Folks don't know just what it's for,
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason,
Have one doubt, they call it treason,
We're chicken-feathers, all without one gut
Tryin' to make it real — compared to what?
When Les McCann and Eddie Harris released the album Swiss Movement, a live recording from the 1969 Montreaux Jazz Festival, I found my personal anthem that defined my attitude toward the “powers that be.” At that time, I was in the army and the Vietnam War raged on interminably. Although the above is actually the song’s third verse, it hit home with me and thousands of other black soldiers that didn’t see the justice of fighting a war for a country that viewed all of us as second-class citizens.
Segregation in the United States military did not officially end until September 30 September 1954 when the last all-black unit was abolished. However, Executive Order 9981 that required equality of treatment and opportunity for African Americans required an additional change in Defense Department policy. On July 26, 1963, exactly 15 years after President Truman signed the original order, Department of Defense Directive 5120.36 went into effect expanding the military’s responsibility to include the elimination of off-base discrimination detrimental to the military effectiveness of black servicemen.
The number of black soldiers assigned to combat during the Vietnam War outnumbered white servicemen more than 2 to 1 and we were not happy about it, especially seeing how black Americans still suffered the affects of racism and discrimination back on the mainland. Many times I asked myself what was I doing wearing an army uniform when my fiends and family still couldn’t get jobs they were qualified to fill, denied admissions to certain colleges and universities, as well as, still haunted by American terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. “For a black man in the military, Compared to What, resonated with reality as I saw it and to this day it still does.
The “Me” generation didn’t escape notice as the opening verse to the song held truth for then and now concerning the unbridled commercialism and unfettered hedonism that started to individual avarice stood at its beginning, it didn’t go unnoticed. The wave of materialism only had training wheels when Eugene McDaniels penned the song in the late 60’s, but the effects of that binge finally landed 40 years later in the worst recession in the United States since the 20’s.
The song was first recorded in 1969 on Roberta Flack’s debut album First Take. McDaniels was no stranger to music as in 1961 when he was known as Gene McDaniels, he recorded A Hundred Pounds of Clay, which reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold over a million records.
Love the lie and lie the love
Hangin' on, with a push and shove
Possession is the motivation
that is hangin' up the God-damn nation
Looks like we always end up in a rut
Tryin' to make it real — compared to what?
As much as I love the raspy voice of Les McCann and the electrifying sax of Eddie Harris, the song spoke more than just music and lyrics. It had a deeper meaning that reflected what I considered significant issues that were important then and seem to be even more important now, as the United States is bogged down in another war, has spent itself into a recession, while religious intolerance threatens to tear the country apart. Fortunately, the religious rift shows signs of changing for good as almost 100 million American claim no religion and Protestantism dropped below 50%, the lowest number since the country’s founding.
Church on Sunday, sleep and nod,
Tryin' to duck the wrath of God,
Preacher's fillin' us with fright,
They all tryin' to teach us what they think is right.
They really got to be some kind of nut (I can't use it!)
Tryin' to make it real — compared to what? – Eugene McDaniels, 1969
McDaniel’s seems prescient as the number of unchurched in the United States is steadily rising as are the ranks of atheists, agnostics, humanists and secularists, while the number of Christians shrinks daily. Religion is starting to shrink as the United States starts the 21st century. Whether it is temporary or permanent is not clear, but if the Christian religious scene in England is any gauge, the change might be permanent as British researches predict that the Church of England will be dead within the next decade.
Compared to the sordid history of religion in promoting slavery, racism and sexism, it is past time for an in-depth look at fantasy and fiction. Americans love their religion, but the truth of the matter is that it is little more than a placebo at best and wishful thinking at its worst. For all the prayers, donations and hope poured into religion, the return on the investment has been negligible. If there is any good that comes from religion, it comes from the people taking action to help as God fails to lift a hand towards helping the people he supposedly loves. He’s certainly had plenty of opportunities.