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:
- The 1861 Project, Vols. 1 and 2
- Cold Mountain Soundtrack
- Songs of the Civil War, Columbia Records, 1991
- Songs of the Civil War (Leroy Troy, Johnny Gimble, and others)
- White Mansions (Paul Kennerly)