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?