Remembering the Old Songs:

The Homespun Dress

by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, July 1998)

Last month Lyle wrote briefly about Civil War songwriters. It will, perhaps, come as a surprise to fans of "southern" music that all the good songwriters of that era were Northerners. Henry Clay Work, the greatest of all, was an abolitionist, and his chief competitor, George F. Root (The Battle Cry of Freedom, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, The Vacant Chair) was also a fervent Unionist.

Even in the south, most of the favorite songs (Lorena, When This Cruel War is Over, even Dixie) were adopted from Northern sources, often with some slight adaptions to Southern opinions.

This doesn't mean that the South didn't have folk poets; the number of (generally rather bad) Civil War pieces in Randolph's Ozark Folksongs proves that. But the South didn't produce much in the way of popular music. There were only a handful of exceptions to this. One was Harry McCarthy's patriotic The Bonny Blue Flag. Another was James Randall's Maryland, My Maryland. The third was the category of sentimental songs. The two best sentimental songs of the war, in my opinion, were The Southern Soldier Boy (Barbro Buck) and The Homespun Dress. Both, interestingly, adopted Irish tunes. The Southern Soldier Boy uses The Boy with the Auburn Hair; The Homespun Dress uses the tune The Irish Jaunting Car -- the same melody as The Bonny Blue Flag, but slowed down dramatically.

The author of the song is unknown, though Carrie Bell Sinclair's name is sometimes attached to the lyrics, as is that of a "Lt. Harrington." Wherever the words came from, they were well-known in the South by the end of the war.

The text here is the fullest I was able to find. Frankly, I think it's too long, but by printing this, I'm less likely to leave out your favorite lyric. The version I sing comes from Elizabeth Corrigan (don't ask me who she is), and consists of stanzas 1, 2, 5A+3B, and the chorus.

"Old Abe's blockade," mentioned in the third stanza, refers to the Union blockade of southern ports. This kept southern cotton in, and European goods out. Since the South had steadfastly and stupidly refused to accept the industrial revolution (a refusal that was in fact the ultimate cause of the war), it meant that the South had no access to industrial goods, and had to capture them from the North (as it did with most of its munitions) or recreate them by primitive means. This song celebrates the archaic methods used to produce clothing.

Homespun Dress

Complete Lyrics:

Oh, yes, I am a Southern girl,
And glory in the name,
And boast it with far greater pride
Than glittering wealth or fame.
I envy not the Northern girl,
Her robes of beauty rare,
Though diamonds grace her snowy neck,
And pearls bedeck her hair.

Hurrah! Hurrah!
For the sunny South so dear;
Three cheers for the homespun dress
The Southern ladies wear.

My homespun dress is plain, I know,
My hat's palmetto, too;
But then it shows what Southern girls
For Southern rights will do.
We have sent the bravest of our land
To battle with the foe,
And we will lend a helping hand;
We love the South, you know.

Now, Northern goods are out of date;
And since old Abe's blockade,
We Southern girls can be content
With goods that Southrons made.
We sent our sweethearts to the war
But dear girls, never mind,
Your soldier-boy will ne'er forget
The girl he left behind.

The soldier is the lad for me --
A brave heart I adore;
And when the sunny South is free,
And fighting is no more,
I'll choose me then a lover brave
From out the gallant band,
The soldier lad I love the best
Shall have my heart and hand.

The Southern land's a glorious land,
And has a glorious cause;
Then cheer three cheers for Southern rights
And for the Southern boys.
We scorn to wear a bit of silk,
A bit of Northern lace;
But make our homespun dresses up,
And wear them with such grace.

And now, young man, a word to you;
If you would win the fair,
Go to the field where honor calls,
And win your lady there.
Remember that our brightest smiles
Are for the true and brave,
And that our tears are all for those
Who fill a soldier's grave.


This song doesn't seem to have fixed itself strongly in oral tradition (perhaps because it glorifies a cause that lost -- and that wasn't all that glorious anyway). Although we are told that people all over the south sang it, and it appears in many songsters, the only field collection of it I know of is in Randolph's Ozark Folksongs, where it is #215.

The tune, as mentioned, is derived from The Bonnie Blue Flag (itself from The Irish Jaunting Car); this song can be found in many collections.

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