Entry 41: Live from 1860s New York!

Saturday Night Live. “Civil War Soldiers,” from Season 42, Episode 18, “Jimmy Fallon.”

Remember when Obama was president and we kept calling things “teachable moments?” Well, I can’t resist indulging in one today, since Saturday Night Live did a skit last night that could almost have come completely out of Battle Hymns. Indeed, far from pedantically criticizing the skit for its inaccuracies (something I generally frown upon—even more so with comedy), I’m struck by how much it’s built on actual history. I’m not crazy enough to think someone at SNL read my book, and I suspect the skit’s factual success is accidental, but I’d definitely show it to a US Cultural History or Civil War class. I don’t have either of those things right now, so instead I’ll subject you to my thoughts on how the skit reflects actual musical culture in Civil War armies–probably sapping away all the humor along the way.

To start, the framing device is pretty solid. Union soldiers gather around the fire at night and one (Alex Moffat) starts discussing how hard the war has been. He even says he’s afraid his family won’t recognize him when he comes home—a common concern among combat veterans. Another (Beck Bennett) says he’s “tired of all this grumbling” and proposes a song to boost morale. They choose the fictional “Old New York” and Bennett’s soldier starts singing a pretty reasonable facsimile of a Civil War song about enlisting and fighting for the Union (thematically, it’s pretty much the “Battle Cry of Freedom”). He expressly states the tune will “put the fight back in ya,” which is absolutely one of the reasons soldiers performed music during the war. Furthermore, “Old New York” follows many Civil War soldier songs by pairing wartime motivation with nostalgia for home. So, good job mystery SNL writer! If I ran into “Old New York” in a Civil War songster, I’d totally take it as the genuine article.

Things really get into gear, both comically and historically, after Jimmy Fallon jumps to his feet and improvises a new chorus. Playing directly to Fallon’s strengths, his soldier sings an exceptionally stupid and out of place Taylor Swiftian “Big, Fat Hook” about partying at his parents’ house “until the pills wear off.” Good stuff, but—lyrics and melody aside—surprisingly still built on pretty solid history.

You see, improvisation was critical to how Civil War soldiers performed and interacted with music. They frequently modified their favorite tunes to express their political and emotional states of mind. Fallon’s character is essentially doing just this—transcending his demoralizing situation to sing about good times back home [albeit ridiculously and anachronistically]. That the other men eventually join in also rings true, as these improvisations were often taken up by comrades and even occasionally gave birth to widely popular songs (“John Brown’s Body” being the best example). Bennett’s resistance to Fallon’s improvisation works well historically too, as solider lyrics were often contentious and reflected opposing ideologies and states of morale. Let me be clear, “Party At My Parents House” is not something you would have heard inside Union lines, but the broader process at work here is one that played out over and over again.

The skit even ends with a little sectional reconciliation, as a Confederate POW (Harry Styles, sporting a highly uncooperative beard), breaks his chains and joins in. Fallon’s party lyrics are so appealing, Styles adds a new line expanding it “north and south.” Again, I’m sure the political and historical implications here are totally unintentional. On the other hand, maybe it says something about the prominence of reconciliation in Civil War memory that it was the natural place for the skit to go.

Regardless, it’s not every day you get to deconstruct an SNL skit for references to Civil War solider morale, 19th century singing culture, and sectional reconciliation. I just couldn’t help myself.

Additional Dispatches:

  • Who’d have thought Fallon’s amiable, musically game shtick would have been so applicable to Civil War soldier music culture?
  • The rest of the episode was pretty good too. Fallon as “mute Jared Kushner” was particularly inspired.
  • It was good to see “Sully and Denise” again, even if it was mostly just a greatest hits of their old jokes. The “Hurlbut” punchline was pretty awesome.
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11 comments

  1. Scrooge · April 23

    Interesting article and nice writing.

  2. Babz · April 18

    God, you are full of yourself!

  3. David Kneupper · April 18

    Loved your post. I had a similar reaction, and described it as The Moulin Rouge Effect: Civil War Edition. Like Baz Luhrmann, Fallon used the jarring anachronism of a modern chorus applied to 19th century song improv to capture what it *felt like* to vamp like that back in the day. Nice to see that trick pop up in an SNL sketch.

  4. ahanjain · April 17

    Is old New York an actual song? I really am trying to find it on Spotify so I can listen to it. Any help?

    • Christian McWhirter · April 17

      I don’t think so. I’ve certainly never heard or seen it before and I doubt SNL’s writers had the time to dig it up somewhere.

      • ahanjain · April 18

        I see

  5. gdbrasher · April 16

    If Conan were still writing for them I would argue that the accuracy was intended (with a greater possibility that your book was consulted), because we know he is a big history buff. As it is, we’re just left to wonder.

    • Christian McWhirter · April 16

      Absolutely. I’m still patiently waiting for someone to compile all the “Conan saves Lincoln” bits from Late Night.

  6. cagraham · April 16

    Can’t tell the material, but the cut on that Confederate jacket is pretty spot on, too.

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