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Basement Songs- "When The Roses Bloom Again" by Wilco with Billy Bragg

What do you get when you cross one of the most important bands of this era with a British punk/folk poet singing a moving, tragic love song that is nearly a century old? You get magic, which describes Wilco and Billy Bragg’s slow, powerful rendition of the Will D. Cobb and Gus Edwards folk song, “When The Roses Bloom Again”.

In 2000, an obscure music compilation called the OXFORD AMERICAN SOUTHERN SAMPLER 2000 wound up on my work desk. Always in the mood to hear something new, I took the cd home and gave it a listen. Although the compilation has artists ranging from Tom Petty to Dean Martin, only one song jumped out at me. Jumped out and settled into my heart and soul. Initially I thought the song was a traditional love song, or even a break up song. Then I actually listened to the lyrics. A soldier, preparing to leave for battle, says goodbye to his true love as she pins a rose to his uniform. He tries to calm her and assures her that they’ll meet again, when the roses bloom along the river. Later, as he lay dying on the battlefield, his last wish is that his body be returned to his home state and the riverside where his true love waits and the roses still bloom. Chills went down my spine.

The first feeling I had was that this was more a Hawthorne or Poe story than a simple song. An overall sadness permeates from every measure, every note played. Jeff Tweedy, the lead singer of Wilco, sings as the narrator and attempts to remain removed from the tragedy, but he can’t keep his emotions out of the storytelling. Slight cracks in his voice and a dedication to the lyrics make it too difficult to simply be a detached storyteller. The music (rewritten and arranged by Wilco) is equally moving. Most distinctive is the organ that hovers over the rest of the band. It adds an angelic quality to the proceedings. Two acoustic guitars strum along, providing the melody, while a single slide guitar painfully cries in the background. Meanwhile, the bass and sparse drums keep everything in line; a constant beat like soldiers marching in parade.

This being Memorial Day Weekend, I chose this song over so many that I like because “When The Roses Bloom Again” is not a political song. It is a human song. It is a song that anyone on either side of the political spectrum can appreciate because no matter what you believe, the loss of human lives takes it toll on us. That is what Memorial Day is supposed to be about, isn’t it?

My childhood memories of Memorial Day always involve a parade. My father was the high school band director and each year he led the marching band down Lorain Road all the way to the city park in the annual North Olmsted Memorial Day parade. When I was young, my mom would gather us kids to stand on then side of the road, cheering as the band passed by. My dad, serious in his dedication to excellence, would walk on past us and wave as the marching band began playing one of the many patriotic selections he’d arranged. “Grand Old Flag” comes to mind.

I recall more Vietnam vets marching in the parade than any other war. They were distinct in their dress during the parade, wearing jeans and black t-shirts with the MIA/POW logo on them. The only veterans I knew personally were my grandfather Lamb and my Uncle Ben. Neither had seen any action in their respective wars (WWII and Vietnam) and I don’t remember my uncle ever being in the parade.

I joined he Boy Scouts at age 11 and became a participant in the Memorial Day parade. My Boy Scout uniform never fit. The sleeves were too short and the pants were tight in the crotch. That, coupled with he bright yellow kerchief I wore around my neck, made me very self-conscious. I didn’t want my friends to see me and mock me later in the week. “What a hassle,” I consistently thought. In 9th grade, I was in marching band. Each year we played the same arrangements as we marched through the center of North Olmsted. Those of us who could wore sunglasses and did our best to look apathetic about being in band altogether. I was a drummer, so I had it a little easier than most. Drummers looked cool, even though we were some of the biggest geeks in the band. But we got to wail on the drums and be loud. No skill required. Each year it seemed to get hotter and hotter shuffling in step along the burning black pavement. What a relief it was to arrive at the park where here were plenty of trees and shade.

I have photos of the Memorial Day parade from when I was a sophomore in high school. Two girls I knew, both of whom played the tuba, are leaning against their instruments, bored to tears. They each show weary smiles on their faces, desperately waiting for the ordeal to end. That’s how we all felt, I suppose. It’s strange and sad that I never came to appreciate Memorial Day considering that some of my favorite songs from the early ‘80’s were “Born in the USA”, “Walking On A Thin Line” by Huey Lewis and the News, and Sammy Hagar’s bombastic “Remember the Heroes”. What struck me about those songs was the sense of honor each singer gave to the soldiers. And each singer was pissed (especially Springsteen’s) with the U.S. for the poor treatment of Vietnam Vets. Yet, for all of the parades and flag raisings and drum rolls and the number of times I heard “Taps”, I never got the meaning of Memorial Day. I wish that someone would have taken me aside as a young man and explained that Memorial Day isn’t just a free day for Frisbees, baseball, lounging n the sun, rock and roll, hot dogs on the grill or Mom’s macaroni salad. It is a day of tribute to the fallen men and women who gave their lives for their country.

I do not believe in war. Yet, because my dad was a teacher, I didn’t have a negative attitude toward the military. Kids join the military for a number reasons. Good kids. Guys you hung out with and girls you tried to get to second base with became soldiers. And for the most part, these people remained good kids. It was what they saw in action that changed them, sometimes in horrible ways. As I’ve gotten older, the respect I have for soldiers has grown and I feel for the families and loved ones of the fallen and wounded. Can you imagine saying goodbye to a son, daughter or sibling, not knowing if you’ll see them alive ever again? The thought makes me so sad.

I use this column to discuss life. I try not to get too political. Even with this entry, I’ve held back my anger and grief over the Iraq War. Instead, I want to pay tribute to all of the fallen soldiers, men and women who have gone into hell to fight, kill, protect, and serve their country. On this Memorial Day, before the gas is turned on and the first beers are cracked open, let’s all take a moment and reflect on them. Let’s pray that they all can return to their own riversides and that the roses are in bloom when they get there.


nailer said…
This is a beautiful song but is originally an old Irish song which was taken to the United States by Irish emigrants in the 1850s. During the American Civil War 1861-66 it was frequently sung along the campsites both on the Union and Confederates sides. Gradually it was adapted to a Civil War song and has survived as such to the present day. Many people associate the song with the Great War 1914-18 but this is incorrect.

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