The assignment is to "specifically analyze the song "I Ain't Marching Anymore" by Phil Ochs (related to protest on the Vietnam War and Civil War of American.) You need to analyze the language of...

The assignment is to "specifically analyze the song "I Ain't Marching Anymore" by Phil Ochs (related to protest on the Vietnam War and Civil War of American.)

You need to analyze the language of lyrics and show how the song help to create its meaning as well as highlight the meaning of the song by thinking in terms of figurative language (similes, metaphors, etc.)

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Analyzing the lyrics of a song is a form of literary analysis, just as analyzing a poem is literary analysis.  Lyrics are poetry.  This particular song, written in the mid-sixties as a protest against the Vietnam War, has a powerful anti-war theme that relies on historical and political allusions, vivid imagery, a kind of symbolic first person narrative, and repetition to make its point. 

The lyrics are a capsule history of the wars of America. In piling on war after war, stanza after stanza, Ochs creates a powerful effect.  By the end of the song, the listener (or reader) feels that America is steeped in war and carnage, and because of the time in which the song was written and introduced, during the Vietnam War, the song does not even need to allude to that war. It is implicit in the song that we are in the middle of yet another tragedy for the young men of our country.  The first stanza refers to the Battle of New Orleans, which was one of the final battles of the War of 1812.  The second stanza is about the wars waged by the early settlers against the Native American population, represented collectively by the battle at Little Big Horn, often referred to as Custer's Last Stand, in which the tribes thoroughly routed the American forces.  In the fourth verse, the lyrics refer to America taking California from Mexico and the Civil War, and the fifth is about World War I, in which millions of people died.  The sixth stanza refers to World War II, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan. And the sixth is a reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which occurred in the Kennedy administration.  The song builds, war after war after war, leaving the listener overwhelmed with the horror of it all. 

Some of the political allusions are easy to see, while others are not.  Ochs makes the point that it is the old men in power who send young men off to die, with his pointed use of the word "young." And he says this outright in the third verse:

It's always the old to lead us to the war
It's always the young to fall (lines 11-12)

In fact, during most of the Vietnam War, 18-year-olds did not have the right to vote, so they were sent off to die with no voice at all in the matter.  The reference to killing one's brother, in the fourth verse, is not an exaggeration. If one lived in the northern United States and had relatives in the southern United States, it was completely plausible that one would be fighting against one's brother.  In the final verse, the labor leaders are those whose power and income rely upon what was and is known as the military-industrial complex.  The production of weapons was a significant part of the economy at the time.  United Fruit had a stake in the availability of tropical crops, and our "war" against Cuba harmed the company. All of these allusions show us that young men are dying on behalf of the rich, old, and powerful, rather than dying for some glorious "cause." 

The imagery is vivid throughout the entire song, giving us strong pictures of war's ugliness.  In the first verse, we have this:

The young land started growing
The young blood started flowing (lines 3-4).

This combination of land growing and blood flowing gives us an image of abundance, set against spilled blood, blood that it seems is feeding the land, causing it to grow, a horrific image, I think, land fed by blood.  Another vivid image is in the following lines:

Set off the mighty mushroom roar
When I saw the cities burning I knew that I was learning (lines 25-26).

The mushroom is the shape of the cloud that forms when an atomic bomb is used, and the use of the word "roar" makes a kind of personification, since mushrooms don't make any sound at all  But we can hear that roar, nevertheless.  The cities did in fact burn, and this picture conveys the horror of what we did.

Throughout the entire song, Phil is using the first person "I" as though he personally was in every war.  He is standing in for all the young men who have died, a representative of the youth of every generation, and this gives the song a great deal of power, too, drawing the listener in to hear a tale that is so very personal when narrated this way.  Not only did all of this happen to the narrator, but we feel that all of this happened to us, too. 

The use of the repetition of the title of the song in five of the verses is meant to make clear what the message of the song is, that the narrator is done with war, a protest against the Vietnam War, one more war in which the old have sent the young to die.  This is not just a history lesson. It is outrage at the idea that more young men are being sent to die. 

As a result of the protests of American youth, including songs like this, American did eventually leave Vietnam.  And Phil Ochs, who died shortly after that, at least had a chance to see that the power of his lyrics made a difference. It was an important song in its day, and it is an important song still. If you are interested in protest music generally, there is a link to tell you more about another famous protest singer.    

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