I’ve compiled a Memorial Day playlist on YouTube, which you can watch there on auto-play if you like. It’s one hour and four minutes long. For those who prefer to pick and choose or listen in increments, the videos are in order below. (If you’re reading this in a feed reader or email inbox, you may have to click through to the post to see the embeds.)
For non-Americans who may be unclear on the holiday, there are three things you need to know about Memorial Day: 1) it used to be called Decoration Day, and it’s traditionally a time when families decorate gravestones and mourn the dead — something we aren’t always very good at doing — then eat lots of potato salad and barbecued chicken; 2) as the country has swung to the right in recent decades, it’s become more of a patriotic holiday, a time for especially celebrating the sacrifices of dead soldiers, which are generally regarded as more significant than the sacrifices of dead school teachers or dead coal miners; and 3) it’s generally regarded as the beginning of the summer vacation season, not that most Americans really know how to chill out. We like to think we do, though.
Anyway, here’s the mix, lightly annotated. Feel free to post links to your own picks in the comments. And remember, don’t eat potato salad that’s been sitting out too long in the hot sun, or you may be joining your dear departed sooner than you’d planned.
2. John Prine: “Paradise”
If you’re from a military family, I respect the fact that the deaths of soldiers hit especially close to home, and perhaps epitomize sorrow and loss for you. I’m from a family of nature lovers.
3. Joni Mitchell: “Big Yellow Taxi”
More quotable than than the previous song, if not quite as much of a tear-jerker for me.
4. Son House: “Death Letter”
A Delta Blues masterpiece. The quintessential song of mourning for a dead spouse.
5. Floyd Red Crow Westerman: “Custer Died For Your Sins”
O.K., here’s where it gets a little more political. My conservative friends might want to just scroll down to #14.
6. Billie Holiday: “Strange Fruit”
When people talk of “sacrifice” in the context of building America, here’s what I think of.
7. Pete Seeger: “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”
Good ol’ Pete.
9. Phil Ochs: “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”
Not sure we need two minor-key anti-war songs in a row, but I couldn’t choose between them.
10. Patricia Smith: “34”
Yes, it’s a poetry recitation — but by a four-time winner of the Poetry National Slam. Let’s just say Patricia Smith is one poet who knows how to rock the mike. “We reached for the past like it is food and we are starving…”
12. The Dresden Dolls: “Shores of California”
As probably anyone in their 30s or 40s will recognize, the video is a parody of an MTV video for “California Girls” by David Lee Roth (q.v. if you have a strong stomach).
13. Dead Kennedys: “Viva Las Vegas”
Jello Biafra is the Phil Ochs of my generation, I think. “Kill the Poor” was my first choice of a DKs video for the mix, but this Elvis cover had the better video (scenes from the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). It also seemed like a good way to set up the following video — yin and yang.
14. Don McLean: “American Pie”
Sorry, I know it’s the epitome of nostalgia and all, but I love it.