In recognition of veterans world-wide, we recall one of the most evocative war songs in the bluegrass music cannon, Curly Seckler’s Purple Heart.
As told by Penny Parsons ….
Curly Seckler wrote Purple Heart in 1952 when he was based in Lexington, Kentucky, and working at WVLK in Versailles with Jim and Jesse McReynolds and Hoke Jenkins. The band was called The McReynolds Brothers and the Cumberland Mountain Boys at that time. Curly had been in Lexington earlier with Flatt & Scruggs (he appeared with them on the Kentucky Mountain Barn Dance repeatedly from September 1949 through March 1951). He also performed on the Barn Dance with the Sauceman Brothers in 1951, and then brought the Stanley Brothers to Lexington at the end of that year. In February 1952 he brought the McReynolds Brothers to the Barn Dance, and they remained based in Lexington until the summer.
The United States was involved in the Korean conflict at that time. In early 1952 Curly received a poem in the mail from a radio listener, which inspired him to write the song, Purple Heart. It is a poignant story, written from the perspective of a mother who is mourning for her son who has been killed in action and was awarded a Purple Heart. According to Jesse McReynolds, “Curly did that song on stage [as a solo] all the time. t was one of our featured numbers that we did.”
In June 1952 the McReynolds Brothers landed a recording contract with Capital Records and went to Nashville for their first sessions at Castle Studio in the Tulane Hotel. Purple Heart was one of the songs they took with them to record. [The original lyrics are printed below.]
Curly recalled the experience ……
I helped them [Jim & Jesse] do their first recording, on Capital Records. It’s got Purple Heart on it. That’s a number that I wrote back then. I’ll never forget it, Ken Nelson, was the A&R man at that time. We didn’t have no fiddler and we wanted a fiddler on it, so we got Sonny James to come in and do the fiddle for us. And Bobby Moore did the bass playing. Hoke Jenkins played banjo, and I held the guitar. I didn’t dare try to play a mandolin around Jesse McReynolds. So I mentioned something about, we had a number about the war, you know, Purple Heart. Ken says, ‘I don’t want no more of that!’ He says, ‘I want no part of that.’ And Jim, I think, he said, ‘Well, I just want you to hear this, just a little bit of this one.’ So we sung a little bit of it, and he [Nelson] said, ‘Let’s record it!’ And that tickled me, you know. That’s been a good number for me, it sure has.
Though Curly had been singing the song as a solo, they recorded it with Jim singing tenor harmony and Jesse singing baritone. “That’s when we learned to sing a trio with him on that,” Jesse explained. Of the session, Jesse recalled that, “They had one mic for us to sing and play through, and one extra mic for the bass.” Among the other songs recorded at that session were Are You Missing Me, I Will Always Be Waiting for You, and Just Wondering Why. However, by the time the first single was released, the group had disbanded and Jim and Jesse had returned home to Bristol, Virginia. Curly soon received a call from Lester Flatt and he re-joined the Foggy Mountain Boys in Raleigh, North Carolina. From there they went immediately to Knoxville, Tennessee, to perform at WNOX and the Tennessee Barn Dance.
Curly went back to performing Purple Heart as a solo with the Foggy Mountain Boys. He continued to perform the song throughout his career, and in 2004 he recorded it again, with Laura Weber Cash singing tenor harmony. It was released in 2006 on Curly’s Bluegrass, Don’t You Know CD on Copper Creek Records (CCCD 0243). Though Curly originally wrote the song about the Korean War and mentioned Korea in the chorus, its message is universal. Red Allen recorded Purple Heart in the 1960s and substituted “Vietnam” for “Korea”. For his most recent recording, Curly replaced “Korea” with “overseas”.
“They sent him overseas, his heart was light and gay, it’s hard for me to realize they sent him home this way. His troubles are all over, his work has been well-done. A mother has a Purple Heart in memory of her son.”
(Curly Seckler, Peer International Corp., BMI, 1952)
Another heart is broken, another home so sad
Another message has been sent to his mom and dad
“Your son was killed in action,” was the way this message read
My son will not be coming home, they told me he was dead.
They sent him to Korea, his heart was light and gay
It’s hard for me to realize they sent him home this way
His troubles are all over, his work has been well done
A mother has a purple heart in memory of her son.
Just a few short months ago, he was here with me
And then they called his number, to go across the sea
I still can hear his happy voice and see his curly head
Oh, somehow I can’t believe my baby boy is dead.
I know that he is happy, now, away up in the sky
He’ll never have to fight no more, or see his buddies die
Jesus now has called him to live up there on high
But I won’t say goodbye to him, we’ll meet him again sometime.
Published with permission. All rights reserved.
Here’s a video of Curly performing the song in 1985 with The Nashville Grass. In his introduction he misspeaks when suggesting that the song was written in the ’40s.
More recently, Curly Seckler wrote similar song called Letter to the Captain. It is written from the perspective of a little boy who is missing his father who has been sent overseas to fight in a war. Seckler recorded this song on his Down in Caroline album (Copper Creek CCCD-0236), released in 2005.
Both Copper Creek albums are available direct from Curly Seckler in his online store.
Penny Parson’s Curly Seckler biography, Foggy Mountain Troubadour, is also available online, and at fine bookstores everywhere.