Sunday, February 22, 2009

"Babylon is Falling"

by Thomas D. Cornell

I begin with a story that my grandmother, Marie B. Cornell, once told me concerning the Cornell-Heaton wars in Campbell, New York, during the 1930s.

“Your Grandfather had built a workbench out in the barn,” she said, by way of introduction. “He kept tools there. So your Uncle Edwin was able to make wooden guns for himself.”

What had gotten her started was a picture of Ed as a boy. He is posed for his father’s camera, “at ease” rather than “at attention.” In his left hand he holds his rifle, grasping its barrel just below the bayonet and resting its butt on the ground. From his right hip hangs a holstered pistol, and on his head--securely fastened by a chin strap--sits a helmet of World War I vintage. The soiled clothing, the twist in one collar, and the rolled-up shirtsleeves--combined with a neutral, yet confident expression--give him the look of a seasoned veteran.

“At dusk the wars would begin,” Grandma continued, launching into the heart of her story. “The Cornell and Heaton boys would chase each other around the house. Supper would be over, and I would be in the kitchen washing dishes and looking out the side window. I never saw Ed; he ran by too fast. But I would hear him cry out: ‘Look out down there! We’s a gwine t’shoot!’--followed by: ‘Babylon is falling! We’s a gwine t’occupy the land!’”

Now, my practice--whenever such lines came up--was to ask Grandma what their source was. Sometimes she knew, and sometimes not. After returning to Rochester, I’d take the information she’d given me and try to locate the poem, the hymn, the nursery rhyme, or whatever, from which the lines had come. If successful, I’d make a photocopy and take it with me on my next visit. We’d read it aloud together, and maybe that would prompt her to tell me things she hadn’t mentioned before.

“This was a Civil War song that George--your grandfather--knew,” she replied, when I asked her about Uncle Ed’s lines. “‘Babylon Is Falling’ may be its title.” Back in Rochester, however, I had no luck at the library. So on another occasion I queried her again. “Maybe it was a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar,” she suggested this time. “George once gave me a book of his poems.” But still my library efforts were unsuccessful.

Not until after Grandma’s death did I learn anything further. For several weeks Uncle John and I stayed at her house, sorting through the many things she had accumulated over the years. One morning while preparing our usual hot-cereal breakfast, my uncle surprised me by singing the lines that Grandma had quoted earlier:

Look out down there, we’s a gonna shoot.
Look out down there, can’t you understand.
Babylon is falling, Babylon is falling,
And we’s a gonna occupy the land.

“They are lines from a Civil War camp song,” he explained, when I asked. “My grandfather, who had served in the war, taught the song to my father--who, in turn, sang it to me when I was young. He sang it as a lullaby, on those rare occasions when he would comfort me by holding me in his lap as he sat in the platform rocker next to the coal stove.”

Armed now with confirmation of its actual source, I resumed my library work and persisted until I found the song mentioned in a book about Civil War music 1. That, in turn, gave me the composer’s name and opened the way for a visit to the library at the Eastman School of Music. There, on the shelves, I found a reprinted collection of Henry C. Work’s songs that included two of his most famous--“Marching Through Georgia” and “Grandfather’s Clock”--as well as the one that I sought.

Entitled “Babylon Is Fallen!” the song tells of a group of newly-freed slaves who have joined the Union army and captured their former master, a Confederate officer. For these soldiers the South had been an oppressive “Babylon” holding them captive. They saw the Civil War as sweeping away the old order and providing them a new homeland.

Written in Work’s version of African-American dialect, two of the verses--along with the repeated chorus--went as follows 2:

Don’t you see de black clouds
Risin’ ober yonder,
Whar de Massa’s ole plantation am?
Nebber you be frightened,
Dem is only darkies
Come to jine an’ fight for Uncle Sam.
Look out dar, now! We’s a gwine to shoot!
Look out dar don’t you understand?
Babylon is fallen! Babylon is fallen!
And we’s a gwine to occupy de land.

Massa was de Kernel
In de rebel army,
Ebber sence he went an’ run away;
But his lubly darkeys,
Dey has been a watchin’,
An’ dey take him pris’ner tudder day.
Look out dar, now! We’s a gwine to shoot!
Look out dar don’t you understand?
Babylon is fallen! Babylon is fallen!
And we’s a gwine to occupy de land.

Sitting at the library table, with the opened songbook before me, I savored my success. Through repeated trips to the library, through checking and cross-checking the factual content of remembered events, through locating not just a book that mentioned the song but one that reprinted the original score--in short, through historical research--I had reached back to the Civil War, to the song that Work had written in 1863.

Trained as a historian, I had been through the drill many times before. But this time was different, for this time I knew that the past could also be reached by another route. Over the years, the wartime experiences of my great-grandfather had been transformed, first into the experiences of my grandfather and thence into the experiences of his sons (including my father, who also recalled the song).

Like waves from a rock tossed into a pond, the effects of past events had been propagating through my family, generation after generation--long after the initial splash had died away. Thus, alongside the historical past--the past as revealed by research--there stood the remembered past. Included in the stories of my elders were the ripple effects of the Civil War. By listening to what Grandma and Uncle John had to tell me, I had felt for myself what Abraham Lincoln once called “the mystic chords of memory.3

1 Willard A. Heaps and Porter W. Heaps, The Singing Sixties: The Spirit of Civil War Days Drawn from the Music of the Times (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960), pp. 278-279. On Henry Clay Work (1832-1884), see also the essay by J. T. Howard in the Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 20 (1936), pp. 531-532; or the essay by Dale Cockrell in The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Vol. 4 (1986), pp. 563-564.

2 For the reprinted version of the original score, see Henry Clay Work, Songs (New York: Da Capo Press, 1974), pp. 31-34.

3 Lincoln’s phrase comes from the last sentence of his first inaugural address: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”


Anonymous said...

Thank you SO much for this article and your research. Cousin Hazel Kirkwood Fowler Armstrong Staylor sang this in a tiny part in 1980 for me and I recorded it, but didn't know the title. Bravo for family stories!

Anne said...

My great-grandmother used to sing snippets of this when I was little and I am so glad to know that it does exist in print somewhere! I was afraid that it was a song that would be lost with her generation. She used to sing another verse, also. The part of that verse I remember goes:

"Way down in the cornfield
Can't you hear the thunder
That's the sound of forty-pounder guns
When the shells are missing
We load up with pumpkins
Just for to see the cowards run"

Now that you've provided a lead, I hope to find a copy of the sheet music to play on the piano. Thank you for your efforts!