Are the Stars and Bars Back Again? On Modern Civil War Songs

A Curmudgeon Column

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Are the Stars and Bars Back Again? On Modern Civil War Songs

“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner once wrote. “It’s not even past.” He was referring broadly to the way that every experience we’ve ever absorbed and every family story we’ve ever heard are still at work in each present moment. But he was also referring to the specific way that the twin tragedies of slavery and the Civil War live on in each succeeding chapter of American history.

Faulkner wrote that line in 1951’s Requiem for a Nun, 86 years after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, to end the Civil War. Another 65 years have passed, and yet it often seems that we’re still fighting that war: just witness the Confederate flags that often show up at rallies for Donald Trump. And those battles are waged in popular song as much as in any other corner of American culture.

On “Surrender Under Protest,” a song from the Drive-By Truckers’ new album, American Band, for example, Mike Cooley tackles the Southern myth of “The Lost Cause,” the idea that the Confederacy’s fight for independence was a noble cause, even in defeat. “From the comfort zone of history,” Cooley sings over noisy guitars, “on the lips of trusted loved ones to the wounded, fragile minds of angry youth. No sooner was it over than the memory made it nobler.”

This rewriting of history, Cooley sings, obscures “the wrongness of the sin,” the practice of some human beings owning other human beings as property. Despite subsequent efforts to recast the war as a struggle over state rights or taxation, modern historians cite mid-19th-century speeches and pamphlets that make clear that the “right” to own slaves was the state’s right most at stake. In his final verse, Cooley points out that the shame of defeat too often gets redirected as anger at the darker faces, who were slavery’s original victims.

Yet as recently as 2013, a compilation of bluegrass songs about the Civil War was titled God Didn’t Choose Sides. He didn’t? What kind of God wouldn’t take a moral stand on the institution of slavery? The album offers a dozen newly written songs, each based on a specific, real-life individual involved in the war. Some of the songs are well done, especially when sung by the likes of Tim Stafford and Dale Ann Bradley, but by pretending there were no moral issues at stake in the Civil War, the disc presents that struggle as little different from a Dallas Cowboys vs. Green Bay Packers football game.

This is the danger in creating songs, movies or novels about the Civil War. If you ignore slavery and its demise, you’re ignoring the war’s primary cause and most profound result. On the other hand, if you talk honestly about slavery and the Civil War you will be predictably vilified by true believers of the “lost cause.” Like deniers of global warming (and they’re often the same people), these doubters cannot be dissuaded, no matter how overwhelming the evidence.

Perhaps the most famous song about the war is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” written by a Canadian, Robbie Robertson, and sung by an Arkansan, Levon Helm. It’s a powerful evocation of defeat’s anguish and death’s finality. The song’s narrator, a Tennessee woodsman named Virgil Caine, is willing to accept his rural poverty and his near starvation in the final weeks of the war, but he can’t accept the death of his beloved brother, laid in his grave by a Yankee bullet. What did that death accomplish?

Virgil never mentions slavery, but it’s clear from his claim of chopping his own wood that he’s never owned one. But while his verses are sorrowful laments, the choruses are strangely uplifting. The bells in Richmond are ringing and some people are singing, for those people have been liberated at last. Every defeat, the song implies, is someone else’s victory. Every victory is someone else’s defeat.

Some of the best Civil War songs have been written in the past 30 years, since the chokehold of the “lost cause” myth has weakened and songwriters have felt freer to be honest about this turning point in American history. Dave Alvin’s 1991 “Andersonville,” for example, is narrated by a Yankee soldier in an outdoor Georgia prison. It doesn’t speak to the underlying issues of the war, but it does evoke the most ignoble aspects of the war. “My uniform is faded and there’s no boots upon my feet,” he sings. “I’m pulling worms out of the mud, ‘cause there’s nothing else to eat.”

Steve Earle’s 1995 “Ben McCulloch” traces a young Texan enlistee’s arc from gung-ho fervor to total disillusionment. “I killed a boy the other night who’d never even shaved,” Earle sings in the final verse. “I don’t even know what I’m fightin’ for; I ain’t never owned a slave.” Peter Case’s 1995 “Wilderness” connects past sins with more recent ones by having Robert E. Lee call in napalm airstrikes against the Union Army at the Battle of the Wilderness.

Like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the Brothers Phelps’ “Lookout Mountain” is a bittersweet look at a Confederate’s death in a losing effort. The soldier’s effort to defend the Chattanooga peak of the title is futile from the start; the Union troops advance up the steep slope through boulders and cannon fire and the narrator dies as the Union flag is planted atop the mountain.

Jim Lauderdale’s 2004 “Sandy Ford (Barbara Lee),” co-written with the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter, takes the form of a letter from a reluctant soldier (“I may point my gun and fire, but I won’t shoot to kill”) to his sweetheart back home. The lyric never discloses which side the solider is on as he crossed the Rappahannock River near Manassas, but his disgust with war is unmistakable. “What they do in civil war,” he sings, “in peacetime they call crime.” Mostly, however, Lauderdale’s narrator is missing his faraway Barbara Lee.

Rosanne Cash’s 2014 “When the Master Calls the Roll,” co-written with her ex-husband and her current husband, is a story of newlyweds separated by war, which sets up the wonderful line, “Can this union be preserved?” The Decemberists’ 2006 “Yankee Bayonet,” a duet between Colin Meloy and Laura Veirs, heightens a similar theme by contrasting the dead corpses on the field at Manassas with the pregnant wife back at home. Michael Fracasso’s 2011 “Red, White and Blue” applies those three colors not only to the flags but also to the flowers on a sweetheart’s grave.

Such songs of homesickness for parents and sweethearts are what soldiers prefer to sing in any war. One of the most popular songs during the Civil War, for example, was “Lorena,” an 1856 lyric penned by the Reverend Henry D.L. Webster for his far-away Ohio girlfriend Ella Blocksom. Many a soldier on either side of the conflict sang these lines around a campfire: “A hundred months have passed, Lorena, since last I held that hand in mine.”

Modern reinterpretations have been recorded by the likes of Del McCoury (on 2013’s Divided & United), John Hartford (on 1991’s Songs of the Civil War) and Jimmy LaFave (on 2011’s Dark River: Songs of the Civil War Era). But what did the song sound like when sung during the war itself? We’ll never know, of course, because Thomas Edison didn’t invent the first practical recording device until 1877, a dozen years after Appomattox, and American folk music went largely unrecorded until the 1920s.

But in that latter decade, there were still singers who had learned directly from parents, grandparents and neighbors who had been adults during the Civil War. Their renditions of those songs were persuasively close to the 1860s versions. Eighteen such performances, recorded between 1922 and 1931 are collected on last year’s The Year of Jubilo (a bonus track from 1974 is also included). “Lorena” is sung by a female duo known as the Blue Ridge Mountain Singers in 1930 in the Carter Family style, complete with autoharp.

Many of the other songs are similar longings for a distant lover, and many are sung by artists who faded from the historical record. But some legendary figures make appearances. Buell Kazee sings a lament for the soldier who wore “The Faded Coat of Blue.” Famous fiddler Eck Robertson is featured on two instrumental duets, and Fiddlin’ John Carson and Ben Jarrell (father of fiddle legend Tommy Jarrell) also show up. Most prominent, though, is one of the first-ever country stars, Ernest “Pop” Stoneman, who sings three songs. He aches for the “Sweet Bunch of Violets” that reminds him of a sweetheart and turns “John Brown’s Body” into a drinking song called “Pass Around the Bottle.”

Most tellingly, under the pseudonym of Justin Winfield, Stoneman sings “In Those Cruel Slavery Days,” the kind of 19th-century abolitionist song that is too conveniently forgotten these days. The most popular of those songs was Henry Work’s “Kingdom Coming,” written in 1862, a year before the Emancipation Proclamation, and turning up twice on this compilation.

The tune depicts Southern slaves rejoicing when the master flees his plantation in advance of the approaching Union forces. “He saw that smoke way up the river where the Lincoln gunboats lay,” cry the exultant slaves relaxing in the parlor. “He took his hat and left in a hurry; I expect he’s run away.” The song was recorded as “Old Master’s Runaway” by the McGee Brothers & Todd in 1927 and as “The Year of Jubilo” by Chubby Parker & his Little Old-Time Banjo in 1931. Both versions take aim at the war’s primary theme with the deadliest weapon of all: buoyant mockery.

From the Civil War to the 1950s/60s battle over segregation to today’s revival of the white supremacy movement, the unifying symbol has been the Confederate flag. Last year the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood used prose to address the issue for an op-ed column for the New York Times.

In that column he lamented that his early song, “The Southern Thing,” which declared that Southern identity “ain’t about no foolish pride, ain’t about no flag,” was so easily misinterpreted that audiences would wave the Stars and Bars during the tune at concerts. Hood then reworked that argument into a rock ‘n’ roll song, “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn,” on this year’s album. In it, Hood preaches that the South should embrace its promising, multi-cultural future and “cast aside the hurtful things that bear the fruit of scorn.”

Perhaps the best song about the Confederate flag and the lingering aftermath of the Civil War, though, is the Bottle Rockets’ 1993 number, “Wave That Flag.” “Wave that flag, hoss, wave it high,” lead singer Brian Henneman hollers at a passing pick-up truck with the Stars and Bars in the rear window. “Do you know what it means? Do you know why? Maybe being a Rebel ain’t no big deal, but if somebody owned your ass, how would you feel?”

That’s really the question, isn’t it? If someone had owned your ass—or the ass of someone in your family—how would you feel? What kind of song would you sing?