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“Billy Don’t Be a Hero”

Posted by purplemary54 on March 29, 2012

I’ve mentioned before my affection for bad 70s pop.  This stems partly from the fact that I grew up during the 70s.  Bad 70s pop also appeals to the part of my personality that likes kitsch and other cheesy things.  I still think it’s a crime that Mystery Science Theater 3000 is neither on the air or showing in reruns (there’s still so many bad movies to mock!).  I also think that some bad 70s pop is misunderstood; it’s really not as bad as people remember (and the stuff considered “good” isn’t nearly as good as people like to pretend).

This is not one of those misunderstood songs.  Really.  In fact, I consider “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” to be the second worst song ever made (#1 goes to “You’re Having My Baby”).  It is truly awful.  The plot is a young man goes to join the Union army in the Civil War (!!!!) while his fiancée begs him to be careful, “don’t be a hero and come back to me.”  Billy of course forgets her pleas, and, in a patriotic fervor, get killed as “a volunteer to ride up and bring us back some extra men.”  The army sends his fiancée a letter “that told how Billy died that day.  The letter said that he was a hero.  She should be proud he died that way.”  War is indeed hell.  (I’ll get to the last line of the song in a moment.)

Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods had a hit with “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” and a few other songs in the early 70s.  I remember begging my parents to let me stay up late and watch them on some variety show.  See, I loved this song.  It was the very first 45 I ever owned.  I still have it, too–battered, unplayable, with a chunk out of the edge.  I listened to it all the time, sang along in my little four/five-year old voice.  (I remember being four when it came out, but all the information I’m finding says it was released in 1974, which would make me five.)  I had no idea what it was about or the not-so-hidden meaning.  It was just my favorite song.

Now let’s get back to the end of the song.  It was ostensibly about the Civil War, not exactly a popular subject for pop music in the 70s. (The Band had recorded “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1968, but that’s a good song.)  But war in general was hot.  Vietnam was still raging, and people were still raging against it.  It had taken a while, but the protest had finally seeped into AM radio.  But no one was really comfortable with calling a spade a spade in the Top 40.  You couldn’t just write a ditty about how senseless the loss of life and limb in Vietnam was; that was what Walter Cronkite was for.  So, you wrote a song about a different war, say the Civil War, and hid your anti-war message in that.  The last line, after Billy has died a hero and his fiancée has been told she should be proud?  “I heard she threw the letter away.”

So this is a terrible song with a pretty good message.  I guess that’s as good a reason as any to still care about it.

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