During the summer of 1969, Zager and Evans dominated the radio with their hit song “In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus).” The song stayed in the number one spot for six weeks, including during the Woodstock Music Festival and when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. It hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on July 12, 1969, ending its run at number on on August 22, 1969.
The song catalogs a horrible future for humans, documenting the world in various rhyming years up to 9595. For example,
In the year 5555, Your arms hangin’ limp at your sides; Your legs got nothin’ to do; Some machine’s doin’ that for you.
Something about the song resonated with Americans (the song also did well in the U.K.). “In the Year 2525” seemed even more pessimistic than Barry McGuire’s 1965 hit “Eve of Destruction.”
Perhaps people related to the dystopian vision of “In the Year 2525” after the unrest of the previous year of 1968. That year saw the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, Viet Nam protests, and other events. Or maybe having survived 1968, people found some joy in whistling past the graveyard.
The geniuses behind the song, however, would never match the success of “In the Year 2525.” Zager and Evans were Denny Zager and Rick Evans, who first had a regional hit with the song as local performers in Nebraska. Evans wrote “In the Year 2525” in 1964.
One of their followup songs, “Mr. Turnkey,” which was about a rapist, did not do well on the charts.
According to Wikipedia, Evans later recorded some of his own music but now stays out of the public eye, while Zager went on to build custom guitars for Zager Guitars.
One of the late Glen Campbell’s greatest recordings is of the Jimmy Webb penned classic, “Galveston.” Although it has been called one of the best anti-war pop songs (even bordering on sedition), the anti-war elements are so understated that I had heard the song many times without ever recognizing its references to war. Rolling Stone has noted how Webb originally wrote the song as a protest song during the Viet Nam era. Don Ho first recorded the song and introduced it to Campbell. Then, Campbell made some small changes to the lyrics to make it a bit more ambiguous.
The ambiguity is increased by the soaring music and the fact that Campbell wore a uniform in the official video.
The Lyrics to “Galveston”
Yet, it is the ambiguity that makes the song so great. The singer thinks back to the town of Galveston and the love he left there: “I still see her dark eyes glowing./She was twenty one, when I left Galveston.”
The listener hears the first verse and has no idea why the singer left Galveston. But then in the second verse, there is a reference to cannons and the wonderful line, “I clean my gun, and dream of Galveston.”
Yet, to find any anti-war message, a listener must look to the next verse and the song’s final lines. “Galveston, I am so afraid of dying, Before I dry the tears she’s crying, Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun, at Galveston, at Galveston.”
One may still view the song as a soldier looking back on the love he left behind. In that sense, the song is similar to Bing Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas.” Or one may take the line about the fear of dying as a reminder of the horrors of war, which takes the lives of so many young people.
Webb was a great writer, but it is hard to argue that the ambiguous verse Campbell added to replace Webb’s more anti-war verse was an improvement. In fact, when Webb recorded his song in 1972, he sang it with Campbell’s tweak to the lyrics.
According to Wikipedia, the original second verse as sung by Don Ho was:
“Wonder if she could forget me; I’d go home if they would let me; Put down this gun, And go to Galveston.”
The video below of someone’s trip to the beach in Galveston features these original lyrics in the Don Ho version.
Campbell replaced that verse with the verse about cannon’s flashing and cleaning his gun. Gone was the reference to the fact that the soldier would leave the war if he could. Instead, we just know he thinks of Galveston and his love while he cleans his gun. Yet, there is not much difference in meaning, and Campbell also left in the line about the fear of dying.
Webb and Campbell
In the video below, Webb and Campbell discuss the song before playing a slower, soulful version with Webb on the piano.
Webb himself has been a bit ambiguous about the meaning behind the song. In a Sound Observations interview, he claimed: ““If there was a statement, and obviously I was saying something, I prefer to say it wasn’t anti-war – that it was more about an individual getting involved in a war and realizing that he’d rather be somewhere else.” He then went on to explain that it was not to be a “hit-you-over-the-head” protest song.
Yet, Webb’s comments did reveal there was a message that became hidden in Campbell’s version: “But a lot of people didn’t get it anyway. Because, Glen pretty much cut it up-tempo. It was kind of like a march. It was kind of happy. It sounded almost patriotic.”
Either way, it is a beautiful song, likely made more beautiful by the clash of the anti-war writer and the more conservative singer who supported the Viet Nam War. One can hear that tension in the beautiful song about a soldier longing for his Texas home, made more beautiful by the wonderful voice of Glen Campbell. What is your favorite anti-war song? Leave your two cents in the comments.
On a tribute show in honor of Kenny Rogers, one of the members of the First Edition described how Kenny Rogers and the First Edition came to record “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” in 1969. It’s a story about how a classic recording came together through circumstances and time pressure.
“You Have 10 Minutes”
The band was in the studio and learned that they only had ten minutes left when the producer asked them if they had anything they could quickly record. The album needed one more song, so the producers just wanted a song to use as filler on the album.
Kenny Rogers replied that they knew a Mel Tillis song called “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” So the band played the song, and producers completed the recording with just a couple of takes. Rogers, who was in his early 30s, had a voice that captured an older man’s weariness at a frustrating relationship with his wife.
The completed song went on the album. And then it became a huge hit.
Themes in the Unusual Song
It is not surprising that the song became a hit because it is so unusual. The disturbing lyrics are sung by a disabled man fearful of his wife going to town for love. He pleads for her not to cheat on him while he is alive, reminding her he will be dead soon.
In addition to the sexual innuendo in the song, there is violence too, as the man’s injuries are from “that crazy Asian war.” And his begging and understanding turns to anger toward the end: “And if I could move I’d get my gun / And put her in the ground.” At the end, the wife is leaving and the singer prays for her to turn around.
In the hands of Kenny Rogers and the New Edition, there is something disturbing about the song. Outside of country music and hip-hop, you rarely hear similar dark themes in pop songs.
When listeners first heard the title of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” many of them might have sensed something familiar, recalling the 1958 Johnny Cash hit about a mother begging her son to avoid violence called “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.” The new song took the violence of the Cash song and added sexual anguish, reflecting the openness of the 1960s for discussing such topics.
Although “Ruby” is a traditional country song, this recording was loved by young people too. Perhaps they connected with the young band, or perhaps they saw an anti-war sentiment underlying the tale.
Other Recordings of “Ruby”
Kenny Rogers and the First Edition were not the first to have a hit with “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” Two years earlier in 1967, Johnny Darrell had a hit country recording of the song.
Darrell’s version is sad without being as disturbing as the Kenny Rogers version. The author of the song, Mel Tillis, performed the song too.
For another modern interpretation, check out a live performance of “Ruby” by The Killers. The band often perform the song and included it on their CD of rarities and B-sides, Sawdust.
What About the Other Side?
Finally, lost in the discussion of the song is the woman’s viewpoint. Geraldine Stevens, also known as Dodie Stevens, recorded an answer song in 1969. In her song, she takes the woman’s point of view, using the same music with the title, “Billy, I’ve Got to Go to Town.”
In the “Billy” song, Ruby tells her side of the story, explaining that her husband is still her man but bemoaning his jealousy. She does not explain why she has to go to town, though: “You’ve given all you had to give and now it’s up to me . . . Billy for God’s sake trust in me.”
Is she going to work? Prostituting herself to get money for them to live? We do not get an answer in this answer song.
All of the different versions of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” have their merits. But none of those recordings quite capture the unusual and disturbing nature of the song or reflect the turbulent era in which it was recorded in the way that Kenny Rogers and the First Edition did in those ten minutes when they rushed to fill an album.
On March 16, 1968, U.S. troops in Viet Nam killed approximately 300-500 unarmed civilians in what became known as the My Lai Massacre. But it would not be until November 1969 before the incident became public knowledge in the United States. Despite various charges being filed, only Second Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader in C Company, would be convicted of any crimes. After being found guilty of killing a number of people in the village, he was sentenced to life in prison, although he would serve three and a half years.
When Calley’s trial began in late 1970, I was a little kid, absorbing various pieces about the war in Viet Nam, as they filtered through various lenses of my childhood. I did not understand much about My Lai, but it became more prominent in my consciousness when after a trip to a local five-and-dime store, I picked up what looked like an interesting 45 RPM record called “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley.” I do not think I knew anything about the song, so I suppose I picked it because it looked interesting and there was nothing else I wanted to buy that week with my allowance. I took the record home, played it, and became mesmerized by the song with the recognizable music of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I played it over and over again.
As “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” illustrates, many sided with Calley, claiming he was doing his duty in a land where one could not easily recognize the enemy. Because my understanding of the story came from the song, that would be my image for awhile. But as much as I liked the record, something always seemed off to me about the story. Growing up as a kid during that time, we knew that Viet Nam was complicated and an awful mess, whichever side you were on.
Calley rarely spoke about the My Lai massacre. In 2009, though, he apologized for his part in the killings, although he continued to assert that he was following orders on that day.
Unfortunately, because I learned about My Lai from the song, I only knew the name of Calley. I did not know the names of those innocent people who were killed. And it would be decades before I would learn that there were real heroes that day, including helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, Jr. and his crew Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta. The three men were flying in the area when they saw the massacre taking place. Backed by Colburn and Andreotta, Thompson intervened at the risk of his own safety to stop the slaughter and save the lives of many civilians. After people learned about what happened at My Lai, some Americans attacked Thompson instead of recognizing him as a hero.
It is a shame that it took so long before I learned about Thompson, Colburn, and Andreotta. Someone should have written a song about them.
On October 21 in 1967, one of the most significant signs of public disgruntlement with the Vietnam conflict began. Nearly 100,000 people showed up in D.C. to protest the U.S. role in the war.
The March on the Pentagon to Confront the War Makers started near the Lincoln Memorial, and approximately 50,000 of the protesters then went to the Pentagon, where many remained until October 23 and where some participated in acts of civil disobedience. Author Norman Mailer captured many of the events of the protest in his novel, Armies of the Night.
That year there were other protests around the country, as polls showed that the support for the war had dropped below 50%. All of those factors led President Lyndon Johnson’s administration to respond with a public relations campaign in support of the war.
But the protest, and complaints after the Tet offensive in early 1968, illustrated that many Americans would continue to raise their voices to end the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Music Reflects the Protests Against the War
At the time, one might have noticed from the music that something was in the air. The year 1967 began with the Rolling Stones appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show in January. At the show’s request, the band famously changed the title lyrics of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to the less sexy “Let’s Spend Some Time Together.” But by September, the Doors appeared on the same show after also agreeing to alter the lyrics to their song, “Light My Fire.” But Jim Morrison captured the growing youth rebellion by going ahead and singing the offending line “Girl we couldn’t get much higher.”
In other 1967 music news, Buffalo Springfrield released “For What It’s Worth” in January. In February, Aretha Franklin recorded “Respect.” In March, the Who performed for the first time in the U.S. In June, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Also in June, the Monterey Pop Festival brought young people together to hear such artists as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Otis Redding. Redding soon would write and record “(Sitting on) the Dock of the Bay.”
John Lennon in How I Won the War
Then, on October 18, three days before the Washington protest, the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine came off the presses with a cover photo of John Lennon from the film How I Won the War. The film was a comedy where Lennon first appeared with his famous round glasses.
Phil Ochs Declares the War is Over
Of course, there was music at the protest in D.C. too. One of the performers at the protest was Phil Ochs. He performed his recent song that imagined a future without the war, “The War is Over.”
In the song at the protest, Ochs proclaimed “This country is too young to die,” so “I declare the war is over.” He concludes, “You only are what you believe.”
Below is a video of a different live performance of “The War is Over.”
The U.S. eventually withdrew its troops from Viet Nam, but it would be nearly six more years before the war was actually over for the U.S. soldiers and their loved ones at home.