Saturday, September 05, 2015

REWIND: Civil War songs ... "I’m a Good Old Rebel," but assuredly not like this.

Within a block of my home, two separate windows sport confederate battle flags, and just this morning a Facebook friend posted a photo taken in downtown Louisville.

Photo credit: TL.

The flag issue received little play at this blog, primarily because all one can do as a civilized person is shake his head and lament the enduring perversity of bad taste. Experience hath shown that it's simply impossible to legislate good taste.

Following is a rerun of a post I wrote on July 17, 2011. It again seems topical today.


Civil War songs: "I’m a Good Old Rebel," but assuredly not like this.

During the mid-1970’s, I spent way too much time pillaging the LP collection at the NA-FC Public Library, borrowing albums and committing them to cassette tape. These archival finds delightfully augmented my nascent musical tastes with a sheer breadth of material that would have been fiscally impossible for a high school student to manage on the open market.

Taxpayers of the time are duly thanked for the opportunity.

The Bicentennial year came in 1976, and at some point afterward, probably as late as 1978, I noticed the arrival of numerous attractively packaged LPs at the library: A 100-album set called The Recorded Anthology of American Music, produced by New World Records. The idea, as originally funded by a Rockefeller Foundation grant, was (and is) to trace the history of America through its music. As you can see by following the New World Records link, the effort continues more than three decades later.

As a side note, an almost completely intact, second set of the Anthology was placed at WNAS, New Albany High School’s radio station; I saw it there while substituting teaching during the early 1980’s. Seeing as the vast bulk of the original albums present classical works and formal composition, these had not been touched by discerning high school students. Only a handful of LPs were missing. Whether at the library or the high school, this set of albums was a mother lode for me.

Appropriately in this sesquicentennial Civil War year, I’ve been listening to Songs of the Civil War (New World Records 80202), with liner notes by Charles Hamm. It’s always been my favorite of them all. I've chosen just one of the songs to examine today: "I'm a Good Old Rebel," which to my mind illustrates the ultimate success of Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy -- which was still playing out on the ground when these liner notes were written, about to come to fruition under Ronald Reagan during the 1980's.

These days, it's the Republicans and Tea Partiers who are singing these songs. Isn't that plagiarism or something?


I’m a Good Old Rebel
Many Southerners refused to be “reconstructed.” Some went west after the war, a few went abroad, and many of those who stayed in the South nursed a deep hatred for the North for the remainder of their lives while outwardly conforming to the realities of postwar life. These intense feelings brought about a political climate that unified the South against the Republican Party for almost a century. Rarely has hatred been so directly and convincingly expressed as in these lyrics.

A number of mysteries surround the present song. American War Songs claims that it was entered for copyright by A. C. Blackmar in Louisiana in 1864, yet the words were clearly written after the war. The earliest edition gives “J.R.T.” as the author, yet most historians of song agree that the tune was known as “Joe Bowers” and was by R. Bishop Buckley of Buckley’s Minstrels, the text by either Adelbert Volck or Major Innes Randolph, a “cultivated Southerner of letters. ”This edition (used for the present recording) appears to have been published in New Orleans in 1866 and bears an ironic dedication to “the Honorable Thad. Stevens.” The first musical phrase differs from the version printed in such anthologies as Songs of the Civil War and Singing Soldiers, though the remainder of the music is almost identical.

It may well be that most of these allegations are true, that the many contradictions in this story can be resolved. The tune may have been known in oral tradition before the Civil War: many of its melodic turns, and its use of a “gapped” or incomplete scale (the fourth note is absent, and the seventh is barely touched on), are characteristic of much Scotch-Irish traditional music. Buckley may have appropriated the tune, perhaps polishing it to make it conform more nearly to the tastes of minstrel-show audiences; a certain number of minstrel songs, including “Old Dan Tucker” and “De Boatman’s Dance,” show similar evidence of having been adapted from oral tradition tunes. Volck, or Innes, or both may have fitted a new topical text to a tune they knew either from folk tradition or the minstrel repertory.

This text was probably too extreme to be widely circulated in a printed version, even in the postwar South, and its chief popularity was as a song passed on by ear through several generations. It seems not to have appeared in print between the one edition in 1866 and the several versions taken down from oral tradition in the middle of the present century, and the differences between the nineteenth- and twentieth-century versions are not unusual for a song that has bounced back and forth between written and oral versions. On this album it is sung in an unaccompanied version.

Whatever the case, the song in all its versions is yet another demonstration of the intensity of feeling aroused by the war.

O I’m a good old Rebel,
Now that’s just what I am,
For this “Fair Land of Freedom”
I do not care AT ALL;
I’m glad I fit against it,
I only wish we’d won,
And I don’t want no pardon
For anything I done.
I hates the Constitution,
This great Republic, too,
I hates the Freedman’s Buro,
In uniforms of blue;
I hates the nasty Eagle,
With all his braggs and fuss,
The lyin’, thievin’ Yankees,
I hates ‘em wuss and wuss.

I hates the Yankee nation
And everything they do,
I hates the Declaration
Of Independence, too;
I hates the glorious Union—
’Tis dripping with our blood—
I hates their striped banner,
I fit it all I could.

I followed old mas’ Robert
For four year near about,
Got wounded in three places
And starved at Pint Lookout.
I cotch the roomatism
A campin’ in the snow,
But I killed a chance o’Yankees,
I’d like to kill some mo’.

Three hundred thousand Yankees
Is still in Southern dust;
We got three hundred thousand
Before they conquered us;
They died of Southern fever
And Southern steel and shot,
I wish they was three million
Instead of what we got.

I can’t take up my musket
And fight ‘em now no more,
But I ain’t going to love ‘em,
Now that is sarten sure;
And I don’t want no pardon
For what I was and am,
I won’t be reconstructed
And I don’t care a dam.

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