Profile

Bob Dylan and the American Civil War

By John Murray

 

This article originally appeared in 'Crossfire' magazine, August 2013 (No 102)

 

In his review of the film "Gods and Generals" in the October 2003 issue of "Crossfire" (No. 72), the magazine of the ACWRT(UK), Brian Moriarty commented that the soundtrack, apart from Mary Fahl's "Going Home", was "disappointing". This was in contrast to Tony Arundell who, in his review of "Gods and Generals" in the April 2004 issue of "Crossfire" (No. 74), expressed the view that the film's Edelmann/ Frizzel score was one "to die for". Brian went on to state that "Bob Dylan's tuneless (emphasis added) "Cross (sic) the Green Mountain" is crying out for someone to sing who has some melodic appreciation (emphasis added)". I suspect that this somewhat negative appraisal has been the only mention of Bob Dylan in the pages of "Crossfire". To this writer, it was an inspired and most appropriate choice for Dylan to have been asked to write and perform the song played over the closing credits of the film. Dylan, it is worth remembering, was already an Academy Award Winner (for best song, in the film "Wonder Boys" (2000)) and, of course, he wrote and performed the soundtrack on Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid".


Dylan - the songwriter

 

In his notes accompanying Dylan's triple CD compilation "Tell Tale Signs - Rare and Unreleased 1989 - 2006". Larry Sloman refers to the time Dylan spent in the New York Public Library reading about the Civil War era and comments that that preparation illuminates what, in Sloman's opinion, might be Dylan's finest hour as a song writer. To Sloman's ears, the backing is understated, the organ and violin providing a haunting, funereal atmosphere. As for the lyrics, I agree with Sloman that they are impressive. Sloman highlights: "A letter to Mother came today / Gun shot wound to the breast is what it did say /But he 'II be better soon he's in a hospital bed / But he'll never be better, he's already dead". Historian Sean Wilentz points out in his book, "Bob Dylan in America", that in "'Cross the Green Mountain", Dylan incorporates lines from various sources such as Hermann ("Moby Dick") Melville, W. B. Yeats and Henry Timrod. the so-called poet laureate of the Confederacy. Indeed, Wilentz goes on to state that the song contains images and lines from sources that range from Henry Lynden Flash's "Death of Stonewall Jackson", Nathaniel Graham Shepherds's "Roll-Call", Frank Perkins and Mitchell Parish's 1934 jazz standard "Stars Fell on Alabama" to, a nice touch this, Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic"!

 

Dylan seems to have been particularly impressed by Timrod as several lines from Timrod's poetry have been "adapted" for inclusion in lines in a number of songs in Dylan's "Modern Times" album. Derek Barker, in the November - December 2006 issue of Dylan fanzine "Isis" (No. 129, at pages 23 - 24). reporting on research by Scott Warmuth of Albuquerque, lists several Timrod poems with lines which have "matches" in Dylan songs. For example, lines from Timrod's poem "Two Portraits" match lines in Dylan's "When The Deal Goes Down" and "Spirit On The Water"; lines from "A Vision Of Poesy - Part 1" match lines in Dylan's "When The Deal Goes Down" and "Beyond The Horizon"; a line from "Sonnet 13" matches a line in "When The Deal Goes Down"; a line in Timrod's "Kati" also matches a line in Dylan's "Beyond The Horizon"; and lines from Timrod's "Our Willie" are matched in lines of "Rollin' and Tumblin"'. Barker identifies an earlier "use" by Dylan of Timrod's poetry, pre-dating "Gods and Generals", with lines from Timrod's "A Vision Of Poesy - Part 1" matching lines in Dylan's 2001 album "Love and Theft". Dylan expert Clinton Heylin, in his book "Still on the Road - The Songs of Bob Dylan Vol. 2 1974 - 2008", sees echoes in "'Cross The Green Mountain" from Michael Shaara's "Killer Angels". Heylin refers to a passage, in Shaara's book, describing Lt. Col. Arthur Fremantle of the Coldstream Guards witnessing the second day of the battle of Gettysburg: "all the feet and wheels...moving in together like two waves meeting in a great ocean" while Dylan sings of a "monstrous dream" of something coming up out of the sea and sweeping "through the land of the rich and the free". Heylin does not make the point but it is one that could be argued that while the pro-Union and pro-Southern viewpoints balance out in the film "Gettysburg", there is a pronounced pro-Southern emphasis in "Gods and Generals" in which there is really only one significant pro-Union voice, that of Jeff Daniels' "Chamberlain". The latter point (Chamberlain being the sole pro-Union voice in "Gods and Generals") is made by Wilentz (although he does not refer to the film "Gettysburg" and the balance achieved in that film in the expression of both Southern and Unionist views).

 

Heylin too refers to some of the "sources" Dylan weaves into his song. Apart from Timrod's poem "Charleston". Heylin refers to Melville's poem "The Scout Towards Aldie" (a depiction of John Singleton Mosby's death) which provides Dylan with phrases such as "brave blood to spill" and "the ravaged land was miles behind" (Heylin, op. cit. 471 - 472). (In passing, it is worth mentioning here that Dylan had previously used images of the Civil War in his songwriting, most notably, perhaps, in his 1980's song "Blind Willie McTell". The song is peppered with phrases such as "ghosts of slavery's ships", "the crackin' of the whips", "see them big plantations burnin'", "hear them rebels yell" and "this land is condemned". Blind Willie McTell was a black singer of the blues and gospel songs, many of which were recorded by Blind Willie in Atlanta in the 1930's. Ironically, Blind Willie had a great grandfather who fought in the Civil War. Reddick McTyeir, a white man, who served with the 22nd Georgia Infantry throughout the war in the Eastern Theatre. But that is a remarkable tale for another time!)

 

Dylan - the re-enactor

 

Wilentz recognises a sense of balance in Dylan's contribution to "Gods and Generals", particularly in the accompanying promo video released with the DVD of that film. It is a further measure of how seriously Dylan took this project that he appears in the promo video. In the video. Dylan in civilian clothing, is accompanied by two members of his backing band, Tony Gamier and Larry Campbell. There are scenes depicting camp life: soldiers playing music, having their photographs taken, as well as soldiers receiving medical treatment - and death. Wilentz states the camp life depicts both Union and Southern soldiers although that was not immediately obvious to me. The video is interspersed with some images from the film. Additionally, albeit fleetingly, it can be seen that some of the video was shot in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, where scenes were filmed on 23 November 2002. Wilentz points out that, notwithstanding the equal-handedness of the video as a whole, Dylan is seen visiting the grave of a Confederate cavalryman. The grave is that of a Captain W. R. Jeter of the 13th Virginia Cavalry. Dylan appears holding what seems to be a Civil War era photograph, probably of a Confederate soldier but I have seen nothing which would lead me to suppose it is actually of Jeter himself. Not a great deal is known of Jeter. His Compiled Military Service Records show that he enlisted on 17 May 1861 at Petersburg, Virginia. He was appointed 1st Lieutenant. He was promoted to the rank of Captain on 1 October 1862. Just over three weeks later. Jeter suffered a head wound in a cavalry skirmish near Bristoe Station. Virginia. Hospital records show that Jeter died of his wound at the Confederate military hospital in Culpeper Court House on 26 October 1862.)

 

Dylan - the researcher

 

Dylan's manifest interest in the Civil War had been reflected in his output over several years prior to his involvement in "Gods and Generals". (I have earlier made reference to Dylan's song "Blind Willie McTell".) He has shown this on many occasions, and in several different ways, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. In his autobiographical "Chronicles Volume One", Dylan describes certain key episodes in his life and career, and includes numerous references to the Civil War. Dylan, who was born in 1941 and brought up in Minnesota, claims to have learnt little, during his high school and college days, of the 19th century conflict, stating there were no great battles fought in his home state. Dylan name-checks a few: Bull Run (Manassas), Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and, interestingly, Peachtree Creek. It was only when he moved east to New York, in 1961. to begin his career as a folk singer that, during visits to the Public Library, he immersed himself in the history of the conflict. Dylan, it appears, paid particular attention to contemporary newspapers such as the Memphis Daily Eagle, the Savannah Daily Herald, the Brooklyn Daily Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Pennsylvania Freeman and the Chicago Tribune. By his own account. Dylan was absorbing the social and cultural history of those times. Dylan was intrigued by the rhetoric and the language of the period 1855 to 1865. Dylan states he recognised that slavery was not the only issue of concern. He read news items of child labour, rising crime, reform movements, religious revivals, temperance, anti-gambling groups and so on. Dylan writes of Virginia plantation "slavecrats", of Northern cities with debt out of control, fiery orators like Bostonian William Lloyd Garrison, riots in Memphis, in New Orleans, in New York. And Dylan writes of Lincoln and his depiction in newspapers, full of caricatures. "You wonder how people so united in geography and religious ideals could become such bitter enemies" ("Chronicles", op. cit.. pp. 84 -86). Dylan describes a difference in the "concept of time" with Southerners living their lives "with sun-up, high noon, sunset, spring, summer" while Northerners "lived by the clock" - they had to "be on time".

 

As a newcomer to the "Big Apple", Dylan stayed at the apartments of various people involved in the "folk scene" listening to their record collections and reading voraciously from their book shelves. In "Chronicles" (op. cit., p 38), Dylan writes of reading a biography of Robert E. Lee and expresses the view that "it was on his word and his alone that America did not get into a guerrilla war that probably would have lasted 'til this day". A couple of pages later on and Dylan is describing reading a biography of "Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican". Stevens made a big impression on Dylan being someone who, like Teddy Roosevelt or J.P. Morgan, could have stepped out of a folk ballad. Dylan records discussing the Civil War with his new friends and fellow folk singers such as Dave Van Ronk who apparently took a decidedly Marxist view of the conflict, branding the Yankees as imperialists. The "folk" milieu was clearly left leaning and, in 1960's America, had much to protest about. Dylan developed his early career and his image by writing many so-called "protest songs", such as "Blowin' in the Wind", "The Times They Are A-Changin"', "Masters of War". "With God on our Side" and so on. The playwrite Archibald MacLeish particularly liked Dylan's song "John Brown" about a boy who goes off to war. It was MacLeish who talked to Dylan about the novelist Stephen Craine and recommended Dylan to read "The Red Badge of Courage".

 

Dylan - the performer

 

Dylan's career has lasted 50 years and has ranged through folk, rock, country & western, blues, gospel and much, much more. From small auditoria to the vast stadia such as Wembley, from one-off concerts for charity to multi-city concert tours, Dylan has performed his own unique songs and, increasingly, over the second half of his career, featured classic folk and blues songs. It was after a lengthy gap in touring, punctuated by occasional concerts such as the 1968 benefit concert for Woody Guthrie and the 1969 concert at the Isle of Wight Festival, that Dylan embarked on a much hyped tour with The Band in 1974. The first concert was in Chicago on 3 January 1974. Both Dylan and The Band performed their separate sets as well as performing together. It was at this concert that Dylan performed The Band's own "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", a highlight of The Band's eponomously titled second album. The song was written by The Band's Robbie Robertson but was evidently heavily influenced by The Band's drummer, Levon Helm who sang the song on the album. Helm, who hailed from Arkansas, has written about taking Robertson, a Canadian, to the library to research the history and geography of the civil war. The song succinctly evokes the pain of the South, in the figure of Virgil Caine who served on the Danville train until the tracks were torn up by General Stoneman's cavalry, and his people who, in the "Winter of '65, <...> were hungry, just barely alive". At the end of the song, Virgil Caine laments "when Richmond it fell, it's a time I remember oh so well".

 

From 1988, Dylan has toured every year. In the 1990's an often performed song was the traditional ballad "The Lakes of Pontchartrain":

 

"I said "Me pretty Creole girl, my money

here 's no good

And if it weren 't for the alligators. I 'd sleep

out in the wood."

" You 're welcome here kind stranger,

Our house is very plain.

And we never turned a stranger out. on the

banks of Ponchartrain ".

 

The ballad is commonly described as telling the tale of an Irish Confederate soldier (deserter?). Lost and far away from home, his Confederate scrip worthless, he meets a beautiful girl who gives him shelter. Derek Barker, in his book "Bob Dylan Under the Influence - The Songs He Didn't Write" (pp 244- 245). explains the confusing background to this folk song, whose origins are lost. Some have said the song was based on a British ballad and originated during the War of 1812, a claim dismissed by Barker.

 

Another song which can definitely be traced to the American Civil War, performed by Dylan at many concerts between 1988 and 1994, and recorded for his 1993 album "World Gone Wrong", is "Two Soldiers", sometimes known as "Blue-eyed Boston Boy".

 

"He was just a blue-eyed Boston boy.

His voice was low with pain.

I'll do your bidding. comrade mine,

If I ride hack again, but if you ride back and

I am left,

You'll do as much for me. Mother, you know,

must hear the news,

So write to her tenderly."

 

According to Derek Barker (op. cit. pp. 367- 368), the song originates from a longer ballad called "The Last Fierce Charge". Michael Gray, in his "Encyclopedia", states that the song is also known as "The Battle of Fredericksburg" (op. cit. p. 11).

 

"World Gone Wrong" features another ballad associated with the Civil War, at least so associated by Michael Gray. In Dylan's version of "Jack-a-Roe". a disguised woman, who had claimed she would not be upset "to see ten thousand fall", wanders over a battlefield in search of her lover. According to Barker, however, the song, under the title "Jack Munro", can be traced back to between 1774 and 1825. Moreover, the traditional lyrics tell the story of a woman who dresses as a sailor and follows her lover to sea where he has been called upon to fight. According to Michael Gray, in some versions of the song, the woman actually takes part in the battle. The traditional version of the song has a happy ending with the woman being re-united with the lover whose wounds are healed by a doctor. In Dylan's version, it is ambiguous as to whether or not the lover is a survivor among the dead and wounded on the battlefield.

 

Dylan - the film-maker

 

Dylan's career reflects an intense interest in, and knowledge of, cinema. Not only has he used the language and images of cinema in his songwriting, he has acted in films (such as the aforesaid "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid") but he has also produced his own films which have generally met with lukewarm praise at most. Dylan's "Renaldo and Clara" (which records performances from his Rolling Thunder Review tour of 1975 interspersed with improvised scenes in which he and his tour party perform multiple roles) runs to about 4 hours, even longer than "Gods and Generals"! Around the same time as the making of the latter film, Dylan was producing his own film "Masked and Anonymous", in which he acts and performs songs in his role of "Jack Fate". Dylan co-wrote the film with its Director, Larry Charles. Set "somewhere in America" in the throes of a modern day civil war, Dylan and Charles utilise artifacts from pre-Civil War America. Wilentz, for example, identifies a phrase used in the film lifted from the description of slaveholding, Democrat Republican president Andrew Jackson by anti-slavery former president John Quincy Adams, in 1833: "the dark princes, the democratic republicans, working for a barbarian who can scarcely spell his own name". My favourite scene from the film is that in which Jack Fate is asked to perform a classic rock protest song such as "Won't Get Fooled Again". He and his band produce a rousing, rock version of "Dixie"! The film, full of Shakesperean, Biblical and Greek mythological references, was panned by the film critics (although music critics were more generous about the soundtrack) and, like "Gods and Generals", it was a box office flop.

 

Excerpts from various newspaper interviews given by Larry Charles while promoting "Masked and Anonymous" appeared in the "Wicked Messenger" section of the October - November 2003 issue of Dylan fanzine "Isis" (No.111) The interview reported that Dylan and Charles mostly wrote the film script at Dylan's offices, starting in 1999. According to Charles. "Once, when we got together, he'd (Dylan) stopped at a Civil War cemetery (presumably Hollywood) and the bleakness and sadness and poetry of it was really moving to him. And we talked about it for hours". This visit to the cemetery by Dylan would appear to have pre-dated the shooting of the "'Cross the Green Mountain" video.

 

Dylan interested in the War of 1812?

 

Just to bring this short piece to a conclusion, and up to date, it is interesting to me that in his latest album, "Tempest", issued in September 2012, Dylan refers to another 19th century North American conflict, the largely forgotten War of 1812. In his song "Narrow Way", appearing as it did during the bi-centenary of the start of that war, Dylan refers to the British burning down the White House in Washington D.C. Bearing in mind that some believe the song "Jack-a-Roe" originated in America during the 1812 - 1814 conflict, out of an earlier British folk song, this may suggest another avenue of research: Dylan and the War of 1812! However, it seems that Dylan has maintained his interest in 19th century American poets. Perhaps as a counter-balance to his use of Timrod's poetry, Wiebke Dittmer, writing in the November - December 2012 issue of "Isis", identifies Dylan's "borrowings" from the verse of John Greenleaf Whittier in several songs in "Tempest". Whittier, according to Dittmer, was an abolitionist of Quaker faith. Dittmer identifies a phrase in Dylan's song "Tin Angel" from Whittier's poem "Brown of Ossawatomie", i.e. John Brown.