Billy, Don’t Be A Hero by Bo Donaldson & The Heywoods (ABC, 1974)

bdah

The Vietnam War and our troops were on everybody’s minds during the early 70s. Even though we had started to withdraw troops in ’71, it felt like the war was never going to end. That anxiety was kicked back up when in early ’74, the Paris Accord was rejected and the war was restarted by the Viet Cong to regain the territory it had previously lost. No one knew what to expect. Would we have to send troops back?

Protests to the war had been happening since the late 60’s and musicians were a big part of the movement voicing their displeasure to our involvement in Vietnam, from Barry McGuire’s Eve Of Destruction and Country Joe & the Fish’s Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die rag at Woodstock to War by Edwin Starr and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On. Protest songs had become so mainstream in the 70s that in 1974, they even came from an unlikely source – a 7 piece band from Cincinnati, OH who had previously toured with the Osmonds: Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods.

If you get this song and The Night Chicago Died mixed up, don’t worry,  you’re not going crazy. The songs were both on the charts at the same time and had a very similar feel. Both were recorded by the group Paper Lace and written by the same two songwriters, Mitch Murray and Pete Callander. This song obviously hit a nerve around the world as the Paper Lace version hit #1 in Britain and Australia and Bo’s hit #1 here, where it spend 2 weeks at the top in June 1974 and in Canada.

Now this is the part where I break this song down. Because even though this was released during our Vietnam troop occupation, there’s no way these guys are talking about modern war. (Remember these are the songwriters who said Daddy was a cop on the east side of Chicago – that’s right, he patrolled Lake Michigan)

Let’s break out the fifes and figure out whats going on:

The marching band came down along Main Street
The soldier blues fell in behind.
I looked across and there I saw Billy
Waiting to go and join the line.

Ok so we hit upon one key to the success of this song. The singer is an impartial third party, so he’s not giving his opinion whether he’s for or against the war (even though the chorus suggest otherwise). The soldier blues probably refers to the armies in the civil war who would march through town and folks would just join them rather than the good ol days of being drafted.

And with her head upon his shoulder
His young and lovely fiancée.
From where I stood I saw she was cryin’
And through her tears I heard her say,

We’ll assume he knows they’re getting married somehow. But how is he close enough to see her cry and hear her speak? Wasn’t he across the street a few words ago? Feels like Bo might be getting ready to make some moves.

“Billy, don’t be a hero. Don’t be a fool with your life
Billy, don’t be a hero. Come back and make me your wife”

I don’t know if this was real or I dreamed it: there’s a scene on the Muppet Show and Billy Joel is guest star. He dressed up like a sub sandwich and Kermit tries to keep him out of a sketch by saying, “Billy don’t be a hero.” Anyone?

And as he started to go, she said, “Billy keep your head low.
Billy, don’t be a hero. Come back to me”

Keep your head low? That’s awful advice, for any war. Do bullets only travel upwards? Can someone not bomb a trench?

The soldier blues were trapped on a hillside.
The battle ragin’ all around.
The sergeant cried, “We’ve gotta hang on, boys.
We gotta hold this piece of ground.”

Wow, thats a soft commander…but so inspirational. Hey you guys, we’re down 3 points with two minutes to go. Hang on boys. Hang on. I didn’t know John Wooten was in the Army.

“I need a volunteer to ride out and bring us back some extra men”

A volunteer? Did they draw straws? One potato two potato? And if you need extra men, why are you sending someone out? Now you’re down another guy. Always bring extra men. The dip always runs out at this dude’s party before all the guest arrive.

fmj

Definitely not Billy’s sergeant

And Billy’s hand was up in a moment forgetting all the words she said.

Maybe there’s a reason he ‘forgot’ those words like he was feeling trapped by his poor advice giving future wife, who told him he could work in her dad’s paint store for the rest of his life. Or he was thinking about a $5 footlong…..

I heard his fiancée 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 heard she threw the letter away.

A letter? That’s all she gets? No body?  How does she know he really died? You get a letter and go, Oh well, Guess he’s dead. I’d toss that bullshit in the garbage too.

Wait a minute. Oh my God, I just figured it out. It’s the back story of Mad Men. Don Draper is based on this song. Billy just Dick Whitman’d his fiancee. Now it all makes sense. And that makes the singer, Pete Campbell.

I guess the song I need to break down next is I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing….

 
Advertisements
Leave a comment

2 Comments

  1. I have always presumed it was an American Civil War story, because that’s the best for for the details. Plus, such soldiers would have marched to a piccolo and drum cadence.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: