Saturday, January 29, 2011

North Carolina

For this post I only have one song to talk about, but it is an especially lovely song. Today I'm looking at North Carolina and The Decemberists' 'Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then). The Decemberists went a little crazy with their last album, the high-concept, Rake's Progress retread The Hazards of Love, but they're better known for their slightly theatrical Americana. 'Yankee Bayonet' is a prime example, taken from the album The Crane Wife.

What's immediately striking about 'Yankee Bayonet' is how perfectly it captures the historic spirit of the South. Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy isn't from the South (he's actually a native of Helena, Montana and the band is now based in Portland, Oregon), but he seems to understand the importance of the past for those who call North Carolina and its neighbors home. There's also more belief in an idyll in 'Yankee Bayonet' than in any other song we've seen so far. The track maintains a belief in love and fate that's absent from the more cynical tracks we've covered.

The song is a duet between a Civil War-era couple that begins with Meloy, and the first line announces these themes. "Heart-carved tree trunk, Yankee bayonet, a sweetheart left behind/ Far from the hills of the sea-swelled Carolinas, that's where my true love lies." I'll admit that I don't know a vast amount about North Carolina history, but the Civil War probably is one of the state's most famous (and in many cases most revered) historical moments. Meloy's "character" in the song seems to have died in battle far from his beloved "hills of Oconee." They're young, expecting their first child when he goes off to war. The song presents a very traditional historical narrative that nicely mirrors the value it places on traditional perceptions of the state and its past. Not that the historical elements of the song are all positive. "Oh, did you see all the dead of Manassas/ All the bellies and the bones and the bile?" Meloy asks. But these lyrics seem to be included as a contrast to the antebellum love story introduced in earlier verses, where the couple meet at a fair in their isolated town.

The North Carolina preserved in 'Yankee Bayonet' seems rural, slowly paced and gentle, traits mirrored in the tempo and melody of the song itself. I don't mean "slow" or "rural" in a derogatory manner. Rather they're traits of place that were lost after the Civil War, as the U.S. became increasingly industrialized in its move toward the modern era. Neither am I saying that there weren't distinct and serious problems with life in the antebellum South-- the era was anything but gracious for slaves and poor farmers who weren't lucky enough to be at the top of the plantation system. But there is something to be said for the simpler, slower pace of life that is still preserved in some aspects of the modern self, and that's what Meloy captures here. What says it best might be the devotion of the two speakers to one another. None of the doubt and bitterness that has plagued other voices we've heard arises in their declarations to one another. They're simply in love; the woman describes how her heart was "pierced by a pin" when they first met. It's simple, unexpected, unplanned and refreshingly without doubt.

The other striking thing about the track in relation to its place is how strongly and positively the speaker is tied to home. Not even death is powerful enough to keep the male speaker from wanting to find a way back to North Carolina-- "When the sun breaks to no more bullets in Battle Creek/ Then will you make a grave/ For I will be home then." Even if he can't return home in life, he wants to rest there rather than the burial ground referenced in the first verse. Like his thoughts about the love he left behind, his feelings about his home are refreshingly straightforward. He's proud of where he came from and wants to return there.

Both the relationship and the history of North Carolina are frozen at high points in the song. The couple have only fond memories of one another. Either they weren't together long enough to learn the things they didn't like, or the passage of time and turmoil has crystallized only their best aspects. Much like the gracious history of the South that gets viewed through rose-colored glasses, their romance is preserved when they were most in love, perfect enough that they hope to transcend the boundaries of life and death:

But oh my love, though our bodies may be parted
Though our skin may not touch skin
Look for me with the sun-bright sparrow
I will come on the breath of the wind

Maybe it's my inner cynic making this interpretation, but I don't see a New Yorker coming up with those lyrics. They're just not realistic. Or maybe they're just a reflection of the Decemberists' aesthetic overall. Their music looks to the past fondly, though not too idealistically. They do acknowledge that it was probably horrible being a chimney sweep or an 18th century woman married to a rake, but at least you weren't plagued with the kind of doubt and paranoia that seems to worry LCD Soundsystem.

I'm not sure how to end this entry because the end of 'Yankee Bayonet' is wordless, but possibly the most moving part of the song. The track closes with a harmony that encapsulates the slowness and longing of the song as a whole. Maybe it's best to just listen for yourself.

Yankee Bayonet

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