Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz

(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, June 2004)

Last month, Lyle gave us a song derived from Stephen Foster. Which set me thinking about nineteenth century composers. Foster is usually held up as the chief example -- but I tend to think that Henry Clay Work has had more long-term influence. Both put a half-dozen or so songs strongly into tradition -- but it was Work, not Foster, who wrote the tune for The Wreck of Old 97 and its myriad relatives, as well as Grandfather's Clock among others. And Work was active during the Civil War, which the dying Foster largely ignored. With the movie Cold Mountain still being talked about, I really wanted to do a Work war song.

And yet, none of these seemed really appropriate. Year of Jubilo is in dialect, and most people consider it offensive. Marching Through Georgia still angers Southerners. And Work's other big songs were not war songs. Frankly (as with Foster), his strength was tunes, not lyrics.
So I changed plans and printed The Big One. Bruce Catton (Mr. Lincoln's Army, p.171) writes:

"[The soldiers'] favorite was a song called When This Cruel War Is Over, by Charles Carroll Sawyer: a song which might well have been, momentarily, the most popular song ever written in America. It sold more than a million copies during the war."

The message is at once sentimental and patriotic -- and suitable for the present, whatever your politics. Anti-war activists can omit the last stanza -- which is the way I first heard it, along with other alterations less political.

The song didn't do as well in tradition as some Civil War songs; historians suspect that its plaintive message was not welcome in the post-war years. But Belden found a version in Missouri, and Owens in Texas, and Brown had several North Carolina texts. Gavin Grieg picked up a version in Scotland! Obviously many of these were the Confederate version, slightly adapted to meet Southern uniform colors.

It's interesting to note that Charles Carroll Sawyer never wrote anything else worth hearing.

The original version of this song had music by Henry Tucker. That's not the tune I learned. I heard it on a recording of Civil War songs sung by (I'm not making this up) The Union Confederacy. The liner notes don't say where they found their tune -- but it's excellent (though it probably belongs with something happier than this). It's perhaps my best banjo piece. Which is why I've transcribed it in G, even though that's awfully high; I play it in G and capo four or five frets.
My neighbor across the street is training for deployment overseas. It brings it home, a little. In these conflicted times, may few of our readers ever face the sort of situation this song depicts!


Complete Lyrics:
Dearest love, do you remember
When we last did meet,
How you told me that you loved me
Kneeling at my feet.
Oh how proud you stood before me
In your suit of blue.
There you vowed to me and country
Ever to be true.

CHORUS: Weeping sad and lonely
Hopes and fears, how vain.
When this cruel war is over,
Pray that we meet again.

When the summer breeze is sighing
Mournfully along,
Or when autumn leaves are falling,
Sadly breathes a song.
Oft in dreams I see thee lying
On the battle plain.
Lonely, wounded, even dying,
Calling but in vain. CHO.

If amid the din of battle
Nobly you should fall,
Far away from those that love you,
None to hear you call,
Who would whisper words of comfort?
Who would ease your pain?
Ah, the many cruel fancies
Ever in my brain. CHO.

But our country called you, darling,
Angels cheer your way.
While our nation's sons are fighting,
We can only pray.
Nobly strike for God and Liberty,
Let all nations see
How we love the starry banner,
Emblem of the free. CHO.

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