“Works of fiction–novels and poetry–can mean more to a people than all the political manifestos and reports from all the think tanks and foundations ever established by misguided philanthropy.” Tom Fleming, 1982

I take this quote seriously. So should anyone interested in the Southern tradition or in a larger sense Western Civilization. Fleming implored his reader to do so, for as he wrote in the same essay: “If there is any­where a vision of America where tradition and principle are at least taken seriously, it is in the best of Faulkner, Miss Flannery O’Connor and those Southern Agrarians who, in their lives and works, represented the only conservative intellectual movement taken seriously in America.” He did not specifically mention any Southern poets by name, but several of the Southern Agrarians more than dabbled in the art.

Southern poets have rarely been praised by American literary scholars. Most focus on Northern bards and romantics. There are a few that have lasting fame throughout the United States, but because the South lost the War, it also lost a seat at the literary table. This process began long before shots were fired at Sumter, but the desolation of the Southern landscape also resulted in a decades long ostracism from polite literary circles. Students in American Literature courses across America will only get a scattering of Southern voices while receiving a full dose of New England asperity.

Even then, many modern Americans refuse to read or engage poetry. The density and obscurity chases people away. They cannot “get it.” Americans can, however, understand lyrics and music provides a gateway to poetry. Putting prose to song ensures that people will find a connection to the emotion of the lyric. This is why most people love music, just as they love art when they find the proper image that “speaks” to them. Subjectivity is freeing. Interpretation offers the creative instinct room to flourish.

Last April at our 20th Anniversary event, Abbeville Institute scholar Tom Daniel argued that artificial intelligence would never replace old fashioned man-made music, even as it “perfected” the form. I agree. But computer made music can facilitate interest in interpretation and allow for artists to capture ideas. It can also allow non-musicians like yours truly to “create” songs and to spark a conversation about how to rekindle interest in Southern literature and poetry.

Take for example the following epic poem by Virginia Fraser Boyle, The Wizard of the Saddle, about Nathan Bedford Forrest, published in 1909:

‘Twas out of the South that the lion heart came,
From the ranks of the Gray like the flashing of flame,
A juggler with fortune, a master with fame —
The rugged heart born to command.

As he rode by the star of an unconquered will,
And he struck with the might of an undaunted skill,
Unschooled, but as firm as the granite-flanked hill —
As true and as tried as steel.

Though the Gray were outnumbered, he counted no odd,
But fought like a demon and struck like a god,
Disclaiming defeat on the blood-curdled sod,
As he pledged to the South that he loved.

‘Twas saddle and spur, or on foot in the field,
Unguided by tactics that knew how to yield;
Stripped of all, save his honor, but rich in that shield,
Full armored by nature’s own hand.

As the rush of the storm, he swept on the foe;
It was ” Come! ” to his legions, he never said ” Go! “
And with sinews unbending, how could the world know
That he rallied a starving host?

And the wondering ranks of the foe were like clay
To these men of flint in the molten day;
And the hell-hounds of war howled afar for their prey,
When the arm of a Forrest led.

For devil or angel, life stirred when he spoke,
And the current of courage, if slumbering, woke
At the yell of the leader, for never was broke,
The record, men wondering read.

With a hundred he charged like a thousand men,
And the hoof-beats of one seemed the tattoo of ten;
What bar were burned bridges or flooded fords, when
The wizard of battles was there?

But his pity could bend to a fallen foe,
The mailed hand soothe a brother’s woe;
There was time to be human, for tears to flow —
For the heart of the man to thrill.

Then ” On! ” as though never a halt befell,
With a swinging blade and the Rebel yell,
Through the song of the bullets and plowshares of hell —
The hero, half iron, half soul!

Swing, rustless blade in the dauntless hand;
Ride, soul of a god, through the deathless band,
Through the low green mounds or the breadth of the land,
Wherever your legions dwell!

Swing, Rebel blade, through the halls of fame,
Where courage and justice have left your name;
By the torches of glory your deeds shall flame
With the reckoning of Time!

She captures the essence of the man, of the power of his fame and reputation in battle. But simply reading it doesn’t capture the imagination like song. I played with an arrangement, cut some lyrics, and imagined what this should sound like when set to music and had Suno AI do the rest. It’s not perfect, but the results gave me chills. This is heroic and brutal, dark and foreboding, everything an epic song should be. I also crafted the image.

Or this poem from Francis Orray Ticknor, a Columbus, GA doctor famous for the poem “The Little Giffen”. Ticknor penned a number of poems throughout the War and into Reconstruction. He died in 1874, still under military occupation, his home ruined, his lands confiscated, and his people crushed. Modern scholars argue Southerners deserved it, but how can anyone not shed a tear when they read the lines from “The Hall”?

There is dust on the doorway, mold on the wall,
A chill at the hearthstone, a hush through the hall.
The stately old mansion stands darkened and cold,
By the leal, loving hearts that it sheltered of old.

No light at the lattice, no gleam from the door,
No feast on its table, no dance on its floor.
“Glory departed,” and silence alone,
“Dust unto Dust” upon pillar and stone.

No laughter of childhood, no shout on the lawn,
No footsteps to echo the feet that are gone.
Feet of the beautiful, forms of the brave,
Failing in other lands, gone to the grave.

No carol at morning, no hymn rising clear,
No song at the bridal, nor chant at the bier.
All the chords of its symphonies scattered and riven,
Its altar in ashes, its incense in Heaven.

‘Tis an ache at the heart, thus lonely to stand,
By the wreck of a Home once the pride of the land.
Its chambers unfilled as its children depart,
The melody stilled in its desolate heart.

Yet softly the sunlight still rests on the grass,
And lightly and swiftly the cloud-shadows pass.
Still the wide meadow exults in the sheen,
With its foam crest of snow, and its billows of green.

The verdure shall creep to the mouldering wall,
And the sunshine shall sleep in the desolate hall.
The foot of the pilgrim shall find to the last,
Some fragrance of Home, at this shrine of the Past.

But what if we could put this to music, to build on the melancholy emotion of a defeated people and a ruined home?

And on a lighter note, the Southern affinity for nature bleeds into almost every element of her art. William Gilmore Simms wrote several poems dedicated to “Spring” or “Nature” throughout his life, and even included a few in his collection of war time poems. No one really reads Simms, but what if his poems could be put to popular music so people would learn them–and by default–him. Again, Simms imagined by Suno AI with a little help from my arrangement and imagination.

Sick of the crowd, the toil, the strife,
Sweet nature! now I turn to thee,
Seeking for renovated life,
By brawling brook and shady tree.

I knew thy rocks had spells of old,
To turn the wanderer’s wo to calm,
And in thy waters, clear and cold,
My heated brow would seek its balm.

And through the long, long summer hours,
When every bird was on its wing,
I sought amid thy thousand flowers,
The sweet renewal of life’s spring.

That sacred freshness of the heart,
That made the tide of youth so strong,
When, yet untaught by shame or art,
We fear’d no guile and knew no wrong.

Thou, nature, that magician be,
Give me the old time peace, the joy
That warm’d my heart, and set me free,
A wild, but not a wayward, boy.

And I will bless thee with a song,
As fond as hers, that idle bird,
That sings above me all day long,
As if she knew I watch’d and heard.

This is artificial intelligence working for the greater good, to inspire people to dust off their instruments and rethink these old Southern poems. Some people have suggested we “stop using AI” and “objectively” avoid putting these poems to song. Ridiculous. Why? Artificial intelligence cannot replace the human heart and soul, nor can it perfect an art form, but it can provide a baseline to think about these things and perhaps to inspire others to read them, re-imagine them, and bring them to the modern age. If Donald Davidson could put almost every one of his poems to song, why can’t we? And if we can imagine the “look and feel” of a poem, why can’t we have some help in creating that image? The point is not the “auto-tune”, or the style of music, or the fact that AI was involved in creating the song, but that people can “experience” these poems beyond the written word.

There are limitations to what artificial intelligence can do, and our own imaginations are still part of the process. Bring the tradition to the masses and have some fun with the old time lyrics, even with a a little help from a computer. Purity has relegated these poems to the dust bin of American literature. We can and should rescue them in whatever way possible.

Brion McClanahan

Brion McClanahan is the author or co-author of six books, How Alexander Hamilton Screwed Up America (Regnery History, 2017), 9 Presidents Who Screwed Up America and Four Who Tried to Save Her (Regnery History, 2016), The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers, (Regnery, 2009), The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012), Forgotten Conservatives in American History (Pelican, 2012), and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Real American Heroes, (Regnery, 2012). He received a B.A. in History from Salisbury University in 1997 and an M.A. in History from the University of South Carolina in 1999. He finished his Ph.D. in History at the University of South Carolina in 2006, and had the privilege of being Clyde Wilson’s last doctoral student. He lives in Alabama with his wife and three daughters.


  • David LeBeau says:

    Excellent work! The poem by Virginia Fraser Boyle, “The Wizard of the Saddle” is magnificent and the music that it was fused with has a dark country/southern gothic sound to it and I love it. Had The Allman Brothers, The Marshall Tucker Band, or Ronnie Van Zant known about this poem, either one of them could have turned The Wizard of the Saddle into a #1 hit. “The Old Hall” was sorrowful in tune with a familiar sound of Christian music, my heart hurts for my ancestors of the old south. “Tis an ache at the heart, thus lonely to stand, By the wreck of a Home once the pride of the land. Its chambers unfilled as its children depart, The melody stilled in its desolate heart.” Thanks for sharing these gems of poetry!

    • Mike Mathis says:

      You said everything I wanted to say only much better than I ever could have. Very well said indeed!

  • Greg Gifford says:

    I wholeheartedly agree! It truly hurts me to my soul that these great and epic poems, that speak the very soul of our Southland, lie alone and forgotten, in the dark of an unopened book and an unturned page. I recall my Grandmother telling me once that a man only truly dies when the last man that knows him speaks his name. I think the same can be said of ideas. We can’t let these Southern poems die because they’re not known and not spoken!

  • Patrick says:

    This was a great post and I’m enjoying the series on youtube, thanks!

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