Tag Archives: Confederates

Songwriting: The Devil’s in the Details

One of the most important elements of songwriting is fashioning a world that is both believable and intriguing. The good songsmith subtly achieves this effect through the placement of seemingly accidental details in a song, which, when drawn together, coalesce to from a distinct impression of a time and place. A good example of this technique can be found in Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier,” a song later recorded by the Dixie Chicks on their album “Home.”

The first stanza sets up a situation which provides us with a number of clues about when the song occurs and what expectations we should have of that world,

Two days past eighteen,
Waiting for the bus in his army green,
Sat down in a booth in a café there,
Gave his order to a girl with a bow in her hair.

The world the songwriter created is a world where buses are a common form of transportation, a young soldier wears green, and the girl waiting tables at the café wears a bow in her hair. From this we can readily deduce that this world exists sometime in the twentieth century, most likely sometime from the Second World War on. We can stretch a bit and assume all of this is occurring during a war, since even mentioning a soldier suggests a martial tone somewhere in the action. To demonstrate how important these seemingly small details are, let’s change up a couple things and see where it takes us

He’d been eighteen for just one day
Waiting for the train in his army gray
Sat down in a booth in a café there,
Gave his order to a girl with a bow in her hair.

All we’ve changed is the color of his uniform and the mode of transportation. Its still a young soldier talking with a girl in a café. However, the world that this action now exists in is probably going to conjure up images of the 1860s, with a young Johnny Reb talking to a southern belle in a hoop skirt. While changing the bus into a train doesn’t do this by itself, the gray uniform suggests the image of a confederate soldier. Mentioning a train supports this conjecture as trains were a popular method of troop transport during the 1860s. The world that is imagined through these first four lines is important, because outside of mentioning a letter as the preferred method of communication, there is little else to give a hint about when the action is taking place until the second verse.

At the beginning of the second verse we are given two concrete details that tell us when and where the events are occurring as the young soldier sends letters back from California and Vietnam. Coupled with the images of buses and green uniforms we now know for sure that the world this song exists in is America during the nineteen-sixties or seventies.

So the letters came from an army camp
In California and Vietnam.
And he told her of his heart, how it might be love,
And all the things he was so scared of.

Continuing with our little experiment, though, lets change a couple of details and time travel a bit, while keeping the general action the same,

So the letters came from the battle sites,
From the Wilderness and St. Marys Heights
And he told her of his heart, how it might be love,
And all the things he was so scared of.
He said when its getting kinda rough over here
I think of that day sitting down at the pier
And I close my eyes and I see your pretty smile.
Don’t worry but I won’t be able to write for a while.

By switching out the geographic location of two places mentioned in passing we have once again seamlessly shifted the action by a century. The importance of the geographic locales being mentioned, while seemingly a minor detail in the overall movement of the song, is actually a keystone in how we imagine the action occurring.

The last verse of the song conjures further images of nineteen-sixties America as the songwriter places us in the midst of a small town high school football game.

One Friday night at a football game
The Lords Prayer said and the Anthem sang
And a man said won’t you bow your heads
For a list of the local Vietnam Dead

Crying all alone under the stands
Was a piccolo player in the marching band
And one name read and nobody really cared,
But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.

Setting the action of this verse at a high school football game is especially poignant when one considers the juxtaposition of the strong young men on the football field and the very same sort of young men who were dying in the war. Of course, the main movement of this verse of the song could have just as easily been captured at the local First Baptist,

Sunday morning at a church in town
The bells they rang, folks gathered round,
And the preacher-man said won’t you bow your heads
For a list of the men from here, now dead.

Sitting all alone in the choir loft
Was a girl in a dress crying real soft
And one name read and nobody really cared,
But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.

The main difference between these two places in our current discussion is how the high school football game is a scene played out sometime in the last hundred years or so, while our hypothetical church service could have happened at any point in time from the 1605 founding of Jamestown up to the present. Another advantage of the high school football game is how the religious and civic spheres of American life are invoked with one line, “the Lord’s prayer said and the Anthem sang.” It is a subtle reminder of a soldiers duty, fighting for God and Country.

All of this is to demonstrate the power and importance of the small details that support the action. While they appear singularly inconsequential within the general movement of a song, it is these details which draw us into the world in which the song resides. The likelihood that the movement and message of the song will be believable to the listener is directly correspondent to whether the listener believes in the world in which the song unfolds.

Here is Bruce Robison singing “Travelin’ Soldier.” And below is our time-shifting nineteenth century rewrite (for educational purposes only, cya).

1st Verse:
He’d been eighteen for just one day
Waiting for the train in his army gray
Sat down in a booth in a café there,
Gave his order to a girl with a bow in her hair.

He’s a little shy so she gives him a smile
He said would you mind sitting down for a while
And talking to me cause I’m feeling a little low.
She said I’m done in an hour, I know where we can go.

So they went down and they sat on the pier
He said I bet you got a man but I don’t care.
I’ve got no one to send a letter to
Would you mind if I sent one back here to you?

Chorus:
I cry
Never gone to hold the hand of another guy
To young for him they told her
Waiting on the love of a traveling soldier.

Our love will never end.
Waiting for the soldier to come back again.
Never going to be alone,
When the letters say the soldier coming home.

2nd Verse:
So the letters came from the battle sites,
From the Wilderness and St. Marys Heights
And he told her of his heart, how it might be love,
And all the things he was so scared of.

He said when its getting kinda rough over here
I think of that day sitting down at the pier
And I close my eyes and I see your pretty smile.
Don’t worry but I won’t be able to write for a while.

Chorus:

3rd Verse:
Sunday morning at a church in town
The bells they rang, folks gathered round,
And the preacher-man said won’t you bow your heads
For a list of the boys from here, now dead.

Sitting all alone in the choir loft
Was a girl in a dress crying real soft
And one name read and nobody really cared,
But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.

Chorus

The graves of Confederate dead in Lancaster County, Virginia.

The graves of Confederate dead in Lancaster County, Virginia.

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