Remembering the Old Songs:

The Two Soldiers

by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, June 1997)

We've spoken at length about ballads that have been passed down orally through generations. I'm going to change the subject, and talk about some peculiar things that can happen to the folk process in the modern age. The story starts in the 1860s, with the publication of a ballad about the American Civil War. It's a well-written "literary" ballad (the author is unknown), and was probably widely published in newspapers, which played a major role in the dissemination of nineteenth century parlor songs. According to the Ballad Index,, it was inspired by the Battle of Fredricksburg, in 1862, where General Lee's army trounced General Burnside's Union troops. That might be the source, but the story is a generic one, and the versions that have been collected and transcribed, although with different tunes, are remarkably similar in wording, which is another indicator of recent (if you call 135 years "recent") widespread distribution by the printed media.

Fast forward to 1937: Alan and Elizabeth Lomax record Munroe Gevedon, of West Liberty, Ky, singing The Two Soldiers, accompanying himself on the fiddle, along with his children Cathlyn and Bert playing guitar and banjo. The recordings are deposited in the Archive of American Folksong in the Library of Congress with two call numbers: 1556B and 1557A.

In the late 1950s, Willard Johnson of Minneapolis (later a.k.a. Uncle Willie, when the Brandy Snifters accreted in the early 1960s) was amassing a large collection of old-time music, including tape copies of Library of Congress material. He ordered the second call number, since the earlier of a duplicated number often is simply a false start. Over the ensuing years, the Brandy Snifters performed it often, starting after the asterisks in the text below. Mike Seeger learned it from Willie's copy, and performed it on his Vanguard LP VRS-9150 (out of print?). Anyone else who sang it, such as Jerry Garcia/David Grisman, learned it from Mike's recording.

In the 1970s, Jon Pankake, also of the Brandy Snifters, became curious about a possible relationship between the existence of the earlier call number and the fact that the song we had learned starts in the middle of a story without any introduction. The folk process usually modifies a tale more evenly so he sent for the earlier recording, and (surprise!) it's the first part of the ballad. Unfortunately, I've been singing the (now) "traditional" version so long that, when I try to include the first part, it seems too long: I've become accustomed to its having been artificially beheaded. Evidently, others have, too. I eagerly bought the two volumes of the Yazoo The Music Of Kentucky (CDs 2013 and 2014) because Gevedon's song was on it, presumably a cleaned up first-generation complete copy from the Library of Congress. But no, the cut starts out "It was just a blue-eyed Boston boy," the same way the rest of us sing it. I love the song, though, either in its full or truncated version. It's much better than the usual nineteenth century literary ballad, and a reminder of a war that still affects us often, because our country has never come to terms with it. As a friend pointed out, Washington D.C. has a Holocaust Museum (why isn't it in Berlin?), but no Slavery Museum.

Two Soldiers

Complete Lyrics:

It was just before the last fierce charge,
Two soldiers drew the rein;
The parting word and a touch of the hand,
They never might meet again.
One had blue eyes and bonny curls,
Eighteen but a month ago;
Down on his chin, red on his cheeks,
He was only a boy, you know.

The other was tall and dark and proud,
His faith in this world was dim;
He trusted only the more in the one
Who was all the world to him.
They'd rode together on many a road,
And marched for many a mile,
But never till now had they met the foe
With a brave and a hopeless smile.

They looked each other in the face
And thinking of home, so blue,
The tall dark man was the first to speak,
Saying, "Charlie, my hour has come.
We'll ride together up this hill,
But you'll ride back alone;
Oh, promise you'll take some trouble for me,
Some trouble when I am gone."

"Upon my breast you'll find her face,
I'll wear it into the fight.
With soft blue eyes and the golden hair,
Her face like the morning light.
Like the morning light her love was to me,
And it gladdened a lonesome life;
Too little did I care for the promise of faith,
Till she promised to be my wife."


It was just a blue-eyed Boston boy,
His voice was low with pain,
"I'll do your bidding, comrade mine,
If I ride back again.
But if you ride back, and I am dead,
You'll do as much for me,
My mother, you know, must hear the news,
So write to her tenderly."

"She's staying at home like a waiting saint,
Her fond face pale with woe,
Her heart will be broken when I am gone,
I'll see her soon, I know."
Just then the order came to charge,
For an instant hand touched hand,
He answered, "Aye," and on they rode
That brave and devoted band.

Straight was the course to the top of the hill,
And the rebels with shot and shell,
Lobbed hurls of death in the toiling ranks,
And guarded them as they fell.
There soon was a horrible dying yell
From heights they could not gain,
And those who doom and death had spared
Rode slowly back again.

But among the dead that were left on the field
Was the boy with the curly hair,
The tall dark man who fought by his side
Lay dead beside him there.
There were none to write to the blue-eyed girl
The words her lover had said,
While mother at home is a-waiting her boy,
She'll only know he's dead.


Under the title The Last Fierce Charge (The Battle of Fredericksburg; Custer's Last Charge), this is item A17 in Malcolm Laws's Native American Balladry. Laws lists thirteen texts (from Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Utah, and Nova Scotia) and a number of Library of Congress recordings in addition to those listed above. In addition to this, a version called The Battle of Gettysburg is known from the Catskills. The song has been frequently reprinted.

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