Sunday, May 29, 2011

Folk Songs For Memorial Day

The sesquicentennial remembrances of the Civil War have stirred something that runs very deep in me, in part because I have been a CW buff my entire life - and because I remember so vividly that as a boy 50 years ago I watched the calendar daily and reflected on the battles and events of that tragic cataclysm during the centennial observations. It was, of course, that war with its more than 600,000 dead that gave rise to observations of Memorial Day, officially beginning three years after Appomattox in 1868, though in both North and South communities had already begun to honor the war dead before then.

The songs of the Civil War from both the Union and the Confederacy were among the first folk-type songs that I ever learned. I was a piano student at the time of the centennial, and my parents got me a book of piano arrangements for the songs of the era, as well as an LP called Billy Yank and Johnny Reb by the wonderful Chicago folk performer Win Stracke. Most of the songs had a single and known author, but the best of them became so universally known and sung (as had "Yankee Doodle"a century earlier) that they became for all practical purposes traditional - sung by the millions of soldiers on both sides who seldom had any idea who wrote them. The writers themselves - including giants like George F. Root and Henry Work - seemed to have been flattered rather than chagrined at the widespread but often uncompensated use of their songs.

What struck me about many of these songs, even as a boy, was their reflective and mournful quality - and not surprisingly, the almost universal "wishing for the war to cease." "It is well that war is so terrible," said Robert E. Lee after a total and heinously bloody victory at Fredericksburg, Virginia, "otherwise we would grow too fond of it." Lee caught perfectly there the paradox of Memorial Day. We wish to honor those who gave "the last full measure of devotion" without losing sight of the fact that the military and war are sad and grim necessities in a brutal and dangerous world. In what is a massive and ironic conundrum, we commemorate the dead most completely when we strive most mightily to try to insure that such sacrifice is never repeated. That may well be a Utopian "strangest dream," but then, so once was the thought that a nation could be governed as a democratic republic. It is only such a dream that can beget such a reality.

Our first selection today is a song that has haunted me for all these decades, Walter Kittredge's "Tenting Tonight On The Old Campground," performed here by Tom Roush:

What a wonderful and poetic lyric - "many are the hearts that are weary tonight/Wishing for the war to cease..."

The Confederate equivalent of "Tenting Tonight" was actually written before the war by HD Webster. But "Lorena" was quickly adopted by soldiers throughout the South, especially as the war dragged on. Tom Roush here again:

Only one problem for me with this arrangement - virtually everyone who sings it today (including greats like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings and John Hartford) affect a contemporary country swing and syncopation. I could not find a single recorded version that presents the song as written - as a slow-tempoed 4/4 time ballad.

George F. Root was probably the greatest of the Civil War songwriters, and the two selections from him presented here show why. First, the haunting "Just Before The Battle, Mother" sung by one of the great talents of the last half century, Marty Robbins:

Root's best-known and most enduring number is certainly "The Battle Cry of Freedom." The backbone of this arrangement from The Weavers is the duet on the verses between Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert, both blessedly still with us:

Rousing, yes and most certainly - but the cost of "no man shall be a slave" is clearly referenced by "the vacant ranks." A captured Confederate officer is reported to have said of Root's masterpiece, "If we'd a-had your songs, we'd a-whipped you, hands down."

Scholars have never ascertained the exact origin of the two "Johnny" songs. It was long believed that "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" of Civil War vintage was derived from the earlier Irish "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye" - but there is a distinct possibility that it was the other way around. The latter song has always been a favorite of mine, here from British operatic baritone Benjamin Luxon with American banjoist and folksinger Bill Crofut:

I always liked Tommy Makem's solo performance supported only by Bruce Langhorne on guitar at the 1961 Newport Folk festival. It's quiet, reflective, and touchingly bitter, but it has been blocked on YouTube for copyright reasons.

The more contemporary songwriters have also catalogued some of the other costs of war. Tom Waits wrote the surprisingly sentimental (for him) "The Day After Tomorrow" in 2004. I like Joan Baez's unvarnished rendition of this:

Rod McKuen wrote "Doesn't Anybody Know My Name?" (aka "Two-Ten, Six-Eighteen") in 1962, likely thinking of the forgotten veterans of the Korean War, though eerily pre-figuring the emotional casualties to come from Vietnam:

This rendition is from the wonderful and recently-released Flashback CD of a 1963 concert by the Kingston Trio. The inimitable Bob Shane sings lead, and you can hear why many believe him to have had the best voice of the pop-folk era.

But the aforementioned Utopian dream of a world without "guns and swords and uniforms" persists, and it finds perhaps its greatest expression in Ed McCurdy's classic "Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream." I always thought the best version of this song was by the Chad Mitchell Trio, here from their 1986 reunion show, joined by Mitchell's replacement in the group, John Denver:

The group still closes its shows with "Dream."

To close, we come full circle - the first episode from the Civil War series by Ken Burns, in my opinion the high-water mark of television in U.S. history, closed with the reading of the remarkable letter of Sullivan Ballou, written to his wife shortly before the Battle of Bull Run, spoken over Jay Ungar's modern yet classic-sounding "Ashokan Farewell":

A blessed and thoughtful Memorial Day to all.

No comments: