic In Their Own Ways: Songs By Bay Area Veterans

Posted By on Tue, Nov 11, 2014 at 11:30 AM

click to enlarge Country Joe McDonald at Woodstock.
  • Country Joe McDonald at Woodstock.
Do a search for "Veteran's Day playlist" and you're sure to find lots of Toby Keith, some Billy Ray Cyrus, a little Loretta Lynn if you're lucky, and at least four or five different versions of "God Bless the U.S.A."

Well, here in the Bay Area we do things a little differently. Thus, here are some different tunes, all written and sung by some of our favorite local musicians who also happen to have served in the Armed Forces. Thanks for the service, gents, and for the songs that those experiences inspired you to create. 

Prior to becoming known as one of the most iconic musicians to come out of the Bay's anti-war and free speech movements, Country Joe McDonald was just Joe McDonald, a 17-year-old kid who enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1959. While on duty, he was stationed in Japan for three years; three years after he returned, this song — which McDonald explained as "G.I. humor" — was born. McDonald later said it just popped into his head, and he wrote it in under 30 minutes for a play that was staged a total of twice, at UC Berkeley and SFSU. 
Tony Bennett may be known to the young'uns these days as that lounge singer-type guy who gets trotted out at Giants games (or for his duets with Lady Gaga?), but give the man some credit: He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944, during the final stages of WWII, where he served on the frontlines in France and Germany — what Bennett would later refer to as a "front-row seat in hell," an experience that (understandably) shaped his pacifism. Bennett also began singing for the first time while serving, in a military band. When the war ended, he returned to the States and worked as an elevator operator to support himself while he studied singing on the G.I. Bill.

More than a decade later — at which time Bennett was probably not yet living in this house — the world got this one. 
Quick, free-associate with the name "MC Hammer." Pants? Can't touch this? Bankruptcy? Okay, well before any of that, he was Stanley Kirk Burrell, who, upon graduating from Castlemont High School in East Oakland, enlisted in the Navy. He served as an Aviation Store Keeper for three years before his honorable discharge. You probably know what happened next — it included Addams Family soundtracks and the selling of several million dollars worth of assets, etc., etc. But this is interesting: Active Duty, the album Hammer released following 9/11, could barely control its by-the-books, eagle-eyed patriotism. Special bonus: Several members of Congress dancing and "rapping" hilariously behind Hammer in this video.

Then, six years later, he changed his tune. 
(And, because someone will probably point it out if we don't include him: Jerry Garcia also served in the Army, for a total of eight months in 1960. He reportedly spent most of his time not following directions, missing roll call, and generally being young Jerry Garcia: He was discharged for “lack of suitability to the military lifestyle.")

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About The Author

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is SF Weekly's former Music Editor.


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