…All must yield To the Avenging God…
In the mud and the blood of the makeshift trench, the soldier boy from Belvedere, South Carolina, is about to breathe his last. The Yankee bullet which had pierced his groin had come from some anonymous source, from the other side of the swirling mist mixed with the sulphurous battle smoke. The soldier boy had never had much chance to be a hero. He’d enlisted with the rebs at sixteen after his family farm had been burned out by Union raiders, killing his mama, his grandmama and his five year old little sister Ellie Mae. They were dirt poor. Couldn’t even afford a single nigger slave. The soldier boy had been in town with his pa, getting supplies. By the time they got back the Union troops had come and gone. They stood on the hill next to the farm, as the sun went down, both open mouthed as they saw the smoke rising. Neither of them could speak. From that day on all the soldier boy had wanted to do was kill as many of them damn bastard Yankees as he could. The recruiting officer must have known he was under age, but it was said that the word had come down from Richmond not to be too particular about such things. The soldier boy never had a chance to kill no Yankees, though. This was his first battle and he’d been thrown right into the front line. As soon as they’d obeyed the order to charge, a hail of Yankee bullets had hit them. They seemed to come out of nowhere. Maybe they’d just sprung up from the bowels of hell. The soldier boy is losing consciousness now, the memories of his life before the war flashing before him. Milking Jemimah, their only cow, at six in the morning. Raking in the corn. Digging and digging them seeds into the ground…
But now the everyday memories disappear and all the soldier boy can see is a dark and angry red sky, out of which snarling demon Yankees keep falling and falling and falling, swords flashing and guns a-blazin’. As his eyes glaze over for the last time, he is pulled away into the depths of a fiery, monstrous dream…
One of Bob Dylan’s thematic and sartorial obsessions in his music of the new millennium has been with the American Civil War. Onstage he seems to inhabit the persona of a southern riverboat gambler, dressed in fine silks and bowties. His songs frequently reference Henry Timrod, the ‘poet of the confederacy’. This lacing of contemporary material with apparently random nineteenth century phrases gives much of his modern writing a strangely timeless resonance. Dylan has stated publicly that he seems a great number of parallels between the US today and the Civil War period. This might seem like one of Bob’s deliberately gnomic utterances, designed perhaps to throw us off the scent of what he’s really thinking… But the major theme of Dylan’s recent work is that of the shadows the past casts on the present. When asked about his view on the Iraq war Dylan merely shrugged and muttered … there’s ALWAYS a war on somewhere… His bizarre 2003 film Masked And Anonymous presented a vision of modern America as a kind of civil-war-torn banana republic. Dylan seems to take a heavily fatalistic view of history. By constantly referring to images and phrases from various stages of the past, he contextualises what is happening in the present as a kind of inevitable repetition of deeply inbuilt patterns, as if as a race we humans are acting out some kind of horribly predestined series of negative and destructive impulses.
This is not to suggest that Cross The Green Mountain, written by Dylan for the soundtrack of the 2003 American Civil War epic Gods and Generals, is a song ‘about’ Iraq, or the ‘War on Terror’ or any of our other modern wars. Any attempt to read it as some kind of direct comment on contemporary politics can only struggle with superficial wish fulfilment. Dylan made his name as a singer who was not afraid to comment on the perverted morality of modern ‘Gods and Generals’. Many of his most powerful early ‘finger pointing’ songs commented directly on how religion is twisted to justify carnage on a vast scale – most obviously With God On Our Side, with its polemical and scathing view of such justifications through history, ending in the unambiguous …If God is on our side/ He’ll stop the next war… In the greatest and most viciously scathing of these early ‘protest songs’, Masters Of War (still performed regularly in the post-millennial live shows) he adopts a tone of righteous spiritual outrage: … All the money you made will never buy back your soul… he spits. And later, most drastically of all …Even Jesus would never forget what you do… As befits a man in his sixties, the modern Dylan has a less obviously ‘angry’ tone. Cross The Green Mountain progresses slowly, like a stately funeral march, with its sadly reflective narrative and tone. Yet, here perhaps more than in any other Dylan song of the 2000s, a potent and ultimately highly disturbing view of the basic corruption of human morality is suggested. But Dylan no longer needs to sneer. He’s ‘younger’ than that now. In this song events are recounted with humility, even tenderness. The narrator does not cast judgements. Yet the horror of what he recounts cannot fail, if we listen closely, to chill us to the bone…
The American Civil War was the first really modern war; the first to feature trench warfare on a major scale and the first in which new technology such as mines, torpedoes, rifles and ironclad ships were used, in which the existence of railways speeded up the movement of troops and the telegraph sent news and communications rapidly across the country. It was also the first war to be photographed. For the first time, war became a truly industrialised process, a factor which resulted in far more widespread and efficient methods of slaughter than had previously been possible. Industrialised warfare also of course creates the opportunity for highly merchandised war-related industries and vast profits for the ‘Masters of War’ who owned and controlled them. Perhaps this is why Dylan appears to view all modern wars as extensions of this model. So while it is fanciful to suggest that Cross The Green Mountain is ‘about’ Iraq or Afghanistan, by writing about the Civil War Dylan sets up poetic and historical resonances that make the feelings he expresses equally relevant to the conflicts of today.
Cross The Green Mountain is a kind of slow, deathly waltz, dominated by highly evocative violin (presumably played by Larry Campbell), military-style drums, swirling organ and Dylan’s beautifully-paced, underplayed vocal. The ragged edges of that cracked voice set up a tension against the smooth, unhurried progression of the song’s distinctive and evocative melody. This ancient-sounding voice is steeped in a harshly-preserved dignity of tone which recalls that of the great mountain singers like Dylan’s hero Ralph Stanley. It is of this world, yet somehow not of it. This is highly appropriate as the events the song describes are simultaneously a depiction of grim reality and a terrible dream. The song’s circular timelessness and wistful quality recalls a previous Dylan epic Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands. At times we can imagine him singing with eyes closed, completely enraptured in this meditation on death and spiritual transcendence.
The poetry of the song is precise and very carefully constructed. Each line is short and perfectly regular, without any of Dylan’s characteristic metre-bending. Much of the language is deceptively simple – there is no ‘chain of flashing images’ here. In accordance with Dylan’s contemporary poetic method, many of the lines allude to or quote from a wide range of other sources. Not surprisingly, some of the phrases Dylan uses recall those late nineteenth century American poets who wrote about the Civil War itself. Consider the tone of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Killed At The Ford, describing the death of a young soldier…
Sudden and swift a whistling ball
Came out of a wood, and the voice was still;
Something I heard in the darkness fall,
And for a moment my blood grew chill;
I spake in a whisper, as he who speaks
In a room where some one lying dead;
But he made no answer to what I said.
One can almost imagine Dylan singing those lines in the same tone of hushed awe to the tune of Cross The Green Mountain. And here are some lines from Herman Melville’s poem Running The Batteries, describing the sinking of a ship:
The barge drifts doomed, a plague-struck one,
Shoreward in yawls the sailors fly.
But the gauntlet now is nearly run,
The spleenful forts by fits reply,
And the burning boat dies down in the morning’s sky.
Again there is a tone of reverent wonder so common in reactions to the Civil War, which even its main protagonists recognised as a terrible (and avoidable) tragedy. It’s possible to hear this tone not only in Timrod’s work but in that of the greatest of American poets of the era, Walt Whitman. Whitman’s post-Civil War poem When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom’d might be seen as a kind of model for the near-death dreamscape of Cross The Green Mountain:
Come lovely and soothing death
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love- but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.
As with so many of his other modern songs, Dylan laces Cross The Green Mountain with quotes, allusions and half-references from a range of other works. This further helps in positioning the song’s lyrics in a kind of timeless space. Several of the references are from Civil War poets. The phrase …dim Atlantic line… occurs in Timrod’s Charleston (1861). The line …the foe had crossed from the other side… can be found in Nathaniel Graham Shepherd’s Roll Call. Dylan’s lines …Something came up/ Out of the sea… recalls Longfellow’s poem Daybreak, which begins …A wind came up out of the sea… Dylan’s references to the ‘Captain’ as …the great leader laid low… seems to be a deliberate reference to Whitman’s lament for the murder of Abraham Lincoln O, Captain, My Captain! And the lines in the song’s penultimate stanza, where the mother is offered false hope about the son’s recovery directly recall Whitman’s Come Up From The Fields Father
O a strange hand writes for our dear son –
O stricken mother’s soul!
All swims before her eyes- flashes with black-
she catches the main words only;
Sentences broken—gun-shot wound in the breast,
cavalry skirmish, taken to hospital,
At present low, but will soon be better.
Alas poor boy, he will never be better…
While they stand at home at the door he is dead already…
There are other non-Civil War references. Dylan’s phrase …Stars fell over Alabama.. refers to the title of a 1934 jazz standard composed by Frank Perkins and Mitchell Parish, later recorded by (among many others) Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Ricky Nelson. The title refers back to a renowned meteor shower which occurred in 1833 and the phrase itself has now been incorporated into Alabama license plates. Dylan’s …Heaven blazing in my head…clearly recalls W.B. Yeats poem Lapis Lazuli, written about the coming of World War One, which includes the phrase ….Heaven blazing into the head…. Then, as ever, there are the Biblical allusions. A beast ‘rises from the sea’ in Daniel 7 and another, the ‘Great Beast’ in Revelations 13. The phrase …all must yield/ To the Avenging God… recalls Nahum 1:2:
… The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies…
In Cross The Green Mountain we see a ruined, devastated landscape. Although the narrator – presumably a soldier on a battlefield in his death throes – has very pious hopes and dreams, the God which rules his world is a cruel one. Only death, like the ‘lovely and soothing death’ in Whitman’s poem above, brings relief. Everything is being swept aside by the hand of a malicious deity. Dylan’s tone is wistful, regretful, without a shred of anger. His narrator sounds like he has accepted his inevitable fate. Yet this otherworldly detachment only adds to the power of the bitter indictment of human corruption that the song presents. There are no graphic descriptions of carnage, but much betrayal and disillusionment. As the narrator descends into the spirit world beyond the ‘green mountain’ his hopeless resignation to his destiny only throws the harsh revelations he experiences into sharp relief.
The first verse begins with the narrator sitting in a place of repose, by a stream which may well by the river of death. The mountain has been crossed and now is the time for reflection. In contrast to the water is the fire of …Heaven blazing in my head… Immediately we are thrown into his ‘monstrous dream’. The use of ‘monstrous’ suggests that whatever it is that …came up out of the sea…. is in fact some kind of monster, a Great Beast that will sweep all before it. The final lines here are perhaps the most telling. The ‘monster’ has … Swept through the land of/ the rich and the free.… The USA is often referred to patriotically as the land of ‘the brave and the free’. The adaptation suggests great cynicism about how the ideals of America’s founding fathers have been compromised. To some these lines have suggested that the song has a direct correlation to the attack on The World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. Such a resonance does seem to be implied, but the Great Beast we see rising here can also be taken to symbolise any kind of ‘monster’ that humanity’s folly may create.
In the following lines the narrator’s closeness to death is made explicit. …I look into the eyes… he sings …of my merciful friend… Death itself is that ‘merciful friend’ who will soon release him not only from his physical pain but also from the sickening awareness of the awful nature of the great insanity that rages around him. He can taste the …sad yet sweet… memories of his life on his tongue, but already he is looking forward to a release into heaven. Yet right now he seems to be subsumed in a kind of hell on earth, where …altars are burning… The line …the foe has crossed over from the other side…, while it may on one level be a description of the movements of the enemy, also seems to suggest that the Devil is walking the Earth. …We can feel them come… he tells us, as if this is an enemy ‘within’ as well as without.
The fourth verse is perhaps the most graphic and evocative in the song, and the most suggestively powerful. By borrowing Timrod’s …dim Atlantic line… Dylan places an authentic nineteenth century phrase into the song, conjuring up a vision of a line of troops in the distance with a …ravaged land… behind it. Yet the picture of part of East Coast America in ruins has strong resonances of the 9/11 attack. The next lines then take an extraordinary turn. …The light’s coming forward/ And the streets are broad… Dylan sings …All must yield to the Avenging God… Is this ‘Avenging God’ the same ‘Great Beast’ which comes out of the sea in the first verse? Is this a kind of ‘God of War’? Certainly it seems to be the kind of God that the pious narrator believes in – one whose main purpose is to enact vengeance and destruction. The final line seems to be the key to the whole song – as if it is being suggested that the state of war is one which is brought about by human belief in a vicious, unforgiving deity, the existence of which justifies mass slaughter. The Old Testament Jehovah, perhaps, who slaughters the first born… or the version of Allah who rewards suicide bombers who an eternity of bliss for destroying the infidel… The fact that the narrator seems to accept such a deity so calmly only adds to how chilling these lines are, especially in the post-9/11 context.
The rest of the song is less frightening, and shows the narrator preparing for death with a great degree of self-possession. The next lines …the world is old/ the world is gray… suggest that he knows there is no black and white morality here. At no point in the song does he suggest that one side in the war is more evil than the other. He narrator waxes philosophical: …Lessons of life/ Can’t be learned in a day… he tells us, as he begins to drift into listening to …the music that comes from a far better land… Already, heaven is calling him. His consciousness begins to drift and splinter. In the next verse he tells us the story of the ‘Great Leader’ who is killed by his own men. …Close the eyes of our Captain… he tells us. The allusion to Whitman’s Captain, O Captain is fairly clear here, suggesting that the ‘Great Leader’ refers to Abraham Lincoln, although the reference could be to one of the narrator’s own military commanders.
The next four verses see the soldier preparing himself to meet his Maker. … I feel that the unknown world is so near… he tells us. He asserts that he was …loyal to truth and to right… and that …virtue lives and cannot be forgot…, so staking his claim to heaven (or at least reassuring himself that it’s where he’s headed). He contrasts himself against those who have …blasphemy on every tongue… and tells himself, despite his predicament to …Serve God and be cheerful…, while paying tribute to his brave companions, who …never dreamed of surrendering/ They fell where they stood… In the last of these verses he already seems to see himself ascending to heaven. … Stars fell over Alabama/ I saw each star/ You’re walking in dreams/ Whoever you are… he tells us, contrasting this with a description of the frozen ground he lies on and his knowledge of the finality of defeat: …the morning is lost…
In the penultimate verse, which again (as we saw earlier) references Whitman, there is a sudden shift away from the soldier’s perspective. Maybe the soldier is imagining the scene, though, as the mother receives the telegram saying her son is wounded but will recover soon. …But he’ll never be better… he tells us, now so detached that he is looking down upon his own dead body. …He’s already dead… The last verse sees our hero ascending into heaven, being …lifted away/ In an ancient light/ That is not of day… The final, rather strange and ambiguous lines … They were calm, they were blunt/ We knew them all too well/ We loved each other more than we ever dared to tell… seem to imply that the war has been between members of the same family (which in the American Civil War was often the case). This adds a poignant coda to the epic lament, suggesting just how unnecessary the entire conflict was.
It may seem odd that such a major piece of work is hidden away on a relatively obscure film soundtrack. But throughout his career Dylan has always kept some of his best songs in partial obscurity, the most famous example being The Basement Tapes. Discovering such songs has always been part of a Dylan fan’s most joyous experiences. Cross The Green Mountain is, like Dylan’s other ‘soundtrack songs’, specifically written for a purpose – to illustrate the theme of a particular film. As with the other ‘soundtrack songs’, though, this process seems to have functioned as a creative spur, because here he takes us much further than the song’s origins might suggest. Although it could be called an ‘anti-war’ song, it is certainly not any kind of ‘protest song’ and though it may have resonances with current events it is more concerned with deep, universal themes. On one level it is a meditation on death. The narrator’s humble piety is immensely moving, as is his awe at the power of the ‘Avenging God’. But the way in which Dylan deliberately makes the narrator so naïve suggests that such unadorned faith may actually be insufficient for those of us who have to live in the real world today, in which we are caught up in a kind of ‘Civil War’ between apparent opposing but ultimately very similar religious world views. So the song does relate to the present human condition, although its conclusions could equally apply in say, 1914 or 1939 or 1962. Cross The Green Mountain stands with other great Dylan epics like A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall or Chimes Of Freedom or Idiot Wind as being both contemporary yet applicable to many other key moments in the unfolding of the tragically flawed human story.
A different version of this text appears in DETERMINED TO STAND: THE REINVENTION OF BOB DYLAN
DAILY DYLAN NEWS at the wonderful EXPECTING RAIN