I love what I call “story songs”, those that have a cohesive narrative, a clear good guy and a bad guy, and some sort of conclusion to the action. None of that “let me sing about my feelings” stuff. One of the best-known story song is Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”, and it was produced at what was probably the height of story song popularity, which was firmly entrench in the Country/Western genre.
Aside from “A Boy Named Sue”, Johnny Cash sang “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” and “Johnny Yuma” (the theme song to the old western show The Rebel, which unfortunately is not included in re-runs due to licensing, which is pretty much the only reason to bother watching The Rebel). Johnny Horton had a bunch of story songs, including “Battle of New Orleans” and “Sink the Bismarck”. Marty Robbins might be best known for “El Paso”, but for my money “Big Iron” is the better ballad. Gene Pitney had “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Alan Alch and Dominic Frontiere wrote half a story with the Branded theme song, which I’m including here because it is definitely worth watching over The Rebel. Finally, there is Willie Nelson with quite possibly the best story song ever written, “Red-Headed Stranger”, who I imagine is Clint Eastwood riffing on the character of Josey Wales.
Considering their origins, it’s not terribly surprising that most of these songs deal with the American West and the opening of the frontier. Moreover, they’re all modern interpretations of American (or in the case of the “Bismarck”, British) history. As a result most are pretty explicit in spelling out the narrative in detail so you don’t need a Masters in history to understand what is going on.
A few months back, while driving home from work, I heard an entirely different type of story song on NPR (because, where else is this going to happen?). The song is called “Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel”, and it is catchy as Hell. Here is a version of the tune set to the animated hijinks of Lego men:
You might have guessed that it is a re-telling of the Civil War. What sets it apart from other story songs is that it is a period piece, written during the war, and detailing the first two years of the war from the viewpoint of the Confederacy (and with a bit of humor). The tune was cribbed from another song, that 1850s hit “Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel” and the “Richmond” version reached similar heights in the South during the war (and I imagine sung ironically by Union forces once the war was over).
“Richmond” isn’t the only example of a popular song tune being co-opted for political or comedic purposes (and sometimes a bit of both). “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, a song that was to the Union what “Richmond” was to the Confederacy (kinda, sorta) was based upon the tune “John Brown’s Body”. “Yankee Doodle” was originally sung by the British to mock the colonial militia during the French and Indian War (we eventually showed ‘dem Lobsterbacks, ha!), but it is thought the actual tune is much, much older. It seems intellectual property laws were a bit more lax in those days.
In addition to the catchy-ness of the tune, what I love about “Richmond” is that, as a period piece, it doesn’t attempt to spell out the entire story it is attempting to tell. It assumes that the listener is familiar with the narrative. It drops pop culture references like Facebook updates drop memes (indirectly referring to the explosion of the USS Nagatuck’s gun during the battle of Drewry’s Bluff as looking like an “ugly cocked hat”, and describing General McClellan’s advance through the period slang “slow coach”, a term at least once explicitly used to describe McClellan). It provides enough of a picture that a modern listener can still likely pick up clues to figure out what is going on, but provides some greater depth for Civil War buffs.
I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have more story songs written about other historical events, also set to the tune of period music? At the same time I’ve been delving into some local Wisconsin history, the kind of stuff that I’d love to listen to in a song. So who better to tackle this project than a guy who knows just enough history to be dangerous, can barely carry a tune, and can kinda strum a guitar?
The Event: The Battle of Prairie du Chien
It kinda surprises me that the War of 1812 gets buried in the mind of Americans, as it can be looked at as Revolutionary War II and (in an exception to the rule) war sequels are usually more popular than the original (World War II v. World War I; Great Sioux War v. Red Cloud’s War; Empire Strikes Back v. A New Hope). Maybe it’s because it was that short transition between Americans fighting to throw off their own oppression, and then fighting over whether they have the right to oppress others. Or maybe it’s because the Revolutionary War was really French and Indian War II, thus making the War of 1812 the lousy third part of the trilogy.
Anyway. Prairie du Chien was an pretty important front in the War of 1812, as it was a stronghold of British sympathies in American territory and a major meeting point for numerous American Indian groups that had long allied themselves with the British government. The settlers and Indians played a significant role across the western theatre, helping to capture and hold Fort Mackinac in Lake Michigan, laying siege to Fort Madison on the Mississippi (in present-day Iowa), controlling the Fox River in Green Bay, and in general messing with American designs across the Illinois country. Regardless of the war’s outcome, it can be argued that the British-Indian alliance won the War of 1812 in the west, only handing over control to the region to the Americans because of the Treaty of Ghent that ended the war in 1815.
While the city was certainly influential during much of the war, only one real conflict took place, the Battle of Prairie du Chien, beginning July 17, 1812. British-Indian forces laid siege to the American Fort Shelby, and the undermanned garrison surrendered on July 20, giving permanent control to the fort and the city to the British for the rest of the war. American forces in St. Louis, lead in part by William Clark (yes, that William Clark), attempted a counterattack, which was stymied when commanding officer Major Zachary Taylor (yes, that Zachary Taylor) and his forces were turned back near the Rock River by an attack from the Sauk and Fox led in part by Black Hawk (yes, that Black Hawk).
In the aftermath of the war British influence was (almost) completely removed from the region, significantly affecting the dynamics of the fur trade. It also paved the way for Indian removal and the opening of the west, and the escalating conflict between American settlers and the native tribes that led to, among other conflicts, the Black Hawk War. (So then I guess the Black Hawk War is really French and Indian War IV: The Voyage Home? Ba-da-bump!).
The Song: Hunters of Kentucky
“Hunters of Kentucky” is actually a poem written by Samuel Woodworth that was then adapted into a song by appropriating the tune to the Irish ballad “Ally Croker”. (Like I said, this appears to happen a lot). It tells of the heroism of Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812, despite the fact that Jackson is not from Kentucky and in hindsight was a huge asshole. It also gave us the concept of the “Kentucky rifle”, which was actually a Pennsylvania rifle. The song was popular at least until the 1830s, and Jackson ended up using it as his theme song during the 1824 and 1828 presidential campaigns.
Perhaps because it was a poem-turned-song, it has a bit of an odd melody when sung aloud (from Smithsonian Folkway Recordings):
The Remix: The Traders on the Prairie
Come now all you gather ‘round and listen to a story
Of the town they call Prairie and it’s former British glory
Long had the traders met the Indians of the forest
Winnebago, and the Sioux, Meskwaki and the Saukses (sic)
On the Prairie! Traders on the Prairie!
On the Prairie! Traders on the Prairie!
Americans came to the land to speak with every nation
And told them to renounce their claims to every British station
When war broke out traders sent word back to St. Joseph
“We pledge our lives to you if you will just support us”
So Dickson raised a thousand men and marched to Mackinac
He knew the fort had to hold if there was hope to win at all
But while he was away saving British fortunes
Plans were being made to take the Prairie from him
The explorer Clark now spoke up from the city of St. Louis
“A fort is needed on the Prairie ‘fore the British beat us to it”
He led them up the Mississip (sic) and onward to Wisconsin
Quickly took Prairie and left it in charge of Perkins
When word reached the British, they knew this couldn’t stand
So the great McKay raised several hundred men
Gathering up traders, Winnebago, and the Sioux
Then marched onto Prairie and put Perkins to the screw
Perkins’ men held out for three whole days and nights
While half of his forces hauled anchor up and took flight
Under heavy fire, and the situation hopeless
He sent out word to McKay he would give up all his forces
The Americans were wounded, and made plans to strike back
But Taylor’s force was turned ‘round by Indian attack
The whole frontier panicked at the actions of the Saukies (sic)
Fearless men known far and wide from Boston to Milwaukee
Clark now steamed from his throne in the city of St. Louis
He wanted that Prairie but had not the men to do it
As fortunes came he got his wish to land upon that shore
It was peace that gave him what he could not win in war
If you don’t mind a bit of earbleed, I’ve uploaded audio of the song to SoundCloud: