Ideas & Issues

Asleep In Dress Blues: Music For Memorial Day

A lone bugler plays "Taps" during a burial service at Arlington National Cemetery. i i

A lone bugler plays "Taps" during a burial service at Arlington National Cemetery. Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Win McNamee/Getty Images
A lone bugler plays "Taps" during a burial service at Arlington National Cemetery.

A lone bugler plays "Taps" during a burial service at Arlington National Cemetery.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Memorial Day can all too easily mark the start of grilling season and retail sales events instead of fulfilling its original purpose, honoring those who lost their lives in service to our country.

Congress made the holiday official in 1971, but the practice dates back to the 1860s, when it was known as Decoration Day, an occasion for decorating the graves of Civil War soldiers. Late May was chosen, historians say, because flowers would be in bloom throughout the country.

It was only after World War I that Decoration Day was extended to commemorate the dead from all U.S. battles. Monday we'll remember those soldiers, especially the most recent casualties. Since 2003, according to the Department of Defense, more than 6,800 men and women in the U.S. armed forces have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The horror of war continues to inspire musicians in myriad ways, and for this Memorial Day we've compiled a short list of songs. It's not really a playlist or mixtape for the day, but simply some music that celebrates our heroes, comforts the family and friends of the fallen and causes us all to think — not about this weekend's bargains but the everlasting cost of war.

Asleep in Dress Blues: Music For Memorial Day

  • Lee Brice: "I Drive Your Truck"

    YouTube

    For any parent who's mourned a child killed in battle, this song strikes deep. It's a simple, heartbreaking image: A father continues to drive his son's truck as a way of easing the pain of losing him to the war in Afghanistan. The song, based on the true story of Paul Monti and his son, Sgt. 1st Class Jared Monti, won Song of the Year last month at the Academy of Country Music Awards. From a public radio interview (which initially inspired the song), Monti's father said he couldn't help driving the truck: "It's him. It's got his DNA all over it. I love driving it because it reminds me of him, though I don't need the truck to remind me of him. I think about him every hour of every day."

  • John Legend and The Roots: "I Can't Write Left-Handed"

    YouTube

    This song, especially in such a fiery, no holds barred performance, is a defiant salute not to the dead, but to the wounded soldiers. Written in 1973 by Bill Withers, reacting to the Vietnam War, it remains poignant today when you consider that, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 1 million military personnel have used VA facilities as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many are struggling to obtain appropriate benefits. The video is directed by Spike Lee.

  • Charles Ives: Decoration Day (from Holidays Symphony)

    YouTube

    Charles Ives was born in 1874, less than 10 years after the Civil War ended. As an adult, he remembered Decoration Day activities in Danbury, Conn. with his father, who had served in the war as the Union Army's youngest bandmaster. This piece unfolds cinematically. A quiet bed of strings opens with a whiff of Adeste Fideles, which is heard more prominently later in the piece. In rhapsodic passages, mourners trim the graves with flowers. Taps is heard in the distance, and with its final note still ringing, the mood suddenly shifts and a boisterous march in polyrhythms breaks out, leading everyone back home, where once again a somber mood prevails. No less an admirer than Igor Stravinsky said, "Decoration Day is a masterpiece, with an ending that is the loneliest and one of the most touching I know of."

  • Jason Isbell: "Dress Blues"

    YouTube

    Jason Isbell's beautiful and bitter 2006 ballad is dedicated to a high school buddy who joined the Marines at 18, fought in the Middle East and never returned home to Alabama. Streaks of futility and anger run through the song, which is crafted like a letter. Isbell asks, "What did they say when they shipped you away to fight somebody's Hollywood war?" The gnawing refrain is compact and evocative: "You never planned on the bombs in the sand or sleeping in your dress blues."

  • "Taps"

    YouTube

    In just 24 notes, "Taps," the tune we know as the solemn bugle melody played over soldiers' graves, can be both deeply sorrowful and somehow comforting. Almost like a lullaby. Taps dates from the Civil War when, the story goes, a Union general named Butterfield scribbled some notes on a staff with pencil and commanded his bugler to sound them out one still summer evening in 1862 while his brigade was camped at Harrison's Landing in Virginia.

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