By: Chris Warren.
In 1973 the end of the Vietnam War was near after going for ten violent years. As thousands of soldiers came home, many were welcomed back as heroes, while others were the target of high profile protests and derided as willing conspirators in a hugely unpopular war. A common attitude among returning veterans of the time was that they did not want attention of any kind, negative or positive. They just wanted to go back to their ordinary civilian lives and be left alone.
Also in 1973, singer Elton John released a song called Daniel. It became a hit, and is still very popular over forty years later. It’s about a disabled vet who wants to leave his difficult experience behind and find a quiet place to be himself. The story is told from the perspective of Daniel’s younger brother. It does not self-identify as a “Vietnam song,” yet it softly describes the sentiments of nearly every returning combat veteran. In just a few minutes, Elton John encapsulates the thoughts of so many who have endured so much. Daniel, the character, is not just one person.
Due to the political climate and the proliferation of recorded music and radio, more music came out of the Vietnam era than any war before it. Very little of it was positive. Someone having no prior knowledge of the war could listen to the music of the time and easily conclude that it was a very divisive period for the United States. There was a lot of frustration, disappointment, anger. The protest songs were the loudest voice in a divided nation.
The voice that was not being heard was that of the soldiers sitting in mud pits watching their buddies get killed by the hundreds. No one was singing to comfort them or give them a cultural outlet for what they were going through. That would not come for another three decades. In 2003 the war in Iraq was going full blast and country singer Toby Keith released the single American Soldier. It is a story about military guy who, like his fictional comrade-in-arms Daniel, wants to go about his life with no fanfare or attention. Unlike Elton John’s approach, the meaning of Toby Keith’s composition requires no guesswork.
Two songs released thirty years apart that take widely diverging paths to essentially the same conclusion. So what else is different between Elton’s and Toby’s interpretations? The answer is not about two individual songs. The Iraq war was never truly embraced by the civilian public, but unlike Vietnam no one held anything against the men and women sent to do the dirty work. We as Americans grew up a lot in those three decades. We learned to see the difference between those who order the war and those who actually fight it. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were the catalyst for dozens of popular patriotic songs that would have never been conceived in the time of Vietnam.
If music is a reflection of the culture that created it, then something transformative happened between Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan. Protest songs still exist today but do not attract anywhere near the attention they received in the 1960s and 1970s. Pro-American songs (mostly country) consistently hit the top of the charts and are used for TV commercials, sporting events, and political rallies.
It is said the power of music is that it can make us feel something. I think that is only half of the equation: We also create music because of how we feel. Many years after Vietnam ended, Elton John’s song writing partner Bernie Taupin explained that he got the idea for Daniel in 1972 after reading a magazine article about how Vietnam vets who came home wanted nothing more than to fade into normal life. It effected Taupin so much that he turned that feeling into a song that is still commonly played nearly two generations later.
So does music give us feeling, or do we put our feelings into music? This chicken-or-egg argument misses the point. The answer is: Both. Music is a mode of communication. The artist says something through their song with the intention of influencing his or her audience to form an idea or opinion that might not have occurred otherwise. The musician wants to get inside our heads. That is the entire purpose of any art.
What sets music apart from other art forms is its universal appeal and staying power. Very few people attend live theater productions or art galleries, but almost everyone likes some form of music and probably owns recordings. And long after playgoers and art gallery junkies have left the building, digital technology gives music fans the advantage of being able to listen favorite songs any time they want.
The idea for this blog article came out of a story I’d heard that Daniel was actually about Elton John’s real-life brother and how much it hurt Elton when Daniel had to go live in the warmer climate of Spain for health reasons. It did not take much googling to figure out what I had been told about this song was 100% urban legend. As I read further, the true back story of Daniel came alive. The reality was far more compelling than the legend.
The Elton John/Bernie Taupin team is not known for making strong political or social statements in their music. Heck, they are not even Americans! Yet they were moved to create a quiet acknowledgement of what Vietnam vets were going through. It sparked my interest enough to study their art more closely and discover for myself what they were trying to say. Over my lifetime I must have heard Daniel a million times and didn’t think much of it. Now that song will never sound the same to me the again. Well played, Elton: You got inside my head.