When I was 17 years old, I saw a movie that would change my entire life. I stumbled across it accidently,when I was channel surfing late one night. I stopped for a moment on CITY-TV’s Late Great Movies to see a scene of a group of riders herding horses through the rugged Arizona desert. Not enough usually to catch my attention, but it was the familiar song playing over the film’s opening credits that caught my attention and made me watch. I knew the song from a compilation album belonging to my Uncle Johnny called “Freedom Rock” which I put on tape a couple of summers earlier. The song was “One Tin Soldier”, the band was Coven, and the movie was “Billy Jack.”
I’ve written about “Billy Jack” many times before, and I’ll probably write about It again. Simply put, my entire moral code has come from the influence this film had on me. Despite some questionable acting, low production values and a dated aesthetic, it’s a film that continues to inspire me, and has grown with me as I grew up from a boy, to a young man, to an adult. While my beliefs and attitudes may change, “Billy Jack” continues to ground me to the basic morals in which I measure my self-worth and base many of my actions. But if it wasn’t for the song, “One Tin Soldier”, which I already was familiar with, I probably would not have stopped to watch it.
But wait. Coven? Isn’t that the same band which sang about Satanism, human sacrifice and magik rituals in “Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls”? Why are they performing the 1960’s counter culture’s most singable anti-war anthem? We’ll get to that, but lets talk about Billy Jack first.
“Billy Jack” was the brainchild of actor/director/writer Tom Laughlin, who created the character based on his own radical left-wing politics. Concerned with corruption from every institution, especially within politics, law enforcement and the military, as well as the plight of Indigenous people, “Billy Jack” was the story of a modern indigenous warrior who protected the people he loved from the threat of conservative repression. A champion of peace and defender of the undefended, Billy Jack fought his own battle as the ultimate outsider of a society who misunderstood him with a quick Judo kick to the right side of the face. The film was a family affair, cobbled together with more idealism than money. Tom played the hero, Billy Jack; his wife played the love interest Jean; their daughter was pre-teen runaway Carol. It was a little movie that should have never made it but became a cultural phenomenon when it was released in 1971.
Starting production in 1969, it was Tom Laughlin who first heard the song “One Tin Soldier” being performed by Canadian folk-rock band The Original Caste, and felt that the message of the song encapsulated the philosophy of Billy Jack. Contacting songwriters Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, Laughlin secured the rights to use the song as the theme to the film, but he didn’t want to use the Original Caste’s version. The song was barely a hit in the US, and Laughlin reached out to Linda Ronstadt’s people to get her to perform a new version of the song. Well, either Ronstadt was unavailable, or she didn’t want to do it, but her manager, Herb Cohen, had another suggestion for Laughlin. He had just started representing a singer who had had a bit of bad luck due to some bad publicity and was looking for another win – Jinx Dawson of Coven. This was the kind of outsider story that Tom Laughlin loved, and he agreed that Jinx should sing the song.
At the time that ’Billy Jack was in production, Coven’s first album, “Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls” had been pulled off of shelves when an article in Esquire Magazine had made an attempt to associate the album and the band to the Charles Manson murders. The negative publicity crippled Coven, and suddenly the band found itself floundering and trying to re-establish itself in the LA scene. So, the invitation to record a song for a film soundtrack was a great gig, and Jinx wanted the chance to record with a studio orchestra as promised by Laughlin. But although Laughlin only wanted Jinx’s voice, she got him to agree to credit the performers as Coven.
Now I know what you’re asking. Wasn’t Jinx Dawson, a known occultist and practicing witch, a strange choice for the song? “One Tin Soldier” was the exact opposite of what Coven was singing about in 1969…or was it? In 2015 I had the chance to do an interview with Jinx Dawson. An “email interview”, where I send the questions and they write back the answers, isn’t how I normally like to do things, but I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to do a feature with one of my favorite musicians so I jumped at it, and I’m glad I did. Jinx was very generous with her answers and gave me great insight into the history of the band and her personal philosophies. So, of course, I asked her about the juxtaposition of Coven’s reputation and the song “One Tin Soldier.” Her response was:
“I never understood it to be a peace/love song. If one listens to the words “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”. I heard it as hypocrisy toward the church, which of course is exactly how I was brought up. So, I never thought it was that far from my philosophy, but I knew it was more commercial in sound and not underground rock that we were doing. But again, it was for a film, not a Coven project.”
Billy Jack was released quietly in 1971 and saw additional rereleases in the next few years. It’s a long, convoluted story about why this happened, but within time the film became a cult hit with movie goers, and, in turn, Coven’s “One Tin Soldier” started to get radio play. Released on the “Billy Jack” soundtrack, Coven’s version of the song had an additional amendment to the title. It was now called “One Tin Soldier (The Legend of Billy Jack.”
Effectively using the song as the bookends of his film, Tom Laughlin recognized the power of “One Tin Soldier,” and the appeal it had to the audience. In an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the song, he tried to draw Coven into a marketing agreement, but things quickly grew sour between Laughlin and the group. Look – Billy Jack might be my personal hero, but our heroes are not flawless, and it was well known in the cinematic world that Tom Laughlin could be difficult to work with. He was famous for his temper, broke basic union rules and has been criticized by many as being a charlatan and a tyrant. In my 2015 interview, Jinx says: “I did not care much for Laughlin…He had a Napoleon complex and was a money hungry bully who never paid us any royalties. There are many stories from people that worked with him regarding his poor treatment of his associates.” I don’t know the details, but as things went sour between the band and Laughlin, the single of “One Tin Soldier” was suddenly discontinued.
However, through the popularity of the song, making Coven a marketable group again, the band was given a second chance at life and they went into the studio to record a second album where they rerecorded “One Tin Soldier” once again. Now recording for MGM, the company associated with “Billy Jack,” Coven maintained their contractual duties to the film, which allowed them to release “One Tin Soldier” again and it became their first, and only, Billbord hit. Surprisingly the song stalled out at #17 on the Billboard charts, but the popularity of “Billy Jack” helped “One Tin Soldier” to take a life of its own and be etched into the collective subconscious of the audience.
But the rest of the album, titled simply “Coven”, was unremarkably soft compared to the dynamic power of their previous album. Still hurting from having their wings clipped after “Witchcraft”, and rightfully angry over the popularity that bands like Black Sabbath, Uriah Heap and Led Zeppelin were having combining the occult and music, Coven did not want to repeat the follies they faced with their ground-breaking first album. Instead, they sought to make an album that was more radio friendly. But instead of rising out of the ashes like a phoenix, Coven lost the magik that made them special. You can hear them trying to find a new identity, bur the result is an album that sounds unauthentic and uninspired. The album may have had their biggest hit, but it proved to be their most disappointing release.
However, despite this moment in time, all three factors of this story – Coven, Billy Jack and “One Tin Soldier” would gain its own distinctive followings. Laughlin would continue to make new fans and new rivals alike, with more “Billy Jack” sequels and become one of the 1970’s most celebrated cult film directors. Coven would be back in 1974 with a much stronger third album, “Blood in the Snow,” which allowed them to return to occult inspired music and contained some of the best songs the band recorded. “One Tin Soldier” would continue to be sang by school choirs and at scout and church camps, and be one of the most assessable anthems of peace for years to come, More artists would record “One Tin Soldier” , but it will always be the Coven version that will always be the most identifiable to the public.
For Sam Tweddle’s full 2015 interview with Coven’s Jinx Dawson, visit “Wicked Woman: A Conversation with Jinx Dawson” at samtweedle.com.