Today, in case you have not bothered to check your calendar, is November 11. Specifically, it’s Veterans Day. It’s one day out of the year — but hopefully not the only one — where we can put aside our personal or political views about war and honor those who have served our country. (Those in non-U.S. Western countries may know this as Remembrance Day.)
Putting together a playlist of songs to honor veterans may be seen as a weak gesture, but sadly it’s more than many others can manage anymore. So as you listen to these songs, take a moment to reflect on the very real and very great sacrifice countless others have made for us so we can have the luxury of hanging out on a site like this.
#1. “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” by Vera Lynn
One of the most popular tunes from World War II, this was written in 1941 in an effort to lift the spirits of the Allied nations, who had suffered terrible defeats at the hands of Nazi Germany. Vera Lynn’s version is the most famous, but the Righteous Brothers also turned in an excellent cover in 1966.
#2. “Letters from Home” by John Michael Montgomery
I can only imagine how a song like this hits home even more for the parents of soldiers serving overseas. Montgomery’s bluntly emotional lyrics are counterbalanced by a nicely restrained arranagement, and then of course there’s the video.
#3. “Rooster” by Alice in Chains
In the midst of an already bleak Alice in Chains album comes “Rooster,” so named for guitarist Jerry Cantrell’s father. Cantrell Sr. served two tours in Vietnam and suffered for it. This song was Cantrell’s attempt to connect with his father, as well as to relate his experiences in Vietnam and at home after the war. Cantrell Senior appears in the video, which is appropriately brutal.
#4. “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler
Very rarely do songs from actual combat veterans make it to the airwaves. Rarer still are those songs so embraced by the public. But Sadler’s tune, released even as the American public grew more divided over the Vietnam War, was a smash. While the arrangement sounds a bit stilted now, the sentiment is just as powerful.
#5. “Goodnight Saigon” by Billy Joel
Yeah, it gets a bit hokey in spots, but Joel’s tale of U.S. Marines from basic training and into the jungles of Vietnam is still great.
#6. “When a Soldier Makes It Home” by Arlo Guthrie
Guthrie wrote this rather Dylanesque protest song shortly after the Soviet Union began withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. But to read the lyrics, you’d swear it was written within the last decade. Guthrie states in this video clip that the song is “not just overdue but already outdated,” when in fact it was eerily prescient.
#7. “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits
“We’re fools to make war / On our brothers in arms.”
#8. “Galveston” by Jimmy Webb
If upbeat is more your thing, there’s always the popular Glen Campbell version of Jimmy Webb’s song about a soldier pining for his Texas home. Webb’s original conveys the message in a much more direct manner, without all the country pop trappings.
#9. “The Gunner’s Dream” by Pink Floyd
Roger Waters has never been shy about sharing his thoughts on war and the cost it exacts, but rarely has he done so more beautifully than on this song from The Final Cut.
#10. “Ashokan Farewell” by Jay Ungar
I hope you’ll forgive me for reaching a bit on this one. Most of the country first heard this song during Ken Burns’ brilliant The Civil War documentary. And although it was composed more than a century after the war ended, I think it brilliantly evokes the feeling of loss and sadness from that period. I include it here because it’s important to remember veterans from all wars, not just the ones for which we have film clips.
#11. “Remember Me” by Queensrÿche
Queensrÿche’s entire American Soldier album is worth hearing, but this song in particular is an emotional gut punch. Interspersed with segments from interviews Geoff Tate conducted with actual vets, the song is written from the point of view of a young soldier pleading with his loved one to remember him and to not judge him to harshly for his choice to serve.
And here’s the Spotify playlist, for those so inclined.