With Memorial Day a little more than a week away, it seems a good time for a few patriotic songs — not just any songs, mind you, but ones featuring narration.
Actually, we’ll look at wide range of “pre-rap” songs that feature some kind of oratory as much as — if not more than — singing or musical accompaniment. They cover a wide range, but two of the biggest categories have to be what I’d call patriotic soul-stirrers and sentimental heart-tuggers.
Unfortunately, both categories — as well as some other ones — have a few entries that are wa-a-a-y over the top, but everyone can choose a different rating spot on his or her personal music “like-o-meter.” No matter your tastes, though, you may be amazed at how popular some of these selections — for good or bad — were.
Among the eclectic mix, this week’s list includes four No. 1 hits, eight other Top 10 songs and three Grammy Award winners.
We’ll start with some good, old Americana:
• “Gallant Men.” This is the only recording by a sitting U.S. senator to make Billboard’s Top 40 chart. Sen. Everett Dirksen reached No. 29 in early 1967 with this timely tribute for Memorial Day. I’ve been searching for an online version of this song for more than a year — in vain, until just last week when I finally found this version, but you’re going to have to work to hear it. I found it on the fifth page of a Google search, locating it on the appropriately named Archives of Oblivion website. You can hear it here at the 43-minute-45-second mark of Part 1.
Here are the lyrics. The Illinois Republican won the 1968 Grammy for Best Documentary Recording for his album of patriotic readings, which included “Gallant Men.” (Interestingly, during my research, I learned that the song was written, under a pseudonym, by noted CBS radio and TV commentator Charles Osgood.)
• Two versions of the flag-waving “The Americans (A Canadian’s Opinion),” a radio editorial written and read by Canadian journalist Gordon Sinclair. The recording, enhanced with musical accompaniment, charted in early 1974, but his No. 24 version was topped by fellow Canadian newsman Byron MacGregor’s “Americans,” which reached No. 4.
From there, though, the patriotic selections go downhill, with such an offering as:
• “Day for Decision,” an ultra-nostalgic 1966 patriotic rendering by Johnny Sea that hit No. 35. It was one of several “answer songs” to Barry McGuire’s 1965 “Eve of Destruction.” You can hear a snippet here or the full thing at the Archives of Oblivion site mentioned above. The lyrics, though, should be enough.
• “Old Rivers,” a wonderful recording by a wonderful character actor, Walter Brennan. He took this song about a hard-working farmer to No. 5 in 1962.
• “IOU,” the ultimate Mother’s Day tear-jerker by Jimmy Dean, who shows up on the list again later with a No. 1 hit. This one hit No. 35 in 1976.
• “The Men in My Little Girl’s Life.” TV host Mike Douglas provided equal time for dads with another weeper that reached No. 6 in early 1966.
• “The Legend of Shenandoah.” Jimmy Stewart combines plenty of stoicism with a can’t-we-all-get-along sentiment in this narration, accompanied by the classic American folk song.
And there are two “generation gap” songs, one of which won a Grammy:
• “We Love You, Call Collect,” recorded by TV host Art Linkletter and his daughter Diane, and released after her suicide. It reached No. 42 in 1969 and won the 1970 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Recording.
• “An Open Letter to My Teenage Son,” by Victor Lundberg, luckily has faded almost entirely into oblivion, though it was rescued by the “Archives” website mentioned above. The recording actually got up to No. 10 in 1967. You can read the lyrics here, but this one passage may be more than enough:
“And I love you too, Son. But I also love our country and the principles for which we stand.
And if you decide to burn your draft card, then burn your birth certificate at the same time.
From that moment on, I have no son.”
How about some “deep thinking” recordings?
• “Desiderata,” an “inspirational” narration by Les Crane, another Grammy Award winner, which hit No. 8 in 1971.
• And the inevitable parody, “Deteriorata,” National Lampoon’s send-up of “Desiderata,” narrated by Norman Rose. It only reached No. 91 on the charts in 1972 but got lots of airplay and chatter.
• “Is That All There Is?” Peggy Lee goes a bit existential with this 1969 song that reached No. 11.
There’s nothing like a compelling, plot-filled narrative to hold listeners:
• “Deck of Cards,” an innocent-man-accused tale by Wink Martindale, the indefatigable DJ and TV host. He took the story to No. 7 in 1959.
• “Shifting, Whispering Sands,” a mesmerizing desert tale by Billy Vaughn and his orchestra with narration by Ken Nordine. It hit No. 5 in 1955.
• “Ringo,” a cowboy outlaw tale by Lorne Greene of “Bonanza” fame. Astonishingly, he hit No. 1 in late 1964 during the height of the British Invasion with this riveting story of the Old West.
• “Big Bad John.” Jimmy Dean is back again with a song that offers a tale of redemption. It held the No. 1 spot for five weeks in 1961.
A few more ‘talkers’
• “Monster Mash.” A monster smash with many lives, this one by Bobby “Boris” Pickett appropriately was No. 1 on Halloween in 1962.
• “Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)” by the Hombres, a one-hit wonder from Memphis. This recording reached No. 12 in 1967.
• “Wild Thing,” another No. 1 song (1966) from another British group, the Troggs.
• “Three Stars,” Tommy Dee’s 1959 tribute to “The Day the Music Died.” This reached No. 11 shortly after the deaths of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens.
And we’ll end with a real throwback — all the way to the politically incorrect prehistoric era:
• “Troglodyte (Cave Man),” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch. The story of a macho romantic encounter with cave woman Bertha Butt reached No. 6 in 1972.