heart of oak.
i’m making this napoleonic wars themed mix cd—which is threatening to become a three CD set—for a very dear friend of mine. yes. let us say that he is a very dear friend. i’ve known him for something like seven years now—but for most of that time, we’ve lived in extremely distant locations—and he’s always been fifteen years older than i am, which has always absurdly disturbed him—(and somehow, it didn’t disturb him any less when i told him about the carryings-on i’d had with genuinely old dudes when i was genuinely young)—but i think we’ve probably both been in love with each other for most of the time we’ve known each other, and at times we’ve said it, and at times we’ve acted on it, and for some reason we’ve been talking pretty regularly lately. though again we are living on opposite coasts of the country. but. so. how better to commemorate that than with a bunch of songs about the napoleonic wars.
but you see, he likes war and i like folk music so it’s actually the perfect love-offering. specifically, i’m deeply into the british folk revival—i’m fanatical about the watersons and peter bellamy—and shirley [and dolly] collins, well that goes without saying—unfortunately a lot of people have a pretty violent reaction to this music. like it makes them urgently want to leave the room. my Very Dear Friend is the only person i have introduced to the watersons who actually enjoyed listening to them. he was even able to appreciate the bleak whimsy of so many of the songs. VDF was visiting me in chicago in the dead of winter, about a month after the Most Terrible Thing had happened to me, and i was kind of stunned and tending to listen to this song never the same over and over again. (selected lyrics: …sunny sunny days have all turned into filthy weather/ she can’t stay there coughing all the day there down in the meadow…father says kill them, preacher says God’s will be done…we’ll never be the same again.) it was a comically austere scene. and he was able to appreciate the whole of it. (and i did thank him for his musical open-mindedness several months afterwards and he said: ‘i guess—it did sound pretty weird at first, but you liked it and i could see why you did—i’m not an asshole! if somebody’s really into something, of course i want to see why and try to get into it.’ ‘yeah, me too. of course. but you know i don’t think most people are like that.’ ‘maybe.’ ‘i think it might be a rare quality.’)
when he was growing up, VDF was really into the Civil War—and war in general—and war is just something that he’s interested to know about. and obviously, this is pretty common. uh, especially for men, i guess. i mean there’s a whole TV channel that’s just documentaries about war, isn’t there? and so many books about it. but war has always bored me so much that it’s fascinating to me to talk to people who have been fascinated by it. oh man, i hated it in school when we had to learn about war. i hated having to look at maps with pointy complicated arrows drawn all over them. i hated The Stamp Act. i hated the field trips to actual fields—i was perpetually and profoundly bored by forts of all eras all over this nation (my father is from st. augustine and that place is full of forts)—i really can’t stand having to look at suits of armor—and i admit that i never really got a clear idea of what weapons they were talking about in the sanskrit epic literature i read—yes, even when i was teaching it. (however one of my students genuinely knew all about ancient weaponry, and was enthusiastic, so i gave him the job of answering all questions about it.)
one of the things i have learned while working on this mix is that a lot of the songs that i assumed were about “the napoleonic wars” are, in fact, not. they are about other wars. however! a lot of popular ballads would be reworked to suit the words to different wars, so even some of the songs that turned out to be about other wars are partially about “the napoleonic wars.” i have also realized that i thought the napoleonic wars went on a lot longer than they did. basically, i realized that i had no idea what the napoleonic wars were.
in my war-curious mood, i decided to start reading the memoirs of ulysses s. grant—i have had the book for years, because i kept encountering wild enthusiasm for it—(it was one of gertrude stein’s most favorite books)—but i have always put off reading it because, ugh, seriously, how could it not be boring. but—yes, it is really good. and it seems like ulysses s. grant was himself really good. shattering all stereotypes of presidents and generals. (As I looked down that long line of about three thousand armed men, advancing towards a larger force also armed, I thought what a fearful responsibility General Taylor must feel, commanding such a host and so far away from friends.) and a sharp, terrific, concise writer. but i am still trepidatious—though the first couple of chapters were great, they were obviously about grant’s childhood and education—now i’ve gotten to the invasion of mexico and i am encountering exactly the kind of passages that always glaze me over. e.g.:
General Taylor halted his army before the head of column came in range of the artillery of the Mexicans. He then formed a line of battle, facing the enemy. His artillery, two batteries and two eighteen-pounder iron guns, drawn by oxen, were placed in position at intervals along the line. A battalion was thrown to the rear, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Childs, of the artillery, as reserves. These preparations completed, orders were given for a platoon of each company to stack arms and go to a stream off to the right of the command, to fill their canteens and also those of their respective companies.
yeah. i went over that a couple of times but don’t think i actually managed to read those words until i typed them out just now. this will be an interesting reading experience.