The Civil War started and ended in the exact same place and time, physically and culturally. While it is true that the shelling of Fort Sumter is typically considered to officially have been the first hostile actions shown between two definitive sides in the Civil War, it was not until the First Battle of Bull Run (also known as the Battle of First Manassas) that the men in the blue would eye musket-to-musket with those in the gray, ironically the very same location where General Lee would shake hands with Grant four years later to the very week in April in the McLean house at Appomattox. Coincidentally as well, the tension felt between the North and the South was also no less than it was four years prior, and through the use of musical parodies, both sides had often taken it upon themselves to turn gallantry and national pride into mockery. Music certainly played an important role during the war, and while Union pieces were typically more march-like and orchestral and Confederate more melodic and deeply cultural, both had undoubtedly the least shred of hesitation to rip one to their adversaries and claim the moral high ground embodied by populism. And that’s exactly what the southern folk song “O I’m A Good Old Rebel” encompassed following its immediate release on the shelves of a Virginian drug store after the war’s end. By appealing to the shortcomings of the recently defeated Southern Confederacy through Northern mockery, “O I’m A Good Old Rebel” exhibits some of this cultural resentment and pride embodied through populism that still remains even up to today as a result of such a psychologically enduring and critical event of our country’s history.
With no indication of an explicit author save an identifying symbol found on the inside cover, it is difficult to trace the piece’s origins to an exact time and place. Through extensive research, it is rumored to have been written by Major James Randoph, a Virginian who served under General J.E.B. Stuart, one of the Confederacy’s trusted generals, though such findings cannot be confirmed as they are not officially recognized by the Library of Congress. What is known to be true, however, was that it was sold after the war in a Virginian drug store owned by a McMurren & Waddell evidenced by its multiple references of the Freedman’s Bureau and Reconstruction. No other information regarding the drug store company could be found, but often during this time other satirical pieces could be sold in similar accessible in order to make money off easy and unoriginal humor at the expense of one’s adversaries.
In Battle Hymns, author Christian McWhirter details examples of such political satire pieces, often parodies of earlier war hymns tied together with nationalistic and populist messages on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, such as in the case of W.H. Barnes’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” (pro-South) and Joe English’s “The Irish Volunteer” (pro-North) (McWhirter). However, in the case of “O I’m A Good Old Rebel,” the adopted tune unlike the others aforementioned is not in of itself a parody of a previous tune but instead adopts its tune as a rite of passage so that its politically charged lyrics may essentially spiteF the “damned Yankees” in “honorable” dedication to Republican Thaddeus Stevens.
An example of a political parody from the North: a take on the Southern hymn, “The Bonnie Blue Flag.”
Regarding the reasons for the piece’s production, the song was most likely intended to be performed in piano parlors throughout the South at informal social gatherings. The music itself only contains two tracks, one for vocals and another for a piano accompaniment, and the lyrics themselves in fact are the only original parts to the piece as a whole, as the tune is adopted from the “wild, western chaunt, ‘Joe Bowers.'” As a result, it could be said that the intent clearly is more participatory than presentational — something simply fun to sing a long to in company with fellow countrymen sharing a common hatred for the Northern man. Also because of its intuitive lyrical design and unoriginal compilation, it was concluded to have been made for mass production. Its cover, intricate with the carved image of an ambiguous country-looking man, was designed from the process of lithography, possibly at a different time from the writing of the piece’s lyrical composure. Lithography, introduced by Alois Senefelder, included the carving of a design into stone and then the transferal of the design onto surfaces by ink with the intention of mass production. While it is unknown if the cover was created for the sake of this piece, we personally do not think that it was due to its title positioned off center vis a vis its cover art. Since then it most likely has been stored with other similar pieces before being brought to Hoole Special Collections Library due to its preserved outward conditions and its back page containing text rubbed off from another work.
Historical Context and Populist Spin
With an apparent contradictory dedication to Thaddeus Stevens, a prominent Republican and abolitionist, found on the inside cover of the piece (“Respectfully dedicated to the hon. Thad. Stevens”) it begs the question, what was the author’s intention? At first glance, the listener may have small confusion determining whether or not the piece as a whole is satire of the Southern man with his terribly out of place grammar actually dedicated to Stevens or if the piece itself is it genuinely an insult and is sent smugly to Stevens out of spite. While as a whole the piece can indeed be perceived as ambiguous, because of its historical context associated with it, we believe it to most likely be the latter, that it was a unifying call to preserve the Southern opposition to Northern politics in postbellum America. Today in fact, many avid Confederate Civil War fans (i.e. those who bear the “stars and bars” proudly and are often interested in Confederate paraphernalia and the war itself) have adopted the song themselves, thus signifying at the very least its true intentions of southern pride. Since its origins, the mysterious song has been referred to and covered by various artists including Hoyt Axton, the 2nd South Carolina String Band, and even Johnny Rebel, a prominent racist and KKK supporter. Even Edward VII, the prince of Wales, once referred to it at a reception in London as “that fine American song with the cuss words in it.”Again however, since the author is to an extent unknown it certainly is difficult to determine whether his intentions were sincere. Though because it is rumored to have been a Confederate major and if such is the case, then this only confirms the nature for what it has been adopted in the present day as, a song for southern pride.
Now that the piece’s ambiguity has been addressed and for the sake of argument assumed to be genuine, the question of populism and its role further will help to contextualize the piece’s original intentions for production. Both the North and the South not surprisingly held deep convictions about their own raisons d’être, though certainly in different manners. Both from these convictions would often use populism as a way to claim moral high ground, either as a way of comparing the “War of Northern Aggression” similar to the “yank’s” rebellion again Great Britain a century prior or as a need to immediately reconcile a divided nation of democracy in order to prove to a world of despotism that representative democracy was indeed a viable way to run a country. Civil War historian and author Larzer Ziff best addresses such populist divide in his book Civil War Humor: Songs of the Civil War:
During the war, the Loyal Publication Society had been tireless in disseminating songs and other literature throughout the North in order to preserve “the integrity of the Nation, by counteracting the efforts of the advocates of a disgraceful and disintegrating Peace. . . .” In the South, however, the songs that were sung were understandably more cherished momentoes since they were poignant remembrances of not only a great war but also of a well-loved order which would never be again.
Thus in the case of “O I’m A Good Old Rebel,” there is a clear underlying message found throughout its lyrics of a wish that the Confederacy had triumphed instead and an overall glorification of Southern culture at the expense of Northern aggression, a clear example of populism taken with a Southern spin.
Now in terms of these such lyrics, the piece has several features which appear to suggest the established contrary and create a façade intended to mock the average southerner. Though upon closer inspection, it is rather instead believed to be a mockery of the North! By use of lyrics that seem to exaggerate beyond confederate idealism and the use of very poor grammar and spelling, an initial appearance of southern mockery is given when though actually it simply is encompassing of southern culture (used for its populist call to action). One example of this can be found at the beginning of the second verse when it mentions, “I hates the Constitution, This Great Republic, too, I hates the Freedman’s Bureau, In uniforms of blue.” The artists’s use of grammar in this way seems to be attempting to accurately depict the way the average southerners spoke at the time of the war, very similar to when writers and historians recorded the hymns and conversations of former slaves at later times.
Furthermore, another part of the song that supports the argument that this was not merely meant to satirize southern idealism is the use of a lyrical rebuttal towards the popular union war song, “We Are Coming Father Abra’am:” “Three hundred thousand yankees is stiff in southern dust; We got three hundred thousand, before they conquered us; They died of southern fever and southern steel and shot, I wish they was three million instead of what we got.” There’s nothing about these lines that can be considered over exaggeration or in poor taste towards the Confederacy. They show a legitimate hatred of the North which can be merited from their point of view, after all, considering they had just fought their own equivalence of the American Revolution and were unsuccessful. Another example similar to this one which further reveals the genuine nature of this piece can be found in the final verse of the song: “I can’t take up my musket and fight ’em no more, But I ain’t going to love ‘em, now that is sarten sure; And I don’t want no pardon, for what I was and am, I won’t be reconstructed And I don’t care a damn.” This stanza is clearly free of any hyperbole or humor one would expect in the final verse of a song mocking the north. The final cry echoing the epitome of “The South will rise again,” is something that would have been a very real threat at the time it was written, which was merely months after the bloodiest conflict in American history. Most people would be unable to joke about a second civil war just after they have lost members of their family, friends, and personal property to the first civil war, thus demonstrating that the song almost certainly was actually intended to spite the North.
Between the tattered feelings of southern pride and national reconciliation in an emotionally trying time, “O I’m A Good Rebel” demonstrates the true character and attitude of a people just recently vanquished and swept under the rug of Unionist Reconstruction. Where once they had dreams and aspirations of independence, the South suddenly became a political quagmire of uncertainty, stripped during this period of their rights to hold office, their slaves to make their industries thrive, and any states’ rights they hoped to achieve by means of revolution. As a result, this piece was meant to cherish memories of old southern pride and to resist change, thus giving many Southerners hope and inspiration for a second chance at independence.
English, Joe. “The Irish Volunteer.” Performed by David Kincaid. Feb. 1998, Rykodisc. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yavz9rzaOSY.
McWhirter, Christian. Battle Hymns : The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War. Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, c2012., 2012. Civil War America. EBSCOhost. Print.
“O I’m A Good Old Rebel.” 1865 Virginia: McMurren & Waddell. Print.
Ziff, Larzer. “Civil War Humor: Songs of the Civil War.” Civil War History, vol. 2, no. 3, Sept. 1956, pp. 7-28. EBSCOhost, libdata.lib.ua.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=31h&AN=45974814&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Cameron Burns, Will Sprunk, William Wolf