|For a Song
Pretty Tune, Powerful Song: "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
Its repetitions and seeming simplicity could lead one to think Pete Seegers "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" simplistic or trite. Having known the song since the early 1960s and having adopted that view years later, I no longer hold it. When all you have to do is sing the first line of a song to start all present joining in, you might have a cliché on your hands. But, on the other hand, you might have your finger on a classic.
The song takes a traditional question-response form. Rather than merely preach, it tells a moral tale. Not with a protagonist and a few other characters, but a tale of humanity and war. It is a protest song against war, obviously. But countless antiwar songs are quickly forgotten. This one has lasted, I think, because of the way subtleties underlie a satisfyingly expressive surface.
Anyone killed or wounded?
Many antiwar songs describe soldiers enlisting without compunction and returning without legs -- or a girl's or mothers love for a soldier who returns in a coffin. In "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" the only injury directly described is to flowers that are picked. Soldiers have simply "gone to" graveyards -- almost as if recruiting-center doors were cemetery gates. Nor is anyone seen grieving for them.
By indirectly referring to the killing of soldiers, ostensibly by other soldiers, while directly referring to the killing of flowers, by young girls who pick them, this song describes something about war more subtle than its self-evident horrors.
Ive never heard or read any analysis of this songs lyrics, but an obvious question is, Why does the song ask where all the flowers, girls, soldiers, and graveyards have gone, when it doesnt seem they could literally all be gone? To mean anything definite, the song must be asking and answering in some particular way.
Perhaps "long time passing" and "long time ago" provide clues. Coming at the end of each question -- the former the first time the question is asked, the latter the second time -- they might be proverbial trees we miss while viewing the forest. Those phrases suggest two different points in time from which the song is sung -- one more obvious than the other.
The obvious perspective of the singer is from the present looking back at humanitys long history of war. Where have all the flowers gone (all the girls, all the soldiers ) "long time passing"? Exaggerating to dramatize its point, the song says theyve all been picked by girls, implying theyve put them on graves of fallen soldiers they loved. Coming before the girls go to young men in the song, their flower-picking is also for other purposes such as perhaps decorating their parents homes and making into corsages to attract young men.
The implications: War kills an awful lot of people and leaves an awful lot of people mourning their deaths and missing them. Like the soldiers, innocent ones who prettify life with flowers and dont wield weapons endure permanent loss from war. Its a unique and pretty interesting antiwar song just in getting all of that across indirectly.
But I think more is hinted at, less explicitly. "[L]ong time ago" in contradistinction to "long time passing" after each question suggests an additional perspective: looking back from a distant future moment to the past, the present, and the foreseeable future. From that vantage point, the song suggests the entire process by which girls picked flowers, attracted young men who became soldiers, and placed flowers on their graves when they were killed has ended.
From this distant-future perspective, all human life is gone -- an allusion to an awful fact that had been sinking in for very little time in 1961 when the song was written: Nuclear weapons enable war to destroy everyone.
Unlike with people or objects like picked flowers, when we speak of a landscape "going to" something -- to seed, to desert, to swamp -- we are referring to a complete change in the nature of the landscape. So when "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" says the graveyards have "gone to flowers every one," though at first we might think only of flowers being placed at every grave, the language actually says more: flowers cover the entire landscapes of all the worlds graveyards.
With all human beings gone, obviously no one is around to maintain cemeteries mown grass. Possibly -- though at the risk of explaining more literally than necessary -- seeds and pollens of flowers once placed on graves have "long time passing" enabled flowers to take hold and gradually supplant the grass.
Thus, the song not only laments the death and grief caused by war but warns of ultimate destruction in the age of nuclear weapons -- before the Cuban missile crisis and "mutually assured destruction" ("MAD") became iconic reminders.
Pleasant images, powerful symbols
One reason for the powerful impact of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" is that it tells its tale of loss, grief, and the unthinkable possibility through details that do not trigger aversion and denial. Mass killing, blood, war crimes, nuclear blasts, blown-off limbs -- such ugly images repulse "doves" and alienate "hawks." But who can object to questions about flowers, girls, and soldiers? Even graveyards arent nasty -- theyre orderly, attractive, peaceful places.
But countless not-unpleasant images are available to a writer, not just flowers, girls, soldiers and graveyards. What gives these details special power are their specific meanings in the human psyche. Flowers come with each springs renewal of life, linked to sunshine, warmth, rain, and food abundance -- perhaps less palpable since factory-style food production, transport and storage. These associations explain why flowers adorn wedding ceremonies (and girls on prom night), restaurants and hotels, receptions and banquets -- and hospitals, funerals and gravesites.
Girls and young girls -- the song puts it both ways -- traditionally represent "the fairer sex," reproduction, and nurturance. Even with increased equality putting more and more women in military, police, firefighter and prison-guard uniforms, in CEO offices, in public office, in gun shops and self-defense classes, and even with books on bullying and fighting among girls and some notorious female murderers, hope is frequently expressed that having more women in positions of authority will bring more compassion and fairness to public life and international relations -- due to traditional perceptions of girls like those in "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
Girls lack a Y chromosome, an "extra" one of which some scientists blame for extreme violence in men who possess it. We have expressions such as "daddys little girl." Girls are said to be "sugar and spice and everything nice," whereas boys are "snips and snaps and puppy-dog tails." Not to belabor the point, but in the song were discussing, listeners will forgive girls even for picking "all" the flowers. Its their sweetness, not their taking any pleasure in destroying living beings or someones property, that sets them to picking.
Soldiers? Except for rare times in history when Americans have turned against the military endeavor as such, like the Vietnam-war period, "soldier" doesnt connote unjustified killing but altruism, honor, courage, discipline, and other virtues. The term -- and also "trooper" -- is a term of praise applied to children and other civilians for enduring a difficult time. Tradition holds that soldiers do not like to kill and only make the difficult decision to overcome the most fundamental prohibition in order to prevent something worse such as killing and suffering on a much larger scale or tyranny over their people.
Finally, in addition to being orderly, attractive and peaceful, graveyards signify not death per se but the commemorating of peoples lives after they have ended. Headstones typically state the span of the occupants life and say something about the deceased when alive. Prayers uttered at burials usually speak of life everlasting, connect the living with the dead, and use language hundreds or thousands of years old indicating continuity. Trees, shrubs, and other living vegetation that supports songbirds and other visible life are considered enhancements to graveyard environments. Noisy streets, large buildings, and other manufactured intrusions are considered less desirable.
Then what is going on here? Is this a protest song or isnt it? How do you protest anything by putting a bunch of questions and answers about positive images to a pleasing melody?
Even though "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" is an antiwar song, its image most closely related to death is quite mild. Rather than remind us of whatever ugliness might bring about our ultimate condition, graveyards smooth them over. The song, like a funeral, reminds us of the life and its cycles and potential that are at stake in war and in its increasing destructiveness and ultimate weapons.
The melodys simple, soothing quality, the question-response structure, and the absence of any blood, weapon, blame, or demand belie the horrendous story actually told: that of a species that adorns its ceaseless march of death and destruction with attractive and innocent life while understanding what it is doing well enough to sing pretty songs describing the pattern and acknowledging the consequences.
The question-response approach also implies people naturally question and discuss their own and their societys practices. Continued warfare and total destruction neednt be accepted or deemed inevitable. Folk music was part of public discourse in the early 1960s much more than today -- in large part due to Pete Seeger and a few other popular musicians. "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" was nearly universally known and was sung in many countries. It remains widely known.
The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cold War, and MAD made this song important. So did Hannah Arendts unique, groundbreaking 1963 classic Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, revealing how merely doing ones job each day without questioning its substance and its consequences can systematically kill millions of people.
The fact that many people might sing a song all of their lives without giving much thought to its meanings doesnt mean the meanings arent real or have no impact. It might mean the surface has sufficient appeal to keep the song alive so its subtler details can accomplish their work in the human soul.
More countries now than ever before possess nuclear weapons. And every day we learn more undeniably how merely working every day to better our lives and those of other people is rapidly driving other species extinct, creating vast "dead zones" in Earths oceans, melting Earths ice sheets, raising sea levels, intensifying hurricanes, depleting topsoil and fresh water, and otherwise destroying Earths capacity to support life as its been experienced for many millions of years.
Against that background, the enormous number of small weapons in existence and the number of people willing to use them or to blow themselves up as long as theyre sure others too will die reveal a world at least as precarious as the one in which Seeger and Hickerson gave us "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" -- long time ago. Time will tell whether human-occupied spaces will all go to flowers. One song and even one singer certainly cant prevent that from happening, and making too many guitars from rainforest trees worsen the prospects, but this classic song reminds us that the human voice can accomplish a lot when guided by minds that know what theyre about.
...David J. Cantor
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