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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by Jeff Siegel