Old Crow Medicine Show

Divided and United

There are lots of reasons to love Old Crow Medicine Show’s rendition of “Marching Through Georgia,” so many that I have no choice but to make a bulleted list. Here goes:

  •  It’s part of a two-disc collection called Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War, which was released Tuesday on ATO Records and features a crazy lineup, including Loretta Lynn, Shovels & Rope, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Chris Thile, Ralph Stanley [takes a deep breath] Del McCoury, Steve Earle, Pokey LaFarge, A.A. Bondy, Norman Blake… I could keep going, but you should click here to check out the full list for yourself. Bonkers, right?
  • It’s an incredibly energetic song, making it a perfect match for Ketch Secor’s fiendishly quick fiddle. OK, now try to say “match for Ketch” five times fast without sounding drunk. Tricky, right?
  • It was written near the end of the Civil War by Henry Clay Work, a composer and abolitionist whose family’s home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Pretty badass, right?
  • Work would compose songs in his head while working as a printer, meaning that he had the same writing process as Jay Z. Pretty gangster, right?
  • “Marching Through Georgia” was a huge hit in its day, selling a million sheet music copies. A million. The U.S. population was only 35 million at the time, and this guy’s dropping platinum tracks. In fact, according to Wikipedia, those sales were “unprecedented,” meaning that it might have been the first platinum track. Pretty incredible, right?
  • It’s the conceptual grandfather of Tenacious D’s “Tribute.” Pretty cool, ri… OK this last one requires a little more explanation.

So in “Tribute,” Tenacious D tells the story of how, at some unspecified point in the past, they were walking down a lonely highway and a demon appeared, saying that he’d eat their souls if they didn’t play “the best song in the world.” Fortunately, the first thing that came to their heads was the best song in the word, and D’s souls went uneaten. But the crux of “Tribute” is that the song we hear — the one released on Tenacious D’s 2001 self-titled album and featured in this amazing video — is not actually the song Jack and Kyle sang to the demon in order to vanquish him — the two songs actually sound nothing like each other.

The same thing’s happening with “Marching Through Georgia.” Here are the first verse and chorus:

Bring the good old bugle, boys, we’ll sing another song
Sing it with a spirit that will start the world along
Sing it as we used to sing it, 50,000 strong
While we were marching through Georgia

Hurrah! Hurrah! We’ll bring the jubilee
Hurrah! Hurrah! The flag that makes you free
So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea
While we were marching through Georgia

What song is he talking about? What’s the “it” in “sing it as we used to sing it”? It can’t be “Marching Through Georgia,” because this was written after Sherman’s March, so whatever chorus they’re singing, it’s not the jubilant, freedom-ringing one you see above. And just as the video for “Tribute” blurs this distinction by showing Jack and Kyle performing the song about the song for the demon, Old Crow’s version of “Marching” muddies the waters by bolstering one of the choruses with overdubbed cries of “Hurrah!” that sound a hell of a lot like a nod to the “50,000 strong” line in the first verse. Those 50,000 Union soldiers couldn’t have been singing those lines, because they hadn’t been written yet! (For maximum effect, imagine Doc yelling all of this at Marty in one of the Back to the Future movies.)

Every time I’ve listened to the song since I first heard it yesterday, I’ve gotten a kick out of trying to figure out this whole knot can be untangled. I love it. There’s something fittingly timeless about the puzzle, like it suspends this particular moment in history in a temporal vacuum that can never be punctured. Add in the fact that it’s Old Crow doing what Old Crow does best, and I’m one blissfully perplexed camper. Check “Marching Through Georgia” out below and click here to snag Divided & United.

(P.S. If you figure out a way to listen to Loretta Lynn’s lead-off track without getting all weepy, let me know.)

Old Crow Medicine Show — “Marching Through Georgia” [Spotify/iTunes]

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