The days of great armies marching into battle to the blaring fanfare of a horn section or the rhythmic drive of percussionists are long gone, replaced by the silent hum of drone engines and rumble of Humvees.
And despite the fact that every branch of the U.S. military still harbors its own in-house band, it’s not often that we equate great music with our armed forces. But perhaps there’s a trickle-down effect, something about growing up in a regimented, disciplined household that fosters creativity—for many a top-tier artist has grown up in a military family.
Musically ambidextrous renaissance man Van Dyke Parks, for example, boasts Richard Hill Parks III as a father, a man who served as the chief psychiatric officer to those involved in the Dachau liberation reprisals, in which U.S. soldiers killed German soldiers and prisoners of war after invading the infamous concentration camp. Yet while Parks Senior helped soldiers deal with the horrors they’d been confronted with, at home he kept a bevy of musical instruments, on which young Van Dyke honed his skills. His career would grow to span generations, from Randy Newman and Zappa to the Beach Boys and Skrillex.
Van Dyke’s older brother, Benjamin, also a musician, died in the Vietnam War.
On the further edges of the counterculture, legendary Doors front man Jim Morrison spent his formative years moving around the country as his father, George Stephen Morrison—a Navy career man who would eventually ascend to the rank of Rear Admiral—shuffled from post to post. Over the course of moving from school to school, the future rock star dealt with the upheaval by developing an obsession with poetry and ancient philosophies, leading to his own poetry-writing, which eventually developed into lyrics for The Doors.
And Morrison is hardly the only outlaw to emerge from the ranks of military brats.
Highwayman and country legend Kris Kristofferson’s father served as a major general in the Air Force, and even pressured the budding musician into service himself, where he attained the rank of captain and completed Ranger School. Alas, it didn’t last long, and his family disowned him after he left the army to pursue music.
Douglas Colvin, better known as Dee Dee Ramone, founding member and bassist of seminal punk band the Ramones, also grew up constantly changing homes thanks to the career of his father, a master sergeant. When Colvin was 15, his mother took him and fled because of the father’s alcoholism, arriving in the New York borough of Queens, where Colvin eventually met his future band mates.
Contemporary pop divas Pink and Christina Aguilera also come from military homes.
Pink, neé Alecia Moore, grew up in Pennsylvania, where her father was a Vietnam veteran. Her parents divorced while she was young, and she worked through her teenage angst by writing song lyrics. After several stints with bands, she was recruited to be a part of a prefab R&B group that never got off the ground, but did, ultimately, launch her solo career.
Aguilera, who’s father was in the Army, moved around a lot, and apparently looked to music to work through his aggressive nature. After performing on shows like Star Search, Aguilera became a member of the Mickey Mouse Club, alongside Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Ryan Gosling.
R.E.M frontman, pioneering queer artist and alt rock icon Michael Stipe spent his childhood moving from base to base (his father was in the Army) before that fateful day in college in Athens, Georgia, when he met fellow R.E.M founder Peter Buck at a record shop. And singer, songwriter, and activist Jackson Browne’s father was an enlisted man who worked for the military’s Stars and Stripes newspaper. Browne discovered folk music after relocating to his grandfather’s house in Los Angeles.
Perhaps it’s not just the stereotypical discipline of growing up in a military household that leads to the sort of thinking that creates great music. It’s likely as much the isolation of a childhood spent moving from one home to the next, or even the emotional weight of missing an absent parent yet knowing, or at least being told, that they’re serving a greater good. Either way, the footprint (boot print?) of a life in the armed services is permanently embedded in our culture’s musical soul.