by Bobby Norton; Bobby Horton, 5245 Beacon Drive, Birmingham, AL 35210 .
Bobby Horton does not use the conventional language of the historian—he explains, for instance, that despite its Yankee genesis the lugubrious ballad “All Quiet along the Potomac Tonight” became popular around Southern campfires and thus was “a true crossover hit”—and yet his tape of Confederate Army war songs is an impressive and affecting piece of historical reconstruction.
Civil War soldiers were often poorly trained, poorly led, poorly fed, and poorly armed, but no two armies ever went into the field equipped with better songs. It is hard to say which side had the musical edge—the North may have had the best lyrics (“The Battle Hymn of the Republic”), but the South had the best tune (“Dixie”), and both sides sang it whenever they got the chance.
The songs, of course, reflected the temper of the armies: merry, homesick, melancholy, irreverent, and brave. The eighteen Horton has selected for his tape range from the sad and gorgeous “Lorena” to “Home Sweet Home”—another one popular with both armies—played on the hammer dulcimer. Here is “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” with stuffy lyrics trying to make this stirring Yankee song appropriate to the Southern cause, and a much more convincing transformation in which “Listen to the Mockingbird” becomes “Listen to the Minie Balls.” The postwar “I’m a Good Old Rebel,” with its chilling and childish grudge bearing (“Three hundred thousand Yankees are stiff in Southern dust/We killed three hundred thousand before they conquered us/ They died of Southern fever, of Southern steel and shot/I wish it was three million, instead of what we got”), is counterbalanced by the mellow lilt of “Long Ago,” a veterans’ celebration of the bold days of their youth sung to the tune of “When You and I Were Young, Maggie.”
The best of the songs are as rousing today as they were in the 1860s. Horton calls his renditions homespun because “I played and sang all of this music myself and recorded it here at my home on an old Teac four-channel tape recorder.” In fact, however, the performances are highly polished and full of verve and conviction. Horton brings us very close to the spirit of the army that, Stephen Vincent Benét wrote, “Swore and laughed and despaired and sang ‘Lorena,’/Suffered, died, deserted, fought to the end.… Who wept for the mocking-bird on Hallie’s grave/When you had better cause to weep for more private griefs.”