Tuesday, April 29, 2008

From the Archives

Well, ok, not really this is not really from "the archives," unless you count Google Books.

In my wanderings, I came across an 1864 book called Songs of the Soldiers that includes the fabulous "Marching Song of the First Arkansas," which the editor attributes to Capt. Lindley Miller. Miller, a white officer, served with the 1st Arkansas U.S.C.T and is said to have written the song, though his comments suggest that he may have transcribed and submitted it rather than authoring it. The editor includes this footnote:
Captain Miller says the "boys" sing the song on dress-parade with an effect which can hardly be described; and he adds that, "while it is not very conservative, it will do to fight with."
While it is possible that Miller wrote the song either alone or in collaboration with some of his comrades, these remarks seem to indicate that he heard his troops singing, thought the song was worth writing down, and sent his version to the editors of the book. If this is indeed the case, I wonder whether there may have been other, even less "conservative," verses that Miller either did not hear or did not transcribe. Oh, to be a fly on that parade ground!

Look past the dialect and see the power, anger, and pride:

Marching Song of the First Arkansas

OH! we're de bully soldiers ob de "First of Arkansas,"
We are fightin' for de Union, we are fightin' for de law,
We can hit a Rebel furder dan a white man eber saw,
As we go marchin' on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah, &c.

See dar! above de center, where de flag is wavin bright,
We are goin' out of slavery; we are bound for Freedom's light,
We mean to show Jeff Davis how de Africans can fight!
As we go marchin' on.

We hab done wid hoein' cotton, we hab done wid hoein' corn,
We are colored Yankee soldiers now, as sure as you are born;
When de massas hear us yellin' dey'll tink its Gabriel's horn,
As we go marchin' on.

Dey will had to pay us wages, de wages ob their sin,
Dey will had to bow their foreheads to their colored kith and kin,
Dey will had to give us house-room, or de roof shall tumble in!
As we go marchin' on.

We heard de proclamation, massa hush it as he will;
De bird he sing it to us, hoppin' on de cotton-hill,
And de possum up de gum tree, he could n't keep it still,
As he went climbing on.

Dey said, "Now colored bredren, you shall be forever free,
From de first ob January, eighteen hundred sixty-three;"
We heard it in de riber goin' rushin' to de sea,
As it went soundin' on.

Father Abraham has spoken, and de message has been sent,
De prison-doors he opened, and out de pris'ners went,
To join de sable army ob de "African descent,"
As we go marchin' on.

Den fall in, colored bredren, you'd better do it soon;
Don't you hear de drum a beatin' de Yankee Doodle tune?
We are wid you now dis mornin', we'll be far away at noon,
As we go marchin' on.

My favorite line is from verse 6: "We heard it in de riber goin' rushin' to de sea." Although this could mean many things, and is, in part, a continuation of the natural imagery in verse 5, I think this line could also be read as referring to the "river" of self-emancipating slaves who heard about the Emancipation Proclamation when they were already part of an unstoppable movement.

What I like best about this song is that is far cleverer than most of the musical dreck that was published during the Civil War. Most of the songs and poems of the period were pretentious, glib schlock, but this song has more than one wry turn of phrase. My favorite is, "Dey will had to pay us wages, de wages ob their sin," which starts out as simple declaration of the privileges of free labor, and then pivots on the synonym and ends Romans 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death." They'll take their money with a side of righteous revenge, thankyouverymuch.

Wordplay aside, the song's imagery is powerful. In verses 5 and 6, the whole world seems to be rejoicing over emancipation. I also like the image of floods of freemen streaming out of prison and straight to the recruitment office.

After finding this, I seemed to remember hearing a recording of this song many years ago. I poked around a little and found an mp3 on iTunes from Sparky and Rhonda Rucker's "The Blue and Gray in Black and White." As soon as I heard it, I recognized it - my parents must have a copy of the cassette somewhere. Check it out - it's worth hearing.

No comments: