Monday, October 25, 2010

Reconciliation on Story Hill

A friend at LTSS recently introduced me to the folk duo Storyhill by passing along their latest album, Shade of the Trees. I haven't listened to another disc since. Montana natives Chris Cunningham and John Hermanson channel the Americana simplicity of Simon and Garfunkel, recording live around a single mic to weave hauntingly wrought tales of heartbreak and human frailty, reaching deep into the Jungian shadows of the nation's collective unconscious. On the harrowing "Caught in a Mess," for example, the duo reflects on the disillusionment with the American Dream following the economic and political turmoil of the past decade through the lens of the ending of a relationship, singing "the power you used to heal/can harm."

But the tune that has stayed with me is "Better Angels:"

The lyrics are a meditation on the dying words of Stonewall Jackson, recorded in 1863 by Dr. Hunter McGuire, who also amputated the general's arm, as follows:
A few moments before he died he cried out in his delirium, "Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks"—then stopped, leaving the sentence unfinished. Presently a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face, and he said quietly, and with an expression, as if of relief, "Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees."

The man who once advised "always mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy" is himself mystified by the possibility of peace beyond the relentlessness of war, and Storyhill juxtaposes this revelation with the famous words of Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, which closes with mystification of its own by appealing to that place over the river in all of us:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. 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.

It strikes me that Storyhill's bringing together the words of the legends of each side of the American Civil conflict is itself a performative of the kind of reconciliation we ardently hope for and desperately desire, especially in this time approaching what looks to be a bitter midterm election. Here are the full lyrics:

Better Angels, of our Nature
stay awake now, you're in danger
The coming night is dark and deep
Cross over the river and rest, in the shade of the trees

Keep going forward, 100 abreast,
the horses are thirsty, they will protest
Tonight we will water them, in Tennessee
Crossover the river and rest in the shade of the trees

They outnumber, but we're at our best
As willing we stumble, into their bullets blessed
Hold the line, stay close to me
lets cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees.

Better Angels of our nature
stay awake now, you're in danger


Recently I've had the pleasure of drinking a foretaste of the sweetness that can only come through striving of a different kind than the times sung here. Having signed up as a supply preacher and organist for the ELCA South Carolina Synod, I was invited to fill the pulpit at a rural parish about an hour outside of Columbia. Having been warned by a member of the church to keep mum on my identity as a Northerner, the first thing my eyes could not help but notice as we pulled up was the vast church graveyard filled with tombstones resting under the shadows of gently waving Confederate flags. Sad to say, I found my indignance at such prejudice met with stereotypes and judgments of my own. Luckily, my wife, who is always quicker to charity than I, reminded me that the better angels of my nature were in danger, and needed to "stay awake now." I think another charitable One once urged his followers to do the same (Mk 13.24f)

Only later, after being warmly greeted and invited to Sunday supper at a church member's home, did I learn that these were these stars and bars marked the graves of family members who had died fighting for the CSA, that the roots of this little country church reached far deeper than any I had known in my Yankee suburban existence, and that they represented far more to their descendants than simply slavery, states rights, rebellion, or anything else the history books and media would use to lull us into the slumber of hypocrisy. I'm not ready to go for BBQ at Maurice's yet, and I'm certainly not willing to start talking about the "War of Northern Aggression" or agree with the flag at the capitol building downtown. But sharing pot roast, sweet potatoes, and stories, watching joyfully as relations in the faith I never knew I had took my daughter for tractor rides to pick us fresh pears from their roadside orchard, reminded me that, over the river, in the cool shade of the country trees, we can indeed rest in presence of our enemies, reconciled by a power far greater than America, or the forces that have divided her. These folk helped revive a better angel in my own nature, and I'm thankful there are voices like Storyhill whose words point, perhaps unknowingly, to an angelic light, glowing dimly in the shadows.


  1. Thanks for sharing. What a beautiful piece of music, I'm so glad it was able to stick with you and that you saw the context of the congregation that you were serving that week and that they welcomed you into their home and shared a meal with you.

  2. beautiful as always Matthew...

  3. as a kid with a confederate flag (not because i'm a crazy southern supremacist but because I have relatives who died in the war, which for most flags is the case) I really apprecaite this. And, of course, I'm lovin' the use of Stonewall Jackson's last words: truly beautiful.