Memorial Day, a holiday to remember men and women who died while serving in the military, originated not long after the Civil War where so many had died. The day became an official holiday in 1971, originally called Decoration Day (and like me you may know some folks who still use that name).
One of the best songs in recent decades about a soldier dying in war is “Travelin’ Soldier,” which was made popular by the Dixie Chicks when it appeared on their 2002 album Home. Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison wrote the beautiful song that unfortunately became overshadowed when some people got mad at the Dixie Chicks at the time the song was released.
“Travelin’ Soldier” tells the story of a shy man going off to Vietnam who meets a woman not long before he leaves. He asks her if he can write to her, and he does. At the end, the woman is at a football game when they make an announcement about soldiers who had died and, well, give it a listen if you have not heard the song. Below is a 2005 version by Natalie Maines, backed up by the songwriter Bruce Robison and his wife Kelly Willis.
We wish everyone everywhere a safe Memorial Day weekend.
Photo by Chimesfreedom. Leave your two cents in the comments.
On May 8, 1541, explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto became one of the first Europeans to reach the Mississippi River. A little more than a year later on May 21, 1542, still on a search for silver and gold in what would become the southern U.S., de Soto died from a fever on the banks of the Mississippi River. His men, not wanting the Native Americans to discover that de Soto was not divine, buried his body in the river.
Blinded by his search for precious metals, the Spaniard could not have foreseen the real value of the water with a name that came from an Ojibwe word for “Great River.” And de Soto could not have predicted that a state would take its name from the river. And he would not know that it all eventually would lead one of the land’s greatest songwriters, born in a state that hosts the headwaters of the mighty river, to use “Mississippi” as the title of one of his late career classics.
Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi”
We continue our series on Bob Dylan’s Late Career Classics with a listen to “Mississippi,” from Love and Theft (2001). Dylan continues to write outstanding songs, but in this series we consider songs that are classics in the sense they are not only identified with Dylan but appear in excellent cover versions, much like many songs from his early catalog.
I am not the only fan of Dylan’s “Mississippi.” Rolling Stone has proclaimed that “Mississippi” is the seventeenth best song of the 2000s, comparing it favorably with Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.” Further, the magazine ranks it 260th out of the greatest songs of all time.
Dylan must have sensed something special in the song because he made several versions of the song while trying to get it right. He initially recorded it for Time Out of Mind (1997). But he eventually left it off that album because he did not like Daniel Lanois’ arrangement.
So “Mississippi” first appeared on an official release several years later on Love and Theft. Here is Bob Dylan performing the song live in 2002.
Sheryl Crow’s Cover
Because of the delay in Dylan releasing his own version, someone else released a cover version of “Mississippi” before Dylan released the song. Dylan first gave it to Sheryl Crow, who recorded it for her 1998 album The Globe Sessions.
In this video Sheryl Crow explains how Dylan contacted her to ask if she wanted to record the song:
Dylan’s Slow Acoustic “Mississippi”
Dylan has released alternate versions of “Mississippi.” For my money, the best version is Dylan’s slower acoustic performance of “Mississippi.” This version leads off Dylan’s 2008 album of late-career lost songs and alternate takes, Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8, which as a 2-CD set included two versions of the song and as a 3-CD expensive deluxe version included three “Mississippi’s.”
There are a few good covers of this slower version, including one from “Blues From a Hammock.” And in this cover, Scottish singer-songwriter Rob Naokes does nice job covering the wonderful acoustic version.
Other artists have performed the song too. The Dixie Chicks, like Crow, make a rocking version of the song:
What is “Mississippi” Really About?
Many have speculated about the meaning of Dylan’s “Mississippi.” One writer claimed the song is influenced by the poetry of Henry Rollins. Rolling Stone claims it is “both a romantic promise and a hint of doom.”
The lyrics reveal past regrets (“So many things that we never will undo / I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too”). But at the same time, there are moments of humor and hope (“I know that fortune is waiting to be kind / So give me your hand and say you’ll be mine”).
The singer recalls there is only one thing he did wrong, he “stayed in Mississippi a day too long.” Yet, what happened in Mississippi remains a mystery to the listener.
Dylan knows that sometimes it is best to let the listener fill in the blanks. “Mississippi’s” magic is in one’s imagination, more powerful than the imaginary gold and silver that led de Soto to his grave in the great river. What do you think “Mississippi” is about? Leave your two cents in the comments.
Darrell Scott is a talented musician who has written some popular country songs, so even though you may not know his name, you might know some of his songs. He has released his own albums, including Long Ride Home (2011), but you might know him best for songs covered by other artists.
“It’s a Great Day to Be Alive,” written by Darrell Scott and recorded by Travis Tritt. Here is Scott singing his version of the song.
Here is the cover by Tritt:
“Long Time Gone” and “Heartbreak Town” were written by Darrell Scott and recorded by the Dixie Chicks.
On Chimesfreedom, we have often noted the power of movies, and one example of that occurred today when Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley walked out of an Arkansas court today as free men. Known as “the West Memphis 3,” the three were convicted in 1994 of killing three young boys. One of the three victims was mutilated, making some suspect a Satanic ritual killing, which cast suspicion on Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley, partly because Echols practiced Wicca. When they were convicted in 1993, Echols was eighteen and the other two were under eighteen. The conviction was based in large part on an inconsistent confession that police obtained from the borderline mentally retarded Misskelley after twelve hours of interrogation.
In 1996, directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky released the award-winning documentary Paradise Lost – The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills about the case. I remember seeing the film years ago and being intrigued by the disturbing case. The documentary raised serious questions about the guilt of the three youths convicted of the crime. (Below is part one of the first film.)
In 2000, a sequel Paradise Lost 2: Revelations raised further questions about the evidence and focused on continuing efforts to prove Echols and the other two were innocent. Watching the movies, one begins to suspect another person featured in the films may have been involved in the murders. The movies helped gain support for the West Memphis 3 from a number of celebrities, including Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines (Dixie Chicks), who were at the court hearing in Arkansas this morning. A third movie on the case is scheduled for a January release.
Today, following the discovery that DNA evidence did not connect the three to the crime, prosecutors allowed the three to plead guilty and maintain their innocence. Through the plea deal, the three were released for their time already served in prison.
Are they innocent? It is difficult to tell with a plea deal like this, and there is some evidence against them while there are also serious questions about much of the evidence. Either way, though, they have each spent seventeen years in prison, with Echols having spent part of that time on death row when he initially was sentenced to death. In light of today’s news, it is quite fortunate that he was not executed. Hopefully, some justice was done in the case. But paradise cannot be regained, as their time in prison cannot be returned, and the lives of the murdered boys cannot be brought back.
The release of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley is due largely to the work of their attorneys and supporters, but it is fair to wonder whether or not they would have gained this attention and received the quality of legal representation they did without the notoriety that came from the films. Movies can make us happy, they can make us cry, they can comfort us, they can make us angry, they can inform us, and maybe they can correct injustices.
The WWI time period is a fascinating time and is not often covered in popular culture these days. Movies and popular culture pay little attention to WWI partly because that war was so long ago and partly because it does not have the heroic triumph over evil theme that World War II has. But there are several lessons to be learned from World War I and its time, and we hope to revisit the topic in the future on Chimesfreedom, especially because I just started reading Robert Graves’s memoir of the time period, Good-Bye to All That. For today, we wanted to make sure to note the death of Frank Buckles so it is not lost in less important news like the Oscars.
Today, we remember Frank Buckles and all of the other soldiers who served in “the Great War.” The above Dixie Chicks song, “Travelin’ Soldier” is off their 2003 Top Of The World Tour Live CD. The song was written and originally recorded by Bruce Robison, and The Dixie Chicks’s studio version of the song is on their 2002 Home album. In “Travelin’ Soldier,” the singer tells about “a girl with a bow” meeting a young man off to serve in the Vietnam war who asks her if she will write him because he has nobody else.
I cried Never gonna hold the hand of another guy Too young for him they told her Waitin’ for the love of a travelin’ soldier Our love will never end Waitin’ for the soldier to come back again Never more to be alone when the letter said A soldier’s coming home.
They exchange letters and she falls in love. But then she attends a football game where they read the names of the fallen. “And one name read but nobody really cared / But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.”
It is ironic that this beautiful song about a woman supporting a man off to war was the victim of a campaign in the name of some sort of “patriotism.” The studio version “Travelin’ Soldier” was number one on the country charts as the U.S. was preparing to invade Iraq eight years ago this month on March 12, 2003. Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines told an audience in London: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” A number of country radio stations stopped playing “Travelin’ Soldier,” and the song dropped off the charts.
Many, like Merle Haggard defended Maines and her right to speak her mind. But as of today, “Travelin’ Soldier” is their last number one country song. The three made one more album together and went on hiatus. The 2006 documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing covers the reaction to the Bush quote and the impact on the group.
Fortunately, unlike the soldier in the song and so many others, Frank Buckles returned home from World War I and lived a long life, outliving the almost five million Americans who served in the war. Only one Australian man and one British woman survive Buckles of all of the 65 million people from around the world who served in the war. Not only did he live through WWI, but he saw more than a century’s worth of history, even serving as a civilian prisoner for 38 months when Japanese soldiers captured him in 1941 while he was traveling around the world. In his later years, he campaigned to get the government to refurbish a neglected World War I monument in D.C. and rededicate it as a national memorial. You may donate to the cause at the World War I Memorial Foundation website.
The West Virginia Congressional delegation from Buckles’s home state is proposing a plan for his body to lie in the U.S. Capitol. Buckles already had special government approval to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. It is good that he is so honored, because this honor is really about respecting all of the people who served in World War I, and hopefully the honor will continue to the WWI monument in DC. As for Frank Buckles, he is already home.