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R.J. Phillips Band

The R.J. Phillips Band of Baltimore recorded "Jeannette Said No," a tribute to Montana's Jeannette Rankin, to commemorate America's first Congresswoman, who voted no to U.S. entry in both world wars. From left: Bill Pratt, Leslie Darr, Joe DeFilippo, Bill Phelan and Sue Tice. 

I cannot vote for war, she said.

Some called her a traitor,

I just shook my head.

Countless praises have been sung for Missoula-born Jeannette Rankin as the antiwar and women’s rights stances of the nation’s first Congresswoman pass 100-year milestones.

Now there's a song about her.

From the other end of a nation comes the R.J. Phillips Band, a group of Baltimore studio musicians led by a retired history teacher that in September released “Jeannette Said No”  on Soundcloud. (To listen, go to this story at Missoulian.com.)

“I’ve been familiar with Jeannette Rankin’s story as long as I’ve been teaching, and I was always intrigued with it,” said Joe DeFilippo, who spent 30 years in the Baltimore County school system. “The more I researched, it seemed to come very naturally to this point. Here’s somebody who really paved the way for women’s rights and the antiwar movement. I thought, let’s do a song on Jeannette.”

The “No” in the song refers to Rankin’s vote in 1917 against entering World War I, one of 50 nays. In December 1941, she was back for a second term in the U.S. House of Representatives and courageously cast the lone vote against U.S. involvement in World War II .

If by chance you win

What do you have to show?

Time and again Jeannette said ‘No.’

DeFilippo, the songwriter, is lead vocalist in a group that includes a nurse who’s a world-class fiddle player, a guitar player who's a former attorney for the state of Maryland, a keyboardist who owns the studio in which they record, and a retired school librarian on backup vocals.

This is not new ground for DeFilippo and the R.J. Phillips Band.

“For five years now since we formed the group, we’ve more or less been specializing in songs with historical themes, historical topics,” DeFilippo said.

They’ve recorded 20 to 25 of them, he estimated, putting to music stories ranging from Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831 to the 2016-2017 standoff at Standing Rock.

“Finn,” a song about a returning Vietnam veteran with “battle scars and lessons learned,” referenced the 1960s protest hit “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire.

“We sent it to Barry McGuire, and he loved it,” DeFilippo said. “He emailed half a dozen times and asked us to come out to California, and he posted it on his Facebook page. That really gave us confidence to do this.”

The band made the big time last year. Spike Lee’s people called in February with a request to use its Civil Rights piece “Freedom Ride” in a film Lee was producing.

When "BlacKkKlansman" opened in theaters last August, “Freedom Ride” was on the soundtrack of the movie that was nominated for six Academy Awards and won for best adapted screenplay.

“That was pretty big for us,” DeFilippo said. “We got invited up to the premier in New York last summer. It was quite an honor.”

Rankin was born in 1880 on the family ranch in Grant Creek. She was educated in Missoula public schools and graduated from the University of Montana in 1902. She died at age 92 in 1973 in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, leaving a legacy as a champion for peace, women and families that is still celebrated today. Bronze statues memorialize her in the state Capitol in Helena and at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.

In her hometown, there is a Jeannette Rankin Peace Center and Rankin Park, and plans are in the works to rename a stretch of Interstate 90 and the central U.S. post office in Rankin’s name.

Jeannette Rankin Elementary schools opened in Missoula and Kalispell last year. DeFilippo has sent lyrics and Soundcloud links to “Jeannette Said No” to both schools. Kalispell’s Rankin School posted the song on its Facebook page in mid-September. Christina Stevens, principal of Missoula’s Rankin School in lower Miller Creek, said Friday she’d just received an email with the song from DeFilippo and sent it to the school librarian to post.

“I’m going to share it with my staff too, if they want to do something like a singalong” in music class, Stevens said.

DeFilippo merely chuckled when asked if R.J. Phillips Band recordings are moneymakers.

“All of the musicians involved play music in a variety of venues, and we all have or had regular 9-to-5 jobs,” he said. “The reward we get is when people hear our songs.

"Since it’s not a financially motivated endeavor, when folks post the songs or when a newspaper does an article on the song, that’s really our reward, so we know we’re getting them out there to the public.”

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