Laughlin plays the title character, a Native American ex-Green Beret who, somewhere in the arid southwest, becomes a bodyguard figure for a multiracial Freedom School for troubled youths. Tensions rise between the school and certain bigoted townspeople, who bring the martial arts master Billy Jack's anger to a boil. Although the film's violence definitely sold tickets and consequently invited plenty of criticism, the dubiousness of violence as a cure-all prevails as the message when the closing credits roll.
Aside from the violence, other elements contributed to Billy Jack's cult appeal. The amateurish nature of many of the film's actors, who were untrained family members, friends, and neighbors of Laughlin, managed to lend it an aura of guileless authenticity. The musical interludes colored the soundtrack with a found-recording time capsule quality, while drama class sequences, a town council hearing, and a narrated rattlesnake ceremony gave the viewing experience an aspect of sketch revue. (A young Howard "Johnny Fever" Hesseman appears in those drama class scenes.)
Another advantage for Billy Jack's re-release was its timing, coinciding with the American Indian Movement's 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee and its demands of the U.S. Government to reopen treaty negotiations. In the recent Reel Injun documentary about Native American portrayals in cinema, film critic Jesse Wente referred to the character of Billy Jack as one who embodied "all seventies angst and anger," which was also true, perhaps, of those occupiers.
The Billy Jack theme "One Tin Soldier" had a peculiar history in keeping with the film's non-standard business trajectory. Written as one of songwriting team Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter's earliest products, the song's "peace on earth" message graced Billboard's Top 40 in 1969 as recorded by Canadian quintet The Original Caste. Two years later, Laughlin had hoped to get an unavailable Linda Ronstadt to record a version for the film, going instead with Jinx Dawson, lead singer of the LA-based band Coven.
Although Dawson sang the song with an orchestra apart from the rest of the band, as she reports to Sam Tweedle in his Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict blog, she didn't think twice about the song being billed to Coven because she had no inkling it would become a Top 40 hit and play havoc with the band's reputation. Coven, in fact, were occult to the core. Their first album, Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls (featuring a thirteen-minute track called "Satanic Mass") had gotten yanked from shelves by their label Mercury when a 1970 Esquire article titled "Evil Lurks in California" associated their musical activities with those of Charles Manson. (By the way, those who have seen Billy Jack and have familiarity with that first Coven album will draw a connection between the album's gatefold image and a key scene from the film. I wonder if that's what gave Laughlin the idea.)
The re-release of Billy Jack two years after its first run led to the unusual situation where "One Tin Soldier," having already made the charts in 1969 and 1971, visited the Hot 100 again in 1973 when Coven, at the behest of their management, re-recorded it using a similar arrangement and re-released it on MGM as promotion for a new album. Because copyright law didn't protect arrangements, their new version was barely distinguishable from the old one. That opening flute, sounding so much like the intro to a TV commercial, was still there, and Dawson's vocals came across no less enunciated and ritual-esque.
Before the year was over, the Warner Bros version of "One Tin Soldier," a song Dawson "never understood as a peace/love song," as she told Sam Tweedle, but one of "hypocrisy toward the church," breached the Hot 100 still one more time, peaking at #73 in early 1974.
Here are the four charting versions of "One Tin Soldier":
Perhaps the biggest difference between this original version of "One Tin Soldier" and the Coven version is the more laid back vocal by Dixie Lee Innes. The Original Caste, from Calgary, Alberta, had three songs bubble under the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970 before checking out for good.
The Original Caste - "One Tin Soldier"
Coven - "One Tin Soldier, The Legend of Billy Jack"
"I Guess It's a Beautiful Day Today" (MGM 1973). LP: Coven (MGM 1973).
This is the re-do Coven did in 1973. See if you can detect any differences. Here's one for starters: much less piano after the flute intro.
With word likely spreading about their theatrical stage shows in the late sixties, Coven were a highly plausible influence on Black Sabbath, who perhaps co-opted some of their shtick. The first Coven album, Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls, had come out in 1969 with an opening song called "Black Sabbath" and a guitarist named Oz Osborne, while Black Sabbath's debut LP appeared in 1970.
The 1973 Coven album was a much less forbidding, commercial affair than their debut, which didn't stop two members from "flashing the horns" on the cover. Side B of this single is a relaxed breath of country-rock air that I love but which true Coven-heads might not.
Coven - "One Tin Soldier (The Legend of Billy Jack)" (1973 version)
On the final charting edition of "One Tin Soldier," which was the same as Coven's 1971 version, the single's B-side contained a spruced up version of the sad song Tom Laughlin's real life daughter Teresa sings in the movie.
Teresa Laughlin - "Johnnie"