09 March 2012

Vinyl Memories—To the Silent Majority, With Love

How’s about three cheers for the good guys
They don’t march and they don’t shout
So you never read about
The quiet men, who are the backbone of our land.
“Three Cheers for the Good Guys” (Harlan Howard)

1969 was not a good year for me. I graduated from high school and started college—and found myself increasingly out of sync with my context. I wanted to quietly learn Greek and master calculus, while my government looked on me as another body to be used in a failed exercise in something-or-other in Southeast Asia. Protests of this policy shut down classes and made learning difficult—sometimes impossible. Our relatively new President, a fellow named Richard Nixon, best known for his red-baiting activities as a Congressman and as the monumentally unpopular Vice-President under Eisenhower, was pushing a plan he called Vietnamization—the ludicrous concept that somehow, someway, the corrupt and incompetent regime in South Vietnam would be able to take over the war and run it successfully. On 3 November the old Idiot-in-Chief made one of the most amazing speeches I ever read, one of those pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain moments, three parts artful dodging and one part divide-and-conquer.

The war, it seems, was not his problem, as he kept reminding us—he’d inherited it from his predecessors in the office. But he had a plan. A plan for peace. He believed it would succeed. It would be a “just peace through a negotiated settlement if possible, or through continued implementation of our plan for Vietnamization if necessary—a plan in which we will withdraw all of our forces from Vietnam on a schedule in accordance with our program, as the South Vietnamese become strong enough to defend their own freedom.” The important thing was that we present a united front to our enemies “for the more divided we are at home, the less likely, the enemy is to negotiate” and that the protests of the “vocal minority” who were actually being called on to fight the war should be ignored in favor of the “great silent majority of my fellow Americans”—older folk who could sit back at home and watch other people’s children being sent off as cannon-fodder in an endless war.

Ah, memories. In my limited circle what we knew about the war came primarily from its veterans, people who had been there and had lived through what seemed like a real-life black comedy. Maybe it was all bullshit—I don’t know—but they had no patience with the “silent majority” or “walking dead” as one guy I knew called them. Maybe the guys at the Pentagon have a plan, one veteran observed, but they sure as hell aren’t letting us in on it. Disjointed fragments from a time best forgotten—Kent State and Cambodia, Song My and Medina, Agnew and his “effete corps of impudent snobs”, the Berkeley Barb and the Free Press, and the Great American Hero William Calley, praised by the likes of Jimmy Carter and George Wallace.

It was a weird and wondrous time, with The War lurking behind everything we did. My personal connection with The War ended in September 1970 when the United States Army turned me down for the draft as being subject to “psychotic depression”. “Son,” one fellow gently explained to me as I was classified 1-Y (later 4-F), “you’d be more of a danger to our side than to the enemy.” I still don’t know what actually happened on that occasion—I suppose I had the mother of all panic attacks—but my impression at the time was that I got rejected because I couldn’t pee into a paper cup. I don’t suppose my disorientation or mild hallucinations helped matters much either. In any case when they kicked me out with my New Testament and a bus ticket to find my own way home I knew that The War and I were not destined to be on speaking terms any time soon, if ever.

I’d been collecting odd bits of vinyl for years—radio-station discards, Good Will rejects, bargain bin oddities—but in the early 70s I had a sort of competition going with a friend; I’d match his Wild Man Fischer with my Captain Beefheart, and so on. Sometime during 1971 I turned up something called To the Silent Majority With Love featuring the hit single “Sunday Morning Christian”. The “artist” was a certain Harlan Howard, whom I’d never heard of. The lyrics to the songs were printed on the back cover, and they combined self-pity, anti-intellectualism, and self-righteousness in a fine goulash. I had trouble believing it was intended seriously (the title alone seemed perfect as a satire), with songs like “Uncle Sam (I’m a Patriot)”, “Better Get Your Pride Back Boy”, and “Mister Professor”. I had to have it, and I quickly shared it with my friend.

Although it was clearly intended seriously, in some ways it surpassed my wildest expectations. In “Uncle Sam” the singer lamented that his tax-dollars were being taken away for the benefit of foreigners and millionaires and suchlike unworthy types, but concludes “and though I’ve got a complaint or two you can write my name in red, white and blue.” Yes, the perfect tool for Nixon’s vision of America. In “Sunday Morning Christian” he laments the way good Christians cheat and rob and lie and still turn up at church on Sunday “singing louder than the rest”. He doesn’t seem to draw the obvious conclusion from this, and makes sure we understand that the Good Guys (“Three Cheers for the Good Guys”) are restricted to Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. Buddhists, Freethinkers, and Atheists obviously need not apply. (“Thank God if we’re cheering for you.”) It’s even clearer in his paeon to anti-intellectualism, “Mister Professor”:
They’re under your influence, so hear my cry in the night
And if you go changin’ the good kids we sent you
Be sure that you’re right
On the subject of God if you have any doubts don’t discuss ‘em
For a teacher should teach and a preacher should preach
Not betrayin’ the people that trust ‘em
We sent you a good Christian boy and he knows right from wrong
Beware of the danger, don’t sent us a stranger back home
Rick Santorum would feel right at home here.

My buddy used to refer to the album as Better Get Your Hair Cut Boy, referring to the song “Better Get Your Pride Back Boy”:
I’m just a truck driver and I don’t think I know it all
But son you got thoughts in your mind that I don’t understand at all
They’re needin’ you boy and you’re sittin’ in your coffee house
Whatcha gonna do when your woman begs you save her from a mouse?
You better get your pride back boy,
Better get your pride back boy,
That’s the most important thing that the Lord ever gave you…
And repeat ad nauseum. With stuff like this Harlan Howard could give Janet Greene a run for her money.

While this may look like a sort of precursor to the whole Mad Tea Party Movement, Howard reflected a kindler, gentler era. He had sympathy for “the little dirt farmer” who “works all his life and leaves eight dollars to his kids and wife” where the modern conservative crowd would chant their mantra, “Let them die” and cheer. And at least old Howard thought kids should go to college, even if he didn’t want them actually learning anything. And when Mr. Jones sold him that defective car (“Sunday Morning Christian”) he didn’t rhapsodize about the wonders of the Free Market™; no, he sings “Mr. Jones I’d like you better if you robbed me with a gun.” And if he objects to “too many lazy people lookin’ for a hand out” he at least can feel sorry for “too many cold and hungry children walkin’ about” (“We Didn’t Build This World”). Short of actually doing something about it, of course. So far the right wing has come in forty years—but there’s still a lot of the same old shit there.

Yeah, okay, I have a certain fondness for Harlan Howard. His crazed meanderings took me through some dark times, and I was still including his “Mister Professor” and “Better Get Your Pride Back Boy” on anthology tapes for friends as late as the 1980s. Wikipedia tells me that he died almost exactly ten years ago, on 3 March 2002. It also credits him with a definition of a great country song: “Three chords and the truth.” This album definitely comes up a bit long on that first element, and way short on the second. Still, it perfectly encapsulates its little moment of time, like a prehistoric beetle trapped in amber.

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