Cross the green mountain: Dylan’s civil war song

by Tony Attwood

This little article took me much longer than usual to write – for reasons that I think are quite apparent in the article itself.   But because I got so tangled up with the issues I faced I managed to forget to say that matters might be further explained with reference to Bob Dylan And Walt Whitman: Writing In The Captain’s Tower and to The Browning Of The Green Mountain

To take matters further forward we have now published  “Bob Dylan And Henry Timrod: The Country Coleridge Rambles” – which helps clarify things for me.  I hope it does for you.

Tony


 

Dylan is reported to have undertaken quite a bit of research into the American civil war across the years, and as a result when he came to write the song for the movie “Gods and Generals” he clearly was immersed into the subject, as I guess most US citizens are anyway from their studies of the war at school.

As you might imagine, it isn’t a subject studied in UK schools, unless you happen to get it as a specialist in-depth topic for A Level History (A Level being an academic course mostly taken by 16 to 18 year olds thinking of going to university – most of whom would take three such subjects: I took history, music and English literature.)

My problem is that not only am I English, but that although I took A Level History my specialist topic was not the American Civil War but the French Revolution of 1789 – a subject on which Dylan has been unaccountably quiet.  And that is unfortunate because if he had ventured into the world of Danton, Robespierre and Louis XVI, I’d had been well prepared.

I mention this, not to say that I can’t review this song, but rather to make the fairly obvious point that background knowledge can be important.  Could one understand Times They Are A-Changin’ without knowing about the dramatic change in values and visions among young people in the late 1950s and early 1960s?   I doubt it.

But here, Dylan, and the movie maker Ted Turner, are squarely facing an American audience who know and who are interested in, their own country’s history, and its myths and mystique.

Perhaps for you (if you are American) to understand my floundering at this point, we might imagine you as a guest in my country happening to be around on November 5 and wonder why there are bonfires being lit all over the place – and then on getting a quick explanation, thinking that we are all preparing to blow up Parliament and kick out our elected representatives, plus the bishops and nobles that sit in the Lords.

Or to give another example from my life it is like me going to a Burns Night Supper on 25 January and expecting to understand a single word.

So in a similar way if I try and reach conclusions about the historical basis of the song, I will be lost.

But even so some strands and themes arise.   The song quotes Henry Timrod – a poet of whom I had never heard before I started writing these reviews, but have now mentioned quite a few times.  But even having got used to Timrod popping up in Dylan, here again the quotes don’t mean to much to me.   Bob used lines from the poet in When The Deal Goes Down“, “Rollin and Tumblin” and “Spirit On The Water” and I sort of got where each was going, but here… no, not really.

Thus because the lyrics and subject matter don’t make a direct connection to my knowledge, my background or my heart or my soul, I find the song hard going.  What I could have done with was a line or two of stand out Dylan – the sort of lines that I mentioned in my little piece “One line to carry with you: why Dylan’s lyrics are so important for so many people” or failing that some stand out music.

Yet I find the music with its plodding ascending and descending bass line uninspiring.  Dylan has of course many times made something very profound out of using the step by step bass line – one starts with Like a Rolling Stone and moves on.  But the slow plodding nature of this piece (and I really can find no other word but plodding) reminds me of “Sad Eyed Lady,” and there again I failed to make the connection.

And as that happens again I know I am in deep trouble because few, if any, shared my view about that song.

So the conclusion must be, it is just me.  My Englishness, and my dislike of the bass line at a slow speed.  But I must admit that given the subject matter of the song this slow speed is of course highly appropriate.  Yet if we compare this to the great movie song triumph of “Things have changed” I simply don’t find lines that come into my life and live with me.  There is no “next sixty seconds could be like an eternity”.

But Larry Sloman finds the lyrics impressive, and singles out

A letter to mother came today
Gun shot wound to the breast is what it did say
But he’ll be better soon, he’s in a hospital bed
But he’ll never be better, he’s already dead

And for me… nothing.  And maybe the Timrod problem is that Timrod was not a great poet, and therefore the buzz one gets from his lines must be entirely tied up into the context – and as I am trying to explain, I have no context.

I can of course grasp the power of the closing line “We loved each other more than we ever dared to tell” but somehow the power there is not translated into the music or the overall meaning.  And this is really the point of a strophic song that continues unchanging for 12 verses.  You need to engage, and sorry, but I’m not.

There are lines from Melville in here as well, but still, I am lost.  And so more than anything else I would like someone else – someone well versed in the history and background of this song – to write the review to appear in Untold Dylan that I am struggling with.

For 12 repeating verses and the repeating ascending and descending bass line, and a not particularly memorable melody, and no stand out lines to carry away from hearing the music, I have nothing.  But if I had the history, maybe I’d make something of it all, and that’s what I am hoping you, dear reader, will do.

Interestingly the next song Dylan wrote was “Tell Ol Bill” a song which for me, sits alongside Visions of Johanna as a perfect example of Dylan at his very best.

And realising this I immediately thought of

You trampled on me as you passed
Left the coldest kiss upon my brow
All of my doubts and fears have gone at last
I’ve nothing more to tell you now

There’s nothing clever in those lines, no deep rooted meaning or historical context, and yet they shout out to me through a thousand different levels of image and suggestion in the way that I can find no single line of “Cross the Green Mountain” doing.

The fault of course is all mine, I’m in the wrong country listening at the wrong time.

So if you would like to correct my failings at this point, please write a review of this song, send it to Tony@schools.co.uk, ideally as a Word file, and I will happily publish it here as an antidote to my undoubtedly mistaken view that really, there isn’t very much here.

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

 

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15 Responses to Cross the green mountain: Dylan’s civil war song

  1. hans altena says:

    I Pity the Poor Immigrant, why is it that as a Dutch fellow my heart starts beating fast when I hear this slow burning song, with strong images that tell me of the darkness of civil war? When the soldiers appear on the opposite hill and salute the ones they’re going to kill I think of the moving woods in Macbeth, it is somehow evoked, and that’s the way Dylan’s lyrics work, not on a rational level, and that’s why he beats the poets that construct instead of invent.

  2. jzsnake says:

    Are you saying that you don’t even like the lines that Larry Sloman quoted?

  3. hans kramer says:

    don’t criticize what you can’t understand ?

  4. gypsy davy with a torch says:

    I myself was never particularly struck by this song, I wanted it to take the role as a great latter day Dylan song but it never caught fire in my imagination. If you’re interested you may be want to investigate the Civil War through the Ken Burns mini-series, it seems like it might be a quick way to get a handle on things. Reading your commentary I was struck by one of your lines: The fault is mine, I’m in the wrong country at the wrong time, now that could be a great chorus to a great song, maybe you, as a songwriter, could write that and try to encapsulate your feelings about these things and then post it. Just a thought.

  5. Peter Faithfull says:

    I think “‘Cross The Green Mountain” is one of Dylan’s best songs ever. As with many of Dylan’s songs it works on several levels. While at first glance it seems to be about the US Civil War, I think that what it’s really about is 9/11. Remember, it was the first new song Dylan recorded and released after the attacks (even though “Waiting On You” was released in 2002, it was probably written before 9/11).

    The first four verses include several images that in my opinion are obvious references to what happened in New York City on 9/11: “by the stream”, “land of the rich and the free”, “altars are burning” (does not make sense in a Civil War context, but certainly in reference to 9/11), “flames far and wide”, “foe has crossed over, from the other side”, “along the dim Atlantic line” (again, does not make much sense in a Civil War context, but certainly in reference to New York City), “all must yield to the avenging God”, “lessons of life can’t be learned in a day” (9/11 = one day).
    Then the line about the Captain in the sixth verse: “killed outright he was, by his own men” could be a reference to the fire fighters and police officers who had to be sent into the inferno “by their own men”, the US authorities responsible for coordinating the rescue efforts.
    “It’s the last day’s last hour, of the last happy year” and the rest of the seventh verse paints 9/11 as the end of an old era and the beginning of a new era, which it certainly was.
    The last four verses could be interpreted as describing the fate of Flight 93 and the passengers who attacked the hijackers: “they never dreamed of surrendering, they fell where they stood”, “ten miles outside the city”, “they were calm they were gloomed”.

  6. David Harper says:

    The bass ground, the dirge, like Pachebel’s Canon, is an excellent accompaniment to this work. Dylan addresses the madness of America’s civil war in the language of the day. Portrays humanities tragedy in killing ourselves, and not the evil.
    With a headful of ‘ancient light outside of town’, that’s a Dylan song nobody else could have written that real. Not a song for high rotation on the radio but I bet Stephen Foster would like it.

  7. Larry Fyffe says:

    Sloman’s quote references Walt Whitman’s ‘Come Up From The Fields Father”

  8. Bob Jope says:

    ‘Killed outright he was…’ ‘…is what it did say…’ etc. For me it’s the thumping clumsiness of the writing, the pseudo ‘poetic’ inversions and stilted diction in particular (why not ‘He was killed outright’ or ‘it said’ ?), that so disappoint – by comparison with the wonderful incisiveness and naturalness of Dylan’s writing in even a minor masterpiece like, say, ‘Sign on the Window’.

  9. Larry Fyffe says:

    Peter, you are stretching matters too far in your 911 interpretation: “along the dim Atlantic line” is taken directly from Timrod’s poem about the attack on the southern Atlantic Ocean seaport of Charleston during the American Civil War.

  10. Larry Fyffe says:

    Dylan sings abour altars (alters?) burning, ie: human sacrifice, a ‘ravaged land’, and the accidental shooting of Stonewall Jackson. The horrors of 911 could be fitted in were the song more ambigiously written, but as the lyrics stand, it can’t be done very convincingly.

  11. Shabtai says:

    How about these lines:

    “It’s the last day’s last hour of the last happy year
    I feel that the unknown world is so near
    Pride will vanish and glory will rot
    But virtue lives and cannot be forgot”

    To me they are far from “uninspiring”
    In just 4 lines Dylan articulates both the horrors, misery, gloom and despair of the upcoming war ( true for any war not necessarily the civil war) , and the futility and stupidity of pride and glory which lead to it.
    Comes to mind also Dylan influence by “All quiet on the west front” which he expressed in his Nobel speech.

  12. rich whalen says:

    peter i have always heard something of 9/11 in this song too; like much of dylan’s work it is maybe not overt but adds a flavor to it. Maybe too you and I heard the song through the shared experience of 9/11.

  13. Larry Fyffe says:

    Certainly one’s mind can associate, through coincidental experience, the song with 9ll, but the lyrics are not in that direction compelling, I would think, for those without that experience.

  14. Liam McNamara says:

    All verse can be twisting and turning just like a painting. …it’s the nature. …what Dylan wrote or meant is passed and irrelevant. …..the whole point is to touch the individual…

  15. Peter Faithfull says:

    @Larry Fyffe

    “‘Cross The Green Mountain” would not be the first Dylan song that on the surface talks about one thing, while between the lines adresses something else entirely.

    Take “Lenny Bruce”. Of course, it’s about Lenny Bruce, but at the same time it’s a song about John Lennon.

    The great thing is that Dylan’s work can be interpreted in so many different ways. Like a mirror it reflects who you are.

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