Blue Songs, Gray Songs is a dramatic/musical montage of the music, poetry and prose of the American Civil War, a quick-cut sequence of scenes, songs and living portraits from those four tragic years in the history of our durable, and enduring, country.
Beginning just after the war, on a desolate, windswept hill, we hear a cacophony of distant, dissonant, disembodied male voices singing overlapping haunted fragments of Civil War songs. The women enter -- both North and South -- remembering . . . hearing their fallen heroes; each bringing flowers to her loved one’s grave, “The Blue and the Gray.” Then -- together -- the women place a single flower on an unmarked grave -- unknown whether Blue or Gray. Their fervent memories conjure up and literally call forth the men the way they were, “Marching Along” at the start of the conflict, as we flash back to a time when all were confident -- and so very naïve -- that there would be a quick resolution. Lovers, wives and mothers prompt their men to “Take your gun and go, John,” and it’s only when they’re gone that the women acknowledge the tear that “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier.” One of these is “Lorena,” so romantically invoked by her young soldier. The first duty of the men, of course, is to adjust to the routine of military life, waking every morning to the dreaded bugler blaring his “Upidee.” It soon becomes clear to both sides that it will not be a short war after all, and all must endure the universal inconvenience and boredom of “Tenting Tonight.” Good-natured complaints about the food like “The Army Bean” pass the time, as do fond recollections of “The Girl I Left Behind Me” or “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Soldiers and civilians, voices both North and South, join in a poignant refrain, “Many are the hearts that are weary tonight . . . wishing for the war to cease.” And in the reflective time “Just Before the Battle, Mother” a young soldier pens his letter back home, as other recruits from both fronts do likewise, and the simple, heartwrenching words we hear are taken from the real letters, diaries and journals of the real men and boys in the real battles of the American Civil War. We experience the bravura of “A Great Battle Won” -- celebrated even by a soldier who does not survive. This sequence culminates in the unwanted letter . . . the dreaded news we witness being delivered to those loyal lovers, wives and mothers at home . . . waiting.
The sacrifice of the soldiers is in stark contrast to the profiteering of the “Treasury Rats,” though there is a bright spot for the African-Americans who have shared the deprivations but find now that they are “Free at Last.” As the battles mount up, the fates of the soldiers scatter down different paths: the “Rebel Soldier” who finds himself “far far from home”; the “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!” of the fighters as the prisoners of war suffer the horrors of Andersonville and other POW camps; the sorrowful realization that the enemy is really “brother fighting against brother.” And near the end the crush of Sherman’s army “Marching Through Georgia” that brings the still proud South to its knees.
Those left behind eagerly await the time “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” but for some there will be no homecoming feast . . . just “One Vacant Chair” at the table. The unforeseen death of Abraham Lincoln casts its devastating shadow over the long prayed-for conclusion. But as Walt Whitman recorded in his journal, Specimen Days: “He was assassinated, but the Union is not assassinated . . . the Nation is immortal.” The confederate anthem “Dixie” makes an unexpected showing as a blues lament for all that was lost on both sides, to which there is a stirring counterpoint in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and finally all join together in the triumphant hymn, a hint of hope for eventual reconciliation. Then, each extends an arm towards the others . . . but their hands do not quite touch. Not yet.
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