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Saturday, January 5, 2019
Art & Entertainment ... Music ...

Not too long ago I posted some thoughts about the “Civil War song”, the theme song from Ken Burns’ monumental 1990 documentary on the Civil War. The name of that song is “Ashokan Farewell”, a violin “fiddle” tune which sounds as though it belonged to rural America in the 1800s. It turns out however, that “Farewell” was written in 1982 by folk musician Jay Ungar, intended as a theme for his music festivals in update New York.

Well, I just came across another war movie theme song that likewise fits the historical setting, even though it was put together only a few years ago. And like “Ashokan Farewell”, it has a rich, deeply evocative feel to it, a song that rubs emotional balm into your soul after glimpsing the raw and horrible realities of modern warfare, of watching people’s bodies and lives being wantonly destroyed.

I next need to tell you three things — 1.) the song in question 2.) the movie in question, and 3.) the war in question. OK — the song: I’m Dreaming of Home (Hymne des Fraternises); the movie — Joyeux Noel (2005); and the war — World War 1, 1914 in France. Joyeux Noel is a fictionalized adaptation of the historical Christmas Eve truce that broke-out unexpectedly between the warring French, German and British armies along a line of trenches in eastern France. The story behind Joyeux Noel is true, although the movie takes some liberties for the sake of “entertainability”.

One liberty that the producers of Joyeux Noel did NOT take was to “whitewash” the brutalities of mechanized war, as was done for most war movies through the 1970s. Joyeux Noel opens with a volley of charging French soldiers being cut down by German machine guns. It’s not easy to watch the first 30 or 40 minutes of this movie. But that makes the outbreak of temporary peace on Christmas Eve all the more miraculous.

As the Scottish troops settle into their trenches at sundown, they break into a song accompanied by bag-pipes — and yes, their song is “I’m Dreaming of Home”. You have no trouble believing this scene — the song sounds like something that originated way back in Scottish folklore. However, “Dreaming” was written in 2004 by French film score composer Philippe Rombi, with lyrics composed by American songwriter Lori Barth.

In several ways, Dreaming of Home’s belated association with World War 1 (almost 100 years after the fact!) is quite different from Ashokan Farewell’s relationship to the Civil War. Farewell is heard many times during Ken Burns’ 11 1/2 hour documentary, while Dreaming is played 3 times during the 2 hours of Joyeux Noel. Dreaming has a role within the plot of the movie, whereas Ashokan is strictly background music to Civil War. Although both songs have lyrics, only in Noel are the theme song lyrics heard. Ashokan sets the mood instrumentally, while Dreaming needs the poetry of its lyrics, which are quite beautiful (IMHO).

And yet, once again, Dreaming of Home is a tune that says a lot more than its lyrics. It very well fits the mood of Joyeux Noel, of soldiers deep within the hell of war, longing for the peace and belonging they experienced in their home towns. In fact, on one of the You Tube renditions of Dreaming, there is a comment that was posted about a year ago, as follows:

I’m an American. But I am a soldier and no matter how many times I watch this, I cry. I was in Iraq in 2009 during Christmas and I sang I’m dreaming of Home to my company. I wish good will and brotherhood to all. And hopefully a Happy 2018.

So, the sentiment of Dreaming of Home still applies to modern soldiers.

But actually, I believe that Dreaming can touch something in almost all of us (although first and foremost, it should be remembered as a tribute to those who experience the nightmare of war on the front lines; I myself got a bit misty eyed as the choir version of Dreaming was played at the end of Joyeux Noel, following the cruel reprimands that the military command doled out to those who participated in the truce). In our own ways, we are all “dreaming of home”. I certainly am. Not that I don’t have a “home” as we conventionally know it. I am quite lucky, I have a very comfortable apartment with generally peaceful surroundings. And even in the more expanded sense of social and community belonging, I have a handful of friends and relatives and other people that I see regularly who I get along with quite well. Although I don’t have a wife and family, I still have something of a social support network, albeit one that seems a bit shaky at times.

So I really can’t complain about being homeless, or being off somewhere “far from home”, as described in the song. And yet, Dreaming of Home seems to touch on an even bigger notion of “home”, something that might be seen as a “spiritual matter”. For example, take a look at the second verse:

It’s carried in the air
The breeze of early morning
I see the land so fair
My heart opens wide
There’s sadness inside
I stand where I am
And forever I’m dreaming of home
I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

So even when we are aware of beauty, even when we are surrounded by family and friends, there is still this residual sense of sadness and loneliness that never completely disappears. I know that the religious notion of an “eternal soul” within us has been thoroughly debunked, and yet . . . it sometimes seems like this world is not really the place where we come from or where we ultimately belong. And when things get tough, it can seem as though the world is some foreign battle front, where we have been sent to carry out a chaotic and unappreciated mission of some sort. (Especially if you really are a soldier sent to a far-off battle front!).

Well OK, maybe not everyone has this feeling after hearing Dreaming of Home. But I certainly do. I know that my longings don’t prove anything more than that I am a metaphysical wishful thinker, hoping that something more exists than our birth, living and death here in this physical realm. And given that my species is responsible for so many horrible things in this realm, such as the Civil War and World War 1 (and Iraq), it’s kind of cheeky of me to think that we would deserve an after-life, even if there were some sort of power that could provide us with it.

But still . . . to cite another song, an old classic recorded in the 1940s by the Andrews Sisters:

I’m aware
My heart is a sad affair
There’s much disillusion there
But I can dream, can’t I?

PS, here’s another blog with some good reflections on Joyeux Noel and Dreaming of Home.

PS#2 — Interestingly, there was a song that was sung by Civil War soldiers which expressed the same sentiment as “I’m Dreaming of Home”. It’s called “Home, Sweet Home” and even today it’s familiar to many Americans — recall the simple refrain

Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home

This song was written in 1823, and was popular by the time of the Civil War. There are various reports of Home Sweet Home being played by the marching bands accompanying the armies of both north and south. In fact, there were incidents where opposing troops were encamped within earshot of each other, and when one side’s band started playing the tune, the other side’s band joined in, with soldiers of both sides singing together.

Interestingly, Ken Burns did not use the tune during his Civil War series. The historically accurate song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” was played twice, but “Home” just didn’t make the cut. Too bad, Ken obviously missed an important aspect of a soldier’s experience.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:31 pm      

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