Saturday, June 18, 2011

Lorena: Born in Ohio, Beloved in the Confederacy

Was “Lorena” responsible for the defeat of the Confederacy? To give that much credit to a song is a potent idea and one harbored by several Southern generals but I tend to think that the Confederacy’s doom had more to do with numbers – bullets, canons, men -- rather than the loss of fighting spirit caused by southern soldiers singing a song that made them yearn for the girl back home. But they certainly did sing “Lorena,” so much so that hundreds of young southern girls (not to mention a steamship and two pioneer settlements) were christened with the name during the song’s lengthy post-war shelf life. So it may come as a surprise to discover that the song was born in the north in the year 1856 (or 1857), several years before the firing on Ft. Sumter.

To begin at the beginning: in the year 1849, an Ohio preacher named Henry De Lafayette Webster fell in love with a member of his congregation, 19 year-old Ella Blocksom. Her family didn’t approve and pressured the couple to separate. Webster vented his sorrow in a poem that spoke of their lost love, changing Ella’s name to Bertha. There is disagreement over whether Joseph Phillbrick Webster, the tunesmith of the hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” was a relative or just a friend of H.D. Webster but what is beyond a doubt is that when H.D. handed his lyrics to J.P. in 1857, “Lorena” was born.

How did an Ohio-made song become so beloved in the Confederacy that it was reprinted there in at least nine different pirated editions and found a home in every pocket songster (utilized by singing soldiers – and they were ALL singing soldiers) south of the Mason-Dixon Line? That is one of the fascinating inexplicables of pop music history.

The years creep slowly by, Lorena,
The snow is on the grass again.
The sun's low down the sky, Lorena,
The frost gleams where the flow'rs have been.
But the heart throbs on as warmly now,
As when the summer days were nigh.
Oh, the sun can never dip so low
A-down affection's cloudless sky.

A hundred months have passed, Lorena,
Since last I held that hand in mine,
And felt the pulse beat fast, Lorena,
Though mine beat faster far than thine.
A hundred months, 'twas flowery May,
When up the hilly slope we climbed,
To watch the dying of the day,
And hear the distant church bells chime.

We loved each other then, Lorena,
More than we ever dared to tell;
And what we might have been, Lorena,
Had but our lovings prospered well --
But then, 'tis past, the years are gone,
I'll not call up their shadowy forms;
I'll say to them, "Lost years, sleep on!
Sleep on! nor heed life's pelting storms."

The story of that past, Lorena,
Alas! I care not to repeat,
The hopes that could not last, Lorena,
They lived, but only lived to cheat.
I would not cause e'en one regret
To rankle in your bosom now;
For "if we try we may forget,"
Were words of thine long years ago.

Yes, these were words of thine, Lorena,
They burn within my memory yet;
They touched some tender chords, Lorena,
Which thrill and tremble with regret.
'Twas not thy woman's heart that spoke;
Thy heart was always true to me:
A duty, stern and pressing, broke
The tie which linked my soul with thee.

It matters little now, Lorena,
The past is in the eternal past;
Our heads will soon lie low, Lorena,
Life's tide is ebbing out so fast.
There is a Future! O, thank God!
Of life this is so small a part!
'Tis dust to dust beneath the sod;
But there, up there, 'tis heart to heart.


“All the Years of American Popular Music” by David Ewen.

“Rousing Songs and True Tales of the Civil War” by Wayne Erbsen.

“Songs of the Civil War” by Irwin Silber.

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