RAMBLIN' ROUND: Johnny Cash sings of 'The Big Battle'

Johnny Cash, shown in 1955 promotional photo for Sun Records.

I’ve always thought it interesting that in the history of popular music there are very few songs about battles our nation’s veterans have fought  — and many of those recordings came out in the late 1950s and early 1960s when a wave of historical songs hit the charts.

Even during times of World I and World War II, there were songs about the troops going overseas to fight and even more about sweethearts having to separate — but little about the actual fighting that occurred. (Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice to end World War 1, the day now celebrated on Nov. 11 as Veterans Day).

Probably the biggest song ever released in the United States regarding an actual battle came in 1959 — when country singer Johnny Horton’s super hit “the Battle Of New Orleans” dominated not only the country music charts, but the popular music chart as well.

Leave it to Johnny Cash though, to record a songs that strikes to the bone, regarding our nation’s war fighters — one about a battle that is never named, but one with universal feeling. It was one of the great songs included on Cash’s “Ring of Fire” album, subtitled “The Best of Johnny Cash.”  The album includes Cash’s rendition of “Remember the Alamo” — although Marty Robbins’ “Ballad of the Alamo” is the ultimate song about that battle.

On the “Ring of Fire” album, Cash sang another battle-related song — one I’ve always considered as among the most heartfelt songs about war I’ve ever heard.

It struck me ever since I first heard it as a kid and it’s resonated with me to this day. It’s not one of Cash’s hits and was never released as a single. It might be considered an obscure song or perhaps what is now called a deep track but it’s still one of my favorite Cash songs ever — and he wrote it himself.

With Sunday being Veterans Day, I’ve been thinking of the song. Although, the battle in Cash’s song is not named, the description of the uniforms worn by the fallen soldiers indicates it’s about the Civil War. Still, the feeling behind it applies to any war, in any era. It begins in a slow 3/4 time, with Cash taking on the persona of a young soldier speaking to an officer, as he sings:

“‘I think sir the battle is over’ and the young soldier lay down his gun. ‘I’m tired of running for cover, I’m certain the battle is done. For see over there where we fought them, it’s quiet for they’ve all gone away. All left is the dead and the dying, the blue lying ‘longside the gray.”’

As the music changes keys, Cash then sings in the voice of the officer, who warns the young solder he’s carelessly risen from cover. The officer tells the boy to “hit the dirt,” to get flat on the ground beside him and to lay his ears hard to the ground.

The officer asks the soldier if he can hear the deafening rumble and feel the trembling ground. It’s not just the horses and wagons that are making the deafening sound, the officer says, “For every shot fired had an echo and every man killed wanted life.” He points to a nearby fallen comrade-in-arms, who was a friend to the young soldier, and asks “Can you take the news to his wife?”

Relating how the battle has only begun, the officer says “The fight yet to come is not with cannon, nor will the fight be hand-to-hand.” He adds that no general will be in command when the battle resumes. Then the officer explains what he means.

“The battle will rage in the bosom of mother and sweetheart and wife. Brother and sister and daughter, will grieve for the rest of their lives.”

He tells the young soldier to go ahead and rise from his cover and be thankful that God let him live. Then he tells him to go fight the rest of the battle — “for those who gave all they can give.”

In the final verse, Cash again takes on the persona of the younger soldier, who has come to understand what the officer has told him: the battle’s not over, it’s only begun, even though there’s no sound of the cannon and no smoke in the sky.

As he says in the song’s final line: “I’m dropping the gun and the saber — and ready for battle am I.”

Veterans Day rightfully celebrates veterans, both those who’ve returned and those who gave their all.

If you see a veteran during this Veterans Day holiday weekend — or at any time — thank him or her for their service, but then give a thought to their families, as well.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com

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