The Saddest Songs: Two Soldiers (trad.) by Bob Dylan

Union soldiers before Maryes height second Fredericksburg in civil war (Public Domain photo from https://www.goodfreephotos.com)

 

Bob Dylan – Two Soldiers – The Saddest Songs

 

“I’ll do your bidding, comrade mine,
If I ride back again.
But if you ride back and I am left,
You’ll do as much for me.”

We get thrown right into a story of two Union soldiers during the Civil War who are about to go into battle. They promise each other to bring the message of their death to their loved ones in case they fall in the assault on a ridge. They both describe their longing for the ones that are waiting at home.  The rich language and storytelling is astounding. The song goes on and we witness the battle and the tragic death of both soldiers. And none will be able to give their promised and tender message of loss.

But among the dead that were left on the hill
Was the boy with the curly hair.
The tall dark man who rode by his side
Lay dead beside him there.
There’s no one to write to the blue-eyed girl
The words that her lover had said.
Momma, you know, awaits the news,
And she’ll only know he’s dead.

It may be a well known and, maybe, over-used story, but to me it rings true. I imagine that soldiers in battle still give their promises to each other in the same manner. Dylan recorded the song for the album World Gone Wrong in 1993. He also played it live a number of times, both before and after he recorded it. Bob Dylan truly brings these words forward and he makes us see the story unfold. It is a devastating tale.

The studio version on World Gone Wrong is the best in my opinion, but there are some very good live versions that are worth checking out on YouTube.

Here is wonderful live version from Offenbach in Germany (19th of June in 1991)

Bob Dylan in the liner notes for the album, World Gone wrong:
Jerry Garcia showed me TWO SOLDIERS (Hazel & Alice do it pretty similar) a battle song extraordinaire, some dragoon officer’s epaulettes laying liquid in the mud, physical plunge into Limitationville, war dominated by finance (lending money for interest being a nauseating & revolting thing) love is not collateral. hittin’ em where they aint (in the imperfect state that they’re in) America when Mother was the queen of Her heart, before Charlie Chaplin, before the Wild One, before the Children of the Sun, before the celestial grunge, before the insane world of entertainment exploded in our faces, before all the ancient & honorable artillery had been taken out of the city, learning to go forward by turning back the clock, stopping the mind from thinking in hours, firing a few random shots at the face of time…

“The story starts in the 1860s, with the publication of a ballad about the American Civil War. It’s a well-written “literary” ballad (the author is unknown), and was probably widely published in newspapers, which played a major role in the dissemination of nineteenth century parlor songs. According to the Ballad Index,, it was inspired by the Battle of Fredricksburg, in 1862, where General Lee’s army trounced General Burnside’s Union troops. That might be the source, but the story is a generic one, and the versions that have been collected and transcribed, although with different tunes, are remarkably similar in wording, which is another indicator of recent (if you call 135 years “recent”) widespread distribution by the printed media.

Fast forward to 1937: Alan and Elizabeth Lomax record Munroe Gevedon, of West Liberty, Ky, singing The Two Soldiers, accompanying himself on the fiddle, along with his children Cathlyn and Bert playing guitar and banjo. The recordings are deposited in the Archive of American Folksong in the Library of Congress with two call numbers: 1556B and 1557A…

… It’s much better than the usual nineteenth century literary ballad, and a reminder of a war that still affects us often, because our country has never come to terms with it.”
– Lyle Lofgren (Inside Bluegrass, June 1997)

Bob Dylan – Two Soldiers (Audio, Upper Darby, USA, 15th of October 1989):

There are some variations in the lyrics, but this is the way Bob Dylan tells this sad story on the album, World Gone Wrong. Here are the lyrics for Two Soldiers:

He was just a blue-eyed Boston boy,
His voice was low with pain.
“I’ll do your bidding, comrade mine,
If I ride back again.
But if you ride back and I am left,
You’ll do as much for me.
Mother, you know, must hear the news,
So write to her tenderly.

She’s waiting at home like a patient saint,
Her fond face pale with woe.
Her heart will be broken when I am gone,
I’ll see her soon, I know.”
Just then the order came to charge,
For an instant hand touched hand.
They said, “Aye,” and away they rode,
That brave and devoted band.

Straight was the track to the top of the hill,
The rebels they shot and shelled,
Plowed furrows of death through the toiling ranks,
And guarded them as they fell.
There soon came a horrible dying yell
From heights that they could not gain,
And those whom doom and death had spared
Rode slowly back again.

But among the dead that were left on the hill
Was the boy with the curly hair.
The tall dark man who rode by his side
Lay dead beside him there.
There’s no one to write to the blue-eyed girl
The words that her lover had said.
Momma, you know, awaits the news,
And she’ll only know he’s dead.

Also check out more in our series of The Saddest Songs:

Marie by Townes Van Zandt
Walking On A Wire by Richard and Linda Thompson

 

By the way, you should also check out Jerry Garcia’s version of Two soldiers, it’s great!

2 thoughts on “The Saddest Songs: Two Soldiers (trad.) by Bob Dylan

    1. Hi Bill,
      My web host in the US is experiencing some major problems. I’m not a prioritised customer (too small), so I will need to be patient.
      -Egil

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