Introduction – “Dearly Departed Friend”
For the past five years, we here at MBM have managed to bring you a new post on the last Monday of May. Memorial Day 2017 is no exception. As with those posts, today’s featured song honors the men and women that fall in the service of our nation. It reflects on the humanity of the passing of one soldier from the point of view of a surviving comrade. In that sense, “Dearly Departed Friend” by Old Crow Medicine Show is appropriate for Veteran’s Day as well. Actually, it’s worth a listen any day of the year as far as I’m concerned.
“Dearly Departed Friend” appears on the Grammy-winning 2014 album Remedy. The imagery belongs clearly in 21st-century America. The deeper sentiment, though, is timeless. One imagines warriors through the ages in different societies with similar feelings at the graves or pyres of their brothers and sisters in arms. Ketch Secor achieves this remarkable balance by eschewing politics in his lyrics and dwelling instead in the heart of the survivor. When it comes to war, there is neither glory nor blame in this song. There is simply a soldier’s pained voice spilling into the infinite absence created by his friend’s death.
Listen for yourself.
“Twenty-one guns for twenty-one years …”
The first two lines of the song show the initial setting as a funeral. We know the narrator is a combat veteran by the end of the first verse. The chorus then makes clear that the intended listener, the ‘dearly departed friend’, died in service. “Twenty-one guns for twenty-one years and American flags in the wind” depicts a military funeral with an honor guard and a three-volley salute by a seven-member firing party. In combination with all of this, the soldier’s age leaves us sure he died in combat and that he, the narrator, and ‘the boys’ around him are all comrades-in-arms.
The song evokes martial camaraderie at the same time as it refuses to employ the language of heroism or sacrifice. Indeed, we might read our own political perspectives into Secor’s lyrics insofar as he artfully leaves much to our imagination. Fortunately, he provides insight into the origins of the song in at least two interviews available online, one for the Wall Street Journal’s arts blog “Speakeasy” and one for Hrishikesh Hirway’s podcast Song Exploder.
What I gather from both sources is that Secor wanted the song to come off exactly the way it does – as genuinely valuing the lives and experiences of America’s fighting men and women without falling into patriotism for its own sake. From the WSJ in 2014:
The song “is a tribute to those small town servicemen and women, the ones from Defuniak Springs and Elmira, from Sevierville and Garden City, who, amid unimaginable scenes of destruction, somehow found true friendship, somehow found true love,” bandleader, fiddle player and singer Ketch Secor tells Speakeasy.
He continues, “We figured by now you’d heard enough of those banner waving, ticker tape songs about how high the eagle flies and all that, so instead we wrote you one about a real life American homecoming, with real life American soldiers, and a real life funeral far from Arlington where the dead aren’t called heroes, just friends, and up and down the main drag, life goes on.”
Secor begins Hirway’s 2016 podcast with a story. At twelve years old he refused to participate in a school event inspired by the start of Operation Desert Shield. “Captivated” by the military action depicted in the media, he also felt it was wrong; so he sat out the school’s patriotic display. His principal later gently admonished young Ketch, saying that he thought pride in America was a simple thing – you either ‘love it or leave it.’
“That sentiment,” Secor says, “is something that I’ve been wrestling with as a songwriter ever since.”
“There’s only one road leads out of this town and it comes right back …”
Hirway’s podcast with Secor is well worth the eighteen minutes it takes to listen, as he goes into much more depth about the song – its lyrics, instrumentation, harmonies, and production – than I will here. However, I’ve transcribed pieces of it to give you a snapshot of what Secor was after in “Dearly Departed Friend,” and to demonstrate why it belongs in a Memorial Day post.
The kind of music that I play has found appeal among a number of veterans my age and younger, and older too, so I knew I wanted to write a song, and write many songs, from their perspective.
This is a story about somebody from a place much like a lot of the places that I’ve lived before, these sort-of crossroads … the story of “Dearly Departed Friend” really is centered in this town called Elizabethton … where Tennessee meets Virginia and North Carolina…
There’s pretty limited economic opportunity… So when I was living there, I would see other eighteen year old young men, like me, and there were no jobs, so they’d just join the military. The military was the best option going.
I’ve been dealing with this idea of a kid from the hills who goes over. And “Dearly Departed Friend” is about him coming home … [He’s] a guy who has seen a lot of things that a typical guy his age, unless he’s been in combat, has not seen … He’s not the same boy who left. But it’s not negative and it’s not somber, it’s just sort of plain. “This is how it is. You’re dead, and we’ve buried you, and I live in this town now, and I drive circles around it.”
What strikes me about the song is that plainness – the way in which Secor seamlessly combines four-wheelers, ice cream trucks, college football, barbecues, hackberry trees, lonely roads, hopeless girls, flags, yellow ribbons, and death. It’s all one. That’s a world I recognize deeply and, though I’ve never served in uniform, the voice of Secor’s narrator strikes home like truth.
Coda – “I wish it was, him I mean …”
I don’t want pick the song apart for this sort of post. However, I’m struck particularly by the character of the dead soldier’s “mama’s new boyfriend.” From the narrator’s point of view, the boyfriend talks and cries too much at the funeral. He drinks too much at the bar after the service and goes on uselessly about how “it should’ve been me.” The narrator says, without being nasty, “I wish it was, him I mean.”
Something about that line tells me that Secor sees a deep value in a good soldier’s life. It all means much more than the patriotic prattle of those that make no sacrifice of their own. It may seem a small point, but I find it particularly poignant on Memorial Day.
Maybe I’m the one prattling now. I’m not a veteran, so it will take someone else to decide if the song makes genuine depth. It’s not that it isn’t meant for me as a listener. It’s just that I think Secor is more concerned with how someone else might hear it – someone who’s given more than I have.
As he told Hirway:
This song has broken the ice in a conversation that I’ve really wanted to have with the men and women in the United States armed services. I really want to talk to them. I want to know what they’re doing. I want to know what they’re up to right now and how they feel about it. And I want them to feel my love and gratitude.
I offer this post with the same love and gratitude for those that serve with honor. As well, I thank you all for reading and listening.