At the height of my record collecting days, I would buy anything on the King Records label. The Cincinnati-based indie was best known as the home of James Brown during his prime recording years. But throughout the '40s, '50s and '60s King released everything from gospel to rockabilly, and all of it was top notch.
I was digging through a box of 45s at a garage sale one summer day when I came across an unfamiliar King release. It was recorded by an obscure R&B singer named Mary Moultrie and the title intrigued me. "Last Year, Senior Prom (This Year, Vietnam)" the faded label read. I bought it and headed home to give it a spin.
It started off like a typical doo-wop era teen ballad. But as I listened closer to Moultrie's sweet young voice, the lyrics brought the song into a darker, more mature space. "It's spring again, wish you were here. How life can change in just a year," Moultrie begins. "A year ago tonight, we danced and you held me tight. Your letters say that you're doing fine, but I can read between the lines. Last year senior prom, this year, Vietnam."
The haunting innocence of the song and its mournful refrain brought tears to my eyes. It was one of the most moving anti-war songs I'd ever heard. But it wasn't created as an anti-war statement. Moultrie certainly wasn't an activist; she was a typical aspiring singer casting a hopeful eye toward the pop charts. Recorded in 1966, the song reflected a basic reality for many young African-Americans. A lack of access to opportunity had pushed blacks into military service at higher rates than their white counterparts.
Moultrie's ballad was one of literally hundreds of songs recorded in opposition to the Vietnam war during the '60s and '70s. It's a product of an era where the inherent cruelty and injustice of war were firmly embedded in the national consciousness. It was a time that brought the arts community together to rally the public against the civil and moral abuses of the industrialist war mongers. Great artists like Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye created stirring protest anthems. While others like John Lennon and John Coltrane who may not have commented directly on the conflict were composing timeless anthems of love and peace. There was a general tone of resistance in the air that even trickled down to pop singers like Moultrie.
Fast forward to today. Over a decade spent fighting two failed wars has caused incalculable death and suffering, drained federal budgets and plunged us into economic crisis. And all this has largely been met with a general silence from the populace - and the arts community too.
We now sit on the verge of a new war and there is still silence. Polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of Americans are against military intervention in Syria. But why should Congress or the President take our concerns seriously when they can firmly place their confidence in our silent acquiescence?
It's clear the Syrian people need immediate assistance. But I must ask whether unleashing the American military industrial complex on Syria will alleviate or intensify the people's suffering.
Saddam Hussein was known as the "Butcher of Baghdad" during his cruel reign of terror. But when considering the death toll and atrocities committed under Iraq's occupation by the American industrialists, I'm forced to wonder if the Iraqi people would have been better off battling the monstrous Hussein on their own.
The American military industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about in his eerily prescient 1960 farewell speech failed to bring peace and justice to Vietnamese people. It also failed to bring peace and justice to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and I have serious doubts it will bring peace and justice to Syria today.
Evidence suggests that the main benefactor in the aforementioned conflicts was the defense industry itself. Haliburton alone raked in over 17 billion dollars in revenue from the Iraq War. It seems we've foolishly ignored Eisenhower's advice to "guard against the unwarranted influence of the military industrial complex."
As we face the imminent threat of a new war, we desperately need the voices of the arts community to once again awaken the public. To inspire us to foment resistance against the abuses of corporate power that are plunging us into war, destroying our environment and robbing us of a sustainable future. I challenge all my fellow Indianapolis artists to raise their voice in protest against this corruption - even if your message is as simple as Mary Moultrie's 1966 lovesick plea. Sometimes it's the simple heartfelt declarations that stir our emotions most effectively.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's selection features R&B songs of protest, peace and politics.
1. Staple Singers - Masters of War
2. Mighty Hannibal - Hymn No. 5
3. James Carr - Let's Face Facts
4. Parliament - Come In Out of the Rain
4. Isley Brothers - Ohio/Machine Gun
5. Stevie Wonder - You Haven't Done Nothin'
6. Curtis Mayfield - We Got To Have Peace
7. Carla Whitney - War
8. Edwin Starr - Stop the War Now
9. Sharon Jones - What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes
10. Sir Joe Quarterman - I Got So Much Trouble In My Mind
11. Ernie Hines - Our Generation
12. The Impressions - Stop the War
13. Terry Callier - Ho Tsing Mee (A Song of the Sun)
14. Jon Lucien - The War Song
15. Gil Scott-Heron - Did You Hear What They Sad
16. Bill Withers - I Can't Write Left Handed
17. The Dells - Does Any Body Know I'm Here
18. Larry Sanders - Where Did Peace Go
19. Swamp Dogg - Sam Stone
20. Eugene McDaniels - Freedom Death Dance
21. Funkadelic - Wars of Armageddon
22. Mary Moultrie - Last Year, Vietnam (This Year, Senior Prom)