Ever since country music emerged as a distinct art form in the 1920s, it has serenaded, aroused and comforted generations through the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War and conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East.
Its songs have also been there for us during natural disasters and periods of national unrest. The best of these lyrics and melodies have survived and dwell among us like old but seldom-seen friends. Others marked mere niches in history, burned brightly for a moment and then vanished as completely from memory as the events that occasioned them.
“No Depression in Heaven,” the Carter Family (1936)
Crippling unemployment, massive shifts of people from farms to cities, the ravages of the Dust Bowl — America was reeling from one catastrophe to another when the Carter Family declared (with more hope than conviction), “In that bright land, there’ll be no hunger/No orphan children crying for bread/No weeping widows, toil or struggle/No shrouds, no coffins and no death.” This song has become a favorite among the Americana music community. Sheryl Crow recorded a moving version of it in 2007.
“Smoke on the Water,” Red Foley (1944)
America still had a full year of World War II ahead of it when Foley released this withering threat that name-checked every leader of the Axis powers — Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito — and promised them oblivion: “There’ll be smoke on the water on the land and the sea/When our Army and Navy overtake the enemy/There’ll be smoke on the mountains where the heathen gods stay/And the sun that is risin’ will go down on that day.” This was Foley’s first No. 1.
“Mother’s Prayer,” Wally Fowler and the Georgia Clodhoppers (1945)
While “our boys” fought the battles in Europe and the Pacific, their mothers fought back tears at home. This one prays, “Dear God, watch over my boy in service/Help him win the victory there/And when this cruel war is over/Send him home to mother’s prayer.” Fowler founded the vocal group that many years later evolved into the Oak Ridge Boys.
“No Vacancy,” Merle Travis (1946)
To most historians, the years immediately following World War II were golden. The soldiers were returning home. Huge numbers of them were going to college, factories were humming, and the country was on a buying spree that would keep employment high for years to come. But many of the returning soldiers could find no place to live and start families. As he so often did, Travis pointed his finger at the problem with sharpshooter precision: “Not so long ago when the bullets screamed/Many were the happy dreams I dreamed/Of a little nest where I could rest when the world was free/Now the mighty war over there is won/Troubles and trials have just begun/Facing that terrible enemy sign, ‘No Vacancy.’”
“God Please Protect America,” Jimmie Osborne (1950)
By mid-1950, America was at war again, this time in the divided nation of Korea and on the brink of confronting troops from China, a nation that less than a year earlier had “gone communist.” As American wars will, this one instantly took on a theological tone. Here Osborne entreated, “Oh, people let’s start prayin’ as we never prayed before/We need the hand of God to lead us through this war/Give us vic’try in Korea and save our boys so fine/God, please protect America in this troubled time.”
“They Locked God Outside the Iron Curtain,” Jim Eanes (1952)
During the Cold War that existed between the U.S. and Russia from the end of World War II until the early 1990s, the people living on the other side of the figurative Iron Curtain weren’t denounced simply as “communists” but as “godless communists.” Truth-stretching effusions like these kept the political pot boiling: “There’s a land where little children cannot play/And the people have forgotten how to pray/It’s a land where peace and friendship should be tried/But an Iron Curtain keeps the Lord outside.”
“The Flood,” the Stanley Brothers (1957)
And now for something completely different. Two days of hard rain in late January 1957 flooded creeks and rivers throughout southern Virginia and West Virginia and eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. The Stanley Brothers and their band were stranded on a hilltop during the downpour and had to take shelter in a stranger’s house. It was there that Carter Stanley wrote this eyewitness song. The brothers had a regional hit with it soon after. (Carter’s younger brother, Ralph, would later record it as “The Flood of ’57.”) Here’s a part of Stanley’s trembling description: “Men were afraid as never before/As the high muddy water came in through their door/Some were left homeless, their life savings gone/But their lives had been spared, and the cold rains came on.” A similarly destructive flood engulfed Nashville in 2010, but it produced no such musical memorials.
“Hello, Vietnam,” Johnnie Wright (1965)
By the mid-1960s, the country was enmeshed in the Vietnam conflict. Young men were being drafted into service by the thousands, and an antiwar campaign was blossoming. Still viewing the war as a noble effort, Tom T. Hall wrote this song which was snatched up by Wright, who was country queen Kitty Wells‘ husband and the surviving half of the 1950s duo, Johnnie & Jack. It was Hall’s first and Wright’s only No. 1. Among the song’s dark — and ultimately defective — prophecies: “We must stop communism in that land/Or freedom will start slipping through our hands.”
“The Crude Oil Blues,” Jerry Reed (1974)
Leave it to the manic Reed to find humor in the cutback in heating oil that resulted from the Arab oil embargo of 1973. The shortage was compounded by a particularly cold winter — so cold, Reed sings, that a moonshiner friend has to burn his stash to keep warm. Even the fate of Reed’s record is put in peril: “Well, when we made this record/There was a little bit of doubt/Whether or not the thing was ever gonna come out/I said, ‘Hey chief, you reckon this record will be released?’/He said, ‘Son, we ain’t got enough oil to keep the presses greased.’”
“Welcome to the Sunshine (Sweet Baby Jane),” Jeanne Pruett (1974)
As the Civil Rights and anti-war movements were maturing in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the movement for women’s rights was just gaining momentum. The first goal was to establish that women were fully functioning individuals, not adornments or afterthoughts for men. This song — cheerfully worded chorus dripping with irony — showed the harsh world women still routinely faced: “She was pushed into this world naked and afraid/And spanked upon the bottom till she cried/A disappointed father heard the nurse say, ‘It’s a girl’/And she was scrubbed and promptly laid aside.” Her life does not get better: “Now she’s 29, and she lies crying and afraid/Neon shadows flashing on her bed/A disappointed lover picks his shirt up from the floor/And leaves her wishing, Lord, that she was dead.” Welcome to the sunshine, indeed.
“Trouble in the Fields,” Nanci Griffith (1987)
Losing the family farm, whether from crop failure or foreclosure, has become a recurring American nightmare. Here a farm wife croons a bleak assessment: “Baby, I know we’ve got trouble in the fields/When the bankers swarm like locusts out there/Turning away our yields.” Yet she dares to hope that they’ll eventually triumph together: “You’ll be the mule, I’ll be the plow/Come harvest time, we’ll work this out/There’s still a lot of love here in these troubled fields.”
“Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),”
Alan Jackson (2001)
Country music’s usual reaction to war is patriotic bluster: “We’ll kick your ass because God’s on our side.” There was a lot of that after the devastating terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. But Jackson took the time to think about those events and wonder what was going on inside us as individuals as the shock waves rolled over us. The result was this remarkably reassuring summation: “But I know Jesus, and I talk to God/And I remember this from when I was young/Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us/And the greatest is love.”