Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Music week: "Billy, Don't Be a Hero," 1974


"Billy, Don't Be a Hero" was my favorite song in first grade, in 1974. How do I know this? Because I sent my poor older sisters running all over town looking for the 45 (45!) for me so I could bring it to school for Show and Tell. (My daughter's preschool calls this "Special Sharing" today and I am still unsure why the name change.)

It seemed weird that I wanted to bring a record for Show and Tell. I can only guess that they played it during the class, and it must have been a regular thing people did, brought in a record (a record!).

Anyway, I just loved the song, by Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods. I still remember "Deeper and Deeper" was on the B-side (B-side!) and I didn't like that nearly so much.

As revealed yesterday with "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves," I looooved story songs. Still do. And "Billy" is a great one for a young kid to love. It's romantic and dramatic and sad all in one. She begs him not to go to war, and if he does, to stay out of the line of fire! And he says he would, but he LIES! He volunteers, full of vim and vigor and youthful bravery, for a dangerous mission, and blam, so much for that.

"I heard his fiancee got a letter / that told how Billy died that day / the letter said that he was a hero / she should be proud he died that way / I hear she threw the letter away." DAMN THAT'S SONGWRITING.

Here's what I just learned now: The song was about the CIVIL War. "The soldier blues" were the Union Army. WHAT WHAT WHAT? It was 1974, of course I (and pretty much everyone else, as is noted in Wikipedia) thought it was about the Vietnam War. Well, it was to us anyway, no matter what Bo D and the HWs had in mind. I actually had to relisten to the whole thing just now to make sure it matched up with an older war -- not only is there no mention of tanks or planes or anything, but the only real verb that could fit a time or place is "I need a volunteer to RIDE out." Which...I guess could mean horses, though at the time I guess I thought he was riding in a Jeep, or something.

Anyway. Loved this song. Love the whistle part. Love the sadness. Still love it. Don't necessarily love the band's matching clown suits, though.

What do you think? Ever bring a song for Show and Tell? Did you play 45s? What's the best war song?


7 comments:

Brian said...

"Billy, Don't be a Hero" was one of my favorites too (I was in fourth grade, I think), and one of the first rock-and-roll 45's I ever owned (perversely, "Smokin' in the Boys' Room" was my very first!). Being a history buff even that far back, I always figured the song was about the Civil War, though I thought it odd that someone would write a pop song about the Civil War...

Kids used to bring records into show and tell, and would get to play them. Some who had older siblings had access to rather extensive music collections, so they ended up becoming tastemakers of sorts. I got exposed to a lot of music that way (for better or for worse), and those sessions were the first time I heard Elton John (huge at the time), Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, etc. My parents were older and didn't listen to "that rock and roll junk", and most of my friends were younger than me and had even less exposure to pop music.

Back to Cher, the one '70s single of hers I remember was "Dark Lady." I don't remember much about it other than it was very popular and I bought a beat-up 45 of it at a garage sale for a nickel. My friends all loved the Sonny and Cher show, mainly because of Cher's notoriously sexy outfits. Interestingly, my daughter got into Cher in the early '90s when she enjoyed a revival.

Anonymous said...

I loved the song at Disneyland's Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Two brothers on their way, one wore blue & one wore gray.

Sasha T. said...

DARK LADY!! Thank you, Brian! I was going to post on the Facebook page this morning about how traumatizing I found those '70s story-songs as a kid - Billy; The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia; Run, Joey, Run; and especially Dark Lady. I think that's why I like happy little pop songs now

Anonymous said...

I have to apologize before saying this: I always think of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" when I hear this song.

Tammy said...

OMG - me and my best friend from elementary school used to sing this when we riding the school bus! We were in kindergarten!!!

Brian said...

@Sasha: Come to think of it, there *were* a lot of really heavy and dark ballads in the early '70s. I'm sure some sociologist somewhere has studied how the mood of the era influenced the music. Was it Vietnam? A backlash against the love-and-peace '60s? Perhaps it explains why people would embrace disco later in the decade...

Here are a couple more early '70s music trends to explore: trucking (White Knight, Convoy) and streaking (The Streak, Superstreaker).

Germaine said...

I remember this from Kindergarten as well. I really miss all those story songs they had in the 70's.
Good times man, good times.