Book Review: Lusitania

Lusitania by Diana Preston

Review originally published in Historical Novels Review

51GtqgH0WzL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This is a heart-wrenching narrative that reads less like a stodgy history lesson and more like a personal voyage on the Lusitania. Preston draws on many diaries, war journals, and political documents, including the transcripts from the Mersey inquiry, to tell her story, from every conceivable viewpoint. Yet, despite this documentation overload, the book reads like an exceptional novel. Preston’s prose is crisp and carries the drama from both aboard the ship to deep inside the German U-boat lurking to sink her. Through her research and her writing, the reader feels as though they are there on every stage of the journey and privy to much more information than anyone in 1915 would ever have been able to know.

Lusitania is an amazingly detailed history of the events leading up to, during, and after the fateful voyage of the doomed ship. The research is thorough and explores the many complicated viewpoints of the events surrounding the sinking. Preston’s book will quickly vault to the top of Lusitania research and is a book that should not be missed.

The Dirty Dozen: 13 Influential Political Propaganda Pieces in History

Trying to define the word “propaganda” is like trying to herd cats into a box. You get one in and the rest slip away. One person may feel that propaganda advances a negative or deceitful message while another person would argue that it can be used to advance positive endeavors. But at its root, propaganda is a tool to get a message across. For this list, FTKC is taking a look at the 13 most effective uses of political propaganda, including the good, the bad and the ugly, and we will be looking at all sources of print propaganda, not just posters. We will not be looking at social causes like MTv’s “Sex Is No Accident” campaign or various blood and organ donor drives, noble as they may be.

Sex Is No Accident: Always Use a Condom

Sex Is No Accident: Always Use a Condom

#13 “Captain America: Commie Smasher” (1954)


This is not your grandparent’s Captain America. Seriously. Steve Rogers, AKA the Captain America of today’s multi-million dollar movie franchises, is still frozen somewhere beneath the North Atlantic in 1954. This is William Burnside, a Captain America fanatic and U.S. historian–PhD in Captain America, essentially–who discovers the secret formula for Cap’s serum while studying in Germany. He didn’t just become the Captain by taking the serum, but he gets a face lift to look like Steve Rogers. Obsessive much? As the new Captain America, Burnside takes on a new enemy in the Communist threat–a real, tangible scare for America in the early 1950s. But, because he was not exposed to the vita-rays to control the serum’s effects, Burnside slowly goes insane. And, paralleling the Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, Burnside becomes a menace to society and his war against Communism devolves into paranoid hysteria. Not bad for a comic book.

#12 “How to Tell A Chinese From A Jap” (1941)


If the point of propaganda is to manage the collective attitudes of a group through the careful manipulation of images, stereotypes, and symbols, this Time Magazine piece earns an A+. The PSA from Time’s Dec. 22, 1941 issue helps its readers better identify the differences between a “Chinese public servant” and a “Japanese warrior”. See, you are already seeing the difference. The Chinese help the public, the Japanese? Well, they just bombed Pearl Harbor. Those darn warriors. The Chinese man can be differentiated from the “Jap” because the “Chinese wear rational calm of tolerant realists. Japs, like General Tojo, show humorless intensity of ruthless mystics.” In another PSA cartoon, linked here, the “Chinese smiles easily–while the Jap usually expects to be shot…and is very unhappy about the whole thing.” I suppose the message really is to just be happy!

#11 “Enlist” (1917)


The message here is clear: Don’t ever let a helpless woman die while cradling the lifeless body of her infant child as they sink into the frigid, murky depth of the ocean. In this Fred Spear enlistment poster, the viewer is reminded of the horrors of the sinking of the Lusitania (1915). Visually, this is probably the most powerful piece in our list. The helpless woman, one of 128 Americans killed on the Lusitania–conspicuously absent from the image–is draped in a white dress (purity) and her face shows a submission to the horrors of war rather than a struggle for survival. The murky green background lends to the depressing, somber tone of the piece.

#10 “Once a German–Always A German” (c. 1918)


Nothing says You are a horrible person better than an image of you bayoneting small infants. This poster from the British Empire Union was created by David Wilson to remind the British public of the atrocities that the Germans had inflicted during World War I, and to not hire German citizens and to boycott all German goods. Wilson played with dark stereotypes in this piece–a German with two sides: as a suave businessman, and a ruthless, drunken killer–but he also reminded the British, as well as anyone else viewing the poster, of the realities of German horrors by including a vignette of martyr Edith Cavell’s grave with the caption “1914 to 1918. Never Again!”, and of the sinking of British ships by German U-Boats.

#9 “Take the Road to Defend the Motherland” (1972)


Communism is known for its unapologetic use of propaganda and the communists of North Vietnam were no different. Ho Chi Minh understood the significance of rallying the populace via vibrant, heart-stirring messages and to do this he recruited men like Phan Thanh Liem. Liem created “lên đường bảo về tổ quốc” while living in the DMZ. “For seven years I worked and lived a miserable existence in the narrow tunnel of Vinh Linh in Quang Tri province as the US bombers attacked. Every day I witnessed the sufferings and death of innocent people.” And it worked. At the height of the Vietnam War, the Ho Chi Minh trail, a complex network of secret roads and tunnels saw as many as 20,000 soldiers using the road network a month.

#8 “Red Army Soldier, Save Us!” (1942)


Sometimes, the simplest images have the greatest impact. Victor Koretsky’s Soviet piece, which came out after the Soviets watched the Nazis steamroll into the Motherland in 1941 and after a number of military setbacks in 1942, shows a mother and child at the sharp end of a bloody Nazi bayonet with flames roaring in the background. The piece was so inspiring that soldiers wrote Koretsky from the front lines telling him that they “kept his poster folded in the left-hand top pocket of their uniform, next to their heart, just as icons had been kept by their fathers before them.”

#7 “Liberators” (1944)


When in doubt, overkill. The Nazi Party’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda controlled all forms of media in Germany and was responsible for promoting Hitler’s vision of German culture and the threats that Western culture brought. In “Liberators”, Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machinery drew on every possible anti-American stereotype available. Every negative aspect of American society was depicted. From racism (KKK hood and African-Americans in a cage), to pro-Semitic support (Star of David), to American’s treatment of women as sex symbols and the Native Americans. Even American greed (boxing glove with cash bag) and violent culture (prison garbed arm with machine gun) are tossed in. According to the Nazis this creature was supposed to do good for European culture, all at the mercy and will of the indiscriminate American military violence.

#6 “You Have Struck A Rock” (1981)


Not all propaganda is created by the State in order to persuade the citizenry. Case in point, the work of the Medu Art Ensemble comprised of a group “cultural workers” who fled to Gaborone, Botswana to escape apartheid and censorship in South Africa. This poster was created by American born Judy Seidman for the 25th anniversary of the 1956 Women’s Day march in Pretoria which protested the South African government’s oppressive pass laws. The woman in the poster depicts the struggles of all women, but her determined, resolute face and broken chain on her arm show that women will triumph. The Medu Art Ensemble was a cultural think tank who believed that art should not be stuck in gallaries for only the elite to see, but on the streets, on T-shirts, and on posters. Most importantly, they believed that if their art was going to be relevant in any way it should be relevant to the anti-apartheid struggle across the border in South Africa. By 1982 they had evolved into a powerful force. So powerful that the ensemble was seen as a threat to the South African government and in 1985 the SADF raided Gaborone and killed 12 members of the community and essentially extinguished the Medu Art Ensemble over night.

#5 “El Arcoiris” (1988)


Never underestimate the power of persuasion. Maybe Augusto Pinochet should have heeded that advice. In 1988, after fifteen years of a brutal dictatorship in which over 3,000 of Pinochet’s political opponents had “disappeared” and ten times as many were tortured and raped by the Junta’s secret police, Pinochet had announced that a he was going to hold a plebiscite just so that the people of Chile could tell him how much they loved him by reelecting him to another eight years of ruthless leadership. The “No” campaign, comprised of over 15 opposition groups, had a tough task ahead of them: Convince the people of Chile that 1. The vote was legitimate; 2. They were not going to be harmed by casting a ballot; and 3. The results of the vote would be upheld by Pinochet. But Pinochet was not going to go down easily. Pinochet’s henchmen beat farmers who appeared in “No” commercials, and a musician was fired from her job among other forms of violence. Ultimately, on Oct. 5, 1988, the people of Chile told Pinochet “no” and he was ousted from power.

#4 “The Sunlight of Mao Zedong Thought Illuminates the Road of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (1966)


If you are going to run a country you might as well make sure everyone knows who you are. Especially if your “thought” is one of the founding pillars to the entire ideology that will support the nation. As the Great Teacher, Great Leader, and Supreme Commander, Mao Zedong’s writings and thoughts were the key for China to stave off the influences of capitalism and to keep the peasants from falling back into feudalism. Often, as in this work, Mao is seen as the sunlight–the life giver–to a larger-than-life, stereotypically “masculinized” peasantry and the means to a perfect future.

#3 “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” (1915)

Daddy,_what_did_You_do_in_the_Great_War- (1)

Definitely not your typical propaganda piece in its artistic flourish and detail, “Daddy” tugged on the heart strings of men in England through its appeal to family and country. At the start of World War I, Britain’s army, though a professional unit, was small and comprised of volunteers. Conscription didn’t start until 1916 so England relied on able bodied men to recruit themselves. As evident from this War Office poster created by Arthur Gunn and illustrated by Savile Lumley there was great social pressure placed on men to volunteer and an equal amount of ostracization heaped upon men who were seen as “shirkers” and cowards. This work stands apart from nearly every other piece of propaganda in its sophisticated imagery and color to weave an emotional tapestry that help England raise an army and win a war.

#2 “I Want You” (1917)


Easily one of the most recognizable images in media today, this Uncle Sam poster is unabashed, full throttle patriotism. Though the Uncle Sam imagery had been a part of the American consciousness since 1812 and a Troy, NY meat packer named Samuel Wilson, it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that he was given his trademark white beard and stars and stripes suit in Thomas Nast’s editorial cartoons. However, it took artist James Flagg to elevate Uncle Sam to pop icon. Over four million copies of the poster were printed from 1917 to 1918, and it was reproduced for recruitment purposes during World War II. Flagg almost dared every man in America to stare back at his stern faced Uncle Sam with his finger drilling into their chest, look him in the eyes, and say, “No thanks, I’m staying home.”

Honorable Mentions

“We Can Do It” (1943, J. Howard Miller)


“Spaniards Search Women Aboard American Steamers” (1897, Frederick Remington)


“Che” (c.1967)

“Destroy This Mad Brute” (1917, H.R. Hopps)


and now,

#1 “The Persuasive Eloquence of the Sunny South” (1861-1865)

Persuasive eloquence

While not a poster, this Civil War era patriotic cover (an envelope featuring images or slogans) probably did more than any other propaganda piece on this list, reached a wider audience, and turned the tide of a nation. Despite the efforts of Northern abolitionists, most Northerners wanted nothing to do with the slavery question, or free blacks or free blacks in general. Most whites resented the free black as a person who would take their jobs. Political parties like the Free Soilers formed in the North to keep newly opened lands in the West free… not economically, but free from blacks. During the Civil War, draft riots broke out in New York and even black orphanages were set ablaze when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Abolitionists in Ohio were killed and abolitionist newspaper offices were burnt to the ground. Even Lincoln admitted, at first, that fighting the Civil War was not to free the slaves but to preserve the Union. Patriotic covers like this one were instrumental in persuading the North of the horrors of slavery and the need to fight the Civil War.


Do you agree with our list? Which propaganda piece do you think deserves a place in the rankings? Leave your ideas in the comments, and be sure to hit the follow button at the top to keep up with From The Kitchen Cabinet (FTKC) and for more Dirty Dozens and other articles where we explore the lessons from history.

The Dirty Dozen: Ranking the Top 13 Speakers of the House of Representatives

These are the men, and woman, who had the unenviable job of trying to wrangle a horde of politicians into a body politic that could actually function. Welcome to FTKC, and today we are counting down our picks for the dirty dozen Speakers of the House. For this list we are including the men and woman who, for good or bad, used their influence and power to manage the House of Representatives.

# 13 Frederick Muhlenberg (1789-1791, 1793-1795)


No list would be complete without the first. Frederick Muhlenberg served as the first and third Speaker. His Speakership oversaw the passage of the Jay Treaty and the smooth transition of government from a Confederated States to a federal union. Two legends are also attributed to Mr. Muhlenberg. The first is the Muhlenberg Legend which says that by a vote of 42-41 with Muhlenberg casting the deciding vote German just missed becoming an official language of the United States. The second legend is that it is because of Mr. Muhlenberg that we call the President by the title “Mr. President” rather than “His Elected Majesty” as John Adams had suggested.

#12 Nancy Pelosi (2007-2011)


The first woman Speaker. The first Speaker from California. The first Italian-American Speaker. But these are not the reasons that Mrs. Pelosi makes our list. Like her or not, Mrs. Pelosi was able to draw in her rank and file party members and get things done. The first on her agenda was her 100-Hour plan, a six-day whirlwind legislative extravaganza which saw five bills make their way through the House, on to the Senate, and finally signed by President Bush (three bills died in the Senate). As Speaker, Pelosi was instrumental in organizing the Democratic caucus and pushing through President Obama’s health care plan despite not having a filibuster proof majority in the House.

#11 Thomas “Tom” Foley (1989-1995)


Nothing is certain except death and taxes. And for Tom Foley, one of those was the hallmark of his tenure as Speaker. As a part of the 1990 deficit reduction deal, Mr. Foley successfully forced President Bush to accept tax increases, and then again, when Bill Clinton was elected Foley worked with the new President to get his 1993 budget plan passed 218-216 without a single Republican vote. He went against the majority of his Democrat Party when he sided with President Clinton on ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Despite all this, by most measures, Foley ran a House that was more civil than any Speaker after him and won praise from many Republicans for his fairness.

#10 Dennis Hastert (1999-2007)


Like Pete Rose, Dennis Hastert’s legacy will be forever linked to a scandal. Namely, his indictment and conviction in a hush money cash case. But to deny either acceptance to a ranking of influential members of their respective professions is to deny their body of work. For Hastert, that body of work is lengthy befitting his nearly ten years serving as Speaker. He played a key role in the impeachment of Bill Clinton, but he also worked side by side with Clinton on significant policies like New Markets Tax Credit program and Plan Colombia. He oversaw the implementation of significant Bush policies like No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act, and the creation of Medicare Part D. However, Hastert will be remembered most for his use of the “majority of the majority” rule–later termed the Hastert Rule–in which only bills supported by the majority of Republicans (the party in power at the time) could come to the House floor for a vote.

#9 James Polk (1835-1839)


Jeopardy time: Presidents for $500–This is the only person to have served the Speaker of the House of Representatives and as President of the United States. Who is James K. Polk? Nicknamed “Young Hickory” because he defended every policy of President Andrew Jackson (Old Hickory), Polk’s brief four years as Speaker were filled with tumult. He led the House through the bitter battle over rechartering the Second Bank of the United States, and because of his relationship with Jackson all of Jackson’s enemies in Congress became Polk’s. Congressman John Bell, once Jackson’s ally, worked tirelessly to undermine Polk’s authority with obscure parliamentary challenges and questioning every decision Polk made. However, Polk was a shrewd tactician and knew the rules of debate like the back of his hand so he was only overruled once. So his enemies turned to the issue of slavery to cause disorder. They proposed a bill to outlaw slavery in the District of Columbia. A raucous debate ensued leading Polk to push any bills on slavery into a special committee stacked in his favor to ensure that no slavery bill would make it to the House floor.

#8 Nicholas Longworth (1925-1931)


In an ironic twist of politics, Nicholas Longworth was instrumental in both the demolition of a powerful Speaker (#4 on our list) and his stranglehold over the House, and the re-institution of those same powers. To prove his dominance over the left leaning Progressive Republicans in his House, Longworth stripped them all of their seniority, even the ones who sat as chairs of various committees. He commandeered the reins of both the Steering Committee and the Committee on Committees (the committee in each party that places members on… well, committees). He also put his own men on the Rules Committee ensuring that only bills he wanted to come to the floor would be debated. He did not completely alienate the Democrats in the House, either. He drew in the minority leader John Nance Garner and between the two of them they were able to maintain a smooth House. Plus, he’s got a House Office building named after him. Not bad.

#7 Tip O’Neill (1977-1987)


Tip O’Neill was one of the last old-fashioned, staunch liberals that even many of his peers tried to steer away from resembling, and he relished every moment of it. He battled Democrats and Republicans alike especially Presidents Carter and Reagan who each waged a personal war against the entrenched political insiders and they considered O’Neill the penultimate insider. O’Neill believed in rewarding Democrats for party loyalty while Carter tried to reduce government spending. Reagan and O’Neill differed on their opinions about government: Reagan saying that government was the problem that prevented economic and social growth while O’Neill believed that government was the solution to all social problems. O’Neill used his power to name committee members to his advantage in numerous House votes. Once, when 44 Democrats voted against the party O’Neill wrote each and every one of them reminding them that he was “extremely disappointed” with them and that “disciplinary measures” were in consideration. One of O’Neill’s greatest achievements as Speaker was his role in the peace process of Northern Ireland from 1977-1985.

#6 Champ Clark (1911-1919)


It is not often that a speech given by the Speaker of the House can influence the election in a foreign nation, but one given by Champ Clark did just that for Canada. In 1911, regarding a reciprocity treaty with Canada, Clark told the House that he looked “forward to the time when the American flag will fly over every square foot of British North America up to the North Pole.” The Canadian Conservative Party, who opposed the treaty, used Clark’s imperialism in their favor and handily won the election. As Democratic leader–prior to his Speakership–Clark was instrumental in leading a revolt against Speaker Joseph Cannon by manipulating the rifts forming in the Republican Party. As Speaker, Clark restored a responsible and responsive role of the Speaker. He used his power to muster Democrats against William H. Taft’s policies and in support of Woodrow Wilson’s. However, Clark did fight against President Wilson on two fronts: The Federal Reserve Bank and the entrance of the United States into World War I.

#5 John William McCormack (1962-1971)


Nicknamed “The Archbishop”, John William McCormack was, according to a January 1962 Time magazine article, “the other man from Massachusetts.” McCormack shared more than just location in common with John F. Kennedy. They were both Catholic firsts–President and Speaker. His nine years as Speaker found him overseeing the Great Society Congress where he championed civil rights legislation, voting rights, and much of Lyndon Johnson’s social programs. His one vice, his unequivocal support for the Vietnam War. His term as Speaker was often marred by rancorous, young members of his own party who demanded better committee positions and felt that power in the party was concentrated in the hands of a few old white guys.

#4 Joseph Gurney Cannon (1903-1911)


If at first you don’t succeed, try and try and try and try again. For Joseph Cannon, the fourth time at becoming Speaker of the House was a charm. Cannon saw himself as the protector of the intent of the Constitution which meant he needed to lead the House to check the powers of the Executive. In order to do this, “Uncle Joe”, as Cannon was called, used the enormous powers that had accumulated in the Speaker’s position during the 1890s to block Theodore Roosevelt at every turn despite both being Republicans. At his disposal were committees packed with old school Conservatives loyal to him and he blocked bills that he didn’t like from being voted on. And he didn’t like a lot of what the Progressive Republicans had to offer. He didn’t care about tainted food or child welfare, taking down monopolies or the men who controlled them, the banks or even nature. “Not one cent for scenery,” Cannon chided over a bill for forestry. True to the definition of “conservative” Uncle Joe detested changed. “I am goddamned tired of listening to all this babble for reform,” he said, “America is a hell of a success.” Uncle Joe was so powerful that even the “bully pulpit”, “Big Stick” Theodore Roosevelt had to work with and around Cannon to get his Progressive Agenda passed. With his power, Cannon could have been one of the most powerful men in Congress, passing bill after bill, but, instead, he used his power to maintain a status quo that he felt was best for America. That was until the Progressives were able to oust him from power in an ugly, public revolt.

#3 Thomas Brackett Reed (1889-1891, 1895-1899)


If you think that Congress is an obstructionist, do-nothing building packed with bloviating narcissists you might just be right, but you haven’t seen the worst of it. To do that you’d need to go back in time to the late 19th Century. Then, the House was a smoking lounge for old, crotchety men who loafed around reading the newspaper and spitting chewing tobacco into spittoons. And they could. These men had manipulated the House (parliamentary) procedures to the point of stalemate. One in particular, the requirement set forth by the Constitution for a quorum to exist before the House could do any business, meant that nearly nothing of significance could get done in the House unless everyone was on board. So, nothing got done. To pull this off, the party in the minority, at the time the Democrats, used what was called the “disappearing quorum” where members who were present in the House chamber would just not answer to the roll call, thus, they weren’t there so no quorum. That all changed when Thomas Brackett Reed assumed the Speaker’s podium. With a simple command to the clerk ordering him to count all people present in chamber and with a note that they are refusing to vote Reed was able to make the disappearing quorum vanish. This became known as Reed’s Rules and it allowed him to quickly expand the role of government leading him to become known as Czar Reed. He pushed for expanded Civil Rights legislation for blacks and got the Lodge Fair Elections Bill pushed through the House. He also presided over the “billion dollar Congress” which passed more bills and appropriated more money than any other preceding peacetime Congress.

#2 Sam Rayburn (1940-1947, 1949-1953, 1955-1961)


Serving just over seventeen years Sam Rayburn is the longest sitting Speaker of the House. He’d served Presidents FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy and was instrumental in the rise of a then Senator Lyndon Johnson to Vice President and eventually the Presidency. Unlike many of his predecessors, Rayburn ruled the House not by driving or forcing its members, but through reason and persuasion. To do this, he relied heavily on intimate relationships and the loyalties he cultivated in both parties. The first test of his leadership came in 1941, just four months before Pearl Harbor, when isolationists tried to block an extension on draft regulations. Rayburn championed Truman’s foreign policy and helped him get the Marshall Plan and other policies through the House. Domestically, he supported Truman’s Fair Deal and was instrumental in ushering through the Housing Act (1949) and Social Security changes. As an old guard Democrat from Texas, Rayburn stood against FDR and Truman’s civil rights proposals, however, Eisenhower’s plans were more palatable and he helped pass legislation in 1957 and again in 1960.

Honorable Mentions

Newt Gingrich (1995-1999)

Carl Albert (1971-1977)

Nathaniel Macon (1801-1807)

#1 Henry Clay (1811-1814, 1815-1820, 1823-1825) 


“The Great Compromiser.” “The Great Pacificator.” Both nicknames for probably one of America’s greatest leaders, Henry Clay, who was so important to the development of the United States that upon his death in 1852 he was the first person to receive the honor of lying in state in the U.S. Capital rotunda. Clay took his seat in the House in 1811 and on the first day of the first session he was elected to the Speaker’s position, a feat never since repeated and only done once before during the very first House session in 1789. His magnetic personality drew men to him, but his ability to scheme and manipulate bills to his will earned him the animosity of many of the same men. Henry Clay transformed the Speaker’s role of mediator and rules enforcer into a position of incredible power second only to that of the president. He used that power to influence the United States into war with Britain in 1812 and then to sit as one of the negotiators at the peace process afterwards. Though a slave owner, he disapproved of the system and became the president of the American Colonization Society and advocated gradual emancipation. While Speaker, he fought for the independence movements of Latin American nations and in some nations became as popular as Simon Bolivar. He negotiated the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and fought, unsuccessfully, for the Five Civilized Tribes to maintain their lands. But the crowning achievement of Clay’s Speakership was his creation and implementation of his “American System“, an economic program that would eventually shape the economic and political policies of America. Henry Clay influenced so many of America’s future political leaders that he could be considered the father of American politicians. A young Abraham Lincoln noted that Clay was his “beau ideal of a statesman” and he would adopt much of Clay’s political ideological style.

Do you agree with the list? Which Speaker of the House do you think deserves to be #1? Comment below and let FTKC know what you think. Follow FTKC for more Dirty Dozen lists and other perspectives on society and history.

The Dirty Dozen: 13 Song Themes that Might Not Be As Popular Today

Unless you are a new band looking for instant publicity or an individual not afraid of public scorn and ridicule, we’d suggest avoiding these themes in your music or belting these tunes out on the subway. Join FTKC as we look at 13 songs that were once popular, though not necessarily chart topping, but might not go over so well with certain segments of the population today. Since music is a representation of the attitudes and emotions of a society, the themes in these songs fit the time that they were released, but, as societies always do, change makes the themes and concepts of the songs on this list the proverbial fish out of water. And for some of these songs we are grateful of that.  For this list, we’ll be looking at songs that had their run in either the social consciousnesses or on the charts.

#13 I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself (1972)–Elton John

Checking in at lucky #13 is a depressing topic. Suicide. But for Americans, this one is a double edged sword. One the one hand, suicide is viewed by nearly three-quarters of American’s as “morally wrong” in a 2010 Gallup poll with only 15% saying it was “morally acceptable.” However, doctor assisted suicide shows a truly divided America with 46% of Americans saying that it was “morally wrong” and an equal 46% of those polled saying hooking oneself to a mercy machine is “morally acceptable.” We suppose the message here is that mopey teenage angst songs about cutting doesn’t… well, cut it, but sing about terminal life choices and you might just set your music career on a terminal destination.

#12 God Bless the USA (1984)–Lee Greenwood

“God Bless the USA” charted at No. 7 in Billboard’s Hot Country Singles in 1984 and for good reason, Americans in the 80s were all agog about America. However, that patriotism has dwindled, despite the song reaching No. 16 on the Pop Chart in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 disasters. For the younger generation, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free” just is not something they would agree with. According to Pew Research, only 32% of Millennials agree with the idea that the U.S. “is the greatest country in the world.” Compare that with the Silent Generation (born between 1925-1945) with 64% of that group saying that America is the best. A Gallup poll found that only 54% are “extremely proud” to be an American with 43% under age 30 agreeing to that.

#11 Johnny 99 (1982)–Bruce Springsteen

Only Bruce Springsteen could take unemployment, poverty, robbery and murder and turn it into a rockabilly song. In “Johnny 99”, a young auto worker gets laid off, gets drunk, and kills a man. When he is sentenced to 99 years in jail, young Johnny asks to be executed instead. When Bruce wrote this song nearly 70% of Americans favored capital punishment, however, that number has declined significantly and again is a divisive subject for Americans. Currently, only 55% of Americans agree with Johnny 99’s death wish (for murderers) with just over a third of Americans opposed to capital punishment. Be careful what you wish for Johnny, you might get your hopes up.

#10 Whistle While You Work

If you’ve been to any number of southern plantations and taken one of their tours, you may have heard your guide tell you the story of the “whistle walk.” Basically, since the kitchen was separate from the main house, the slaves were ordered to whistle while they walked (or in some stories, while they worked in the kitchen) so that they couldn’t sample the food. Historians have found this tale to be somewhat apocryphal so we can discount this aspect.

However, this does not let the famous mouse off the hook! When Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was first released in 1937, society had very distinct attitudes towards the roles of women and men. Namely: Women stayed home and men went to work. Disney’s first princess was more than content to sweep up the messy house; cleaning up after the new men in her life. Thirty years later, almost 50% of mothers with children under 18 were stay at home mothers. That number has decreased to 29% today, and that’s with 55% of women agreeing that it is better for children for a parent to stay at home. And if that wasn’t bad enough, mothers trying to re-enter the work force are often seen as less competent and committed than non-mothers. Worse still, there is a stigma surrounding stay/work-at-home mothers as either lazy welfare queens or Stepford Wives that resemble The Walking Dead zombies rather than engaged spouses. While it might be motivating to whistle a little tune while you work, just don’t suggest that others do so too.

#9 I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (1987)–U2

Unlike a few of U2’s songs like “40” off of War that are clearly religious in nature (the song pulls its lyrics from Psalms 40), “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is a subtle overture to religion and faith. For the Joshua Tree, U2 branched into “American” music and gospel specifically and no where is a better example of this found than with “I Still…” For a mega band like U2 to dabble in religious themes is one thing, but America’s attitudes toward faith and religion is on a slow decline and may not resonate with the same audience. According to a Pew Research survey more Americans are identifying themselves as being atheist, agnostic, or no religion; this is especially true among Democrats and Independents (28% in 2007). This is despite the fact that 83% of the respondents agreed with the statement: “I never doubt the existence of God.” U2 may be able to infuse their music with religion, but that theme is slowly fading from both music and society.

#8 Wives and Lovers (1963)–written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David; performed by Julie London, Jack Jones, Wayne Newton, Frank Sinatra, among others

How can you go wrong with a song that opens:

Hey little girl, comb your hair, fix your make up, soon he’ll open the door.

Don’t think because there’s a ring on your finger, you needn’t try anymore.

What is the difference between a married wife and “little girl” after all? The song is a tidy list of things that a good wife should do for their husbands in order to maintain a wonderful home. We’re wondering if Mr. Bacharach and Mr. David had a copy of Edward Podolsky’s 1943 book Sex Today in Wedded Life open beside them as they wrote this song. “Don’t bother your husband with petty troubles and complaints when he comes home from work,” Podolsky admonishes. “Remember your most important job is to build up and maintain his ego (which gets bruised plenty in business). Morale is a woman’s business.” Based on the song, we don’t think Bacharach and David would disagree. Though we dare you to try and sing this to your wife today, but if you do, FTKC is not liable for the damages. Better yet, make this your first song at your wedding reception!

#7 America (1984)–Waylon Jennings

The first of two songs titled “America” on this list, it would seem from the music industry that this is a pretty darn good country with a lot to be proud of. When Waylon Jennings sings “Well, I come from down around Tennessee/But the people in California/Are nice to me, America” and “And my brothers are all black and white, and yellow, too” it sounds like one wonderful family that is our great nation. But not so fast. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans feel that America has become more divided over the last decade, and that we are more divided now than any other time in recent history save the Civil Rights era. Sadly, 20% of Americans feel that going forward the U.S. will remain united as one country. While you may want to think that coming from Tennessee to Californee you will find people that are nice to you, you may find just the opposite.

#6 Over There (1917)–George M. Cohen

Propaganda be damned this is still one fun ditty, but it’s message has become outmoded in our recalcitrant almost isolationist society. Written by George Cohen, who would later received a Congressional Gold Medal from FDR for this and other songs, “Over There” had one simple purpose: Foster national pride and unity among men able to serve in WWI and get them to enlist. However, the notion of sending our troops “over there”–nicely vague–has lost favor among Americans today. True, a vast majority of Americans–nearly 80%–believe that the military contributes a lot to society, only a tiny majority of those who could have actually served since 9/11; a paltry 12% of American men in their late 20’s post 9/11 have spent time in our armed services. And sending them “over there” is not something Americans want to see anymore. Even to defend Israel should they be attacked–53% of Americans are opposed to sending troops in that situation. Since the Vietnam War, Americans have become more and more leery about the use of troops abroad. So, unless you are North Korea or Iran (two countries who surveyed Americans really do no like or trust), you probably do not have to worry about American troops coming over there any time soon.

#5 America (1981)–Neil Diamond

The second song on this list called “America”, this song is catchy as hell, and more than a little inspirational. Neil Diamond’s 1981 ballad of immigrants reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and could very well be the new inscription on the Statue of Liberty. With lines like “Got a dream to take them there/They’re coming to America/Got a dream they’ve come to share” you cannot be anything but patriotic and hopeful. However, the immigration issue has become contentious, if you’d believe some Republicans, and “America” might not be seen as such a wonderful song. Post 9/11, Clear Channel listed “America” as one of the songs that couldn’t be aired. According to a Pew Research study, attitudes towards immigrants is split across party lines with 63% of Republicans saying that immigrants are a burden on society while 62% of Democrats feel that immigrants strengthen society. In 2013, Reuters found that 30% of Americans felt that most illegal immigrants should be deported while 23% felt that all illegal immigrants should be deported. So, before you break out your best sparkly, blue glitter suit from the ’70s and bust out singing, know your audience.

#4 Gimme Back My Bullets (1976)–Lynyrd Skynyrd

Before music purists get on us for this song, please allow us this disclaimer:

“Gimme Back My Bullets” is not about guns and ammunition, but rather about the “bullets” that appear before a song on the Billboard list indicating that the song is rising in the charts. Lynyrd Skynyrd is singing about wanting to get back up on the charts.

Now, for the reason this song makes our list. There were any number of songs that we could have chose for this topic and place on our list, and we almost went with “Janie’s Got A Gun” by Aerosmith. However, though the song is not about ammunition, the title gets people talking anyway, especially about gun control. In the wake of the recent school shootings and other violent rampages utilizing guns, gun control is about as radioactive a topic as the trees around Chernobyl. Everyone from the President to Girl Scout leaders are talking gun control, gun safety, and what America should do with guns in general. There are those defending their rights under the 2nd Amendment and those who say, “Fine, you can have your 2nd Amendment rights with 2nd Amendment era guns. Have fun shooting your muzzle loading Long Rifle.” Gun control/Gun Rights is an incredibly divisive topic in America today where 47% of Americans currently support gun rights while 50% of Americans support gun control. And the gun control group’s numbers have sharply increased since December 2014. Broken down by party affiliation, one can see how radically divided Americans are on this topic: 73% of Democrats support gun control vs. 26% of Republicans, while only 25% of Democrats support gun rights vs. 71% of Republicans. Tread carefully about singing (or talking) about having a gun, using a gun, or wanting your bullets back. (percentages accessed on 10/22/2015)

#3 (You’re) Having My Baby (1974)– Paul Anka with Odia Coates

We’re not sure if Paul Anka missed the memo that the Feminist Movement was reborn in the 1960’s and in full bear by the 1970’s or that the Supreme Court had just ruled on abortion in the Roe v. Wade (1973) decision a year prior to his release of a surprising #1 chart topping hit, but, either way, Mr. Anka went out on a limb in writing his love song to his wife and four daughters. Though Rolling Stone magazine trashed the song as overly sappy and sentimental, it really earned its venom from feminists just based on the title alone. Nothing says misogynist better than you’re having my baby. Not our baby. My baby. The National Organization for Women gave Mr. Anka their ignominious “Keep Her In Her Place” award for lyrics like “what a lovely way of saying you love me” by having my baby. Ms. magazine awarded Anka their “Male Chauvinist of the Year” prize.

But that’s not the worst of it. Despite the hot button issue of abortion, Anka went ahead and wrote

Didn’t have to keep it/Wouldn’t put you through it/You could have swept it away from your life/But you wouldn’t do it

In one fell swoop, Anka managed to ruffle the feathers of both the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice camps in 1974. The Pro-Life audience felt that Anka was trivializing abortions, while the Pro-Choice listeners felt that he was demonizing those who chose abortions. With 38% of Americans feeling that abortion is “morally acceptable” and 50% saying it is “morally wrong” only gay and lesbian relations and doctor assisted suicide are more controversial topics. So, if you are going to sing about abortion, try to do it with a little panache and take a cue from Mr. Anka and tick off everyone while you are at it.

#2 I Shot The Sheriff (1973/1974)–written by Bob Marley, charted with Eric Clapton

Saying that tensions between society and law enforcement are high right now is like saying that islands are surrounded by water. Since the Ferguson unrest in 2014, or maybe since Rodney King in 1992, or the riots in NYC over Clifford Glover’s death in 1973, or possibly since the death of Nation of Islam member Ronald Stokes in 1962…. or, well, okay, it’s been going on for a while. And the dynamics of this argument are as simple as black and white. From there, everything turns a murky gray depending on which side of the argument you lie. Debates abound along cultural, societal, politically motivated, and behavioral lines, but what is clear is that the tensions between society and law enforcement are not easing any time soon. For blacks, only 16% felt that relations between police and minorities will improve in 2015. And it does not get any better among whites where only 21% feel that relations will improve. In fact, 52% of blacks and 34% of whites feel that things would get worse in 2015. In an April 2015 Economist/YouGov poll only 11% felt that the police were more honest than most people, 61% about the same, and 24% felt they were less honest. Though relations appear bleak and honesty is teetering, for the majority of Americans their confidence in the institution of law enforcement remains high and people show more faith in our police forces than most other public institutions. So, while fringe groups may be chanting “What do we want? Dead cops!” and “Arms Up, Shoot Back”, society as a whole may not be ready for you to go off and shoot the sheriff lyrically.

#1 N****s Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha! (1916)–Harry C. Browne; AKA “The Ice Cream Truck Song”

Note: This song is ridiculously racist. We know there are sensitive people who may be reading this, but this is a part of our nation’s history so read at your own caution.

The song link below contains no lyrics. In fact, you’ve probably heard this song nearly every day growing up during the summer.

Minstrelsy. If you are not familiar with this style of music, you are not missing much, but as it is a part of our cultural heritage, a brief history: Though minstrelsy shows existed prior to the Civil War–as evidenced by the popular song “Jump Jim Crow” in the early 1830s, they really took root in American society on the eve of the Civil War and during the Antebellum years and served as a humorous and exploitative look at the struggles of blacks during Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the early 20th Century. Often, white performers would dawn black face and adopt pathetic or feeble black characters in order to uphold white superiority in a post-slavery society, and help reinforce negative, often damning, stereotypes of blacks in America. We chose this song to represent the entire genre because of its familiarity. And then it went away, but not after leaving a dark legacy of stereotypes and caricatures of black society. Here’s to hoping it never comes back.

If you can’t see the stereotype in Harry Browne’s lyrics, we are not going to spell it out for you. Warning: The following link is to the song by Harry Browne

But before you start putting nails in the tires of ice cream trucks and hunkering your children in your basement as the catchy tune slowly reaches a crescendo with the languid approach of the neighborhood ice cream truck, we need to clear up a few things.

  1. Yes, Browne’s lyrics are horribly racist and one of many songs that minstrelsy has brought to society through the years. And we are glad the genre died in the early 20th Century.
  2. No, Browne did not write the music. That was around since the early 19th century in the form of the widely popular fiddle tune “Turkey in the Straw” and that may have been based on an old Irish tune called the “Old Rose Tree”. Neither of which are racist, derogatory, or spiteful in anyway.
  3. “Turkey in the Straw” was still a popular fiddle song in the early 20th century when Browne used the music for his song.
  4. You can find the tune “Turkey in the Straw” in cartoons ranging from Disney (Donald Duck loves playing this tune), to Warner Bros. (Foghorn Leghorn or any time animals are key to the plot), to the Animaniacs (those of you who had children in the 90s, or were children in the 90s). Here’s a link to Wakko Warner of the Animaniacs singing all the States in America to the tune

It would be a stretch to say that the ice cream man, or any ice cream company is blatantly racist because they use the tune. So, let your children out of the basement, let them whistle the tune, and be sure in your knowledge of history and where it has taken us.

Do you agree with the list? Do you think that there is a topic or theme that warrants a place here? Let FTKC know. Follow FTKC for more Dirty Dozen lists and other perspectives on society and history.



Book Review: Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

William Boyd’s latest is a sweeping tour de force seen through the eyes, and lens, of a single character, Amory Clay. Born in 1908, young Amory finds a quick love of photography and, after schooling, joins her uncle in taking society pictures….

You can read the rest of my review at the Historical Novel Society.