Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Dear Ms. Mitchell: Scarlett and Rhett Couldn’t Possibly Have Waltzed to “Weeping Sad and Lonely.”


Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” is a sweeping, Pulitzer-prize winning historical fiction that struck a powerful chord with Depression-era readers when it was published in 1936. It also can be read as a treatise of the Confederate mindset and here’s why: Mitchell was born in Atlanta in 1900 and was raised by an extended family that included many war survivors. As well as providing one of the most beloved love stories (sort of) in American literature, GWTW provides an accurate, fascinating – if occasionally disturbing -- portrayal of southern life and attitudes during and after the war. But what is clearer to me than the fact that Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful (but men seldom realized it) was that Margaret Mitchell was not a musician. I know this because in chapter nine, she has Rhett and Scarlett waltzing to a song written in 4/4 time.

Rhett has just paid $150.00 in gold to dance with the newly-widowed Scarlett at a Confederate fund-raiser when they have the following exchange:

“Captain Butler, you must not hold me so tightly. Everybody is looking.”
“If no one were looking, would you care?”
“Captain Butler, you forget yourself.”
“Not for a minute. How could I, with you in my arms? . . . What is that tune? Isn’t it new?”
“Yes, isn’t it divine? It’s something we captured from the Yankees.”
“What’s the name of it?”
‘When This Cruel War is Over.”
“What are the words? Sing them to me.”
“Dearest One, do you remember when we last did meet?
When you told me how you loved me, kneeling at my feet.
Oh, how proud you stood before me in your suit of gray,
When you vowed from me and country ne’re to go astray.
Weeping sad and lonely, sighs and tears how vain!
When this cruel war is over, pray that we meet again.”

“Of course, it was ‘suit of blue’ but we changed it to ‘gray.’ . . . Oh, you waltz so well, Captain Butler. Most big men don’t, you know . . .”

Scarlett wasn’t the only civil-war era person to think the song divine: it sold approximately one million copies in several editions. But one modern critic of Civil War verse had this to say about it:

“There is nothing in this sentimental song that enables one to read the riddle of its remarkable popularity during the Civil War. It has no poetic merit; its rhythm is commonplace, and the tune to which it was sung was of the flimsiest musical structure, without even a trick of melody to commend it. Yet the song was more frequently sung, on both sides, than any other . . . The thing was heard in every camp every day and many times every day. Men chanted it on the march, and women sang it to piano accompaniment in all houses. A song which so strongly appealed to two great armies and to an entire people is worthy of a place in all collections of war poetry, even though criticism is baffled in the attempt to discover the reason of its popularity.”
(From “Songs of the Civil War” by Irwin Silber.)

I can personally attest that when performing this song during our “Songs of the Civil War” program, the interest level of the audience plummets palpably every time the second verse begins. We have now cut it down to one verse and one chorus (the great Margaret Mitchell did no less) but we will not completely excise it although there are many catchy Civil War tunes we could use as replacements. Sometimes a song becomes a mega-hit because touches a chord in a certain time and place. This song, published in 1863 when body counts were rising and there was no end in sight, gave voice to a divided nation’s yearning for peace.

Sources:

“Gone with the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell, MacMillan anniversary edition, 1975. Quotes taken from pages 177-178.

“All the Years of American Popular Song” by David Ewen, Prentice-Hall, 1977.

“Songs of the Civil War” by Irwin Silber, Bonanza Books, 1960. Quote taken from page 117.

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