The North had many political songs for candidate praise and candidate bashing. What about the South? Did the Confederacy write music about their political leaders? The short answer: yes and no.
Here’s the longer answer:
No major Confederate songs have been discovered that reflect overwhelming support for Jefferson Davis.[i] (Not necessarily surprising because he wasn’t everyone’s favorite guy during the war.) However, there are political tones in many of the famous and archaic songs of the Civil War South.
One of the best examples of a political tone in a classic Confederate song is “Bonnie Blue Flag,” which can rightfully be termed a “secession anthem.” Celebrating the ideals of state’s rights and lauding each state leaving the Union, this song was penned early in 1861 and set to a traditional vaudeville tune, “The Irish Jaunting Car.” The lyrics evolved over time and many versions and parodies were written during the war years. The traditional version of “Bonnie Blue Flag” mentions the Confederate president and vice president in the fourth verse:
Ye men of valor gather round the banner of the right,
Texas and fair Louisiana join us in the fight;
Davis, our loved President, and Stephen statesmen are;
Now rally round the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.
Hurrah! Hurrah! For Southern rights, hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.[ii]
Confederate music routinely emphasizes state’s rights (a political idea) or defense of home and state with little/no direct reference to the government or political leaders. There is war-time music praising Southern generals, but a suspicious lack of musical enthusiasm for Davis or any other Southern politician. In the Library of Congress sheet music collection, there are a few grand marches composed in Davis’s honor, but most of the other Davis music is negative and produced in the North.
Did the South really not have any popularized and published music with a strictly political angle, adoring or mocking their government authorities? There are several factors to consider.
Soldiers (young volunteers) were more exciting and romantic subjects for Southern song writers. As the conflict went on, paper became scarce for major printing projects; perhaps there was political music, it just wasn’t mass produced.
It seems unlikely that there weren’t a few songs – positive or negative – about Confederate politicians. (Seriously, I’ve done living history events. The witty, musical guys create new lyrics for entertainment – why wouldn’t the real soldiers have done the same?)
Perhaps the Lost Cause and reconciliation movements in the post-war period suppressed or hid the critical or positive political songs. After-all, if you want to paint Jeff Davis as a martyr to the cause, why promote a song that might have been complaining about him and his policies?
Some anti-Lincoln music has survived from the Confederate soldiers, and there is some pro-Davis sentiment in those ditties:
Jeff Davis rode a dapple gray,
Lincoln rode a mule,
Jeff Davis is a gentleman,
And Lincoln is a fool.[iii]
Another tune and lyrics mocked the 1864 election:
McClellan is a humbug,
And Lincoln is a fool,
All of them is liars
Of the highest greeting school.
The Confederate soldiers stole the Union marching song “We Are Coming, Father Abraham” to create their own grotesque lyrics, possibly an example why Confederate political songs have faded:
We are coming, Abraham Lincoln,
From mountain, wood, and glen,
We are coming, Abraham Lincoln,
With the ghosts of murdered men,
Yes, we’re coming, Abraham Lincoln,
With curses loud and deep,
That will haunt you in your waking
And disturb you in your sleep…
You may call your black battalions
To aid your stinking cause,
And substitute your vulgar jokes
For liberty and laws.[iv]
So, I’m still curious: did any real Southern political songs from the war era survive? What could they reveal about the people’s attitude toward their government? And what does the lack of survival tell us? Too busy to write. Too few supplies to print the music. Suppression because of content. The search and discussion continues….
If you are familiar with any lyrics on this topic, could you share the information and sources in a comment?
[i] Irwin Silber, Songs of the Civil War, (Dover Edition, 1995) page 89.
[ii] Ibid, page 67.
[iii] Ibid, page 89.
[iv] Ibid, page 93.