Jeff Davis’ Big Cannon Balls and Music as American Motivator

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Over at the Slate Vault historical blog, Rebecca Onion has published an epic musical broadside ballad printed by Union partisans during the Civil War. The song and others like it mocked the foolish attempts of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to give the United States of America a proper smack-down, even as he used “big cannon balls” to “put in big licks.” Titled “Jeff Davis and His Uncle,” the song details a hapless Davis who “tried to whip his Uncle,” but failed miserably since “He hadn’t the courage for to Root Hog or Die.” Onion explains the “roots” of the ladder phrase as such:

The “Uncle” in the title of this ballad is “Uncle Sam,” a man who Davis “tried to whip, but found it wouldn’t pay.” “Root, hog, or die,” an expression that recurs in this song but that’s now largely forgotten (save, perhaps, by fans of June Carter Cash), derived from the farmer’s practice of turning pigs loose to forage for their own food. In the  19th century, Americans used the idiom to tell others to be self-reliant and strong or suffer the consequences.

This was just one of an endless series of popular song broadsides that circulated during the war. Partisans on both sides published wartime propaganda tunes of varying degrees of quality and classiness designed to stoke the passions of soldiers and civilians, politicians and officers alike. In a thoroughly informative new study of music during the Civil War, Christian McWhirter details the ways music served as a vehicle for patriotic expression, as a form of political protest, especially against the draft, and as a source of aural inspiration to get soldiers in the field to fight with more passion and vigor and civilians on the home front to sacrifice everything to the cause.

A somewhat less-violent modern-day equivalent of the use of music to inspire passion for your “side” is the ubiquitous presence of such overplayed anthems like Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” Europe’s existential masterpiece with the synth line that will NEVER leave your head, “The Final Countdown,” and Metallica’s ode to nighttime beach-soil delivery, “Enter Sandman” at major American sporting events. Music at sporting events serves to rally the respective partisans of both teams to cheer more enthusiastically for their side and make repeat visits to beer stands for $8 cups of Miller Lite. Much in the way Civil War era music inspired Union and Confederate partisans to fight on, sports anthems help modern Americans rally behind something larger than themselves, even if the national stakes aren’t quite as high as they were in the 1860s.

But this doesn’t mean that songs aimed at political figures like presidents have ever vanished from the American popular landscape. During his two terms in office, President George W. Bush inspired songs of loathing and loving, like Bright Eyes’ trite, if heartfelt critique of Bushism, “When the President Talks to God” and Pro-Dubya anthems like Darryl Worley’s even triter Bush endorsement, “Have You Forgotten?”

President Barack Obama has also received his fair share of support and loathing through music. Hank Williams Jr., who in the not-so-distant past was a country artist worth your attention, released a scathing anti-Obama anthem called “Keep the Change” that is about as subtle as a kick in the groin, while Bruce Springsteen performed his folky dirge anthem “Forward” at several Obama 2012 campaign rallies.

Music has always been a fixture on the American popular landscape. It has served as entertainment, artistic and political expression, and as an excuse to root for a bunch of guys in helmets crashing into each-other on a Sunday afternoon. As the above anti-Jeff Davis broadside and various pro and anti Bush and Obama tunes demonstrate, as long as Americans have had opinions about stuff, there has also been music created to spread those opinions. Go Cleveland Indians.

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