A 21-Song Salute to Memorial Day

Country music has always been gung-ho about soldiers. This was especially true during World War II when the country seemed united in a common cause. Subsequent wars were less unifying and less musically inspiring, although the country songs that grew out of them continued to be unwaveringly “patriotic.”

The following 21 “soldier songs” span a period of 64 years, during which the American military went from being racially segregated and depending on draftees to relying entirely on volunteers and striving for racial and sexual diversity.

Whatever the war, though, the concerns of the soldiers and the themes honoring them have been the same — fear, loneliness, fatalism, camaraderie, missing home, losing sweethearts and finding disappointment after returning home.

Here is a representative sampling from that musical military grab bag.

WORLD WAR II

  • “This Is the Army, Mr. Jones,” Irving Berlin, 1943

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    OK, so Irving Berlin wasn’t a country singer or songwriter, but he still tapped into that persistent country theme in which rich folks are pulled down from their high horses and made to experience the world as we commoners do. Now hear this: “This is the Army, Mr. Jones/no private rooms or telephones/You had your breakfast in bed before/but you won’t have it there anymore.” Writer: Berlin

  • “Soldier’s Last Letter,” Ernest Tubb, 1944

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    One of the most aggressively heartbreaking songs to emerge from the war. It visualizes a mother’s delight in receiving a letter from her son written just before he goes into battle. He promises to finish it when he returns. But it comes to her unfinished and unsigned. The most poignant part of the letter reads, “I’m writing this down in a trench, Mom/don’t scold if it isn’t so neat/you know as you did when I was a kid/and I’d come home with mud on my feet.” How’s that for a life-time guilt trip (See “If You’re Reading This” and “Riding With Private Malone” below.)? Writers: Henry Stewart, Tubb

  • “Searching for a Soldier’s Grave,” Bailes Brothers, 1945

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    Covered by everyone from Hank Williams to Bob Dylan, this story is told in the voice of an American parent who crosses the Atlantic to discover where his or her soldier son is buried. “Like many others, my loved one was killed in action/That’s why I’m here; I’m searching for his grave.” The Bailes Brothers recorded the song the same year World War II came to an end. Writer: Roy Acuff (but it was more likely a creation of Jack or Jim Anglin who sometimes sold Acuff songs)

  • “Silver Dew on the Bluegrass Tonight,” Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, 1945

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    Here a Kentucky girl wishes her “soldier boy” were safe at home to appreciate its nocturnal beauty—and her. Writer: Ed Burt

  • “White Cross on Okinawa,” Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, 1945

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    More than 12,500 American soldiers were killed on the island of Okinawa by Japanese forces in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The song says, “There’s a white cross tonight on Okinawa/and a gold star in some mother’s home.” Families who lost sons in the war were awarded gold stars, which they often displayed in their windows. Writer: Bob Wills

  • “At Mail Call Today,” Gene Autry, 1945

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    A battle-weary soldier gets a letter from his one-time sweetheart saying she won’t be waiting for him when—and if—he returns home (See “A Dear John Letter” below.). Writers: Autry, Fred Rose

  • “When a Soldier Knocks and Finds Nobody Home,” Moon Mullican and the Showboys, 1946

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    The title tells it all: “When I sailed across the blue/I thought I could count on you/But I’ve come back home sweetheart to find you gone.” Writers: Lou Wayne, Moon Mullican and Ernest Tubb

  • “No Vacancy,” Merle Travis, 1946

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    Despite the blessings of peace-time, many soldiers returning from World War II couldn’t find places to live and start their families. As he so often did, Merle 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.” Writer: Merle Travis

  • “Ballad of Ira Hayes” Johnny Cash, 1964

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    Ira Hayes was a Pima Indian, who, despite the decimation of his tribal lands, joined the Marines and was sent to fight the Japanese. In the horrendous Battle of Iwo Jima, he was one of the Marines shown in the iconic photograph of raising the American flag once the battle was over. After returning home and feeling unappreciated for his sacrifices, Hayes became an alcoholic and died drunk in a ditch. Besides Cash, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt have recorded this song. Writer: Peter LaFarge

KOREAN WAR

  • “God Please Protect America” Jimmie Osborne, 1950

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    By the mid-1950s, America was at war again, this time in the divided nation of Korea. As American wars so often do, this one took on a theological tone. Here Osborne entreats: “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 victory in Korea and save our boys so fine/God please protect America in this troubled time.” Writer: Jimmie Osborne

  • “Weapon of Prayer,” The Louvin Brothers, 1951

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    The Louvins picked up the God-on-our-side chant: “You don’t have to be a soldier in a uniform/to be of service over there/While our boys so bravely stand/with the weapons made by hand/let us trust and use the weapon of prayer.” Writers: Charlie and Ira Louvin

  • “Missing in Action,” Ernest Tubb, 1952 h

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    In this saga, a soldier who’s been wounded in battle is taken prisoner. He finally escapes and returns to the home he had built for himself and his wife. There he finds a picture of his wife in a wedding gown beside another man—and a letter that declares him “missing in action.” Thinking he was dead, his wife has remarried. He does the noble thing and walks away: “A vagabond dreamer forever I’ll roam/because there was no one to welcome me home.”

  • “A Dear John Letter,” Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky, 1953

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    Another GI bites the dust. The letter from his sweetheart John has so eagerly awaited brings him the news that she doesn’t love him anymore and is going to marry someone else. As a matter of fact—and a rhyming convenience—the guy she’s marrying is John’s brother Don. This song did not coin the term “Dear John Letter,” though. It was used among soldiers at least as early as 1944, according to Wikipedia. In some regions of the country, these missives used to be called “quittin’ letters.” Outrageously manipulative and obvious, this tune is more likely to make you smirk than cry (See “At Mail Call Today” above.). Writers: Fuzzy Owen, Lewis Tally

VIETNAM WAR

  • “Hello, Vietnam,” Johnny Wright, 1965

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    By the mid-1960s, the country was enmeshed in the Vietnam conflict. Young men were being drafted into service by the tens of thousands, and an anti-war movement was blossoming. But still viewing the war as a noble effort, Tom T. Hall wrote this flag-waving ditty. It was snatched up by Johnny Wright, the husband of country queen Kitty Wells and the surviving half of the popular 1950s duo, Johnnie & Jack. It was Hall’s first No. 1 as a songwriter and Wright’s only chart-topper as a solo act. Among the song’s dark—and ultimately defective—prophecies: “We must stop communism in that land/or freedom will start slipping through our hands.” Writer: Tom T. Hall

  • “Ballad of the Green Berets,” Barry Sadler, 1966

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    This song was a pop and an adult contemporary hit for five weeks, and it also rose to No. 2 on the country charts. It begins by extolling the courage and singularity of the Green Berets in general and then concludes with a verse about a particular Green Beret who dies in battle and whose dying wish that his son be raised to wear the Berets’ silver wings. Writers: Robin Moore, Sadler

  • “Riding With Private Malone,” David Ball, 2001

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    Here we have a three-fer—a soldier song a car song and a ghost song. A man “just out of the service” sees a classified ad offering an “old Chevy” for sale. To his delight, he discovers it’s a 1966 Corvette that’s been stored away for 30 years. In the glove box, he finds a note from its original owner, “Private Andrew Malone,” that says “if you’re reading this then I didn’t make it home.” Where the story goes from there, you’ll have to discover for yourself. But it’s great story (See Tim McGraw’s “If You’re Reading This” below.). Writers: Wood Newton, Tom Sheperd

  • “One Tin Soldier,” Skeeter Davis, 1972

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    This may be the only war protest song ever to make the country charts—but it went only to No. 54. Moreover, it was an allegory of good vs. evil and not a direct reference to Vietnam. From the movie The Legend of Billy Jack, it did somewhat better on the pop charts—where it appeared in three different incarnations—but it was not a substantial hit. Davis was something of a maverick in country music. In 1973, the deeply religious singer was suspended from the Grand Ole Opry for more than a year for criticizing the Nashville Police Department during her Opry segment for arresting some “Jesus freaks” who had been demonstrating at a local mall. Writers: Dennis Lambert, Brian Potter

  • “Still in Saigon,” Charlie Daniels Band, 1982

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    This song takes the form of a veteran’s first-person reminiscences of his time on the battlefields of Vietnam and of the PTSD that still haunts him. Writer: Dan Daley

WARS WITHOUT NAMES

  • “American Soldier,” Toby Keith, 2003

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    Now that America has an all-volunteer army, soldiering is as much a job as it is an urgent feeling of duty. But the soldier Keith gives voice to here regards himself principally as a patriot: “I don’t do it for the money, there’s bills that I can’t pay/I don’t do it for the glory, I just do it anyway.” Writers: Chuck Cannon and Keith

  • “Letters From Home,” John Michael Montgomery, 2004

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    In this age of transcontinental email, physical letters may seem a bit anachronistic; but in this song the storyteller shares with his buddies his handwritten letters from his mom, sweetheart and dad—and each one gives them a cherished respite from battle. “I fold it up and put it in my shirt/pick up my gun and get back to work/but it keeps me drivin’ on/waitin’ on letters from home.” Some things never change. Writers: Tony Lane, David Lee

  • “If You’re Reading This,” Tim McGraw, 2007

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    This picks up the theme prominent in “Soldier’s Last Letter” and “Driving With Private Malone”—the words of a dead warrior reaching across time and space. “So lay me down in that open field out on the edge of town/and know my soul is where my momma always prayed that it would go/If you’re reading this I’m already home.” Writers: McGraw, Brad and Brett Warren

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.