In 1967, a young G.I. was lying on his bunk on a troop carrier headed to Vietnam. On the canvas bottom of the bunk above him, he carefully wrote a few lines of free verse in Morse code.
That piece of canvas was donated along with a few others to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where a historian was studying wartime graffiti.
You're the one who must decide
Who's to live and who's to die
You're the one who gives his body
As a weapon of the war - And without you all this killing can't go on.
The historian published the "mystery poem" in the Smithsonian magazine. It prompted hundreds of letters, more than any other the editors had received on any other article. They were mostly from Vietnam vets. Some were scolding. Every one pointed out that the mystery poem was actually an extract from Buffy Sainte-Marie's classic song, Universal Soldier.
The Smithsonian editors were deservedly embarrassed by their inability to recognize such an important part of '60s culture. They sent a letter to Sainte-Marie apologizing and offered to send her copies of the letters their readers had sent.
"They sent me about seven hundred letters, faxes, emails that pointed out that I had written that song. A lot of them explained details of how the song had changed their lives. That was very heartening. It was very kind of them to share their points of view. Usually I don't get to Know about how songs impact people's lives. To sit down and read their letters and feel those feelings coming from guys who are actually affected by a song like that, it was really quite moving."
Sainte-Marie wrote Universal Soldier in 1962, a time when people fretted over missile gaps, Khrushchev and the H-bomb. Vietnam was still a couple of years off the American radar. She had been writing songs in college while studying Oriental philosophy. She hadn't considered music a career. She wanted to be a teacher, a vocation still close to her heart. At the time, she wrote songs without thinking anyone would hear them. Then she got the record deal. Universal Soldier was released in 1964. It wasn't long before the song became the anthem of the anti-war movement, despite the fact it was pretty much banned on U.S. radio.
"It's about the personal responsibility of all of us, " she says of the song which is now in the Canadian Songwriting Hall of Fame. "Because we can't blame just the soldier for the war, or just the career military officer, or just the politician. We have to blame ourselves too since we are living in an era where we actually elect our politicians."
Abridged from an article in the Hamilton Spectator by Graham Rockingham, June 2009.