The Civil War and Rock Music; or “I try to be Greil Marcus”
(This is a longer post than I planned. Its about the American Civil War and Rock Music. And some other stuff. Enjoy…)
The excellent punk band Titus Andronicus has released a new album loosely based around the Civil War. The album is called The Monitor, named after the first ironclad produced by the North. Interspersed throughout the songs are spoken word clips of Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, Walt Whitman and some others. Yes that’s Craig Finn of the Hold Steady reading Whitman! The liner notes even have a bibliography (liner notes- another reason to buy cds, rather than feed Apple’s imperial greed…) citing James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and Stephen Oates’ John Brown biography, To Purge this Land with Blood.
This is after The Dimes, a Decemberist-lite band from Portland, who last year recorded a song called The Liberator about Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper. The Dimes stick to their lyrical narrative better than Titus do, but their music suffers in the process.
The Northern perspective on the Civil War is finally becoming well represented in popular music.
Anyways… I bring this up because the general narrative about the American Civil War is that the North won the war, but the South won the memory about the war. For most of the 20th century this persisted in popular culture. Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation, both two of the most important and influential films ever, are unredeemed pro-Confederacy propaganda. When I visited Gettysburg, I was told that the gift shops sell about 10 times as much Southern merchandise as Union merchandise (and remember Gettysburg was a rare Civil War battlefield that took place in the North).
And popular music has also generally maintained a strange fascination with both the South and the Southern perspective of the Civil War. Thus you get songs like The Night they Drove old Dixie Down (by Canadian Robert Robertson, covered by Civil Rights Campaigner Joan Baez) and more recently ‘Cross the Green Mountains (by Bob Dylan from Minnesota) in which non-Southerners take on the role of Southern soldiers. Despite the leftish leanings of these singers, the issue of slavery and racism are generally left out the story. The (mostly) forgotten White Mansions series, which told the saga of the Civil War from the Southern perspective, featured stars like Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, and Emmylou Harris and was written by, you guessed it, a Brit. And there are a thousand songs by non-Southerners about other Southern themes (Brown Sugar, Country Honk, shit, half the Rolling Stones catalogue, etc…)
So what’s up with this? Why, up to now, have there been so much rock music that seems to celebrate the Confederacy, and only now are we hearing the Northern side.
I would say there are two related aspects to this. First, as David Blight would say, is the long legacy of the Reconciliation and the Lost Cause myths. After Reconstruction, in a nutshell, the North and South reunited on the condition of Northern economic and political superiority but acceptance, even encouragement, of the Southern racial hierarchy. As Northern capital flooded the New South, Northerners forgot the universalist and utopian legacy of the Radical Republicans, while appreciating the cheap labor that resulted from segregation. Moreover the Northern middle class, terrified by waves of swarthy immigrants who formed unions and voted socialist, began to look favorably on the solidly Anglo-Saxon elite of the South. In this atmosphere movies like Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation found wide acceptance in the North. People like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, although themselves not racist, were unwittingly participating in the remnants of this culture.
That’s the historian side. The cultural side is that the South has symbolized something mythical, a place more authentic, more rugged that fulfilled a certain type of craving that 20th century artists had. Consider what Robbie Robertson (of The Band) said about writing The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down: “I went from Toronto to the Mississippi Delta, and … I liked the way people talked, I liked the way they moved. I liked being in a place that had rhythm in the air. I thought ‘No wonder they invented rock ‘n’ roll here. Everything sounds like music.” The song was Robertson’s ode to this attitude, his contribution to the hope that, in his words, “One of these days the South is going to rise again.”
In his excellent study of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, Greil Marcus invents what he calls Smithville, a geographic manifestation of the various characters- itinerant preachers, wife-murderers, bluesmen, hobos, con-men, etc…- who appear in old folk and blues songs. For Marcus it is this collective heritage of “Old, Weird America” Dylan was both drawing on, and ultimately transcending when he went electric. Smithville, of course, is a product of Marcus’ imagination. But wherever Smithville is, it certainly isn’t in New York City or San Francisco; nor is it the Berkshires or even, I suspect, Duluth, Minnesota where young Robert Zimmerman grew up. It’s by some crossroads in the Mississippi Delta, or Tennessee hill country, or maybe New Orleans or Memphis.
The dichotomy, in other words, has always been clear. The North is the side of America that is efficient, scientific, uptight, urban, productive, safe, repressed, square, and above all else modern; while the South is rural, gritty, mystical, pre-modern, authentic, dangerous, and strange. You still see this in movies like Benjamin Button or Big Fish, where the deep South is the setting for magical realism style narratives that would be out of place in Northern cities. In Easy Rider, the movie perhaps most associated with 60s pop music culture, the South is both a symbol of authenticity and excitement, but also of danger, and eventually death.
So for people like Robertson, pretending to be a Confederate soldier was a way to rhetorically enact this fantasy, to leave behind the boring middle class culture of the Canadian suburbs and get in touch with their primitive self, with an authentic America that was being drowned (so the narrative went) by consumerism and modernity. This fantasy- personal renewal through a return to a supposedly authentic pre-modern existence- is an old and enduring part of American culture. Sometimes these are racial fantasies, as in the white man who joins an Indian tribe (Dances with Wolves, Avatar), or the Irish immigrant in blackface who both detests blacks and longs for the rural past that they represent to him. (Is it a coincidence that the most important book which makes this argument, Eric Lott’s Love and Theft, has the same title as a Bob Dylan album in which Dylan introduces his “Jack Frost” mask-persona?) But it need not be a racial fantasy- and can take forms as various as Thoreau’s trip to Walden or George Hayduke, Edward Abbey’s anarcho-environmentalist hero.
For whatever reason, though, this schema seems less attractive to current rock music, at least in its Southern form. There are the Drive by Truckers, of course, but they are actually from the South and are far less celebratory of the South than bands in the past were.
Perhaps it’s the economic crisis, which has reduced our bourgeois malaise. You need to be middle class, in order to have anxiety about it, and our masters on Wall Street are doing their best to ensure none of us will ever have that particular curse. Perhaps the increased awareness of the racial politics of the Confederacy is responsible. Perhaps the sad destruction of mainstream Southern country music, at the hands of slick Nashville producers, has taken some of the charm out of Southern culture for many musicians.
For whatever reason, it seems to me that the popular narrative, at least within the shrinking world of popular rock music, is much friendly to the North than to the Confederacy at this point. I’m glad.
Anyways… this is probably more than you wanted to hear about Titus Andronicus and the Civil War. Here is a song of theirs as a reward for reading this: