"The Ballad of Penny Evans"

by Jeff Siegel

Somewhere, if the story is true, there is a middle-aged woman living in the Northeast, maybe in Boston, with two grown daughters and maybe even some grandchildren. And, if she is lucky, none of them are boys.

The woman is Penny Evans, who supposedly met a songwriter named Steve Goodman in a Rochester pizza joint 35 years ago, and told him about her husband, who had been killed in Vietnam. The result was Goodman’s astonishing "The Ballad of Penny Evans," and if there is a more powerful protest song in the history of protest songs, I’ve yet to hear it. In 3 minutes and 40 seconds, singing a cappella in a voice with more than a bit of a Midwestern nasal twang to it, Goodman puts all war, every war, into perspective. Sometimes, maybe, we do have to kill other people to make the world a better place. But there had better be a damned good reason, because even in the most just of wars, there are too many Penny Evans, “just turned 21, a widow of the war that was fought in Vietnam.” And when was the last time we fought a just war?

The song is so moving that even a cranky ex-newspaperman like me, who believes in very little anymore, cries whenever I hear it (and I’ve been listening to it for almost 30 years). Goodman, who died in 1984 after a career that endeared him to folkies, Chicagoans, Cubs fans and too few others, always wondered if the woman was telling the truth. The song, he has told interviewers, is pretty much as Evans told her story, but it works so well, is so painful and so honest and, in its own way, even patriotic, that it seems almost too much to believe.

Which, of course, is what makes it as brilliant as it is. I was in a fast food place in Texas near Fort Hood, shortly after the Iraq War started, and seated at a table across from me were a soldier dressed in fatigues and a woman who looked to be his wife, both of them in their early 20s. Maybe I read too much into the scene, and maybe I hate this stupid war so much that my imagination got the better of me, but the first thing I thought of was Penny Evans, because “They can keep their bloody money, it won't bring my Billy back.”

(Publicity photo of Steve Goodman from Red Pajamas & Oh Boy Records. To see a live rendition of "The Ballad of Penny Evans" from the Guthrie Family archives, please check below.)

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David said...

Penny Evans is living in the North east just not Boston ,but in a small town 35 miles west of Boston. I should know I am married to her younger daughter. Sadly, her older daughter commited suicide this past November. She did have a son born in 1974. I went to school with him he now lives in Key West Fl. Penny mostly spends time with her beloved dog that she picked up while living in Tenerife Spain and doting on her two grandsons. Nick 12 years and Sean 10 months. By the way she did indeed meet Steve in that pizza shop in Rochester and still has never accepted a check from the government.

Jeff Siegel said...

It's always good to hear that something one wants to believe in is not an urban myth. I'd love to ask you some questions about the song and Penny's experience -- feel free to e-mail me at jeff.siegel@att.net.

Anonymous said...

Although casualties are still predominantly male, there have been women killed by hostile fire in this war. So only having daughters isn't a guarantee of safety anymore. Not that it ever really was... I'm sure Penny's mother suffered with her. A friend of mine has a daughter who will never be the same since her young husband was killed in Iraq.

Anonymous said...

Jeff - did you ever hear back from David - and if so, can you tell us what he said? What an extraordinarily powerful song from a gifted songwriter who died too young.

Chris said...

Quoting from Anonymous:
""Although casualties are still predominantly male, there have been women killed by hostile fire in this war. So only having daughters isn't a guarantee of safety anymore.""

If you listen to 'Girl in the War' by Josh Ritter, your heart will be crushed by the sentiment. It hit me just as hard as 'The Ballad of Penny Evans' did.

God bless and best wishes to all in what you do.

Natalie said...

I'm only 11, but I found this song and I cried so hard. This song is so to the point. It makes me both proud to be an American and sad to see that the war is STILL going on. It also makes me angry because I have always been extremely anti-war, but also because this is now my favorite song, and it seems like no one knows any good music anymore. They are so worried about the war, yet they listen to rap for comfort. And afterwards, they're worried again. If only they could listen to this song, they would, like me, be able to accept the war and stand strong. Rest in peace Steve Goodman, and good luck to Penny Evans, wherever she is.

sk8er said...

This song sums up what i feel about war. An amzing song!

Bedroom Floor said...

Hi there,
Great common sense here! Wish I’d thought of that much earlier. Thank you for the tips.

BobbySingerFan said...

As a Steve Goodman fan for most of my (thankfully lengthy) adult life, I had heard some legends and folklore regarding this song and the catalyst for it's creation. One such version was that young Penny Evans tossed a crumpled balled-up sheet of paper up to Steve during a concert. While never knowing (until now) anything that verified the origin, I always felt that it was very likely a true story in and of itself, penned by a real person named Penny Evans from her unfortunate personal experience. A mystery of nearly 30 years has been solved. Thanks so much for this!

David Curran said...


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