“With a Memory Like Mine”

The Grieving Parents - Käthe Kollwitz - 1932 - for her son Peter, killed in World War I - Vladslo German War Cemetery, Belgium (pubic domain)

The Grieving ParentsKäthe Kollwitz – 1932 – for her son Peter, killed in World War I – Vladslo German War Cemetery, Belgium (pubic domain)

For the fifth time, we at Murder Ballad Monday find ourselves with something musical to share on Memorial Day.  Songs of war don’t always get us to the same place as do those in our genre of choice, but sometimes they get us there and back as well as any murder ballad might.  Today’s performance, “With a Memory Like Mine,” certainly does that for me.  It is not a tale of battle, but rather a lament for a beloved son lost in the service of his country.

It is as moving a song on the subject as I know.  There is no social statement here – nothing either of the horror or glory of war – only the deepest human truth of grief.  A father sends his son to war, bids him be a good soldier and one day return to him.  His precious boy comes home in a coffin, on a train with a whistle that wails like every parent who has ever lost a son or daughter in war.

I can see him as a baby
I can hear him call my name
I can feel him under fire
And see him rising from the flames

Lord, if I could I’d trade places
I would gladly give my all
I’d wrap that flag around me like a blanket
And listen for the clods to fall

Darrell Scott wrote the music and the last verse for “With a Memory Like Mine,” thus completing his father Wayne’s original lyrics the night before Darrell and Tim O’Brien began recording sessions for their outstanding 2000 album Real Time.  Both men years later looked back on that song as one that helped set the direction and tone for the sessions that became that album.  That’s apparent in the steam engine energy of the music.  It’s that music and the devastating lyrics that make “With a Memory Like Mine” my choice for today.

I don’t find anything direct online about what prompted Scott’s father to pen these verses.  Certainly they are thematically similar to those in the Grayson and Whittier recording “He is Coming to us Dead,” which descends from a tune copyrighted in 1899 by Gussie Davis called “The Express Office,” and indeed that tune may be likewise descended from some Civil War song.  (Here are the Roud citations.)  Perhaps some version of it inspired Wayne Scott, but we don’t really need to get in to all that.  This song alone is more than enough for any Memorial Day.

Live version (O’Brien and Scott)         Live version (solo Scott) from Folk Alley

In its short life, a number of other talented artists have found inspiration enough in this song to record their own covers.  If you’re interested, I’ve put together a short Spotify playlist with the examples I can find, along with some other versions of “He’s Coming to Us Dead.”

As I often feel after hearing a profound murder ballad, this one leaves me gasping for words.  Insight or wisdom trapped in a cage of common vocabulary rarely shows wings like art such as this.  It is, for me, perfect for today.  It reminds me of those who have escaped the roar of cannons to fly in to the infinite music of God, and of those left on Earth who come to know the saddest songs of their lives.

I hope it moves you as well, and I thank you for reading and listening today.

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