Thursday, September 20, 2007

Protest songs had local impact

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Country Joe


When protests against the Vietnam War grew into a national moratorium in the fall of 1969, the young people of Escanaba were involved, just like virtually every other community in the country.

Opinions about the war, which had taken the lives of 39,969 American soldiers by mid-October, had been galvanized by a hotly political climate.

A few years earlier, recordings like "Ballad of the Green Berets" by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler and "Gallant Men" by U. S. Sen. Everett Dirksen, reflected public opinion. By 1969 however, with casualties mounting, John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance," the Doors' "Unknown Soldier, "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag (Next Stop Vietnam)" by Country Joe and the Fish and "Sky Pilot" by the Animals were increasingly being heard.

On Wednesday, Oct. 15, many of the students at Bay de Noc Community College, then located on Escanaba's south side, wore black armbands to signify their opposition to the war and pay tribute to those Americans killed in Vietnam.

The college administration was well aware of the national march on Washington that day and scheduled an informational symposium that evening possibly to channel student enthusiasm away from any spontaneous demonstrations which might embarrass local officials.

More than 200 people attended the event, held at the student center, where college president Dr. Richard Rinehart hosted discussion concerning the political and moral complexities of the war. Political science instructor Paul Opferkuch presented the historical background of U. S. involvement. Other speakers included diplomat George St. Louis, instructors Al Howard and Michael Youngs, as well as students Bob Erickson and Tim Brostrom.

The meeting lasted until 11 p. m. It's anybody's guess if the symposium changed anybody's mind about the Vietnam War.

But, after the meeting a large group of students marched down south 12th Street toward downtown singing protest songs. "All we are saying is give peace a chance," the group intoned. I don't think anyone knew more than the chorus of the anti-war anthem which had been a hit just a few months before.

As I recall, a few Country Joe fans attempted the "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag," which included the line "And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don't ask me; I don't give a damn. Next stop is Vietnam."

The biggest rally in the state took place at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor where 22,000 people gathered to hear U. S. Sen. Philip Hart, D-Michigan, speak against the war along with Tom Hayden, who founded Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in Port Huron.

Nationally, about two million people participated in the moratorium which was conceived by a 26-year-old named Sam Brown. About 100,000 attended an anti-war speech in Boston by U. S. Sen. George McGovern.

While various moratorium events where held across the U. P., the small community of Ontonagon was quiet. Many of the county's 10,584 residents continued to support the Nixon administration's policies in Vietnam even though the area had suffered eight fatalities in southeast Asia, a higher percentage than any county in the country.

A second moratorium was held in November. At a rally in Washington, D. C., folk singer Pete Seeger led 500,000 people through a version of "Give Peace a Chance."

At this time Creedence Clearwater Revival released "Fortunate Son," a number 14 hit. With the line "And when they play hail to the chief, ooh, they point the cannon at you," the song become a favorite of war protesters and veterans alike.

A few months later, "War" by Edwin Starr was the most popular song in the country for three weeks. The track struck the national consciousness with its simple lyrics: "War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing."

One of the most enduring songs of this genre, however, may be "Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire. Talking about the eastern world exploding, bodies floating in the Jordan River, and the possibility of nuclear holocaust, the lyrics are as relevant today as they were in 1965.

Despite the demonstrations of 1969 and despite the protest songs, the Vietnam War didn't end for six more years.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Steve,

A friend of mine sent me several articles you have written about local bands from the 60's. I have enjoyed reading "Nomads, Beat Inc. Rocked First", "Vintage U.P. Rock 45's Described", and "Local Peninsula Records Label Issued Singles".

I'm happily amazed that there is still interest in a band I started with Mike Steede in my small bedroom in Pine Ridge so many years ago. I have played in many bands since but I have never run across such a wonderful group of true friends as the guys in The Prophets.

Several years ago someone called me to tell me Dave Watchorn had been looking for me for several years. I immediately looked up his number and gave him a call. He actually had been looking for me for that long and was quite surprised to have me at the other end of the phone. We started to correspond, and he mentioned he was also looking for Jim Smith, our keyboard player. I gave him the few facts I knew about Jim but with a name as common as "Jim Smith" he had a difficult time finding him. To Dave's credit, he never gave up, and sure enough, he found Jim living in Arizona.

For the last 2 years, the Prophets have had a reunion of sorts. Mike Steede, Dave Watchorn, Calvin Rose (our very first bass player and singer), and myself have met at Mike's house and swapped stories and jammed for several magical hours. That first reunion was completely indescribable. To be playing drums with most of the original Prophets after so many years was like a dream come true....and the emotion in the room was like we had never left. Maybe someday we will be fortunate enough to have Larry Olivaries and Jim Smith join the fun.

As you can imagine, the stories were flying! One of my favorites was the very snowy and slippery day we were driving to a catholic school youth club dance in Marquette. As we entered the city, we slid right through a snowy intersection cutting off a car coming from the other side. The car followed us all the way to the Catholic church complex. We were sure the driver was ready to read us the riot act (did I say Riot Act!) and probably beat us up! As we pulled up to the church complex he drove up next to us and rolled down his window ready to read us off. He glanced into the car and saw 5 young men all dressed in black...he blinked a few times, said "I'm sorry, fathers" and sped away! We said a little prayer of thanks, had a good laugh, set up our equipment and played our hearts out for the next 3 hours.

Keep the great memories coming!

Jim Nelson