Anniv. of Civil War’s Start: Elvis’s American Trilogy

On April 12, 1861, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. In the early morning hours at 4:30 a.m., Confederate soldiers opened fire on the Federal Government’s Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay, South Carolina.

The state of South Carolina had seceded from the United States in December 1860 soon after Abraham Lincoln was elected president. By the time he took office in March, the situation at Fort Sumter was nearing a crisis and seven states had seceded.

Once the bombardment of Fort Sumter began on the morning of this date, it continued for 34 hours. And, on April 13 U.S. Major Robert Anderson surrendered the fort to Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard.

According to David Herbert Donald in the book Lincoln (1995), during the weeks between Pres. Lincoln’s inauguration and the first shots at Fort Sumter, the president was physically exhausted by stress. But there was some relief after this date. Because the first shots were fired by the Confederates, the rebels now had the burden of starting the war, not the North.

And after the first shots of the Civil War, Lincoln’s choices became clearer. Two days later, Pres. Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for volunteer soldiers. Within a week, Virginia voted to secede, and more states followed. The war would rage for the next four years.

Perhaps no song in recent history has attempted to encapsulate the Civil War era like “An American Trilogy,” a song that Elvis Presley performed regularly in concert toward the end of his life. The song was actually three popular American songs arranged by Mickey Newbury. It begins with the unofficial Confederate anthem “Dixie,” followed by the African-American spiritual, “All My Trials,” and closes with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the Yankee marching song.

What is the meaning of “An American Trilogy”? Paul Simpson’s The Rough Guide to Elvis notes that Mickey Newbury’s original intent is unclear, as the combination could have been about America’s lack of innocence or been intended ironically in reference to Pres. Nixon and the Viet Nam War.

For Elvis, “An American Trilogy” might have been about patriotism. But Charles Reagan Wilson wrote in Judgment and Faith in Dixie (1997) that Elvis’s “slow, reflective, melancholy” performances of the song in the 1970s “suggested an emotional awareness of the complex past of regional conflict and Southern trauma.”

In his excellent book Mystery Train (1975), critic Greil Marcus considered “An American Trilogy” to be Elvis’s attempt to combine all aspects of America and bring everyone together in a fantasy of freedom. But Marcus believed that Elvis’s song failed in that goal because the lack of complexity in the song creates “a throwaway America where nothing is at stake.” (p. 124.) For example, Marcus claimed, “There is no John Brown in his ‘Battle Hymn,’ no romance in his ‘Dixie,’ no blood in his slave song.”

Maybe Marcus wants too much out of a four-minute song. Yes, the song is gaudy in its performance, and Elvis’s jumpsuit is a long way from the soldiers and slaves. But as discussed in another Chimesfreedom post, John Brown is inherent in “Battle Hymn,” just as the romance is inherent in “Dixie,” and as blood is inherent in the dying in “All My Trials.”

There is another layer of confusion regarding the meaning of the song today because Elvis sings it. And Elvis, especially since his death, has become a complex American icon, as some consider him a revolutionary, some call him a thief, and some see him as a fat man steeped in excess. Yet perhaps the contradictions of Elvis, like the contradictions of the song, are the only way you can try to sum up the Civil War, in particular, and the complexity of America in general.

Finally, one additional complication is that what Newbury and Presley apparently thought was an African-American spiritual, was not. Many today believe that the center of the trilogy, “All My Trials,” which is also sometimes called “All My Sorrows,” has somewhat muddled origins. Many current scholars believe that the song was assembled from fragments of existing songs in the 1950s and set to the music of a lullaby from the Bahamas to make it sound like a traditional spiritual.

Newbury and Presley were not the only ones who thought it was an actual slave spiritual. In the 1950s, music critic Nat Hentoff wrote that it came from an African-American song, and in the 1960s, Joan Baez and others referred to the song as a slave spiritual.

So, there are more questions in “An American Trilogy” than answers. But on a day that started the deadliest war in our nation’s history, I prefer the people with questions over the armed generals who think they have the answers.

Bonus American Trilogy Version: For you Celebrity Apprentice fans, here is Meat Loaf singing “American Trilogy” at a 1987 tribute to Elvis Presley.

What do you think is the meaning of “American Trilogy”? Leave a comment.

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    3 thoughts on “Anniv. of Civil War’s Start: Elvis’s American Trilogy”

    1. Hell, they’re all wrong. Mickey put this together on stage one night with just the intent of singing Dixie and the rest just followed without any planning.

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