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Friday, April 29, 2005

A Southern Lament

Sometimes you can drift far enough off the main highways of America to suddenly find yourself in a different time, confronting a different reality. This morning I was driving near enough to Mt. Airy, North Carolina (made famous by the Andy Griffith Show) that I was able to pick up a classic country music station on the radio.

Now in the big city, where country music is enjoying broad popularity, classic country - the old stuff - includes the likes of Garth Brooks and Charley Daniels. To most country music fans today, anyone older than Kenny Chesney is from the distant past.

But the past around these parts has a much longer memory. This particular radio station was playing rural music in its classical sense. Ballads. Gospel. Folk music. Classical bluegrass as only mountain musicians can perform it. The kind of music that takes your mind off of the day's trials and tribulations.

There was one recording in particular that captured my attention this morning. It was a ballad originally sung in the 1940's by someone whose name I didn't catch. It was a song about a young native southerner lost in a war fought many decades before. It was of interest to me because, even though the Civil War ended 140 years ago, the playing of this particular recording reminded me that the war's toll and aftermath are still being dealt with by the people in Carroll County, Patrick County, and Smyth County, Virginia, Goldsboro, High Point, and Pilot Mountain, North Carolina. And Mt. Airy.

The disappearance of so many young men from every town and village across the south is still a wound that hasn't completely healed.

People in the mountains, even today, take time out - a brief moment - to mourn the loss of a generation of kinfolk. Some think of grandfathers and great grandfathers they never knew. Others their great-uncles who went off to war and were last seen moving forward, face toward the enemy, weapon in hand, on the field of Shiloh, Tennessee on a beautiful Spring day in 1862 ... and were never heard from or seen again. Vanished, like so many thousands of other young southerners in the day. At Fredericksburg and Manassas. Gettysburg and Cold Harbor. Petersburg and Slaughter Mountain. Not a word ever made its way back to let relatives know of their fate. They simply, cruelly, vanished from the face of the earth. Forever.

Even today, tens of thousands of the south's finest and most promising young men who disappeared in the years 1861 to 1865 are unaccounted for. No gravestone marks their last resting place, save for plaques in cemeteries in such faraway places as Perryville, Kentucky and Pittsburgh Landing, Tennessee that read, "Here lie the mortal remains of 300 Confederate dead." Nothing more.

If there is the occasional feeling of remorse coming out of the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina after these many years, imagine what the all-consuming sense of loss must have been in those years when the war was still raging, as well as in the many years that followed. It didn't simply involve individual families who were touched by tragedy. Entire communities were devastated by the tragic losses. So many young men.

I was able to find the lyrics to the ballad I heard on the radio. Here they are, for your edification.

Rebel Soldier
In a dreary Yankee prison
Where a Rebel soldier lay
By his side there stood a preacher
Ere his soul should pass away
And he faintly whispered Parson
As he clutched him by the hand
Oh parson tell me quickly
Will my soul pass through the southland?

Will my soul pass through the southland?
To my old Virginia Grand
Will I see the hills of Georgia?

And the green fields of Alabam'
Will I see that little church house
Where I placed my heart in hand?
Oh parson tell me quickly
Will my soul pass through the southland?

Was for lovin' dear ol' Dixie
In this dreary cell I lie
Was for lovin' dear ol' Dixie
In this northern state I'll die
Will you see my little daughter?
Will you make her understand?
Oh parson tell me quickly
Will my soul pass through the southland?