Monday, February 16, 2009

"Two Soldiers"

Jerry Garcia and David Grisman--"Two Soldiers" (mp3)
Bob Dylan--"Two Soldiers" (mp3)
Julie Miller--"Two Soldiers" (mp3)

Last year, I ran a post about the traditional song, "Girl From the North Country," one of those classic songs whose universal themes and many versions and variations intrigue me. I'm offering another one today--"Two Soldiers."

I first heard "Two Soldiers" wandering around the shops in Petoskey, Michigan when I was up there with a friend for a Hemingway and Fitzgerald conference. It was right after the first of Jerry Garcia and David Grisman cd's, the eponymous Jerry Garcia/David Grisman, was released. A beautifully-recorded acoustic record, it contained a stunning range of song types, from reworkings of Dead songs and blues songs in traditional or bluegrass setting to 16 minute instrumental, "Arabia," which captures the rhythms of that land.

Buried there somewhere in the middle was "Two Soldiers." The song is about two Union soldiers during the Civil War who are about to go into battle, to assault a ridge, and since one has a loved one and the other one a "dear mother," they are making final plans in case they are killed. I suppose by this time, the cinematic scene where the one soldier asks the other soldier to deliver something for him if he is killed has become almost a cliche, though I'd have to believe that it is a true one which stills goes on today.

But the rich language and skilled storytelling of the song abolishes any cliches--these men are not stereotypes. Their language sounds anguished and true. The narrator starts the song in the middle of the story. The "tall dark man" has already asked "the blue-eyed Boston boy" to tell his lover if he is killed. The Boston boy's comment concerning his mother ("I'll see her soon, I know") takes on a grim, rather than naive, implication. The descriptions of battle are evocative and metaphorical, worthy of Stephen Crane or Ambrose Bierce. And, of course, the outcome, though no surprise, is still shattering, for the narrator plays on dramatic irony to remind us that we know what happened before the battle, but the loved ones back home never will.

Of the three versions I've posted, I prefer Garcia's. I think he has a voice well-suited to these traditional songs. Dylan's is a close second. The Julie Miller version, though certainly more than listenable, is a rare misfire for her, given her and Buddy's own skill in working traditional-sounding songs. To my ear, the harmonizing with Emmylou Harris gives the song a high shrillness that detracts. But, I heard her version last, so maybe I had come to expect a sparseness that the subject matter seems to merit. And, that's really nitpicking. It's such a beautiful, timeless melody that it's hard to imagine anyone doing a bad version.

If you know of other versions of the song, please let me know. I have a Norman Blake/Tony Rice version somewhere, but in the CD chaos of my life, I can't find it.

"Two Soldiers"

He was just a blue-eyed Boston boy,
His voice was low with pain,
"I'll do your bidding, comrade mine,
If I ride back again,
But if you ride back and I am left,
You'll do as much for me,
Mother you know, must hear the news
So write to her tenderly."

"She's waiting at home like a patient saint,
Her fond face pale with woe,
Her heart will be broken when I am gone,
I'll see her soon, I know."
Just then the order came to charge,
For an instant hand touched hand,
They said "Aye" and away they rode,
That brave and devoted band.

Straight was the track to the top of the hill,
The rebels they shot and shelled,
Plowed furrows of death through the toilling ranks
And guarded them as they fell.
There soon came a horrible dying yell
From heights that they could not gain,
And those whom doom and death had spared
Rode slowly back again.

But among the dead that were left on the hill
Was the boy with the curly hair,
The tall dark man who rode by his side
Lay dead beside him there.
There's no one to write to the blue-eyed girl
The words that her lover had said
Momma, you know, awaits the news
And she'll only know he's dead.

Julie Miller's Broken Things, Garcia and Grisman's first CD, and Dylan's World Gone Wrong are all available at Itunes.


Zoooma!! said...

Very cool post on this song. I'll have to email this to my girlfriend as she really likes this Civil War themed tune that Jerry & David do. I've never heard any other version nor do I know of any other but if you or anyone reading this is interested, I've got a couple Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band shows for download with Two Soldiers.

Inspiration, Move Me Brightly...

Ole5anddimer said...

Great version of this on Rounder's 25 Years of Bluegrass Compilation (a must for any Bluegrass Collection) performed by the Bluegrass Cardinals...

omiewise said...

I think all of these people learned the song from Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerard, who learned it from Mike Seeger who learned it from a singer in Kentucky. Anyway, the Hazel and Alice version is quite good. Great song.

Bob said...

Thanks to all of you for these insights. I'll be on the hunt. Zooma, your website looks very cool.

Rick said...

Actually, the verses for "Two Soldiers" come from a lengthy poem/song
(20 verses!)titled "The Last Fierce Charge." The poem can be found here:;ttLASTFIER.html

Eric Merrill has a stellar version of the shortened version by the title "Blue-Eyed Boston Boy" on the labum THE WESTERN STAR. It is available on iTunes.

Rick said...

There's a version of the 20 verse "Last Fierce Charge" with a different melody and no accompaniment on iTunes by Loman Cansler from the album "Folksongs of the Midwest."

Bob said...

Rick, thanks, that's incredibly interesting stuff. Sometime English teacher that I am, I'm going to speculate that the song benefits from the editing down of those verses, which is apparently what creates the "start in the middle of the action" aspect to the song and enhances the irony.

boyhowdy said...

There's a LOVELY version of this by Dave Heumann of Arbouretum on the brand new Splice Today indiefolk-covers-tradfolk compilation (released YESTERDAY).

The compilation is generally amazing, and free for all; I posted the song over at Cover Lay Down, so c'mon over 'n git it.

Tockstar said...

The Bluegrass Cardinals version is really incredible.

Bob said...

I notice the Bluegrass Cardinals say "I'll see her face no more," not "I'll see her soon I know."

Phragmites said...

the Cowboy Junkies did a fine version on their album Early 21st Century Blues