156) SSgt Barry Sadler – “The Ballad of the Green Berets”

To try to analyze “The Ballad of the Green Berets” as a pop song is to miss the point. The people who bought this record didn’t like it because it had a catchy chorus or a charismatic singer. They didn’t buy it to dance to at parties or to marvel at the production through headphones. They bought it for what it represented: a show of support for troops overseas; cultural pushback against a tide of apparent unpatriotism; a voice for the Silent Majority who remembered the victories of the Good War and believed the US would triumph again. This is a record that rose to #2 on the country charts not because it contained any identifiable C&W elements (unless you count its folk ballad structure), but because its pro-military stance hit home in conservative Middle America. For both creator and consumers, the song existed primarily as a vessel to champion the US Army Special Forces and, by extension, America as a whole. Any thoughts toward art were relegated to distant second place, perhaps even treated with vague suspicion. After all, plenty of antiwar folk and rock records spread their subversive content through hummable melodies and poeticized lyrics. Sadler’s musical unsophistication just made him seem more honest.

But even if “Green Berets” didn’t become a massive hit – the best-selling single of 1966, in fact – by being a great pop song, it’s not entirely without its merits. The minimalist, snare-heavy arrangement lends the record an appropriate degree of martial gravitas. Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s voice isn’t particularly distinctive, but its everysoldier quality suits a song praising collective heroism. Unlike many of its more opportunistic contemporaries (“Dawn of Correction,” for instance), “Green Berets” feels sincere – the product of an actual Green Beret recuperating from injuries in Vietnam – and dignified by not namecalling or taking direct swipes at its opponents.

Even though the song never mentions the Vietnam War by name, it became the closet equivalent the conflict had to an “Over There,” an affirmation that the US was fighting the good fight. The problem is that “Green Berets” isn’t actually all that inspiring. Too slow to rouse like a Sousa march and numbingly repetitive (despite efforts to add a little variety by injecting a new musical element in each verse), “Green Berets” drags on far longer than its breezy 2:27 running time suggests. Its lyrics aren’t a galvanizing call to arms but a dry list of facts and generalizations, delivered with a grim determination that befits an elite soldier but makes for a leaden pop singer. There’s a last-minute bid to elict emotion in the final stanzas with the introduction of a fallen Green Beret, but it comes out of nowhere, making the soldier seem less like a hero who sacrificed his life than a cardboard figure created only to be killed.

The fact that “Green Berets” so blatantly acknowledges the human cost of war – something typically the province of protest songs – proves how differently Vietnam was already being perceived compared with earlier conflicts. The popular folk revival’s leftist activism, combined with the post-WWII rise of mass media (specifically television and recorded music), granted anti-war music an unprecedented ubiquity. Even though the majority of Americans still favored US involvement in Vietnam, “Green Berets” feels defensive, insisting on the necessity of war in the face of waning public support.* As such, it’s as much a product of changing times as any of its anti-war counterparts. The negative side of war could no longer be ignored and popular support could no longer be assumed, leaving pro-war songs in a difficult position. “Green Berets” splits the difference by trying to be both somber and stirring, rugged and sentimental, but it lacks the artistic proficiency to fit these competing impulses together. If something this stiff and staid was the best its side had to offer, it’s no surprise that the more visceral and inventive songs against the war began to seem a lot more appealing. In cultural terms, “Green Berets” may have won the battle for chart dominance, but it couldn’t win the war.  2

*In March 1966, the month “The Ballad of the Green Berets” reached #1, 59% of Americans polled believed the US sending troops to Vietnam was “not a mistake.” Two months later, that percentage had fallen to 49%. (source: William Conrad Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War)

Hit #1 on March 12, 1966; total of 5 weeks at #1
156 of 1016 #1’s reviewed; 15.35% through the Hot 100

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4 Comments

Filed under 02, 1966

4 responses to “156) SSgt Barry Sadler – “The Ballad of the Green Berets”

  1. bob stanley

    The song and the performance’s bland stoicism – and Sadler’s bloke-next-door quality – makes it seem more British than American. In the wake of the Military Wives single and ubiquitous, depressing Help For Heroes charity buckets, TBOTGB sounds very contemporary.

    It got to no.24 in Britain. Some people were presumably getting restless – we hadn’t had a war for a while.

  2. speedwell54

    The track is new to me and after a few listens, it has me warming to it. A little. On first play however, it does seem to lack quite a lot; but maybe it’s just plain and simple. If it were done now it would have the whole gamut of emotional tricks, leading to a bit where he gets off his stool and stands for the key change, the curtain raises behind him and slowly a gospel choir walks forward, delivering a rousing finale. Camera pans to tearful old dear and an orchestral version of the song strikes up as the applause reaches a crescendo. Reminds me a little of Frank Ifield’s Wayward Wind in delivery. (if you ignore his yodelling)

    “It sold more than a million copies in the first two weeks, and became RCA’s fastest-selling single of all time.” says Fred Bronson in the Billboard Book of Number One Hits. What makes this even more impressive is that label-mate Elvis had already scored 17 number ones by this time.

    In the UK there was a popular TV programme called “Stars In Their Eyes” which originally had members of the public who would come on, have a make over, and do a fair-to-middling impression of a classic or current hit. In efforts to revive the show, celebrities (I’m using this word in the loosest possible sense) were called in. Unfortunately some couldn’t sing, never mind do an impression of someone else singing. After the plug had been pulled on the show, an early host revealed “These Boots are Made For Walking” was the ‘go to’ song for such vocally challenged celebrities, as you could pretty much talk it.

    I don’t know if there was ever a US version of the show, but I could imagine “The Ballad Of The Green Berets” being the equivalent over there.

  3. My dad mentioned this song to me not too long ago as an example of an “Over There”-type song fo the Vietnam Era. I’m curious as to how “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American Song)” will age.

  4. @bob – The UK seems to have more of a history with records becoming hits for reasons beyond the music – funding a charity, showing solidarity for a cause, etc. Apart from the mid-’80s fad for charity singles, it’s comparatively rare in the US for a single’s success to be based so heavily on outside forces, which makes “Green Berets” seem especially out of place. The closest analogue I can think of is Lorne Greene’s “Ringo” – someone not principally a musician scores a massive hit not because of the record itself but because something about it happens to speak to something else in the culture at the time.

    @speedwell – I do grudgingly admire Sadler & co for keeping it relatively restrained, especially in light of your terrifying alternative. I think plain and simple can be quite effective. There just has to be something underlying it – passion, humor, a good story, a catchy hook, evocative language. There’s no imagination to “Green Berets,” which is what sinks it.

    @sam – One of the key differences between “Over There” and “Green Berets” is that the chorus of the former is in the collective first person (“we won’t come back till it’s over, over there”) and the latter’s in the third person. It’s a lot easier to get fired up when it’s your war than one that’s being fought by other people – especially when those other people are elite soldiers and not “our boys.” “Over There” also has the imperative “Johnny get your gun,” which gives it a sense of urgency and makes enlisting seem like your patriotic duty. “Green Berets” is too detached, not just in Sadler’s delivery but in subject matter. It’s not even a recruitment call – Sadler points out twice in the song that only 3 percent of the troops who try out for the Special Forces get in. It’s more of a tribute to how amazing (i.e., different from you, i.e., better than you) these soldiers are.

    Funny you should bring up Toby Keith. I thought about mentioning Merle Haggard’s 1970 single “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is much stronger in its pro-war (or rather, anti-anti-war) rhetoric than “Green Berets” but is infinitely more listenable. Goes to show what a difference talent makes. As for “Courtesy” – well, it’s already self-parody. I could almost see it being reappropriated as kitsch in a decade or two, except that I think that Keith is too self-aware for satisfactory ironic appreciation.

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