Friday Five: Songs About the Civil War

Ken Morton, Jr. | December 2nd, 2011

As 2011 nears an end, also does the National Parks Service 150 Year Anniversary Celebration of the Civil War. Up and down the East Coast, Civil War battlefield sites have been holding special sesquicentennial commemorations and displays honoring the good, the bad and the ugly of America’s most tragic war. Over 600,000 Americans perished over a span of just four years.

In 1999, a Broadway musical opened up appropriately named The Civil War. It starred Larry Gatlin, John Schneider and BeBe Winans. It also featured two young actors, Royal Reed and Chris Roberts, who would go on to form 2/3 of the country trio One Flew South. That show spawned an album of country music contemporaries singing songs from the musical. It opens up with Charlie Daniels reading the following powerful statement to open the record  (If you don’t own this record, track one down- it’s fantastic.):

 

On the twelfth of April, 1861

Confederate guns opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor

Thus beginning the bloodiest conflict in American History

620,000 dead, more than all other American wars combined

The Civil War remains this nation’s single most defining experience

Ultimately giving new meaning to the word freedom

Walt Whitman, a young newspaperman

Destined to become America’s greatest poet wrote

Future years will never know the seething hell

And the black infernal background of this war

And it is best they should not

The real war will never get in the books

Before this anniversary ends, Engine 145 would like to honor those that have passed with a tribute in sound. We present to you this week’s Friday Five: songs about The Civil War. There are numerous songs about the war, and, of course, songs dating back to the war that are still played and recorded today: what are your favorites?

 

5. Lefty Frizzell – “Ballad of the Blue and Grey”

Brothers Jimmy and Billy take up different sides of the battle. They meet at Gettysburg and Jim finds his brother after a fateful charge. Frizzell calls it, “a battle that both sides had to lose no matter which one won.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PO6fL7C2o5o

 

4. Johnny Horton – “Johnny Reb”

The term Johnny Reb was the name that the Confederates gave themselves as a national personification of the Southern states of the United States. The Union countered with Billy Yank.

 

3. Johnny Cash – “The Big Battle”

“For see over there where we fought them, it’s quiet for they’ve all gone away
All left is the dead and the dying, the Blue laying long side the Gray
So you think the battle is over and you even lay down your gun
You carelessly rise from your cover for you think the battle is done
Now, boy, hit the dirt, listen to me, for I’m still the one in command
Get flat on the ground here beside me and lay your ear hard to the sand
Can you hear the deafening rumble can you feel the trembling ground
It’s not just the horses and wagons that make such a deafening sound
For every shot fired had an echo and every man killed wanted life
There lies your friend, Jim McKenney, can you take the news to his wife?”

 

2. Charlie Moore – “The Legend of the Rebel Soldier”

As a Confederate soldier lays dying in a Union prison, he asks the preacher if his soul is going to pass through “Old Virginia Grand” before he goes.

 

1. Waylon Jennings – “The Ghost of Robert E. Lee”

Sixty miles from Richmond, a Confederate division digs in and prepares for a Union assault. Jennings sings, “Sure as hell that sundown came a hundred thousand men/And it sure did shock me, Lord, kin killing kin/The cannonballs were heavy filled with iron and steel and lead/And the James River water ran a bloody red.”

  1. JL
    December 2, 2011 at 9:06 am

    Kathy Mattea – “The Vacant Chair”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nL_AFJWazjU&feature=fvst

  2. idlewildsouth
    December 2, 2011 at 10:11 am

    I am a huge Civil War buff. Have been since I was little. Of course, being from the South, being a civil war buff means something altogether different than it may for some other people. I work in Franklin Tn, and Wednesday was the 147 anniversary of the Battle of Franklin. It was rather moving to be sitting at the edge of the battlefield at the time the battle began.

    Scott Miller has some really good civil war songs:

    Dear Sarah
    The Rain

    Bobby Bare recorded a Shel Silverstein civil war song called The Hills of Shiloh that’s pretty moving.

  3. OldRockr1
    December 2, 2011 at 11:11 am

    Two really good, albeit from different perspectives than most civil war songs, from The SteelDrivers:

    Sticks that Make Thunder and Can You Run.

  4. Jon
    December 2, 2011 at 11:37 am

    Well, now, a lot of folks like this one that I wrote with Mark Simos a few years ago:

    studio recording here: http://music.thestringdusters.com/track/three-days-in-july

    live performance video here: http://youtu.be/GuyJDymc600

    Here’s what Juli had to say about it in her review of the album for Pop Matters:

    “The Infamous Stringdusters doesn’t have one bad song on it. However, one stands out from the rest. “Three Days in July” is a story about the Battle of Gettysburg as seen through the eyes of an adolescent boy who encounters a Rebel soldier. The song’s refrain, “I learned things I never knew”, juxtaposed with the strangely tender meeting between boy and soldier, displays both the horrors as well as the moments of compassion that occurred in the Civil War.”

    There’s also an entire album of new Civil War songs called The 1861 Project that I co-wrote some songs for (http://www.1861project.com); you can listen to the various tracks here: http://1861project.com/tracks-and-credits .

  5. Chickette
    December 2, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Way to self-promote, Jon.

  6. bob
    December 2, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    some more civil war songs:

    “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” – Suzy Bogguss, based on a Longfellow poem written toward the end of the Civil War.

    “Sparrow” – solely written and recorded by Hal Ketchum, from his Father Time album.

    “Soldiers Joy 1864″ written by Guy Clark and Shawn Camp

    I saw my first Civil War re-enactment this past Oct. 15th. It was for the Battle of Franklin.

  7. Jeremy Dylan
    December 2, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is hard to go past for me.

  8. Jon
    December 2, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    It’s the new music business model.

    That “Soldier’s Joy 1864″ is one scary song.

  9. Barry Mazor
    December 2, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    Some may recall my raising The 1861 Project here:
    http://www.engine145.com/roots-watch-refresh-revive-repeat-rethink/

  10. luckyoldsun
    December 2, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    For a great one, how about Steve Earle’s “Ben McCulloch.”

    And for a loopy one, there’s Hank Jr.’s “If the South Woulda Won.”

  11. Jack Williams
    December 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    Dave Alvin’s Andersonville.

  12. Jack Williams
    December 2, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    Also:

    Dixieland – Steve Earle

    Last Letter Home – I know it from Sam Bush’s Late As Usual Album

    Two Soldiers – Covered by many. I first heard it on Norman Blake and Tony Rice 2.

  13. Matt Merta
    December 4, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    Being a CW reenactor and a continual student of the war, I could probably write an entire book on the music. I will refrain from mentioning any re-makes of the period songs, and want to mention the two modern songs that have truly moved me:

    Dave Alvin “Andersonville” – I played this one for a lot of my reenactor buddies and it got them into his music. Dave and I have been friends for years, and this is one of his best early narratives.

    The SteelDrivers “Sticks That Made Thunder” – What a great perspective, from a tree standing on the battlefield.

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