Charlie don’t surf: Jan and Dean’s red-baiting anti-protest song, ‘The Universal Coward’
09:12 am
Charlie don’t surf: Jan and Dean’s red-baiting anti-protest song, ‘The Universal Coward’

I’ve never been a fan of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s protest song “Universal Soldier,” the one Donovan popularized in the 60s and Ron Paul dusted off for his 2008 presidential campaign. I’m sure it felt good to belt “Universal Soldier” down at the hootenanny, but was this ostentatious display of superiority to the poor suckers on the front line actually supposed to pass for a critique?

Probably the friendliest thing you could say about Sainte-Marie’s analysis is that it leaves out a few important factors that might compel people to cross the ocean and eat hot lead instead of staying at home with a nice plate of squash blossoms—you know, factors like power and class, which are helpful in understanding the merry adventures of the press gang, or the practice of substitution during the Civil War. All I’m saying is, as suggestions go, “we wouldn’t have wars if soldiers would just stop fighting” is about as helpful as “we’d have a socialist paradise tomorrow if everyone would just quit their jobs and eat dirt.” (My word, why do the working classes toil so? And why would a person travel so far to choke on mustard gas?)

I’ll stick with “Masters of War” and “John Brown,” thanks very much.

We don’t cotton to your kind here in Surf City.
Then again, “Universal Soldier” is civilization itself compared to Jan and Dean’s poisonous answer song. On “The Universal Coward,” a right-wing screed sandwiched between anodyne versions of “Yesterday” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” on 1965’s Folk ‘n Roll, Jan sang what Nixon believed (Dean, to his credit, “refused to join him”), viz. that everyone who participated in the antiwar movement was the dupe of a Communist plot to destroy American morale.

If you weren’t excited about wading in the blood of Vietnamese peasants, Jan Berry thought you were too stupid to understand international relations, traitorous, and a total puss to boot. His lyrics lump in protesters and COs with defectors to the Soviet Union, for farting out loud:

He’s young, he’s old, he’s in between and he’s so very much confused
He’ll scrounge around and protest all day long
He joins the pickets at Berkeley, and he burns up his draft card,
And he’s twisted into thinkin’ fightin’ is all wrong

He’s a pacifist, an extremist, a Communist or just a Yank (?)
A demonstrator, an agitator, just a knave
A conscientious objector, a fanatic or a defector,
And he doesn’t know he’s diggin’ his own grave

Aww, he just can’t get it through his thick skull why the mighty U.S.A.
Has got to be the watchdog of the world
Else that greedy U.S.S.R. will bury us from afar
And he’ll never see the missiles bein’ hurled

He’s the universal coward, and he runs from anything
From a giant, from a human, from an elf
He runs from Uncle Sam, he runs from Vietnam,
But most of all he’s runnin’ from himself

Worse than anything in the lyrics is the almost intolerable tone of self-satisfaction in Berry’s voice, redundant as a shit enema and so frankly repulsive as to make one long for Sainte-Marie’s comparatively restrained self-righteousness. It feels like a warm bath after all that.

BTW, both Jan and Dean were college students during the early 60s, and Jan was enrolled in medical school when he crashed his car in ‘66, so I don’t think he was exactly sweating the draft—not that that had anything to do with this full-throated endorsement of the war effort, I’m sure.

Below is a bit of contemporary Jan and Dean TV: the unaired pilot for the proposed series Jan & Dean On The Run, directed by William Asher, late ‘65.

Posted by Oliver Hall
09:12 am



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