Listen children, to a story that was written long ago
‘Bout a kingdom on a mountain and the valley folk below…
Yeah, I noticed you wincing. Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects “One Tin Soldier.” But once it’s there, it’s like it was there all along.
Like many of my generation, I was exposed to this piece of pseudo-epic peacenik treacle at a fairly young age. But I never saw Billy Jack, the movie it appeared in, and I never even heard the original version, by a band called Coven, until years later.
I learned it by singing it. My fifth- and sixth-grade chorus director loved to load us up on the gloom. If there’s a 70s weeper hit out there, chances are we sang it: “Coward of the County,” “Delta Dawn,” “Mr. Bojangles,” “Cat’s In the Cradle,” “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” etc. Some people are shocked to hear we sang “Suicide Is Painless" (the theme From M.A.S.H.), but we loved it—it was the closest we got to comic relief.
And for a group of kids so steeped in Christian humility, we sure loved our talent shows. School talent shows. Church youth group talent shows. Girl Scout talent shows. 4-H talent shows. (Full disclosure: I was a member of all of the above). We were a pack of stagehounds and little petit-divas, desperately awaiting the invention of karaoke. And out of all those penny-dreadful, three-hankie ballads, there was one that was beloved above all others: at every one of these things, there was all but guaranteed to be at least one “Tin Soldier.” Maybe as many as three or four.
Why? God only knows. But I have some theories.
It was always girls who sang it. (At least, girls did most of the singing.) It was always girls who wanted to be singers, who’d claw their sisters-in-Christ’s eyes out for a shot at a few notes’ worth of solo in the church choir. If the message under the stone had been a recording contract, they’d’ve considered the massacre of the mountain folk a good worthwhile day’s work.
But they were in the habit of getting only a few notes to shine, and man did they work ‘em. You don't care about the verses when you’re singing “One Tin Soldier.” What matters is the chorus, and the attempt at reaching heaven itself on a wobbly tower of piercing, nasal honky melisma.
Go ahead and hate your NEEEEEEIIIGGGGHAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYbor
GO-ho-oh ahead and CHEEYIYIYit a friend…
Do it in the name of HEEYYEYEEYYYEHVEN….
The neighbors’ dogs, at least, always hated back.
The ramifications of an anti-war song being shrieked so vehemently by big-haired divas of the training-bra set in such a conservative community wasn't given much thought that I can remember. Maybe because there didn’t appear to be so many in 1980 or thereabouts. (Nobody cared about the rape described in “Coward of the County” either. Nobody cared when I tried to be the pagan rebel with my own subversive selection of “Rhiannon” instead, or my attempts at off-key pubescent sexual mystery: and who will be herrrrrr loverrrrrrr?) If it felt slightly daring, so much the better. None of it actually was.
But it is an anti-war song, and every time there’s a war on (which is pretty much all the time these days) it floats up in my head like something I tried to chain to the bottom of the pond but failed to stay down. And I don’t hear it like Coven did it. I hear an 11-year-old voice trying to lift the water-warped tiles of the ceiling of the decorated elementary-school gym.
So tell me--what song is currently plaguing your brain, and what’s its story?