Blue Yodel #48 – Blue and Grey States

We’re two years into the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and, I don’t know about you, but it seems to me there hasn’t been a whole lot said about it. The anniversary of Antietam—the bloodiest day in American history—passed on 9/17 without much of a mention.

Maybe it’s the not-often-celebrated nature of a 150th anniversary, or that people are tired of our current blue vs. red state struggle (compared with the 1860s—or even the 1960s—it’s more of a spat). Or maybe we’re just waiting for Spielberg’s Lincoln to come out on November 16.

Whatever the reason, I’m bothered by the national amnesia about a war that took 600,000 lives. As a percentage of today’s population, that would be 6 million dead. The figure is from a PBS American Experience special Death and the Civil War based on a fascinating book by Drew Gilpin-Faust, This Republic of Suffering.

You can make an argument that although bluegrass dates from the 1940s, most of the sensibility of its lyrics comes directly from a late 19th century culture deeply affected by the constant presence of death.

Even the bluegrass fascination with mother songs can be traced back to the Civil War—songs like Be My Mother Till I Die and Just Before the Battle, Mother. In fact, according to Gilpin-Faust, there were so many mother songs that people began to write satires of them. One answer song to Mother Would Comfort Me was called Mother Would Wallop Me. You can look it up.

Songs sung during the Civil War are still some of the most beautiful melodies ever created: Aura Lee, Battle Cry of Freedom, and anything by Stephen Foster. A lot of these sings were written during the war, but a few come from just before it.

One of the most beautiful is Lorena, written in 1856 by Henry Webster and put to music the next year by Joseph Webster. It was taken up by both sides during the war as a song about a missed loved one. My favorite version is by John Hartford.

And, of course, songs about the Civil War continue to be written. Like the Bible, it’s a deep well of topics and characters. Mark Simos and IBMA Songwriter of the Year Jon Weisberger co-wrote Three Days in July, recorded by the Infamous Stringdusters.

Songwriter and producer Thomm Jutz has recently released a beautifully done two-volume collection of songs about the war called The 1861 Project, which is well worth checking out.

Tim O’Brien has a great song on his Traveler album called Restless Spirit Wandering about a union soldier wandering the earth. And the Gibson Brothers have touched on the war with Sam Smith and Safe Passage.

Perhaps the most well-known bluegrass jam song written about the Civil War is Rebel Soldier, recorded by the Country Gentlemen and sung by Charlie Waller.

The first song about the Civil War I remember hearing by a bluegrass band was Claire Lynch’s version of Don Oja-Dunaway’s beautiful Kennesaw Line, which I’ve always thought of as a template for a well written song.

I better not start listing songs here (see list below) because I’m sure to forget a lot of them.

I wrote a song called 13 Steps about Mary Surratt, who was hanged for her role—a dubious one—in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy. Bluegrass content: Mary is a distant relative of Ben Surratt, bluegrass recording engineer extraordinaire.

And Bobby Osborne recorded my song Shenandoah Wind, originally recorded by Eric Uglum (with Alison Krauss singing harmony) on his album of the same name, about the last thoughts of a confederate soldier. Eric also has a beautiful instrumental solo guitar version of Battle Cry of Freedom on the album. He generously agreed to make both available, so if you click on these links you can stream them in full:

I—like many of you, I’m guessing—want to know more songs from or about the Civil War, so I asked my closest Facebook friends for their favorites. I got a big response and have listed the songs below along with a modest attempt at artist or songwriter.

If you know of any that are not listed here (or if I need to correct something), please feel free to add yours in the comment section.

If there’s one thing all these songs show, it’s that we have a common heritage and a common humanity that transcend our differences. It’s a lesson we apparently have to learn over and over again.

Luckily, we have the songs to help us.

Songs from or about the Civil War:

  • Andersonville – Billy Ed Wheeler
  • Ashokan Farewell – Jay Ungar
  • Atlanta is Burning – Boys From Indiana
  • Battle Cry of Freedom – Eric Uglum
  • Blue-Eyed Boston Boy
  • Centreville – Dave Goldman
  • Dear Sister – Claire Lynch & Louisa Branscomb (to be released in 2013)
  • Dodworth’s Drum – Keith Howard
  • Graycoat Soldier – Gary Brewer and the Kentucky Ramblers
  • Johnson Boys
  • Kennesaw Line – Claire Lynch (written by Don Oja-Dunaway)
  • Last Letter Home – Sam Bush
  • The Last Time You’ll See Jenny – McPeak Brothers
  • Lorena (1857) – written by Henry Webster (lyrics) and Joseph Webster (music)
  • Lost Soldier’s Son – Chris Brashear
  • Mountaineers Are Always Free – Scott Holstein
  • My Brother Paul And Me – New River Line
  • My Sitting Window – Blue Moon Rising
  • Not a Word of That Be Said
  • Play Dixie For Me
  • The Rebel and the Rose – Becky Buller & Tony Rackley
  • Rebel’s Last Request – Bluegrass Cardinals
  • Legend of the Rebel Soldier – Charlie Waller
  • Reflections of Love – Paul Adkins
  • Restless Spirit Wandering – Tim O’Brien
  • Rose of Alabama – Craig Smith
  • Shadow of the Grave – Dennis Walters
  • Shenandoah – Charlie McCoy
  • Shenandoah Wind – Chris Stuart
  • Soldier’s Answer – Dennis Walters
  • Someone Play Dixie – Dry Branch Fire Squad
  • Sticks That Made Thunder – Steeldrivers
  • Stranger – Dave Rowe
  • Thirteen Steps – Chris Stuart
  • Three Days in July – Infamous Stringdusters (Jon Weisberger & Mark Simos)
  • Two Little Boys
  • Vacant Chair – Kathy Mattea

Compilations:

 

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About the Author

Chris Stuart

Chris Stuart is a writer and songwriter living in San Diego. He was the 2008 recipient of the IBMA Print Media Person of the Year award, co-writer of the 2009 IBMA Song of the Year, and past winner of the Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting contest in bluegrass and gospel categories. You can follow him on Twitter @cvstuart, on Facebook, and at www.chrisstuart.com. On Tuesdays you can find him having fish tacos at Roberto’s in Del Mar.

  • Robert Troutman

    Great version of Shenandoah Wind! Nice list Chris.

  • Jerry B

    Kennesaw Line, first version by Claire Lynch and the Front Porch String Band still gives me chill bumps even today. Such a haunting story sung by a vocalist that knows how to sing with emotion like no other. One great recording! I love ya Claire!

  • Ivor Trueman

    There’s also the Don Reno, Red Smiley And The Tennessee Cut-Ups album ‘Folk Songs Of The Civil War’ (King 756) 1961:-

    The First Shot / Shiloh / Antietam / Stonewall’s Brigade / Jeb’s Black Horse Brigade / Gettysburg Recalled / V.M.I.S. Gallant Hour / The Battle Of Atlanta / Virginia’s Heritage / Confederate Flag / Lee’s Command / Appomattox

    All tracks can also be found on the Gusto Reno & Smiley ’59-63′ 4CD set.

  • Jon Weisberger

    Thanks for the mention of The 1861 Project albums; they’re really cool, if I do so say myself. Here’s a song I wrote with Thomm Jutz and Charley Stefl for Volume One, called “Battle Of The Bands” – a true story that the people really seem to like…

    http://youtu.be/g2SkSU5hH1A

  • David Morris

    The Gibson Brothers also recorded “Last Letter Home,” and The Travelers are cutting it on a CD that should be out sometime after the first of the year.

  • Nick Barr

    Actually ‘Legend of the Rebel Soldier” as popularized by the Country Gentlemen is actually a song written by Charlie Moore based on a song “Legend of the Irish Rebel” recorded by Mac Wseman and others and based on a traditional Irish song. Charlie wrote a lot of great original songs; it’s ironic that possibly his best known one was a re-write.

  • Steve Hardy

    Heartily agree with Jerry Brooks; Claire and the band do an incredible version of Kennesaw Line on both the studio and later live albums. The song’s narrative makes you weep. The song is taken from the writings of Sam Watkins, a Confederate infantryman who wrote Company Aytch. It is one of the few chronicles written about the Civil War from the perspective of an enlisted soldier (most were written by officers), and is a wonderfully interesting read documenting both the humor and horror of this war. Highly recommended reading.

    • Katie Litteral

      Claire mentioned Co. Aytch to me a while back when I told her I learned to play Kennesaw Line on the autoharp. I am currently in the middle of reading it now and immensely enjoying it. I did however have to jump right to the part on the Kennesaw Line battle, then go back to the beginning.

  • KcKc

    What, no Silver Bugle? Charlie Sizemore? I typically don’t favor songs like this, but I have to admit, it’s a good one…check it out.

  • Katie Litteral

    Just wanted to note that when Jay Ungar of ‘Jay Ungar & Molly Mason’ originally wrote their every popular “Ashokan Farewell” it was not about the Civil War at all. According to Jay
    “I composed Ashokan Farewell in 1982 shortly after our Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps had come to an end for the season. I was feeling a great sense of loss and longing for the music, the dancing and the community of people that had developed at Ashokan that summer. I was having trouble making the transition from a secluded woodland camp with a small group of people who needed little excuse to celebrate the joy of living, back to life as usual, with traffic, newscasts, telephones and impersonal relationships.”
    “Filmmaker Ken Burns heard the album [Watlz of the Wind] in 1984 and was immediately taken by Ashokan Farewell. He soon asked to use it in his upcoming PBS series The Civil War. The original Fiddle Fever recording is heard at the opening of the film, and this and other versions are heard twenty five times for a surprising total of 59 minutes and 33 seconds of the eleven hour series. Ashokan Farewell is the only contemporary tune that was used.”

    http://jayandmolly.com/ashokanfaq.shtml

  • Ivor Trueman

    There’s also Larry Sparks’ “He Walked All The Way Home” (David Norris, Gunny Sack Music) from his “Coldest Part Of Winter” album…

    “In the grim and final hours of the war between the ‘States… He had enough dying, all the grief he could take…”

  • Ivor Trueman

    Another by Larry Sparks – “Last Day At Gettysburg” from his ‘Blue Mountain Memories’ album (Rebel, 1996)…

    This one is also featured on the Rebel compilation ‘Last Day At Gettysburg: Songs About The Civil War’ (with Country Gents, Seldom Scene, Blue Highway, Claire Lynch, Lost & Found, Jimmy Arnold).