Looking for something good to put on your iPod for the next four years? When Louis Masur stopped by, I learned that in addition to being able to summarize the entire Civil War in less than 100 pages (see: The Civil War: A Concise History), he also happens to be a huge music buff, having written his previous book on some guy called The Boss. I asked if he wouldn’t mind making us something special for the big 1-5-0 and he kindly obliged. Enjoy! –Michelle R.
Louis Masur’s Civil War Playlist
1.) The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, The Band.
The gold standard of Civil War themed rock songs. Released in 1969, it tells the story of Virgil Caine, a Confederate soldier, and laments the lost cause of the South. “He was just eighteen/ proud and brave/ but a Yankee laid him in his grave.”
2.) Swan, Swan H, REM.
Hailing from Athens, Georgia, REM sings “marching feet, Johnny Reb, what’s the price of heroes.” The band also issued an album titled Fables of the Reconstruction (1985).
3.) Yankee Bayonet, The Decemberists.
“But oh did you see all the dead of Manassas,” using the Southern term for Bull Run. The song aches with the lament of one killed in war.
4.) Rebel Waltz, The Clash.
The great English punk band sings about an army of rebels: “we knew the war could not be won.” The rebels need not necessarily be Confederates, but it is hard to listen and not think the Civil War.
5.) Billy Don’t Be a Hero, Paper Lace.
This antiwar song appeared in 1974. The band performed the song wearing Union uniforms. A woman is narrating: “Billy, don’t be a hero! Don’t be a fool with your life!”
The last song on Poco’s 1981 theme album Blue and Gray, with each song about patriotism, love, and loss.
7.) Decatur, Sufjan Stevens.
Stevens’s album Illinois included this song that states “Stephen A. Douglas was a great debater/ But Abraham Lincoln was a great Emancipator.”
8.) Youngstown, Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen’s searing song about the decline of the steel industry in Pennsylvania makes reference to “the cannon balls that helped the union win the war.”
9.) Graceland, Paul Simon.
Travelling to Elvis’ shrine means, in this song, making a pilgrimage “down the highway/through the cradle of the Civil War.”
10.) I’m Afraid to Go Home, Brian Hyland.
“Sherman’s been to my town, burned it all to the ground” sings Hyland, who was a pop sensation in the early 1960s.
11.) Gettysburg, The Brandos.
The lead song of their first album in 1987, the Brandos offer a rocking meditation on the battle of Gettysburg: “I watched men die blue and gray.”
12.) The Battle of Hampton Roads, Titus Andronicus.
An allusion to the Merrimack and the Monitor, “two great ships will pull back in their ports,” told over fourteen minutes of hard rocking intensity.
13.) Daylight Again, Crosby, Still, Nash.
The title song of an album released in 1982, CSN sing “I think about a hundred years ago/How my father’s bled.”
14.) God Bless Robert E. Lee, Johnny Cash.
Many country songs and ballads discuss the Civil War. Johnny Cash sings of Lee’s decision to surrender and decides “for all those lives that were saved/I gotta say God Bless Robert E. Lee.”
15.) Abraham, Martin, and John, Dion.
Written by Dick Holler in 1968, and also recorded by Marvin Gaye, the song laments the deaths of Lincoln, King, and Kennedy: “Has anybody here, seen my old friend Abraham/ Can you tell me where he’s gone?/He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good, they die young/But I just looked around and he’s gone.”
16.) Abraham Lincoln, Clutch.
This song about Lincoln’s assassination appears on the 2009 album Strange Cousins from the West and opens “Oh Abraham Lincoln carried across the street/The assassin, the coward shot him in the head.”
17.) Talkin World War III Blues, Bob Dylan.
On The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan which appeared in 1963, he ends this song by declaring “Half of the people can be part right all of the time/Some of the people can be all right part of the time/But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time/I think Abraham Lincoln said that/I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours/I said that.”
18.) With God on Our Side, Bob Dylan.
With The Times They Are a Changin’, released in 1964, Dylan cemented his reputation as a powerful protest singer, though he always denied the label. This anti-war song includes “the Civil War too/was soon laid away.”
Louis P. Masur is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor in American Institutions and Values at Trinity College and former editor of Reviews in American History. His most recent book is The Civil War: A Concise History.