Iraq in Their Backpack

As national attention dwells on economic woes and approaching elections, the day-to-day coverage of the Iraq War is lost to quick sound bites and brief flashes across the television screen. Brenda Elthon aims to change that by capturing the American pulse with Songs for our Soldiers, a melodic odyssey that turns ears and hearts toward the life and death of the American soldier.

“It’s an effort to shine a light on the soldiers and their lives. They have no publicist, no PR guy, no press budget… Most of them haven’t been outside of their work [as soldiers],” said Elthon. “Who’s talking about them? Who’s lifting them up?”

Tales of loss and grief from the Midwest to 6,000 miles away in Iraq disturbed her conscience. A daughter and wife to veterans herself, Elthon recalls the tragic tale of an Iowan helicopter pilot who routinely called his wife before flights, including the night before one Friday morning that would claim his life. “I grew up in Iowa and this man was my age,” she said. Instead of mere empathy, Elthon got to work.

Normally, Elthon suits her music to children, but while Songs speaks to an older audience, its tales are no less innocent and its mission urgent.

“This is my duty as a citizen,” said Elthon, whose diminutive voice belies the steely resolve of a war-time bard and a determined patriot. Songs brings listeners to the front lines of war and the bedrooms, kitchens and doors that carry the saga of sacrifice to home as well. White House evasions and Congressional investigations have lost touch with American hearts; it is time to listen to the soldiers’ tales.822songsforoursoldiers.jpg

Songs, Elthon cautions, is not an anti-war album. “I would feel that I had done an inadequate job on this album” if listeners felt she opposes the war in Iraq. “It’s not that simple,” she said. “The focus is what is happening to our soldiers in Iraq, when they return from Iraq. Are we using them wisely? Are we caring for them? Lifting them up? Honoring them when they return? If those questions lead to a political position of the war, that is the conclusion reached by the listeners.”

They are questions the American public largely ignores or the Pentagon refuses to answer. “I was a teenager when all of that [anti-war] music was popular. I saw what power that music had. It could crystallize thought; give manageable words [to] people who wanted to articulate tangled feelings.” In the absence of attention devoted to troops, “I’d like to tap into that desire,” said Elthon, Songs’ sole writer and producer.

Motivated by a “moral imperative,” Elthon drew upon her musical talents and early memories to fight for what she believes to be truth and justice. “The juxtaposition of what we knew and what we chose to ignore [and] the clear, clarion call of these young men to serve was clanging in my head,” Elthon said, explaining the genesis of the project after reading local reports of disillusioned soldiers and their families, tales of Americans deprived of love, hope and – for over 4,000 soldiers – lost lives.

Inspired in 2003 by the March 2003 “shock and awe” offensive in Iraq, Elthon cataloged wartime stories, beginning with the nation’s divided conscience during the lead-up to war to the soldiers’ crises today. At first, Elthon allowed “music to come through the window, onto the paper,” vetted in front of her two steadfast critics, the family dogs.

Elthon then assembled a “gifted ensemble” of notable musicians from a broad range of musical styles: Grammy-winner Jon Carroll; his son, Ben Carroll; folk singer Cathy Fink; the heart-rending musician Amanda Olsavsky; and Grammy-winning country presence, Jim Robeson. Elthon recalls first meeting Robeson in his recording studio to discuss her envisioned project. After playing through some music and experimenting with words and chords, “Jim, who’s a very quiet guy, not taken to many words, looked at me and said, ‘Perfect.'”

From there, Songs brought the others on board, all of whom “were quite willing after seeing the music. They could see a worthwhile project,” said Elthon. The project exacted an emotional toll on the musicians as well. They care deeply about the welfare of the U.S. military at home and abroad, Elthon explained. Robeson is also a veteran of the Vietnam War, having served from 1969-70. She remembers, too, as Jon Carroll’s chin quivered as he delivered “The Letter Home,” a recounting of a soldier’s letter to his spouse halfway across the world. Participating in the USO tours, Carroll’s son, Ben, has sung to soldiers stationed in Iraq as well across U.S. college campuses. “He’s singing to the age group that’s the same ages as the soldiers,” said Elthon.

Different musical styles broaden Songs’ appeal. The gospel-like opening track “Freedom’s Light” and the rally-marching, part Dylanesque “Rise and Stand” evoke emotional force, driving us to “end this fight,” but they do not level criticism of the Iraq War.

A stirring tetralogy of heart-rending distance and lovers’ pains comprises the middle of Songs: “Help Me Say Goodbye,” “Soldier’s Wife,” “The Letter Home” and “Castles and Kings” – each song relating some figment of military life, whether a long-distance break-up or the yearning for reunion and completion.

The electric guitar country ballad “Adventure in Patriotism” remains an immense powerhouse of the hope and aspiration that many military parents must feel of their children’s bravery. Surely, the song pleads, the military life might “lift him up, not drag him down” – a Pennsylvanian mother’s wish that ends tragically with a knock at the door and news of her son’s death. “Multiply this story by ten, a 100, a 1000,” said Elthon; we are forced to do the sorrowful arithmetic of war.

There is, however, no conclusion to “Adventure in Patriotism,” no resolution to the mother’s story – it remains unknown to us as it had been for Elthon reading the news story. But, has this war had any resolution? Whatever one’s position on the war’s progress, we long for an end.

Likewise, a spiritual tone undergirds Songs for our Soldiers. Elthon does not preach from a moral pulpit; instead, she has us live the burden of war and lets us carry “the rock in their backpack.” The album’s last song, “For Our Guys,” delivered by Jon Carroll, is Elthon’s “autobiographical song,” her answer to why she came to this project —”to give a voice to these [soldiers].”

“I want people to not be so self-absorbed we can’t acknowledge what’s happening everyday in the lives of soldiers and their families who have heeded the call of service,” Elthon said. “Change could come, rise up from the masses and make a difference, but people have to care, people have to know: no one cares and no one knows if you’re oblivious to the information.”

A refrain from “Freedom’s Light,” the “faithful keepers of the light” are “those people who had the tenacity to say, ‘Wait, we can be strong by withholding our firepower, by searching hard for the truth, by waiting longer to be sure that there are no other paths.” Elthon added: “Those who are willing to wait are those who provide lasting freedom.”

For that, in the end, is Songs’ purpose: lasting freedom from love misplaced by war, unheard cries for understanding and the salvaging of soldiers stories from the obscurity imposed by a Pentagon afraid of public opinion.

“I have strong confidence that the American public, mobilized in a powerful way, can do good.” Strength can be shown “by patience and perseverance,” said Elthon, much like the album illuminates the strength of often unseen elements of war – the secluded spouse, the harrowed parent and the inspired prayer.

By far, music is not Songs’ only contribution either. Falls Church artist Bill Abel, known for his trademark watercolor painting, provided the deceptively serene album cover. A soldier sits resting, gun by his side. Perhaps he is weary of the desolate, flat landscape of a temporary foreign home – Iraq or wherever there is some presence of U.S. forces. Regardless, his eyes trail the ground as the sun sets: is he thinking of a loved one back home or recovering from the day’s toil; we cannot know.

Abel based his work on a real depiction of a war scene, images “we see too much on the Internet these days,” he said. Americans are “overloaded with images that are just too much detail for our psyches,” so Abel opted instead to use semi-impressionist water colors to open the imagination and reflect the human consciousness of war. Like the idling soldier, Americans are by and large tired of war; we ask, how does this all end?

The newly-released album is available at Foxes Music store in Falls Church, which “encouraged them in their project and displayed it prominently” in the store front and online, said Foxes Music owner Eric Wagner. Another champion of independent music, chose Songs for our Soldiers as an editor’s pick. CDBaby also allows listeners to purchase the album online.

In addition to the web, Elthon’s project is making headway on the airwaves as well. Clear Channel Radio, one of the D.C. Area’s largest radio stations, plays “Help Me Say Goodbye,” “The Letter Home” and “Adventure in Patriotism” on its website, with a potential deal in the works for airtime on Clear Channel’s major D.C. country station, WMZQ.