My adolescent interest in the Civil War later gave me a deeply ingrained interest in history that blended with my musical interests in the 60's. So it's appropriate to do my part with this look at two songs about the Battle of Gettysburg, divided by over a quarter of a century.
Fred Darian: "The Battle of Gettysburg" 1961
This is basically a rap tune that barely made the charts. It had a good beat but wasn't exactly anything teenagers could dance to. So much for American Bandstand.
So, what was the point of the record? The Civil War Centennial was starting in 1961, a celebration that spawned interest in the Civil War for a lot of baby boomers, myself included.
This was also the era of the Saga Song, a period where music based on American history became popular. Among the biggest hits in that regard: Johnny Horton's "The Battle Of New Orleans," a Jimmie Driftwood composition about the War of 1812, Horton's "Johnny Reb" and the World War II anthem "Sink The Bismarck." Jimmy Dean's "Big Bad John" also fit that mold.
"The Battle of Gettysburg" came nowhere near Horton's level. It was barely relevant to what really happened over those three days and nearly all the generic lyrics could describe other notoriously bloody battles like Antietam, Shiloh, Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville, except for noting the setting of July 3, the day of Pickett's Charge or to be more accurate, the charge of Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble.
Two other things in the song are actually relevant: the bit about women posing as male soldiers, which happened a lot during those times on both sides. They did it either to be with a husband or to do their part at a time women were relegated to home front activities. Oh, and the lyrics correctely noted Lee and Meade were the generals commanding. A lot to this day of folks assume it was Lee vs. Grant, who during Gettysburg was in Mississippi, about to triumph in his famous siege of Vicksburg.
The Brandos: "Gettysburg" 1987
This far more evocative song from the band's debut album Honor Among Thieves was written from the vantage point of a soldier killed in the battle. And it captures the mood in a way Darian' s song could not. One clunker: the bit about "seeing 50,000 die" was overstated. The best actual figure was actually a bit over 51,000 total casualties including killed, wounded and missing. Actual dead both Union and Confederate were about 7.058.
But hey, it's a good lyric and a pretty good video.
There were plenty more contemporary Civil War tunes (of the last 50 years or so). We'll revisit this at some point.