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I’ll Be Missing You: A History of Tribute Songs

on June 29, 2017, 2:00pm

Tributes to War

In 1970, Sean Flynn, the unflinching war photographer and only son of Golden Age actor Errol Flynn, set off from Saigon on his motorcycle down Cambodia’s Highway 1 in pursuit of photos of a rumored Viet Cong checkpoint. He never returned, and the whereabouts of his body remain unknown. His disappearance (along with that of his fellow photographer and traveling companion Dana Stone) was just a single harrowing story in the vast wartime nightmare of Vietnam, but its tragedy was enough to earn Flynn a sonic memorial from The Clash in 1982.

On Combat Rock’s “Sean Flynn”, Joe Strummer recreates the dangerous allure of the war zone that called Flynn, Stone, and so many others. The song’s intro, with its reverb-heavy guitar and Asian-inflected flute, hints at action just over the horizon, a photo that might earn a Pulitzer or at least justify your own foolhardiness. “You know he heard the drums of war,” Strummer sings, and the real drums hit, louder and higher in the mix, and shake that reverie into a militant reality.

Sean Flynn’s is just one story of war, told by one band in a vast tradition of musicians grappling with the heroism and horror inherent on the battlefield. We could spend this entire article on wartime tributes alone, but for now, here are a few more you should know:

Nora Bayes – “Goodbye France (You’ll Never Be Forgotten by the U.S.A.)” (1919)

Although the United States and France’s most recent joint military operations birthed the truly stupid “Freedom fries,” our two nations’ history on the battlefield is much warmer. Written by Irving Berlin just after the end of World War I, this ode from the perspective of departing US troops pays tribute to the war-torn victors while also celebrating America’s own military ascendancy.


Frank Miller – “Stony Broke in No Man’s Land” (1921)

Musically, World War I is mainly known for its ample catalog of spirited pro-war songs, but the conflict also produced some early examples of songs that examined the post-war hardships faced by soldiers. In his rendition of this anonymously written song from 1921, Frank Miller empathizes with the fighting man who, after being promised a return to work and normalcy after the fighting ends, finds himself jobless and friendless in the very country he fought to protect.


Noel Coward – “Could You Please Oblige Us with a Bren Gun?” (1941)

Even in war, tribute songs don’t have to be dour. In his homage to Britain’s Home Guard, Noel Coward infuses the corp’s real-life struggles — volunteers selected from men unable to fight the actual war, a haphazard training regimen, and, chiefly, a lack of supplies — with an air of lightness that amplifies its sense of resistance while giving listeners the chance to laugh a little.


Nat King Cole – “D-Day” (1944)

Speaking of lightness, only Nat King Cole could turn the brutality and attrition of the D-Day landings into a jaunty pop tune. In addition to honoring the soldiers’ sacrifice and spirit, Cole’s song (written shortly after the invasion) also acts as a warning for those on the home front: war is long, and one successful operation doesn’t guarantee victory.


Ernest Tubb – “A Heartsick Soldier on Heartbreak Ridge” (1951)

There aren’t many pop songs about the Korean War, and the ones that do exist come chiefly from the world of country. There, singers like Ernest Tubbs commemorated the bloodiest battle of “The Forgotten War” (and the mournfulness of being away from home) with a song that shifted away from World War II’s rah-rah hopefulness and helped cement his genre as one fully on the side of the troops.


Paul Hardcastle – “19” (1985)

By the time MTV launched in 1981, Vietnam’s quagmire had already shifted the focus of many military tribute songs to equal parts honor and criticism. Built of spoken-word samples about the average age of US soldiers in Vietnam, Paul Hardcastle’s unexpected 1985 dance hit creates sympathy for these young fighters while its hard-hitting video of actual combat footage implicitly castigates the systems that put them on the battlefield to begin with.


Patti Smith – “Radio Baghdad” (2004)

While the War on Terror has produced plenty of protest songs, it’s inspired relatively few worthy tribute songs. The best probably comes from Patti Smith, whose elegy for Iraq’s battered capital is filled with both empathy for the city’s residents and a deep sense of loss for the diminishment and destruction of the region’s often-ancient wonders and achievements.


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