Return of “Billy, Don’t be a Hero”


Last night, while Pam and I were eating at MacAlister’s Deli, I heard the song, “Billy Don’t be a Hero.” It took me back to 1974 when this anti-war song hit Number 1. It was originally recorded by Paper Lace, where it topped the charts in England. But before Paper Lace could release it in the States, Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods covered it, and their version is what I remember. (The Paper Lace version stalled at 96 in the US.)

The song appeared during the latter years of the Vietnam War, when we were getting out. The mood in America was, “Let’s cut our losses. It’s not worth losing our sons in that no-account country.” Kind of like people are now thinking about Afghanistan.

The song ends on a note of despair. Billy’s fiance had been telling him, “Don’t be a hero. Keep your head down. Come back to me.” But in the midst of combat, he volunteers for a risky mission, and dies. The song ends:

I heard his fiancee 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.

I was a junior in high school at the time. I loved that song; it told a good story and I could understand all the lyrics. (The same guy wrote “The Night Chicago Died,” another great story-song, and one which did become a US hit for Paper Lace). I can still remember all the lyrics. When I heard the song playing last night, it all came back to me. I was mentally singing along with it.

The song was probably written with the Civil War in mind. That’s how Paper Lace portrayed it on their album cover. Twice it refers to the men as “soldier blues,” and one line says, “I need a volunteer to ride up and bring us back some extra men.” Like, ride up in a Jeep? More likely ride up on a horse.

Yet, the song is anonymous enough to apply to any war. Especially unpopular wars. In “Star Trek: the Next Generation,” Tasha Y’ar’s death is described as an “empty” death, a death without real purpose, no heroics, no lasting meaning. That is how people had begun viewing Vietnam–an empty war, undeserving of American blood. Billy’s fiance seemingly viewed his death as empty (though I’m sure Billy, and his fellow soldiers, didn’t).

Are people beginning to view Afghanistan that way? Just another hopeless cause, like Vietnam?

I’ve been musing about that song’s reappearance. Pop music often reflects what’s happening in society. Is “Billy, Don’t be a Hero” being revived, because that’s how people feel about our two wars? We’ve been lauding our fallen as heroes, and they are. But will people begin telling their children and spouses and siblings, “Don’t be a hero. It’s not worth dying over there.”

Give it a couple more years, with weekly American deaths in Afghanistan and no progress worth mentioning. Then some opportunistic group could re-record “Billy Don’t be a Hero,” and they may just have a huge hit.

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