Remembering the Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, October 2000)

Of all the events in history, none seems to have produced more folksongs than the American Civil War. Yes, there are a lot of songs, e.g., from the Napoleonic Wars -- but only incidentally so. A girl whose love was killed by "Boney" could just as well have lost him in the Revolutionary War or the War of the Spanish Succession -- or even the wars of Alexander the Great; the song wouldn't change much.

But Civil War songs apply only to that war. The fascinating thing is how obscure all these songs are. Sure, there are popular songs like Tenting Tonight and Battle Cry of Freedom; you find those all over the country. But pick up a regional collection like Randolph or Cox; you'll find songs found nowhere else, about insignificant local battles.

Then there are curiosities like this piece. It's now forgotten; Cox had only one version (from West Virginia), no others are known, and the tune was not recorded.

Except that we know it anyway. One look, and it is clear that this is a Civil War version of The Heights of Alma [Laws J10]. This is a fine, bouncing song, known primarily in the northern U.S. (M. C. Dean had a Minnesota version). The curiosity is, the Battle of Alma was fought in September 1854. It's hard to imagine it reaching the U.S. in time for the Civil War. But it must have; consider the first stanza:

September last on the eighteenth day
We landed safe on the big Cri-may
In spite of all the foam and spray
To cheer our hearts for Alma.
That night we lay on the cold, cold ground
No tent, no shelter to be found,
And with the rains were almost drowned
All upon the heights of Alma.

The parallels continue throughout the song. Thus we can confidently sing Cox's text to the tune of Heights of Alma.

I learned this melody years ago, from a local group called Walking on Air; they got it from Nic Jones. Their version was what you would expect of a British Isles group; I mangled it into a piece for mountain dulcimer. This comes pretty close to old-time, and it is from West Virginia. I think it's time to bring it back.

Unfortunately, the text is in horrible shape. There is no possible way to fit the handful of facts to any Civil War battle, particularly one fought at Richmond. And the lyrics are all messed up (either that, or the poet didn't understand that it requires a triple rhyme). I've proposed some emendations at the end to make it rhyme.

I've pitched this in the key of C because it's the only key where the guitar can easily play the melody. On everything else, it works better in D, and it's easier to sing, too.The music uses my emended text.


Complete lyrics:

The southern boys may longer lie
On the first and fourth of sweet July
Our General Beauregard resound
For his southern boys at Richmond. [1]
That night we lay on the cold ground
No tents or shelter could be found,
With rain and hail was nearly drowned
To cheer our hearts at Richmond.

Next morn the burning sun did rise
Beneath the cloudy eastern skies;
Our general viewed the forts and cried,
"We'll have hot work at Richmond."
As soon as the height we strove to gain,
Our balls did fly as thick as rain,
I'm sure the plains they did run red
With the blood that was shed at Richmond. [2]

As soon as the heights we did command,
We fought the Yankees hand to hand,
And many a hero then was slain
Upon the heights at Richmond. [3]
And many a pretty fair maid will mourn
For her lover who will never return,
And parents mourn beyond control
For their sons they lost at Richmond [4]

Thirty thousand Yankees, I heard say,
Was slain all on that fatal day,
And seven thousand Southerners lay
In the bloody gore at Richmond.
Their guns and knapsacks they threw down
And ran like hares before the hound;
I'm sure the plains they did run red
With the blood that was shed at Richmond [5]

Cease, you Southerner, from your hand,
Which from the Yankees we cannot stand;
Go spread the news throughout the land
Of the victory won at Richmond.

Possible emendations:

[I]For the Yankees did come nigh
Our southern boys at Richmond.

[2]And many a hero then was slain
On the plains at Richmond.

[3]But the Yankees they could not withstand
Our southern boys at Richmond.

[4]And parents many years will yearn
For their sons they lost at Richmond

[5]So let the glorious news resound
Of the vict'ry won at Richmond.

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