Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Tuesday Tuneage
The Original Caste - "One Tin Soldier"

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from my kinda-started, never-completed, now-abandoned novel Heaven Is In Your Mind:

"When I was little, quiet little," she says, "I think maybe first grade or even before elementary school, there was a popular song they played a lot on the radio. It was called 'One Tin Soldier' and was done by a band called Coven who had a weirdo black mass satanist past, though the version I first heard may have been done by some Canadian one-hit wonders called The Original Caste. This confused me for a few days as an adult as when I heard The Original Caste's version on the AM oldies station, I thought they said 'the original cast' and I thought they meant the original cast of the Billy Jack movie, when I knew that Coven were the ones who were credited for the Billy Jack version. Then it dawned on me that Billy Jack wasn't a musical - I have never seen it but I know it is some low-budget revenge fantasy that does not involve singing - so the original soundtrack wouldn't feature any original cast. I think what helped cause this confusion was that in those days there was a spate of hippie musicals: Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair that spawned songs that ended up in Top 40 radio and invariably these songs were creepy and sometimes the version you heard was the cast of the movie or the Broadway musical but sometimes what you heard was a pop singer or group doing a cover of the musical's songs.

"So this tune, 'One Tin Soldier,' which I first heard as a young girl, creeped me out for decades. In fact, I would turn it off whenever it came on the oldies station. It probably didn't matter that I turned it off though, once I heard those opening notes I could recite the song word-for-word. As a girl I couldn't avoid it as I would hear it while riding with my mom in the car on errands or while playing with my older sister, who would constantly play the forty-five on a portable record player in her room. Anyway, this song, I'm sure you heard it, is a simple morality tale: The valley people want the mountain people's treasure chest, the mountain people offer to share it, the valley people get angry and kill the mountain people. They open the treasure chest - and I think a Ray Bradbury story once ended on a similar note - only to find a note that says 'peace on earth.' And this sound freaked me out, scared me silly, I mean an entire people - genocide - being killed over a simple treasure chest. I knew the song taught a lesson but I thought it did it in a cruel, cruel way. The older I got, the more pissed off I got about it. The song didn't quantify how many mountain people there were - ten? a hundred? ten thousand? - not that a lower number justified their murders in any way. I hated The Original Caste and Coven for singing this song. Like I said, hearing those opening notes, so hopeful and pleasant on their own, filled me with dread and I would immediately change the station.

"What I never told anybody, was that this song filled an hour of my Sunday mornings with dread also. Given that the lyrics of 'One Tin Soldier' feature words like 'peace,' 'Judgment Day,' and 'kingdom,' and that the first line of the song addresses children, for some reason I thought it was a Bible story put in song form for children. Year after year in Sunday School, I figured at some point the teacher would tell the Bible story of the mountain people and the valley people. And then because invariably - as my elementary-age education seemed to involve large amounts of singing, along with art projects - we would have to sing 'One Tin Soldier.' And that was my big fear, to have to sing that song with all my Sunday School classmates. You know how creepy little children sound when they sing in groups, and then throw genocide lyrics on top of that? Have you ever heard that Canadian elementary school choir album from the seventies where they sing pop songs? Creepy. But the story never came up. Of course, it turned out that while the Old Testament has bloodbaths galore, the story is not in the Bible at all, I found this out when I brought the mountain and valley peoples up at a dinner party during a discussion over Israel and the Palestinians, imagine the looks I got with that one ... By sixth grade my parents had stopped going to church, by seventh grade they had split up and neither of them would drop me off at Sunday School at all."