Saturday, February 14, 2009

Lost Cause Nostalgia

One night, when I was in high school, I babysat for my siblings while my parents went to see the Tony-nominated musical/concert, "The Civil War." My mom and dad are massive Civil War buffs — they went to Gettysburg for their honeymoon — with a particular interest in Civil War music, so they were pretty excited about seeing this show.
They came home spluttering.

Besides the overall dreadfulness of the show in terms of music and lyrics (detailed in delightful pans here, here, and here), they were highly offended by the content. My mom could not stop raging over a nurse's song called, "I Never Knew His Name," in which the nurse repeatedly expresses her gratitude for not knowing the names of the dying so that she can retain emotional distance. Of course, real Civil War nurses were desperate to find out soldiers' names in order to notify families and give the dead proper burials (see This Republic of Suffering). My mom, who was in the midst of editing a Civil War nurse's letters, was beside herself.

Then there was the whole slavery issue. Apparently, this show decided to take the "everyone is equally brave, so who cares about moral questions" approach. Yes, there are slaves in the show, but they are this oddly estranged third party who stand around passively hoping for freedom. The production is heavy on uplifting songs called "Someday" and "River Jordan," but light on connecting slavery to the Confederacy or acknowledging black men's and women's roles in securing their own freedom.

I recently came across the soundtrack of this monstrosity and was quite shocked by it. I had remembered that it was bad, but not this bad.

In particular, one song — "Virginia" — made me queasy. Sung in the voice of a Confederate soldier, this maudlin crapfest is as bald a celebration of the antebellum south as you're likely to find on iTunes. Sample lyrics:
There was a time, a time of splendor and grace
When the world moved by at a kinder pace.
There was a land, a land to pleasure the eyes
Where the old was new and the foolish wise [wtf?].
Truly awful stuff, all wrapped in cotton candy and run through a synthesizer.

My one question was whether there is a degree of plausible deniability in the fact that this is sung by a Confederate soldier. Unlike the odious "Going Home" from Gods and Generals,* which adopts the voice of a modern viewer yearning for the antebellum Elysium, "Virginia" is presented as the sincere nostalgia of an historical actor. Of course, he is a sympathetic character whose highly selective vision of his homeland is supposed to touch the audience, so the distinction only goes so far. There are no cues in the show suggesting that we should regard this character's ideas as unfortunate, problematic, or racist.

After seeing a post on Civil War art over at Civil War Memory, I decided to make a video combining this terrible song with Lost Cause imagery. If you can make it through the first two minutes, I added some commentary near the end.

p.s. I was going to make a parody video of "Going Home," but nothing could be more hilarious than this serious video, starting around 2:15:

*Why do I hate "Going Home"? 
Simple: it conflates the antebellum south with heaven. You might even think that the song is about heaven if not for the lines,
I know in my bones
I've been here before,
The ground feels the same,
Though the land's been torn.
A close reading of this passage strongly supports the idea that she's talking about the south, a place where the "land's been torn" by the war. If you still think that this song is about heaven or going "into the West," check out the actual beginning of Gods and Generals, where this song is immediately preceded by the following quotation:
A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some area of native land where it may get the love of tender kinship from the earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one's own homestead. —George Eliot
It is then followed by a three-and-a-half-hour Jackson hagiography.


Brad Hart said...

Amen..."Gods and Generals" is worthless!!!

Kevin said...

Thanks so much for the video and post. I can't wait to use this in my memory class tomorrow.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Thanks for the link! Let me know what your students think of it.

Larry Cebula said...

My God, Caitlin, on this day you have ascended into the blogging stratosphere. Magnificent.

Lori Stokes said...

Good luck to you in posting these, Caitlin! When I posted the "the Civil War was fought over slavery" I received many angry posts asking why the South is always blamed for promoting slavery! If only I, too, could rise up to Heaven with my fiddle and leave it all behind...

Unknown said...

Okay, I confess I've never seen the movie or heard the song (and the video is no longer on YouTube, apparently). I've only read the words online. So take what I say with a grain of salt.

But as someone who listens to a lot of trad and folk, it reads like many of the 18th and 19th century songs, where a soldier longs for his homeland to the point of idealizing it. "Everything will be perfect when I get home".

Not saying you can't hate it, just wondering if it makes more sense in that context.

(Southern Appalachia being full of old scots/irish/english soldier's songs. I know. I grew up there).