Global Hit: Black 47

The World

The top US commander in Iraq delivered his much anticipated assessment on Capitol Hill today. General David Petraeus spoke of “significant but uneven” progress in Iraq. He also warned against withdrawing too many troops from Iraq “too quickly.” And he paid tribute to the troops.

�Despite how much we are asking of our young men and women in uniform they do recognize both the importance of what they’re doing and I guess the intangible of being a part of the brotherhood of the close fight, if you will, which is truly unique and special. They have continued to raise their right hand and volunteer.�

General David Petraeus, speaking before the Senate Armed Service Committee today.
You get a different idea of how the troops in Iraq feel when you listen to the music of New York-based band “Black 47.”

Now, if you’re wondering what a New York band could possibly know about the troops in Iraq — The World’s Marco Werman has the story.

Black 47’s songwriter and bandleader Larry Kirwan is known for his rollicking tunes about love and life in New York City.

In 2003, as the world waited for the US-led coalition to invade Iraq, Larry Kirwan and Black 47 were playing a show in a downtown New York club.

It was St. Patrick’s Day, always a big day for Black 47. But in 2003, it was two days before the invasion.

The band acknowledged the events that were about to happen half a world away by playing a reworked version of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” by Pete Seeger.

Larry Kirwan says given the political spectrum of Black 47’s fans, it was an awkward moment.

�Black 47 sits on a fulcrum between left and right. We have a strong right wing of, you know, people who’ve been made up of cops, firemen, construction workers, because we come from an Irish bar background. And then of course we have radicals, students, people who might feel more left wing. And there was dissension between those groups of people at the gigs. Soon thereafter I realized no sense in playing Pete’s song; let’s do this song that came to mind “Downtown Baghdad Blues,” that was inspired by emails I started to get from Black 47 fans who were in Iraq.�

Those emails from US soldiers who, by then, were in Iraq gave Kirwan images and words for his new song.

“Downtown Baghdad Blues” is on Black 47’s latest album called “Iraq.”

The tune begins like a scene from a Vietnam drama, helicopter blades chopping in the background.

As Kirwan exchanged more emails with Black 47 fans in Iraq, he began to get a clearer picture of the scene there.
He composed some more songs.
Black 47 played them at gigs in New York.
Mp3s of those shows wound their way to GIs in Iraq who welcomed them.
�And then last July I decided “You know no one is giving the real opinion of what’s going on over there from the point of view of the troops.” Everyone says “Support the troops,” “Put your yellow ribbons on the back of your cars,” but let’s find out what’s going on with them over there.�

Hearing a song about what we were going through was a total shock because we could watch the news and not see anything about what we were going through, and yet somebody could record a song, put it on a CD, and have the CD filter its way over to Iraq. You’d expect to see a quicker turnaround on the nightly news than with a piece of music.�
That’s Captain Padraic Lilly of the 42nd Infantry Division. Lilly is a New Yorker.

He didn’t know the music of Black 47 when he began his year-long tour of duty in Iraq in October of 2004.

But soon after arriving, Lilly joined other GIs trading music files.

“Downtown Baghdad Blues” was the first Black 47 song Captain Lilly heard.

�One part of the song says “I didn’t want to come here, I didn’t get to choose.” And obviously most of us realize that you choose to sign up, and if you’re sent somewhere then that’s your lot. But some parts of it were perfect.�

�While we were in Kuwait, waiting to go into Iraq, it was December, the first couple of days of December of 04, there was a mad scramble to armor up the Humvees that we were going to drive from Kuwait into Iraq, and a lot of them were still thin-skinned, but there was a mad scramble to get these things armored up as best we could. And one part of that song says, “Got no armor for my Humvee, I’m left chasing this train wreck.” I mean you almost felt like he was sitting in the crowd with us because we actually sat in the clamshell hangar when Secretary of Defense Rumseld came and was asked the question about what are we doing about these Humvees that are still thin-skinned and we’re about to drive them into Iraq. And he came back with the answer that “You go to war with the army you have, not he army you wished you had.”

Captain Lilly says he and his fellow soldiers had a hard-time stomaching Rumsfeld’s answer.

He also says as soldiers, they were in no position to criticize.

But he adds they took comfort listening to able to listen to Black 47 songs that said things they were thinking.

�There are a lot of people who agree with Larry Kirwan who aren’t allowed to say that, because when you wear the uniform you can’t speak out against the administration. And that’s why, to hear something like what Larry did with Downtown Baghdad Blues, to hear the album of “Iraq” come out, it’s very good for the troops that can’t speak out otherwise to hear somebody saying something that they agree with.�

Captain Padraic Lilly wouldn’t describe himself as anti-war. But he recognizes the value of people like Larry Kirwan speaking their minds.

�At the beginning of the war, there was a lot of flag waving, and there was a lot of blind patriotism, and there were a lot of people that said, “It must be right because we just got punched in the mouth on 9-11, so whatever we do has got to be associated with revenge and we’ll just take it on farther that it’s the right thing.” But I think the fact that Black 47 was putting songs out at that time that didn’t go along with that mass hysteria shows that they’ve got the guts, the wherewithal to say what they feel, whether or not it’s popular. I do think that they didn’t drink the Kool-Aid, which I can appreciate.�

Larry Kirwan says his aim all along with the CD “Iraq” was simply to document the war through the voices of those fighting it.

�The way I look at Iraq is, 20 years from now you could put that CD on and you will have a very small window into the way people felt at this particular point in time. And what else can you do better than that as a musician or composer or would-be artist?�

For The World, I’m Marco Werman.

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