The Civil War Re-Imagined in Music
Updated: Oct 17
A lot of good music is associated with the era of the American Civil War. Everyone knows “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Dixie,” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
But even into the present the Civil War occupies a powerful part of American musical consciousness–and not just American, as we shall see. Musicians in the last few decades have tried to put their own stamp on the Civil War experience, using history to capture their own sense of life and their favored narrative of the war. What follows are five songs of this kind.
The first two re-imagine the experiences of a white Union soldier and a white Rebel workingman. Ironically, neither was written by Americans. The Civil War’s fascination is not limited to the nation in which it took place.
1. The Horror of War “Gone to Shiloh” was written by the great British songwriting team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. It is from a 2010 album called “The Union,” a collaboration between John and Leon Russell (1942 – 2016), who is best known as a songwriter. Russell was as American as they come. John and Russell are joined in the vocals by Neil Young, another non-American, this time from Canada.
The song concerns a farmer named Luther who leaves his family to go fight for the Union. He ends up in the Battle of Shiloh, which was one of the bloodiest of the war. As he walks away from his farm in the rainy season, Young sings:
He’s headed for a different kind of thunder And the stunned surprise in the eyes of dying men.
Listen to the instrumental ornaments of the song: It begins with a watery piano part, suggesting a recording from the Civil War era, even though Thomas Edison did not invent the phonograph until twelve years after the war ended. A snare drum calls the soldiers to march and a trumpet imitates a bugle. The song is slow and has a trudging rhythm to it, like a line of weary soldiers. It is elegiac, a quality shared by many re-imagined Civil War songs, and although it speaks of flags and standing shoulder-to-shoulder, it in no way glorifies combat. Rather is suggests how terrible it is.
The song takes us to the middle of the battle, where “time passes slowly when flags and bullets start to fly” and Union victory and Luther’s survival are not certain. But at the end of the song the three singers intone ominously:
After all of this If we should prevail Heaven help the South When Sherman comes their way.
2. A Common Man Ground Underfoot While “Gone to Shiloh” was composed by British songwriters and tells of the experience of a Union soldier, our next song was written by a Canadian songwriter and tells of the experience of a Confederate workingman. The Band, as the performers came to be known, were originally a group of Southerners known as the Hawks who followed rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins to Canada. Eventually, all the Southerners dropped out and were replaced by Canadians, except for Arkansas-born drummer Levon Helm.
After breaking up with Hawkins the group came to America and backed Bob Dylan, developing a folk-based, country-influenced, old-timey sound, with hints of rhythm and blues and early rock. Miraculously this melange blended together as an indelible sound. They came into their own in 1968 and eventually recorded ten albums with their original line-up. Their farewell tour was immortalized in Martin Scorcese’s wonderful concert film “The Last Waltz” from which this video originates.
The Band featured various singers, but most of the songs were written or co-written by Canadian guitarist Robbie Robertson, although there is some dispute over authorship. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was written by Robertson and sung with a Southern twang by Helm:
The song concerns a workingman named Virgil Caine and his experience with the war. Notice his name is Caine, i.e. Cain, the man who killed his brother, an apt name for a partisan in a civil war. During the song, Caine is gradually crushed by the war. He loses his position working on the railroad because the Northern cavalry tears up the tracks. He ends up doing menial labor and is robbed of his product, like the slaves themselves. I believe the reference is to passing Confederate troops “requisitioning” firewood.
Now, I don’t mind chopping wood
And I don’t care if the money’s no good
You take what you need
And you leave the rest
But they should never
Have taken the very best
Finally his beloved brother is killed:
He was just 18, proud and brave
But a Yankee laid him in his grave
I swear by the mud below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up
When he’s in defeat
Note the double entendre with “raising Cain.” After the rebel defeat, Virgil’s family can no longer behave boisterously. They have been crushed into the mud. You might wonder whether it is morally acceptable to sympathetically portray a Confederate’s life. It’s problematic. As a poor working white, Virgil almost certainly didn’t own slaves. But he fought for those who did.
I am of two minds here. On the one hand, I think that a man like Virgil deserves to be heard and that we ought to extend him, if not actual sympathy, at least a sympathetic listening. But on the other, the song can be seen as an enactment of the “Lost Cause” narrative, in which Southerners romanticize their defeat and glorify their efforts. I think that the song is saved from the worst of that narrative by Virgil’s loss of status. It reflects what soldiers said at the time: “It’s a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.” There is no “the South shall rise again” pride to this song.
I seriously doubt that Canadians bought into the racist aspects of Southern history. What I would suggest they were intrigued by was the humbleness of Virgil Caine and the poignancy of his situation. The group no doubt could relate to the American South, which through its black and white musicians, was the origin of the group’s sound–and indeed of the sound of most of the world’s music today. For this song, the group is joined by a brass band of the type you would hear playing military-style songs in the park. The Band clearly wanted to snuggle up to those roots.
3. Free and Jubilant The next song’s performers, Last Forever, are as hard to classify as The Band. They are clearly in the folk-music orbit, but their music was written (or often adapted from older sources) by Harvard-trained classical composer turned folk-music aficionado Dick Connette and might feature something like a string quartet or a saxophone (definitely not a typical folk instrument!). Some have referred to the group’s music as “chamber folk.” The singer is the late Sonya Cohen, whose family on both sides were heavily involved with modern folk music.
The song, “Down the Road,” was based on a 1928 song by an old-time African American band called Cannon’s Jug Stompers. “Feather Bed” sings of the experience of a black man from the time of the end of the Civil War, when he was joyful, to the time of Jim Crow repression, when he gets into trouble with the law. I don’t know when “Feather Bed” was written. It might itself be a re-imagining of the Civil War era, but it seems to extend well beyond that time, so it is out of the scope of this essay. It is an enjoyable song, however, so here is a link to it.
Unlike our first two songs, Last Forever’s is not elegiac at all. It portrays what Connette, probably correctly, imagines to be the jubilation of a former slave freed to go where he wants. There is some harkening back to the travails of bondage, but the focus is forward-looking:
Once again notice the instrumental parts: a really energetic drum set, trombone, and banjo, backed by Connette on spinet (a kind of small piano). The overall sound is quite similar to New Orleans brass band music. (You might have heard this kind of music in depictions of New Orleans funerals, where brass bands are often to be found, but they are used in all sorts of situations.) However, brass bands do not typically use the banjo, which would be drowned out by the horns and which have been supplanted as a rhythm instrument by the drums.
The inclusion of a banjo in “Down the Road” is, if I may digress, interesting in its own right. It is featured on the song Connette adapted “Down the Road” from, but that was virtually the last gasp of its usage in the African American musical community, at least in the part that was recorded. The banjo is based on an African instrument and was an integral part of black music in America until the 1920s or 30s. It was even used in Louis Armstrong’s early jazz recordings. But it became associated with oppression and degradation. As black author Claude McKay wrote in 1929, “Banjo is bondage. It’s the instrument of slavery. Banjo is Dixie.” For this and other reasons, the banjo was largely abandoned by black musicians and became associated with white musicians in bluegrass and other “country” genres, only being reclaimed by black artists more recently. (Here is a stunning example of that reclamation: Rhiannion Giddens’ haunting interpretation of the spiritual “Round About the Mountain.)
I have no problem with Connette, who is white (or at least appears to be white in his photos), putting himself in the mind of a black man. That’s what empathy and a knowledge of history are for. The historical references in the lyrics, by the way, are really choice. The first two verses are both worth quoting:
I remember back before the war, I had trouble knocking at my door. But along come Father Abraham, With a pistol in his hand. Ooh baby, down the road I’m bound to go.
It all began with Captain Brown, The man who turned this world around. Now you got yours and I got mine– The bottom rail’s on top this time.
Ooh baby, down the road I’m bound to go.
“Father Abraham” is of course a reference to President Lincoln, but more specifically to the song “We are Coming, Father Abraham, 300,000 More,” written by sometime minstrel-song composer Stephen Foster, of all people. You can hear it here. “Captain Brown” is a reference to John Brown, who tried to start a slave insurrection in 1859 and whose mouldering body inspired not one but two Union songs. “The bottom rail’s on top this time” is a what a black Union soldier is supposed to have said when he realized he was guarding his former master.
Thus we see Connette pulling off a triple somersault of cultural appropriation–the best kind, where human beings share their achievements while giving credit to those who originated them.
4. Free, Sad, and Angry Another amazing song about the experience of emancipation comes from singer, songwriter, and bassist Laura Love. It is fitting that Love, whom I love, has re-imagined part of the Civil War era. She has spent much of her career reinventing herself as a kind of hillbilly musician. (She is from Omaha and is the daughter of renowned saxophonist and bandleader Preston Love.) Well, The Beach Boys weren’t really surfers, either. Self-reinvention is the American Way.
The song “Saskatchewan (Juneteenth)” is from Love’s 2007 CD “NeGrass.” The term “NeGrass,” pronounced KNEE-grass, is a portmanteau for Negress and bluegrass. It is an imagined history of Love’s family starting from the end of the Civil War. After Love’s grandmother is freed, she decides to head to Canada, “where they don’t grow no cotton.” (The real grandmother didn’t make it, but there is a colony of African-American-Canadians there whose ancestors did.)
Some readers might not be familiar with the word “Juneteenth” in the song’s title. It refers to June 19, 1865, when word of emancipation finally reached Texas, the last stronghold of the Confederacy. It is celebrated by some black people as their Fourth of July. Although “Saskatchewan” concerns emancipation, it is not jubilant like “Down the Road.” Listen for yourself:
Juneteenth has been declared a day of observance or a full-fledged holiday by 42 states and the federal government. There is a Juneteenth celebration flag that features red, white, and blue colors, a Texas star and a rising sun symbol:
“Saskatchewan (Juneteenth)” is not upbeat, as “Down the Road” is. It speaks bitterly about the anguish of being bought and sold. It is angry and determined. It does not forgive. Its message is “I am going to get the hell out of Texas.” But it is still hopeful about the uncertain future.
5. Mourning and Healing Our last song, paradoxically, was not written about the Civil War at all. Folk fiddler Jay Ungar wrote “Ashokan Farewell” as an expression of his sadness at the end of the Ashokan Music and Dance Camp one year. It is a mournful waltz featuring one or two fiddles, a guitar, and a bass or banjo. Filmmaker Ken Burns used it repeatedly in his epic documentary The Civil War. It is the only song on the soundtrack that was not written in the 19th century. (It was also featured, incongruously, on an album entitled “Songs of the Civil War.”) At one point in the documentary a letter from a major killed in the war is read over the tune. It is exquisitely beautiful, and I recommend listening to it at some point, but it does not use the full song, so I will not feature it here. Here is the version used most in the soundtrack:
This is to my mind one of the best pieces of American music ever written. It is appropriate for inclusion in a series about the most American of wars. But it also fits because it is mournful and promises healing.
I do not in any way question Jay Ungar’s achievement in writing and performing this song. He really wasn’t thinking about the Civil War. What bothers me to some extent is Ken Burns’s use of it.
The Civil War spawned a number of narratives, such as “the Brothers’ War” and the romanticized “Lost Cause.” In the Brothers’ War narrative in particular, mourning, an ideal of shared healing and a kind of nostalgia are emphasized. There clearly was some of that at the close of the Civil War, and it only increased over time. But for Union and Confederate veterans to consider themselves to be brothers, black veterans who fought alongside Northern soldiers and the black slaves the North came to fight for, had to be written out of the story, thus giving rise to a subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle racism. (For more about the development of this narrative, check out the book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.) Racism in the North only increased as the generation who had fought for emancipation and who had found comradeship with their black brothers-in-arms passed away. Then came the narrative that the war was caused by “fanatic” abolitionists rather than by entitled Southerners. This narrative persists in some history textbooks until this day. (See James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me for more about the staying power of this narrative.)
Ken Burns does not shy away from the horrors of slavery. But he seems to me to have understated the nearly psychopathic qualities of Southern leaders who massacred black prisoners, kidnapped freed blacks into slavery when they invaded Pennsylvania, and raped black women for two centuries. Maybe we can muster some sympathy for workingmen like Virgil Caine, but the planter class, the Confederate government, the Confederate idea, and all their works and pomps, must be renounced. Through I am sure no intention of his, Jay Ungar’s beautiful song has been pressed into service of an unacceptable re-imagining of America’s most troubled time, even as it is a fitting statement of grief and poignancy.
Conclusion Nietzsche said about the French Revolution in Beyond Good and Evil: “Noble and enthusiastic spectators across Europe have, from a distance, interpreted their own indignations and enthusiasms into it, and for so long and with such passion that the text has finally disappeared under the interpretation.”
Have things gone so far regarding the American Civil War? I would like to think not. But I think an attitude of “let the facts speak for themselves” is simple-minded. We need heuristics that will allow us to understand history. And I would go so far as to say that you need correct ethical premises, too. If you don’t see that racism is to be taken seriously, then you’ll go looking for causes of the war other than slavery. If you take a perfectionist moral stance that does not recognize that the best is often the enemy of the good, then you will end up wrongly condemning pragmatic leaders such as Abraham Lincoln.
Our five songs each have an, admittedly partial, interpretation of their own to offer. “Gone to Shiloh” is about the horrors of war. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is about the suffering of the common man. “Down the Road” is about the joy of freedom, while “Saskatchewan (Juneteenth)” does not let you forget what slavery was like. “Ashokan Farewell,” as Ken Burns used it in his re-imagining of the Civil War, was, perhaps too much a nod in the direction of the Brothers’ War narrative, but was also legitimately about mourning and healing. I think we need all these perspectives, and many more, to capture the whole truth about the Civil War. They are facets of a blood-red gemstone.