Categories
Historic America

Civil War Ballads: Rock of Chickamauga

This chipper tune was recorded by Jimmy Driftwood for his 1961 album Songs of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb. It gives a rather unflattering account of Major General William Rosecrans’ performance at the Battle of Chickamauga, while praising Major General George H. Thomas’ dogged defense of Snodgrass Hill, which arguably saved the Union army from destruction. This action earned Thomas the nickname, “Rock of Chickamauga.”

Major General George H. Thomas
Major General George H. Thomas

Chick Chick Chickamauga
Chick Chick Chickamauga

Bragg came down the river
with Longstreet by his side
It was an awful battle
and many a soldier died

The rebs came through the wheatfield
Rosecrans ran away
But George Thomas stood his ground
and saved the Union on that day

He was the rock (He was the rock)
of Chickamauga (Chicka Chicka Chickamauga)
The solid rock (the solid rock)
of Chickamauga (Chicka Chicka Chickamauga)

He faced the foe
He stood his ground
No one could push that Yank around

Categories
Historic America

Civil War Ballads: Rebel Soldier

“Rebel Soldier” is a popular folk song about a Confederate soldier pining for home. Waylon Jennings performed it on the album Songs of the Civil War (1991) by Columbia Records, and it was also performed by The Cumberlands on the album Appalachian Mountain Bluegrass – 30 Vintage Classics (2007). According to the Civil War Trust, it is a folk song from Southern Appalachia.

The National Park Service estimates between 750,000 and 1.23 million men served in the Confederate armed forces between 1861 and 1865. 69 percent of workers in the Confederate states were farmers, which means they probably didn’t venture too far from home. The war took them hundreds of miles away, and many feared they would never see home or their loved ones again.

Andrew Blevins, 30th North Carolina; John Baldwin, 50th Virginia; and Ephraim Blevins, 37th North Carolina, were captured at Gettysburg on July 3, 1861. Civil War photographer Mathew Brady took this photo, which became a famous depiction of Confederate soldiers.
Andrew Blevins, 30th NC; John Baldwin, 50th VA; and Ephraim Blevins, 37th NC, were captured at Gettysburg on July 3, 1861. Mathew Brady took this photo, which became a famous depiction of Confederate soldiers.

Oh Polly, Oh Polly, its for your sake alone
I have left my old Father, my Country, my home
I have left my old Mother to weep and to mourn
I am a rebel soldier, and far from my home

The grape shot and musket and the cannons lumber lie
Its many a mangled body the blanket for the shroud
Its many a mangled body left on the fields alone
I am a rebel soldier and far from my home

Here is a good old cup of brandy and a glass of wine
You can drink to your true love and I will drink to mine
You can drink to your true love and I will lament and moan
I am a rebel soldier and far from my home

I will build me a castle on some green mountain high
Where I can see Polly when she is passing by
Where I can see Polly and help her to mourn
I am a rebel soldier and far from my home

For such an old tune, it has remarkably few variants. Most versions retain the original lyrics, but folk singer Bobby Horton added this stanza:

Categories
Historic America

Civil War Ballads: Cumberland Gap

The Cumberland Gap is a narrow pass through the Cumberland mountain range, which is part of the Appalachian Mountains, near the junction of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. Appalachia gave birth to bluegrass music, so it’s not surprising songwriters would chronicle the cultural and historic significance of the Cumberland Gap.

There are many versions of this popular bluegrass tune. Some only briefly mention events from the Civil War. This version, performed by the Cumberlands on the album Appalachian Mountain Bluegrass – 30 Vintage Classics (2007), devotes the first five stanzas to the Union occupation of the Cumberland Gap in 1862.

Union Brigadier General George W. Morgan
Union Brigadier General George W. Morgan

Lay down boys, take a little nap
Lay down boys, take a little nap
Lay down boys, take a little nap
14 miles to the Cumberland Gap

September mornin’ ’62
September mornin’ ’62
September mornin’ ’62
Morgan’s Yankees all withdrew

Burned the hay, meal*, and the meat
Burned the hay, meal, and the meat
Burned the hay, meal, and the meat
All the rebels had nothin’ to eat

Braxton Bragg and his rebel band
Braxton Bragg and his rebel band
Braxton Bragg and his rebel band
Run George Morgan in the Bluegrass land

Categories
Historic America

Civil War Ballads: Shiloh’s Hill

Shiloh’s Hill is a moving tribute to the men who fought and died at the Battle of Shiloh, April 6–7, 1862. Just before sunrise, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston’s 40,000-strong Army of Mississippi attacked Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s 55,000-strong Army of the Tennessee at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. The battle shocked the combatants with its brutality. 23,700 total soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured. It took its name from Shiloh Church, where the Union army first put up a defense.

The version of this song I’m familiar with, sung by the 97th Regimental String Band, was featured in Classic Images’ Civil War 125th Anniversary Series VHS (1987) on the Battle of Shiloh. It was, by far, my favorite episode in the series. A veteran of the battle wrote the original lyrics, but they have been adapted and changed over the years.

In 1961, folk singer-songwriter Jimmie Driftwood released the following version, “On Top of Shiloh’s Hill,” on his album Songs of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb.

Come all you gallant soldiers, a story I will tell,
about the bloody battle on top of Shiloh’s Hill.
It was an awful struggle that caused your heart to chill,
all from the bloody battle on top of Shiloh’s Hill.

‘Twas on the sixth of April, about the break of day,
The drums and fifes were playing, for us to march away.
My feelings at that moment, I do remember still,
When first my feet were tromping on top of Shiloh’s Hill.

About the hour of sunrise, the battle first began,
Before the fight was over, we fought them hand-to-hand.
The horror of that battle, my heart with anguish fill,
the wounded and the dying on top of Shiloh’s Hill.

Categories
Historic America

Bread and Gravy

On my recent trip through the South, I played some folk music for the ride and came across this catchy tune, “Bread and Gravy.” I found several different versions online, but couldn’t find the lyrics to this particular one, performed by J.E. Mainer & The Mountaineers with Morris Herbert on the album Appalachian Mountain Bluegrass – 30 Vintage Classics (2007). The song laments the effect of high inflation, as the dollar becomes so worthless his family can only afford to eat bread and gravy, even though everyone is working. At a time when everyone has a smartphone, it’s hard to imagine being so poor things like meat, milk, and butter are unaffordable luxuries. When you think about it, gravy is just melted fat thickened with wheat flour or cornstarch. My grandma used to save the grease from cooking bacon and other meat and reuse it. Imagine pouring that on dry bread for flavor every day of the week!

bg3I read in the paper this mornin’
That a dollar just ain’t worth a dime
We used to pay cash for our roast beef
And can afford pork chops sometimes
We used to eat liver and onions
With these two we never went wrong
But lately I’ve noticed a difference
And that’s why I’m singin’ this song

On Monday we have bread and gravy
On Tuesday it’s gravy and bread
On Wednesday and Thursday it’s gravy on toast
But that’s only gravy on bread
Friday it’s rye bread ‘n gravy
On Saturday it’s whole wheat instead
Sunday’s a treat, ’cause we can’t wait to eat
We have gravy without any bread

[We’d settle for beans after this Sunday.
Kinda cheap, you know…]

My pa’s making more than he ever
My ma’s babysittin’ at night
My brother’s a working, he’s raking in dough
Somehow the picture ain’t right
Now everyone’s working at our house
You can’t count the money we’ve made
The high cost of living has got us
Say, Bill, could you spare a steak?

On Monday we have bread and gravy
On Tuesday it’s gravy and bread
On Wednesday and Thursday it’s gravy on toast
But that’s only gravy on bread
Friday it’s rye bread ‘n gravy
On Saturday it’s whole wheat instead
Sunday’s a treat, ’cause I can’t wait to eat
We have gravy without any bread