Tuesday, June 15, 2010

1914: "I Love You Just Like Lincoln Loved the Old Red, White and Blue" by the Peerless Quartet

The failure of African Americans to be granted full civil rights in the years following the Civil War caused the epic conflict to become a fairytale the nation told itself as opposed to the second revolution that it could have (and should have) been. African Americans were pushed out of the picture; the Civil War, Americans assured each other, was a conflict of “brother against brother.” It was an oversimplification, to be sure, but it was also the easier version of the story to tell, and the American popular culture ate it up.

In 1913, a photograph of an ancient veteran in a blue uniform shaking hands with an ancient veteran in a gray uniform became the iconic image of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg; in 1915, D.W. Griffith’s epic (and epically flawed) film Birth of a Nation retold the Civil War from the perspectives of two close families torn apart by the war, in which each family would lose a son; and in the year in between came the Peerless Quartet’s recording of “I Love You Just Like Lincoln Loved the Old Red, White and Blue.”

Maudlin to the point of nauseating, patriotic to the point of laughable, the song tells of a lad meeting a lassie at Gettysburg, where each are leaving flowers for their fathers as part of Decoration Day. As songbirds mate in the trees, the lad declares his love for the lass – he loves her just like Lincoln loved the old red, white, and blue. In the second verse, it is revealed, of course, that his father fought for the Yankees and hers for the Confederates, but this doesn’t matter. “My father wore a suit of blue and your dad a suit of gray,” the lad sings, “That’s why we both bring roses here on Decoration Day!” His words ring with confidence, if a touch of caution, as though he is figuring them out as he says them: There is more bringing them together than separating them – in fact, it’s their very differences that bring them together in the first place.

What the song’s words do lyrically, its music does sonically. The Peerless Quartet have all of the cloying whitebread polish of a barbershop quartet, giving the song a soulless top layer of varnish one might expect from a quaint parlor ballad. Woven throughout the song are snippets of various patriotic and marching songs, stitched together by the rat-a-tat of military-style drums. For a song that is as sappy as Valentine’s Day, it sounds like the Fourth of July. The song not only reconciles North and South, but love and patriotism.

But where is Lincoln during all of this? Where he often is in popular culture: Removed and stoic, like a god watching over things rather than one who participates in the events (or perhaps sets them into motion). His tragic death occurred at just the right time to seal him off at the moment of triumph, which instantly turned a very human leader into a larger-than-life martyr/prophet. When the lad exclaims that he loves the lass like Lincoln loves the old red, white, and blue, he’s saying that his love is the ultimate love – a love from a very real and human source that transcends itself to become almost holy and immortal.

It is interesting to note that he equates his love to the love that Lincoln felt for his country – as opposed to, say, for Mary Todd Lincoln – perhaps all the more so because even after repeated listens this doesn’t jump out to the listener. For all of our rhetoric about separation of church and state, Americans take it for granted that love for their country is a divine love. And this, as exemplified by Lincoln’s spirit, creates the Union that Lincoln fought – and ultimately died – for: A land in which a war of “brother against brother” can directly result in a ballad of “lover meets lover.

[This is from the continuing series “100 Years of American Recordings, 1891-1991.”]

1 comment:

  1. It occurs to me that the confederate flag was red white and blue. I only mention this because on first reading Lincoln loving the "old red white and blue" of course brings to my mind the Stars and Stripes-- the flag of the U.S.A. not the C.S.A. I'm not sure how this plays out in thinking about this song but I'm working on it! I must of course go listen to it.