White Mansions: Singing Songs About the Confederacy

In my last post I discussed the British songwriter Paul Kennerley’s 1978 concept album White Mansions, which aims to tell a story about the experiences of white Southerners who supported the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Kennerley creates four composite characters in White Mansions (along with a very minor appearance from Rodena Preston, who portrays “The Slaves” in a blandly predictable one-minute interlude) who are supposed to represent various perspectives of people who actually experienced the war firsthand. I provided a brief introduction to each character in that last post. We will now dig further into each character’s role in White Mansions. This essay is a bit long, so bear with me.

Polly Ann Stafford (portrayed by Jessi Colter)

Polly stays out of any political discussions about the nation’s impending civil war, but she senses that “the Old South” is going to change. In “Story to Tell” she sings to a white-haired planter (the symbol of the established planter class) her prediction that he will not live to see these changes. “They want to change your way of life/a life you thought was right/all you’ve held dear since birth, they’ll rearrange/but I don’t think you’re going to live to see the change.” “They,” of course, is President Abraham Lincoln’s new administration in Washington, D.C. Even though Lincoln proclaims in his First Inaugural Address an intention not to touch slavery where it already existed, his refusal to allow the extension of slavery into new western territories undergirds his true desire to see slavery eventually abolished throughout the entire country. Polly and the planter class believe his election will represent the undoing of their freedoms.

Polly’s two other appearances on White Mansions use horses as a metaphor to sing about love, companionship, and kindness. “The Last Dance & The Kentucky Racehorse” is a cheeky song in which Polly and her sweetheart Matthew sing of their enduring love, but it’s also reflective of the Victorian-style letters soldiers and loved ones wrote to each other during the war, replete with flowery language and uncensored emotions. “For the time you’ll be away from me/all the days that lie ahead/dear heart, please keep the memories/we share like we share my bed. Although I won’t have your helping hand/or keep your sweet company/darling when you’re fighting this war/please think a little bit about me.”

In “The Union Mare & The Confederate Grey,” Polly and “The Drifter” (portrayed by Waylon Jennings) hear of dead Union and Confederate soldiers lying together on the battlefield while their horses grazed side-by-side during the aftermath of a horrible (which one specifically is a mystery to listeners). The two lament this scene and wonder aloud what could have been if both sides would have avoided war: “How happy we’d be if we acted way of the Union mare and the Confederate grey.” From this point on, however, Polly suddenly disappears from the story. Her work as a nurse at Confederate hospital makes her sick and eventually kills her, an unintended victim of the war.

Matthew J. Fuller (portrayed by John Dillon)

Matthew’s status as the son of a wealthy Georgia planter leads him to a vocal position in favor of secession in order to preserve slavery. He enthusiastically joins the Confederacy and outlines his reasoning in “Join Around the Flag”:

the State’s called its sons to its side, boys

they’re hoisting up the ‘Stars and the Bars’

we must all prepare to fight

for a cause we feel is right

and join Jeff Davis from near and far

they can’t understand our way of life boys

they don’t want slaves in the new territories

the knowledge that they lack

is there’s no cotton if there’s no blacks

and that gives us the reason to secede

since Abe got elected there ain’t no choice, boys

we showed ’em what we meant when Sumter fell

and if they to try to take us back

or come and free the blacks

the good Lord knows we’re going to give ’em hell

Matthew’s initial enthusiasm for a break with the Lincoln government and a lust for bloodshed quickly evaporates, however. Matthew doesn’t explicitly harbor second thoughts about his role in encouraging secession, but one can easily conclude in “No One Would Believe a Summer Could Be So Cold” that Matthew starts regretting his enlistment in the Confederate military. He abandons Polly’s love and admits that after being wounded at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek he “grabbed some love from the whores in town.” He acknowledges that “I start to forget just why we’re here” and laments the Confederacy’s major losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863. And, in some of the most moving lyrics in White Mansions, he states that “they tell you stories of valor and glory/but they ain’t near the fact/heroes look bad when all they had/bin eaten by worms and rats/I hear dying men calling with gangrene crawling/through their flesh and bones/I’ve seen thousands pleading as they lie bleeding/ain’t it time to go back home.”

Matthew’s pride is too strong, however, and he pushes on to serve through the end of the war. In “Bring Up the Twelve Pounders” he calls for more artillery but is reminded by “the ghosts of the Confederate dead” that the war is over and that he must go home. Finally, in “Bad Man” he states his intention to enact revenge for the death of his sweetheart Polly (who he had previously cheated on during the war). Matthew boasts that “this war taught me how to kill” and that he is “going to make them bleed/they’ll pay in time/they’re damned unjust/with their twisted laws/they want to take my life.” Even though Matthew began doubting the cause during the war, he emerges in the war’s aftermath as an unreconstructed rebel without regret for his role in precipitating the conflict. He expresses no doubts about the righteousness of his cause and lays the blame for the war entirely on the Lincoln government, which he believes used superior resources and men to defeat, humiliate, and subjugate an honorable people. Matthew’s initial postwar memories in White Mansions, therefore, symbolize the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War that became so prevalent throughout the country in the war’s aftermath.

Caleb Stone (portrayed by Steve Cash)

Caleb Stone has ragged clothes, poor teeth, long hair, no property or slaves, and a Confederate flag in hand. He describes himself as “White Trash” and happily embraces that title. In a song by the same name Caleb proclaims that he’ll join the Confederate military because he has nothing better to do: “I guess I’ll volunteer for the war against the blue/’cause there ain’t nothing better down here to do that’s much better/I’ll break some blue bones before this thing is through. They call me white trash but I’m a fighting man/I’ll sure do the best I can/I may be bad and have a foul mouth/but I’m ready – to defend the South.” In contrast to Matthew’s highly ideological reasoning for joining the war, Caleb joins up simply because he loves the South and has nothing better to do, not because he wants to defend slavery or the planter class. We will later see that in reality such a distinction cannot be not easily made.

After the initial success of 1861 battles at First Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek, Caleb feels like the Confederacy’s soldiers are vastly superior to their counterparts in blue. “They got many more men than us/got the arms but not the guts,” he proclaims, and he believes that “pretty soon they’ll give in.” In “Southern Boys” he boasts that the “sweet spirit of Dixie” is the reason the Confederacy is winning: its soldiers are stronger both mentally and physically, and this strength will prevail against any sort of resources the Union throws against it. Caleb’s confidence in ultimate victory for the Confederacy reflects a different perspective than the one put forth by Polly, who believed that the South was doomed to lose from the start (a point also embraced in Lost Cause mythology).

Caleb then disappears from White Mansions until the end of the war, when we hear of his remarkable transformation into a God-fearing man of Christ. Whereas Matthew is vindictive, violent, and broken by his wartime experience, Caleb seems to have been saved by it. He admits in “The King Has Called Me Home” that “I’ve bin burning up my body with drinking/and I can’t leave them women alone” but also proudly proclaims that “I’ve found salvation, the King has called me home/I know where I’m going now, the King has called me home.” Where he actually goes from this point remains a mystery for listeners, but it appears that the war has given a Caleb a new birth of freedom and a sense of redemption. The war has changed him for the better.

“The Drifter” (portrayed by Waylon Jennings)

“The Drifter” stays away from the battlefield and instead comments on the happenings of war from afar. In “Dixie, Hold On,” he simultaneously warms of the good and bad consequences of seceding from the United States. He starts off with a cautionary tone:

to stand alone and cut America in two

means everything’s lost, the constitution’s fallen through

to leave the Union is to weaken what is strong

you think it right, they think it morally wrong

but you’ll fall – oh, oh, oh Dixie you’ll fall

King Cotton, your reign is shadowed with pain

and burning emotion

you need slaves to keep alive

but the North could help you survive

your misguided notion

By the end of the song, however, The Drifter concludes for unknown reasons that secession is actually the correct path for the South: “oh, oh Dixie, you are bold and strong/you could have ’em beat before too long/you have a birthright, a lifestyle to defend/you must hold on, until the very end/hold on – oh, oh Dixie, hold on.” The Drifter invests his stock into the Confederacy’s fortune.

The Drifter, like Caleb, reappears in the narrative towards the end of war. But like Polly, The Drifter now concludes that there was no realistic chance of winning the war. In “The Southland’s Bleeding” (one of the more popular songs from White Mansions) he pleads, “let’s stop this fighting while we can/it takes a brave man, but to end this killing/it takes a braver man. You know there ain’t no real chance/for us to win this/there won’t be no victory dance at the finish/it’s just – Southern pride/it’s just – stubborn blindness.” For the Drifter the end of the war meant swallowing any Confederate pride and accepting the consequences of a losing war. Any resistance to the reality of the situation was a product of blindly foolish Southern pride in his mind.

The Drifter then concludes White Mansions with a melodramatic elegy for the now-dead nation: “you had courage and you had pride,” the Drifter wails, “but the Union could never see your side.” “The states are bleeding, they’re wounded and marred/Mister Lincoln isn’t here to lend a hand/now he’s gone – and bitter hate rules the land.” Through this song another popular myth of the Lost Cause emerges – that vengeful Northerners were now ready to oppress the South through undemocratic legislation and the destruction of the Southern social hierarchy by giving African Americans their freedom and the right of male suffrage. The “bitter hate” would be a painful pill to swallow. Dixie was done.

The Clincher

The climax of White Mansions, in my opinion, is the song “They Laid Waste To Our Land,” with group vocals that include Matthew, Caleb, and The Drifter. The unified singing of these three men is a symbolic uniting of their experiences and perspectives in support of the Confederate war effort. Matthew’s status as the son of a wealthy planter gave him a strong incentive to fight for the Confederacy; Caleb didn’t own slaves or land and claimed that he had no real motivation to join the Confederacy, but he cherished his placement above enslaved blacks in the social hierarchy and benefited from not having to compete with slaves on the wage labor market. The Drifter was an aged Mexican war veteran that was highly respected in his community, and he ultimately believed that his allegiance to his local community and state outweighed his allegiance to a United States government he had once fought for. All had a vested interest in slavery as a social and economic system. All had a vested interest in preserving the status quo. All supported the Confederate war effort, and all made a deliberate risk when choosing to support secession, regardless of their original motivations.

The singers in “They Laid Waste To Our Land” take no responsibility for their choices and once again echo a popular Lost Cause talking point by claiming that the United States military went too far in its prosecution of the war. There were certainly times throughout the conflict when that was the case, but their particular focus on General Sherman’s March to the Sea without also accounting for the damage wrought by Confederate General John Bell Hood’s men is a one-sided distortion of what actually happened during the march. Again, for these men the responsibility for the war’s destruction lies entirely with the United States.

they laid waste to our land, they took it from our hand

from Atlanta to Savannah, they scorched our earth

they stole our corn and wheat, they left no food to eat

they slaughtered all the cattle, took the things of worth

well, we got women and children too

just the same as you

ain’t it enough just to know that you got us beat

the hatred will never cease, even now that there’s peace

the feelings will run as deep as the scars we bear

this ain’t cloth we wear it’s a rag, we’re at the mercy of the carpetbag

what you call justice is plain unfair

how the hell can you ever claim

it’s bin worth all of the pain

just to have us live together under one flag

they laid waste to our land, they took it from our hand

I’ll finish this series of posts on White Mansions with some concluding thoughts in my next post.

Cheers

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3 responses

  1. You and I are pretty closely aligned here. It’s been awhile since I last listened to White Mansions, but my impression was that it flirted with a more complicated view of the Confederacy but inevitably defaulted to a Lost Cause narrative. “They Laid Waste To Our Land” definitively places it within the Lost Cause camp despite some of the apparently anti-secession and anti-slavery lyrics in “Dixie, Hold On.” Maybe I’ll dust it off sometime soon and give it another run.

    1. “it flirted with a more complicated view of the Confederacy but inevitably defaulted to a Lost Cause narrative.”

      I think that’s a perfect way of describing this album. I might quote you in my next post. Thanks for the great comment!

  2. […] week I wrote two separate essays here and here on the British songwriter Paul Kennerley’s 1978 country music concept album White Mansions. […]

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