Lorena was one of the most popular songs during the Civil War–so popular, it was famously banned for inciting desertion. While written in 1856 and admittedly anachronistically sentimental, the lyrics still resonate as a tragic story of lost love.
Rev. Henry D.L. Webster wrote the song about his own broken engagement, and took the name “Lorena” from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven.” This story only gained resonance during the Civil War: when soldiers pined for the sweethearts–and more broadly the Victorian notion of an idealized “Home Sweet Home”–they’d left behind. Unsurprisingly, the wildly popular hit “Home Sweet Home” was also banned for supposedly inciting desertion.But songs change meaning as the world around them changes, and in the case of “Lorena,” time has changed this song from a sentimental ballad about soldiers’ lost loves into a symbol of the lost soldiers themselves and the general loss of the Civil War. At worst, this song is now used as a nostalgic recollection of an idealized past, especially by Civil War reenactors.
Personally, I like to interpret Lorena as a song about memory, and the impossibility of forgetting those lost in our shared American past. The song itself–its “chords” and “words”–are complicit in this painful, eternal remembrance:
For “if we try we may forget,”
Were words of thine long years ago.
Yes, these were words of thine, Lorena,
They burn within my memory yet;
They touched some tender chords, Lorena,
Which thrill and tremble with regret.
Yet the original song ends with a message of hope that lost loves–and the past and present–will be reunited:
It matters little now, Lorena,
The past is in the eternal past;
Our heads will soon lie low, Lorena,
Life’s tide is ebbing out so fast.
There is a Future! O, thank God!
Of life this is so small a part!
‘Tis dust to dust beneath the sod;
But there, up there, ’tis heart to heart.
However, when I wrote my modern version of “Lorena,” I wanted to emphasize lack of reconciliation in dealing with this past: how lovers, soldiers’ descendants, and our country as a whole have not forgotten or forgiven or moved on. This fact has only become clearer to me since I’ve moved South to Nashville, and seen the pride and anger so many southerners still hold and display in the name of ancestors who fought and died on behalf of the Confederacy.
My version of Lorena is both about the individual story of losing one’s own love and not being able to forget the past more broadly. It’s about how hard it is to forget or live with one’s personal or cultural history, and how music simultaneously prevents us from forgetting, and yet can help us deal with the pain of the past.
Lorena, of course, is notoriously dangerous in the way it deals with the past. It idealized lost love for Civil War soldiers, leading them to abandon their present responsibilities for a perfect other world that probably never existed. Nowadays, in creating nostalgia for a false heroic ideal and lost antebellum America, it might equally present such dangers.
Therefore, I wanted to create a version of Lorena that encouraged Americans to look back at the pain of the past, while simultaneously using that past music to think about our present and moving forward. This was pretty ambitious, so I made this song the centerpiece of an hour-long, electric violin, looping, tap dancing solo show I performed at Brown University called “Fiddlers’ Green,” which you can watch here or below.
But regardless of whether you watch this video, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences about how music can be a tool for remembering or forgetting America’s past. What songs keep you stuck in the past? What songs help you move forward? Do you think it’s important to hold onto old songs, and if so, how?
Very insightful article, Sage. I’m impressed with how you’ve given this 150-year-old song new life, letting it remind us of the collective American narrative we are a part of and still have to deal with (the laudable and the regrettable), as well as tying it to the impossibility of forgetting our own personal histories. Of course, I wouldn’t want to forget my own history or our country’s history—even the painful parts—as it has all influenced who this nation and I have become.
To me, your version of “Lorena” highlights personal history more than the original through the refrain “I think about you, think about you all the time.” That line first makes me think of the countless Civil War soldiers—on both sides—who just wanted to marry, raise a family, and live a long life, but were denied those pleasures because of forces beyond their individual control. Then it makes me think of the longing of those who have died in other wars, as well as people I have loved and lost in my own life.
I’d say I’m glad songs exist that help us think of this country’s past. We didn’t just spring up overnight; we’re the result of the successes and failures and ideas of innumerable men and women who have come before us. When I listen to Pete Seeger folktales or Roy Rogers cowboy ballads, it helps bring that history into the here and now, helps me imagine what life in general and what the individual experiences were of people who lived during the subject matter of the songs. Like “Lorena,” I know those songs can be inaccurate, be it by their sentimentality, campiness, or lack of nuance. But, powerful mystery that music is, those songs give me a sense of connection to our shared cultural history, and though the gulf of years prevents me from actually experiencing the past as I do my own life, that feels like a gift in some way. Music is often the most effective way to tell a story. Maybe I just like the nostalgia or the way it feeds my imagination, but I’m ultimately glad I can listen to old songs.
One side question: in what ways have you seen “anger” from “so many southerners”? Other than the occasional Confederate flag bumper sticker, I guess I just haven’t seen much evidence that anger is widespread here, and I’ve lived in the South my entire life. (Though, admittedly, Texas is different from the Deep South.) Genuinely curious.
I’d end by saying I think it’s valuable on a personal level to hold onto old songs, because they have the power to draw forth old, possibly formative memories. There are songs that instantly take me back to our roadtrip, a particular guitar strum that places me back in the Texas Hill Country as an 11-yr-old at camp, a twist of a music box in my closet that pulls me back to sensations of being four or five. Maybe there’s a time and place to let old songs go, but they can also speak through the nostalgia or pain or years to remind us who we were, and are.
What a lovely comment. Thank you so much! I loved how you talked about the way songs make the past present: “songs give me a sense of connection to our shared cultural history, and though the gulf of years prevents me from actually experiencing the past as I do my own life, that feels like a gift in some way.” It does feel like a gift, even when songs are sentimental and nostalgic and superficial–that often doesn’t seem to hinder, maybe it even helps, music’s ability to transport and connect us to the past.
To answer your question: I think a lot of my sense of others’ anger is subtle, expressed through defiantly and sadly singing songs like these. Or the truck I pictured, bumper stickers, “heritage” days, Confederate memorials, parades of trucks carrying confederate flags, prominent displays of these flags in random locations… these seem like more explicit, bold assertions of pride and defiance. You may not interpret these actions as indicative of anger, and I’m sure many people doing them don’t either (maybe they’d call it pride, respect, memory…), but this is how I interpret them. I think these feelings are often connected.
And to your last point: yes, songs can draw forth old, formative memories. But for me, this is often a reason to stop listening to them. As I discuss in Fiddlers’ Green, getting stuck in the same old songs can get you trapped in your own past, and prevent you from moving forward in your own life. This is one reason I’m so determined to not merely imitate old songs from American history, and why I don’t feel guilty transforming songs like Lorena in such radical ways (like adding a new beat, a new chorus, a new personal meaning, etc.,). My attitude is that you can’t just forget old songs, or the history they recreate, because they did “form” us, so the question isn’t really do we WANT to forget them, but how we can move forward with old songs despite our inability to forget them.
Some songs that keep us stuck: “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” (Billy Joel), “A Nightengale Sang in Berkeley Square” (Sherwin/Maschwitz)
Some songs that move us forward: “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (John Denver), “When the Saints Go Marchin’ in,” Confetti (Tori Kelly), “Hajanga” (Jacob Collier)
It’s important for me to hold onto old songs. The past is just as important as the present in many ways–it is just as real and relevant as it ever could have been, and can bring back important and influential memories that can inform and shape the present, in ways good or bad. A old song has a special power to associate particular situations and memories with extremely powerful feelings.
Like Lorena, however, I think most songs actually bridge the gap between past and present. Some well-known American songs that do just that and come immediately to mind include Ben Folds’ “Still Fighting it, John Mayer’s “Stop this Train,” Jason Robert Brown’s “Moving too Fast,” “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” or “A Little more Homework,” basically all of Sondheim’s “Follies,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue.”
One might argue that most of these songs don’t directly relate to “America’s Past,” but I think they all speak to uniquely American cultural experiences in one way or another. Here are some that might more directly relate to the discussion at hand, as they specifically bridge the gap between the past and present of American political and historical consciousness: Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” and a large chunk of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “Hamilton” (e.g., Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story).
That’s funny you think some songs are written to keep us in the past, while others to move us forward. Is that always literal, like Leaving on a Jet Plane (which paradoxically, in my opinion, has the effect of making me sad and nostalgic about those I’ve left behind, rather than helping me move on and forget, even though that’s literally what the song is about). How much of this effect do you think comes from lyrics vs. music? I totally agree on “Saints Go Marchin in,” and probably a lot of New Orleans Second Line music. Great example!
And yeah, songs can help us remember–or maybe change–feelings associated with historic events. I’m currently reading “The Things They Carried,” which talks a lot about how the “truth” of a story often lies not in communicating what “actually” happened, but rather how people felt things happened, which can be very different. Maybe songs are better at representing those types of truthful stories?