BAT­TLE HYMNS: SONGS OF CON­FED­ER­ATE CUL­TURE

Pasatiempo - - TERRELL’S TUNE-UP -

It’s the war that never seems to end.

Last month’s killing of nine peo­ple at Emanuel African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church in Charleston re­opened a lot of old wounds; the young man who po­lice say has con­fessed to the crime re­port­edly had the de­luded hope of start­ing a race war. Dy­lann Roof didn’t ac­com­plish that. But what he did spark was another in­tense na­tional de­bate about the Con­fed­er­ate flag, the na­ture of the Con­fed­er­acy it­self, and the mean­ing of the Amer­i­can Civil War.

And what do you know? The scars still are too ten­der to de­clare this de­bate done.

The bat­tle over Con­fed­er­ate cul­ture has been fought in the world of mu­sic as well — and I’m not just whistling “Dixie.” Here is a look at a hand­ful of the mu­si­cal shots fired in the past 50-some years.

▼ “The Burn­ing of At­lanta” by Claude King. This 1962 sin­gle was the fol­low-up to Claude King’s big­gest hit, the coun­try clas­sic “Wolver­ton Moun­tain.” In many ways, the song — which con­cerns Gen. Wil­liam Sher­man’s torch­ing of the Ge­or­gia city in Nov. 1864 — fits in the “faux folk song” phe­nom­e­non of that era, songs like Johnny Hor­ton’s “The Bat­tle of New Or­leans,” “El Paso” by Marty Rob­bins, and Bobby Bare’s “Miller’s Cave.” But “At­lanta” has an edge to it, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing what was go­ing on with the civil rights move­ment in the South in 1962. King singing, “We don’t care what the Yan­kees say, the South’s gonna rise again,” was more than a lit­tle charged in this con­text.

▼ “Down in Mis­sis­sippi” by J.B. Lenoir. For some rea­son, blues­man J.B. Lenoir’s swampy tune, recorded in Chicago in 1966, didn’t get a frac­tion of the air­play that “The Burn­ing of At­lanta” re­ceived. Lenoir def­i­nitely wasn’t fan­ta­siz­ing about the South ris­ing again. As far as he was con­cerned, things hadn’t re­ally changed that much from the old days. Lenoir had been writ­ing top­i­cal blues and protest songs since the ’50s. “Mis­sis­sippi” is his finest. “They had a huntin’ sea­son on a rab­bit/If you shoot him you went to jail/The sea­son was al­ways open on me/No­body needed no bail.”

▼ “An Amer­i­can Tril­ogy” by Mickey New­bury. Elvis Pres­ley turned this haunting med­ley into a show­stop­per for his live per­for­mances in the mid-’70s. But it was rene­gade Nashville song­writer Mickey New­bury who put the three songs — “Dixie,” “Bat­tle Hymn of the Re­pub­lic,” and “All My Tri­als” to­gether. It is a sweet plea for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Hat tip to the online pub­li­ca­tion Sav­ing Coun­try Mu­sic for re­cently re-pub­lish­ing Chris Cam­pion’s liner notes to New­bury’s An

Amer­i­can Tril­ogy com­pi­la­tion al­bum, which fo­cuses on New­bury’s per­for­mance of “Tril­ogy” at a Hol­ly­wood night­club in 1970. Cam­pion de­scribes “All My Tri­als” as “a Ba­hamian lul­laby turned plan­ta­tion spir­i­tual.” He con­tin­ues, “It fit so well, form­ing a breach and sym­bol­iz­ing a quiet revo­lu­tion to the other two songs, charged as they were by their as­so­ci­a­tion with Civil War con­flict.” Cam­pion says that New­bury’s wife was con­cerned that the Con­fed­er­ate an­them “Dixie” would of­fend Odetta, the iconic African-Amer­i­can folksinger who was in the au­di­ence that night. But from the stage, New­bury him­self “could see Odetta’s eyes glis­ten as they welled up, her face shine as the emo­tion stained her cheek.”

▼ “If the South Woulda Won” by Hank Wil­liams Jr. Had the South won the Civil War, Hank Wil­liams Jr. sug­gests in this 1988 ditty, it would be so cool. We’d celebrate Ken­tucky bour­bon, Ca­jun cook­ing, Elvis, Patsy, and his dad. The Supreme Court would be in Texas where they’d ex­e­cute crim­i­nals quicker to avoid all those bor­ing ap­peals and em­bar­rass­ing ex­on­er­a­tions. The girls all would have sexy South­ern ac­cents. All this, plus slaves! ▼ “Ron­nie & Neil” by Drive-By Truck­ers. The Truck­ers’ 2001 al­bum South­ern Rock Opera is a con­cept al­bum about what front­man Pat­ter­son Hood calls “the dual­ity of the South.” This song is the strong­est. It starts off talk­ing about the 1963 Birm­ing­ham church bomb­ing. (“Four lit­tle black girls killed for no god­damn good rea­son,” Hood sings.) Then it gets into the rhetor­i­cal back and forth be­tween Lynyrd Skynyrd singer Ron­nie Van Zant and Neil Young, who had writ­ten a cou­ple of dis­parag­ing songs about the South (“South­ern Man” and “Alabama”). Van Zant in “Sweet Home Alabama,” re­sponded, singing, “I hope Neil Young will re­mem­ber South­ern man don’t need him around any­how.” But Hood points out that in real life Ron­nie and Neil be­came pals, a sym­bol of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

▼ “Wave That Flag” by The Bot­tle Rock­ets. This song, from the 1993 de­but al­bum of the in­flu­en­tial alt­coun­try band from Fes­tus, Mis­souri, deals di­rectly with the stars and bars. “Wave that flag, hoss, wave it high/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?” ▼ “Take it Down” by John Hi­att. This stark and mourn­ful

song from John Hi­att’s Cross­ing Muddy Wa­ters al­bum from 2000, starts out talk­ing about lost love and ends up com­ment­ing on the is­sue of the Con­fed­er­ate flag fly­ing over the South Carolina capi­tol. The mes­sage is that peo­ple should re­al­ize when they’ve been de­feated — be it a ro­mance or a civil war — and stop cling­ing to sym­bols of the past.

▼ “The Lost Cause” by The Leg­endary Shack Shakers. Over the strains of what sounds like a player pi­ano, in this 2010 tune, J.D. Wilkes de­scribes a bat­tal­ion of un­dead Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers. It’s not re­ally a ghost story; it’s a refu­ta­tion of his­tor­i­cal revisionism that glo­ri­fies the Con­fed­er­acy: “A com­pany of skele­tons in rags/March home un­der tat­tered white flags/Dusty Bi­bles and deep empty pock­ets/Dark dreams and deeper eye sock­ets/ We ain’t right in the head and our women lay dead/ We’re the losers who chose the Lost Cause.” The fi­nal verse seems even more omi­nous af­ter Charleston: “From the dirt where they plant us,/‘Sic sem­per tyran­nis!’/ May we one day avenge our lost cause."

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