General “Stonewall” Jackson is well known as one of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s best right-hand men, kicking hell out of the Yanks every chance he got. What’s less known is he was sort of a kindler, gentler John Brown who, instead of taking off on a rage against white folk, went the nonetheless radical route of educational advocacy, for instance organizing Sunday School classes. That’s one of the things you learn from Don Baker’s successful play Stonewall Country.
Bluegrass/country husband and wife duo Robin and Linda Williams of Prairie Home Companion renown performed in and wrote music for Stonewall Country. As of July 12th, they also have released Stonewall Country: Songs From the Musical (Red House Records). It’s a pleasant recording, material capably written by the Williamses with assists from Margaret Junkin Preston, Jerome Clark, and Baker. Appropriate folk music, largely entertaining, not much of it remarkable. The execution is competent by Robin Williams (guitar, jaw harp, vocals), Linda Williams (guitar, banjo, vocals), James Watson (bass, vocals), Chris Bashear (fiddle), Jimmy Gaudreau (mandolin), and John Jennings (guitar, bass, bouzouki, drums) with narration by Garrison Keillor.
There are a few glaring flaws. The melody to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is appropriated for “Battling Anthems,” a slapdash look at both sides of the Civil War. Along with pretentiously swiping the melody, simplistic lyrics pander to ready-made sentiment. For instance, the song calls Johnny Reb on defending a land where masters routinely raped slaves while history documents that Union soldiers did their share of sweeping through towns, forcibly sexing black women. “Seven Day Freak Out,” documenting one of Jackson’s few failures, is a amateurish whooping and hollering set to static songwriting. On the other hand, “Here Comes Jeb” is refreshing, a jubilant, knee-slapping tribute to Jackson subordinate and best friend, famed General Jeb Stuart.
Another of Jackson’s generals was fierce guerilla fighter A.P. Hill (with the ingenious commanders Lee—no slouch himself—had at his command, you have to wonder, had strategic battles gone the other way, whether the U.S. would today be called the Confederate States of America). The stirring “A.P.’s Blues” is an account of a spirited leader born of the earth, troubled as he was fiery, hellbent on holding to his vow to prevail. The mournful “The War’s Gone Bad On Me” might make you lose sleep. Soldiers started out, North and South, guaranteed by public service announcements that all they needed do was bring a commitment to their countries, shoulder a rifle, and it’d all be over in a matter of months. This song brutally lays bare the reality of a Confederate grunt who, years into the conflagration, saw no cease from the death and dying. Who dealt with hardtack, lice, and hard hours while rich men’s sons sat on their privileged behinds, far from the firing lines. Who, no longer seeing any sense in any of it, threw up his hand and dispiritedly walked away. Captured and brought back, the soldier reflects on the coming day when, as a deserter, he’ll face a firing squad.
Stonewall Country is uneven, but worth a listen.
Photo: A 2003 production of Stonewall Country. Photo courtesy Theater at Lime Kiln.