One day last week I mentioned a mythical list of the most 70s things ever. Here’s another thing for that list: “One Tin Soldier.”
For a brief while, say from maybe 1968 until sometime in the early 70s, truly worthwhile art was Relevant. It spoke to legitimate concerns in the real world, sometimes matters of life and death, but if not that, then serious stuff like love and beauty. And in such a climate, “One Tin Soldier” was the inevitable outcome.
You know the story: The Mountain People have a treasure and the Valley People want it. The Mountain People are happy to share it, but that’s not enough for the greedy Valley People. So they attack and kill the Mountain People, but they find that the treasure is not the gold they were expecting: it’s the words “Peace on Earth.” The symbolism and the message are not exactly subtle, but were subtle enough to turn “One Tin Soldier” into a radio fixture for the first half of the 1970s.
It may surprise you that “One Tin Soldier” is not the work of hippie folksinger types picking away on the front porch at the granola farm. It was written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, who wrote and/or produced some of the slickest records of the Top 40 era, including “Don’t Pull Your Love,” “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I’ve Got,” and the Tavares hit “It Only Takes a Minute,” as well as the Glen Campbell album Rhinestone Cowboy and the debut album by Player. (It’s a hallmark of professionalism to know your audience, and these guys could capture almost any one they wanted.)
“One Tin Soldier” first appeared in a recording by a Canadian group called the Original Caste. It came out in 1969 and was a sizable hit north of the border, while sneaking to #34 stateside. (In Houston, it was a #1 hit early in 1970.) In 1971, the song was chosen for the soundtrack of the movie Billy Jack (another monument to Relevance) and sung by a woman named Jinx Dawson, who insisted that it be credited to the group she was in, Coven. The movie version was a hit, too—#26 on the Hot 100 and #1 for at least five straight weeks in Kansas City during August and September 1971. “One Tin Soldier” appeared again in 1972, in a country version this time, by Skeeter Davis. It was good enough to get her a Grammy nomination without becoming a big radio hit in the States, although it did huge business in Canada.
Next, Coven recut “One Tin Soldier” in a full-band version and released it as a single. It got a fair amount of airplay in the summer of 1973 and crept to #79 on the Hot 100, although it seems to have been particularly huge on the West Coast, hitting #1 in Los Angeles. This must have about the time Billy Jack got a second chance in theaters after its relatively disappointing initial release, but I haven’t been able to determine precisely when the movie came back out. The late ’73/early ’74 success of the original Jinx Dawson version of “One Tin Soldier” certainly had to do with the movie re-release. The song became a #1 hit on both WLS and WCFL in Chicago as the year turned, although it barely scraped back into the Hot 100 at that time, reaching #73.
All those middle-of-the-pack chart runs obscure just how popular “One Tin Soldier” was, and for how long. It was one of the most-requested songs on the radio for several years, a period coinciding approximately with the age of Relevance. But as the 70s wore on, as Watergate came down and we lost the Vietnam War, relevance went out of fashion and pop-music escapism took hold, a hold it has never relinquished in all the years since. Today, “One Tin Soldier” is clearly a relic of an age that’s gone and ain’t never coming back.