First it was Armistice Day, marking the declaration of the end of hostilities on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. In 1954, the U.S. declared it Veterans Day. And that’s today, meant to commemorate everyone who serves in the Armed Forces.
In choosing a song for the day, I can’t think of anything better than Richie Havens’ “Handsome Johnny” from 1967’s Mixed Bag, the album that put Havens on the map. Well, what really put Havens on the map was opening the Woodstock festival in August, 1969. In fact, he opened with today’s song.
Havens’ performance went on for hours—mainly because most of the other acts hadn’t managed to get there yet and that huge crowd needed something to listen to. And Havens’ very intense, inward performance style sets a tone for the film of the festival. This isn’t music as a kind of get up and boogie popular song-fest. It’s not “pop” at all. Havens, when he does a pop song—he covered lots of Lennon/McCartney tunes—twists it toward something more blues-based, and he takes the blues and moves them toward the ecstatic, especially with that unmistakable strum.
“Handsome Johnny” isn’t ecstatic, though, it’s angry and Havens lets that emotion fuel his quick march through the various armed conflicts that mark our nation’s history. (He leaves out WWII, which has always bothered me—it should be there and why not have Handsome Johnny with a machine gun in his hand?) Beginning with “the Concord War” during the fight for independence from Britain, he jumps to the “Gettysburg War”—more properly the Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War—then to the battle in Dunkirk during “the Great War.” Skipping Normandy, and Iwo Jima, he takes us to the Korean War, then to Vietnam, and finally throws in a curve: the war in Birmingham, which of course is the Civil Rights struggle being fought there, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was imprisoned for marching.
In between these little glimpses of Handsome Johnny, bearing different munitions—a musket, a flintlock, a carbine, an M1, an M15—Havens emotes his aside: “It’s a long hard road till we’ll be free.” It’s a juxtaposition worth considering. We like to say that our vets fought for freedom, and yet they did so by surrendering their own freedom. Havens seems to want to consider that real freedom means freedom from having to serve in armed conflicts, as if the notion that we have freedom is illusionary so long as we have slaves—as we did until the second conflict mentioned—but also so long as we have military. And, since the last of the conflict he mentions, our army has been “volunteer,” meaning that those who serve are often those who have not much choice—whether because of socio-economic reasons or because of a wholesale acceptance of the role they are meant to play. “Freedom” seems rather attenuated in such circumstances.
Havens goes further—taking perhaps a tip from Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side,” which offers a similar short history of U.S. conflicts to bring us to the current moment with its “weapons of chemical dust / If fire them we’re forced to, then fire them we must.” Havens shares in this vision of a final conflict that will annihilate us all—a “freedom” further under pressure from the lockstep logic of escalation and how to “win” unwinnable wars—destroying the village in order to save it, and all that. “Hey, here comes a hydrogen bomb, and here comes a guided missile.” Yeah, and here comes a drone and here comes a smart bomb.
The fight in Birmingham, then, is the fight for a certain kind of freedom, but it’s also a fight against something. Handsome Johnny might easily be one of the belligerent racists, hand rolled in a fist, looking to smash those marching for freedom.
The song is against the bellicose rationale that fuels every military act undertaken by the U.S. Note that Havens isn’t commenting on the reasons for war; he’s not equating the War for Independence with the War in Vietnam, nor the Civil War with WWI. He’s simply equating the fact of war, the unending stream of munitions and cannon fodder. And always a Handsome Johnny a-marching. Though I guess now we’ve got Handsome Jenny a-marching too. It’s Veterans Day, so let’s honor all the Handsome Johnnies and Jennies still with us.
Hey, what’s the use of singing this song, some of you are not even listening.