Who is the One Tin Soldier?

By: The Late Mitchell Warren (Author of “The End of the Magical Kingdom” series)

“One Tin Soldier” by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter

Listen, children, to a story
That was written long ago,
‘Bout a kingdom on a mountain
And the valley-folk below.

On the mountain was a treasure
Buried deep beneath the stone,
And the valley-people swore
They’d have it for their very own.

Go ahead and hate your neighbor,
Go ahead and cheat a friend.
Do it in the name of Heaven,
You can justify it in the end.
There won’t be any trumpets blowing
Come the judgment day,
On the bloody morning after….
One tin soldier rides away.

So the people of the valley
Sent a message up the hill,
Asking for the buried treasure,
Tons of gold for which they’d kill.

Came an answer from the kingdom,
“With our brothers we will share
All the secrets of our mountain,
All the riches buried there.”

Go ahead and hate your neighbor,
Go ahead and cheat a friend.
Do it in the name of Heaven,
You can justify it in the end.
There won’t be any trumpets blowing
Come the judgment day,
On the bloody morning after….
One tin soldier rides away.

Now the valley cried with anger,
“Mount your horses! Draw your sword!”
And they killed the mountain-people,
So they won their just reward.

Now they stood beside the treasure,
On the mountain, dark and red.
Turned the stone and looked beneath it…
“Peace on Earth” was all it said.

Go ahead and hate your neighbor,
Go ahead and cheat a friend.
Do it in the name of Heaven,
You can justify it in the end.
There won’t be any trumpets blowing
Come the judgment day,
On the bloody morning after….
One tin soldier rides away.

Go ahead and hate your neighbor,
Go ahead and cheat a friend.
Do it in the name of Heaven,
You can justify it in the end.
There won’t be any trumpets blowing
Come the judgment day,
On the bloody morning after….
One tin soldier rides away.

Who was the “One Tin Soldier” that rode away one bloody morning after?  The Canadian pop group Coven first recorded the song in 1969, working with a song written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter.  The song became a Northern American sensation when Skeeter Davis recorded the single, which also coincided with the Billy Jack phenomenon.

The song was always conceived as an anti-war song, and this was very apparent when the song landed on the soundtrack of the popular Billy Jack film starring Tom Laughlin.  The song obviously mirrored themes happening in Vietnam at the time, as the war was nearing its end by 1973.  Tom Laughlin obviously saw himself as the Tin Soldier, which explains why Warner Bros. first released the film as “One Tin Soldier: The Legend of Billy Jack.”

However, one wonders if Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter really visualized the image of a blue denim wearing, hat-clad, ass-kicking man in blue jeans when writing the poignant song.  Once the listener removes all pretenses, the story itself is rather abstract; the motivation is treasure and two neighboring people, the Mountain People and the Valley People, want it.  The Mountain People want to share the treasure with their brothers while the Valley People wanted it for themselves.

The lyrics never explained whether the Mountain People were being elitist in their wanting to share their treasure only with “brothers” instead of the entire land.  Were the Mountain People acting just as greedily as the Valley People by insisting the treasure was theirs?  At the time, we were living in the age of peace loving hippies and aggressive Kent State National Guardsman, and so we assumed that the pure Mountain People must have been exploited by the modernistic Valley People.  The lesson seemed to make sense; more importantly, it seemed to satisfy 1970s audiences who read their own problems into this simple song, which could have very well remained timeless and abstract.

Religious references do abound in the song, from the denunciation of religious leaders claiming to be heaven-inspired, to the “judgment day” coming in which presumably God judges those who are blood guilty for their deeds, not their side.  This led many to believe that the song may represent more than just governmental abuses of power; perhaps it was a reference to the power that all organized religion had over the masses.

While it’s hard to believe anything of value could come out of The Sonny and Cher Show, the program did manage to run an animated cartoon based on the song that raised some provocative issues.

(Warning: Contains disturbing scenes of Cher singing and butchering a great melody)

Here we catch three messages within the short animated film: first, that the Mountain People were isolated from the rest of the humanity and were fiercely protecting the gift for their brothers, even taunting the Valley People with their knowledge of the treasure.  This actually challenges the traditional view that the song is about oppression of the weak.  If anything, it speaks to the poor communication skills of both sides.  Second, the Valley People were largely affiliated with a Christian religion.  Third, that one tin soldier rode away—clearly ashamed at what had taken place.

Was the One Tin Soldier ashamed because he was part of the onslaught that took place, or was he perhaps one soldier with a conscience that turned away from the masses before the carnage ensued?  Was the soldier indeed the messenger of God who would one day have to bring judgment day and shamefully commit violent acts to those who are violent in hopes of finally bringing peace on earth?

As you stare into Cher’s glassy fish eyes while she croons the theme, it’s clear to see that she probably doesn’t grasp the depth of the song, just as I’m fairly sure that 90% of everyone who listens to it doesn’t quite understand the implications or indeed, the role they play in the story.

The one point that everyone can agree on is that the Valley People, whoever they are, deserve judgment for their violent misdeeds.  To that, I say, be careful who you implicate in this story.  By the same criteria by which you judge others, you will one day be judged—if not by God, then by your fellow man who wields a sword.

I don’t know about you, but after hearing this song I usually run out and grab my sword ready to make to tear those Valley People a new cavity for storing their treasure.  However, a long time has passed since that song was written.  Now when we go looking for justice we see far too many paths and roads to take, not one of which is guaranteed to take us to the redemption we are seeking.

The truth is, it’s easy to implicate any number of people or entities for their crimes against humanity if you really want to hold court.  Why, if you analyzed the history of human behavior, you would see a long list of sins worthy of judgment day—many of which have been perpetrated by your own side.  Let’s start with religion.

Suspect #1: Religion

From the very moment Christ died for your sins, Christians all over the world have been sinning like wildfire.  The Jews and the Romans, barbaric in their own right, taught Christians how to die.  However, Catholics and Protestants are the ones who truly taught the world how to suffer.  From Saint Augustine’s Cognite Intrare (“Compel them to enter”) plea for intolerance, to the majestic brutality of the Holy Roman Empire’s Crusades, in which Muslims and Christians killed each other, to the Catholic Sponsored Inquisitions, in which heretics were burned at the stake, these Christians have killed mountains of innocent people.

Even after the Reformation took place, Protestants continued with their own versions of the Inquisitions, cruelly burning heretics at the stake and duking it out with Catholics in the Thirty Years War, and much later during The Troubles.  The absolutism that Luther and Calvin taught led to the persecution of numerous other sects of Christians who dared to be different from mainstream Protestantism.

Torture and intolerance continued throughout the second millennium, culminating in a campaign of misogyny against women during the European witch-hunts, a time often called a “woman’s holocaust.”  Religious extremism is indeed responsible for much of the bloodshed throughout human history, and usually such violence is motivated from a simple thought that lost souls should be converted to the right way.  And so they repented, and they won their just reward…

Suspect #2: The United States of America

While we’re finger-pointing at organized religion, let’s not forget the definitive Christian nation, the United States of America.  Ever since colonial times, the United States has listened to nothing but its own trumpets blowing.  The Manifest Destiny mission had brutal consequences for Native Americans and the U.S. made no secret that “white power” was the primary motivator for dominating its inferior neighbors.  John C. Calhoun was quoted as saying, “We have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race.”  Calhoun has that ingenuous 19th century honesty that is sorely lacking in white politicians today.  Who doesn’t feel patriotic when he says something like, “We are anxious to force free government on all; and I see that it has been urged…it is the mission of this country to spread civil and religious liberty over all the world, and especially over this continent.  It is a great mistake.  None but people advanced to a very high state of moral and intellectual improvement are capable, in a civilized state, of maintaining free government.”

And from there early America, deceived Native Americans (“savages” as the infallible Constitution once called them) into losing their land, and eventually to forcible removal and death, courtesy of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Trail of Tears in 1831.  Historian authors like David E. Stannard of American Holocaust believe early Americans ordered a true genocidal act with these decisions, even surpassing the Nazi Holocaust in terms of cruelty and death.

Did the Mountain People learn their lesson the first time?  Why yes, provided you sidestep American slavery in the 1800s, in which black slaves were owned as property, ridiculed, beaten and then viciously murdered if they dared to runaway.  Abraham Lincoln, America’s Greatest President, reiterated Manifest Destiny when he stated, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it.”  In fact, his Emancipation Proclamation only resulted in the freeing of Confederate slaves and prompting a Civil War that was just waiting to happen.  “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races,” Lincoln repeatedly assured his contemporaries.  At least Lincoln was consistent about his prejudices.  He approved the largest mass execution in American history, ordering 38 Indians and “half-breeds” hanged to appease authorities in Minnesota who wanted “savage” land for themselves.

At least the Mountain People learned their lesson in the 20th century—or least we thought they did before during World War II, in which the U.S. bombed and killed over 200,000 Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Just when you think it’s safe to say the U.S. has evolved into a peaceful and dignified nation, you are confronted with ugly military stories out of Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.  Whenever there is silence, American wonders what happened to those trumpets.  Thank goodness for civilized and intelligent people in the world, you know, like in the medical community.

Suspect #3: Science and Medicine

A long time ago (or to be specific, a few years ago in a B-movie called Psychopathia Sexualis) one of Krafft-Ebing’s protégés was overheard boasting to a patient that the documenting and medical torturing of people for “medical and psychiatric treatment” was necessary back in the day because it helped to establish science and medicine as a legitimate “power” in modern society—one that was no longer controlled by the state or by religion.  “People will no longer go to judges and priests for answers, judges and priests will now come to us!” he exclaimed.  Indeed, the scientific and medical community worldwide—no doubt oppressed for many years by religious fanatics—exacted their own revenge, but unfortunately upon poor unsuspecting anomalies of nature.

Medical scientists in America and Britain subjected homosexuals, the mentally handicapped and disagreeable women to shock therapy.  Who could forget the biological warfare experiments conducted in Savannah, Georgia and Avon Park, Florida in the 1950s in which army bio-warfare researchers released millions of mosquitoes on the two towns to see if the bugs would spread fatal yellow fever or dengue fever?  (Oh wait, you did forget about that one…they kind of swept that under the rug)  As recently as Bush’s administration, the CIA has conducted cruel and unusual medical experiments on prisoners.  This is not to suggest that only the U.S. has a god complex.  What about stories coming out of Lake Alice, New Zealand in the 1970s in which children were routinely punished with unmodified electroconvulsive treatment?  And of course, we just love German history which gives us harrowing tales of Nazi experiments performed on concentration camp dwellers involving bone, muscle and nerve transplantation.  These experiments left thousands of children and adults disabled, disfigured or dead.  Meanwhile, Japanese medical personnel tortured Chinese prisoners with vivisection surgery and the Khmer Rouge communist regime in Cambodia let scientists bleed suspected country traitors to death.  Whatever moral atrocity you could possibly think of in the darkest corners of your mind, your country’s best scientists and doctors have probably done it to some nameless orphan or senior citizen that no one would miss.  Hey, at least some treasures of technology have been revealed to us, one bloody morning after.

Science #4: Humanity

The truth is, like any transcendent parable, One Tin Soldier ages with us, and evolves nicely from one corrupt generation to the next.  We always see ourselves and our worse enemy in the story, because we like to believe that we are on the right side of God or at least, the right side of rational human behavior.  We stay true to our mountain of hope.  Meanwhile “they” are the people of the Valley, the ones who have no motivation other than greed, hatred and intolerance.  Whether they are religious zealots, patriots, scientists or capitalists, they are evil.  They fill the role we make for them and march with their empty signs showing the whole world their hypocrisy.

Now here’s the fatal stab.  You are the Mountain People.  You are the Valley People.  Whoever dares to trespass on your personal treasure assumes the role of a contentious mob.  Whoever dares to insult your pride or stand between you and certain success, is an obstacle that must be destroyed.

Can you deny that your own people have failed to bring peace on earth to this world?  How can Americans possibly make excuses for their treatment of Native Americans or African Americans?  How can the Germans ever apologize for giving us Hitler, or Russia ever apologize for Stalin?  How can Islam ever make up for extremist Muslims who commit terrorist acts?  How can Christianity ever reconcile murdering so many witches, heretics, sinners, dissenters and yes, even fellow Christians?  How can you possibly forgive your brothers across the world for practicing cannibalism?  Are they really your brothers if they want to share world peace and a few legs of fried human meat?   How can you forgive your neighbor for contributing to animal suffering?  How can you forgive that bear in the woods that ate your girlfriend?  (God loves ya, Timothy Treadwell)  Maybe you can’t forgive.  Maybe that’s how you want it.

Injustice can be found wherever you turn and the Valley People need no motivation ascribed to them other than they are Valley People—urbanized, soulless sodomites who bring their culture in like mud and rudely place their wishes in front of you.  They are the bullies, the expansionists, the capitalists and the dangerous dreamers you fear.  Unless, of course, they stand between you and that treasure, in which case they quickly become selfish, intolerant and greedy little buggers capitalizing on your misfortune.

If anything, to me, One Tin Soldier with its iconic religious imagery, takes back the idea of an just or unjust God, and leaves moral responsibility with the miserable people of this modern world, people who are totally incapable of bringing any peace on earth.  So go ahead and hate your neighbor, you can always justify it in the end.  All we need from you is a little more hate to make the world turn.

One last question for you, the thinking subversive: who really was the “One Tin Soldier” that rides away?  Perhaps Lambert and Potter wrote the lyrics as a call to action, asking their listeners to decide who the one tin soldier was, and consequently, what you intend to do about all the injustice you see.

Ideas for Redemption

If you are the One Tin Soldier here to pass judgment on the wicked, then by all means join the suicide bombers, Tea Party Christians, atheists and serial killers in the world and continue wallowing in your hate as regularly scheduled.  Keep trying to change the world, because all of these stupid people need to be enlightened.

If you think the One Tin Soldier represents the error of man and you are now ashamed of your formerly self-righteous ways, then by all means, continue to repent of your sins, i leave peaceably, forgive others, live and let live, have a big interfaith orgy, preach hippie peace, and do all sorts of Yoga and Tantric crap to relieve your negative energy.

Lastly, if you think the One Tin Soldier was the one soldier who turned back from the angry mob and avoided committing a senseless act of violence, and that he somehow represents independent thought amid a morally senseless world, then brace yourself.  Be prepared to be trampled on by suicide bombers, Tea Party Christians, atheists, serial killers and evil medical scientists who want to perform vivisections on you.  Because your type, the type that lives separated from society in that suspicious looking mountain, doesn’t live long.

For me personally, I see the One Tin Soldier as Billy Jack.  Sometimes in order to protect yourself and your treasure beneath the stone you have to have a weapon.  Billy Jack was a living weapon, and was so cool that even Chuck Norris wishes he was Chuck Norris but pretending to be Billy Jack.  Guys like me, who can’t afford karate lessons only have one alternative.


“I got your piece on earth right here!”

“Go ahead…hate your neighbor.”

If the Mountain People had kept a few badass shotguns beside their stone, maybe those Valley People would have left them the hell alone.