Thursday, October 19, 2017

THROWBACK THURSDAY: While the Fiddles Played "Bonaparte's Retreat."

Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow by Adolph Northen


It was on this day in 1812 that Napoleon Bonaparte, decided to retreat from Russia. In June of that year, he'd invaded with an army of 500,000 soldiers.  But things didn't go well.

As History.com tells it:

During the opening months of the invasion, Napoleon was forced to contend with a bitter Russian army in perpetual retreat. Refusing to engage Napoleon’s superior army in a full-scale confrontation, the Russians under General Mikhail Kutuzov burned everything behind them as they retreated deeper and deeper into Russia. On September 7, the indecisive Battle of Borodino was fought, in which both sides suffered terrible losses. On September 14, Napoleon arrived in Moscow intending to find supplies but instead found almost the entire population evacuated, and the Russian army retreated again. Early the next morning, fires broke across the city set by Russian patriots, and the Grande Grande Armée’s winter quarters were destroyed. After waiting a month for a surrender that never came, Napoleon, faced with the onset of the Russian winter, was forced to order his starving army out of Moscow.

If that doesn't that sound like the basis for a good country song, I don't know what does.

Fastforward to 1937: Songcatcher Supreme Alan Lomax, traveling through Kentucky, recorded a fiddler named William Hamilton Stepp playing an old tune called "Bonaparte's Retreat." It sounded like this:



But before the tune made it into country music, it first had an impact on classical music. Aaron Copland used the melody for the main theme of his song "Hoe-Down" from his 1942 ballet Rodeo. Thus William Hamilton Stepp became rich and didn't have to work another day in his life.

Just kidding. Copland didn't give Stepp one bit of credit or a penny for the song.

Nice guy ...



In 1950, country star Pee Wee King added words to the melody. Nothing about burning Russian cities or starving soldiers. It was about a girl he met in a town way down in Dixie ....



Later in 1950, pop singer Kay Starr did a snazzy, jazzy version



Former Monkee Mike Nesmith, on his 1972 album Tantamount to Treason, took it to the realm of country rock (with a bizarre little intro that lasts about a minute before the vocals come in)



But my favorite version has always been by Glen Campbell, who turned it into a big country hit in the mis '70s. Here's a clip from a few years later on a TV show with Barbara Mandrell. She plays a mean steel guitar, but Campbell plays a meaner bagpipe.



I have to mention here that The Chieftains in 1976 released an album called Chieftains 6: Bonaparte's Retreat, the centerpiece of which is a 14-minute song called, you guessed it, "Bonaparte's Retreat." This actually is a medley of various tunes, seemingly unrelated to the song I've spotlighted here.

Unfortunately I couldn't find the whole piece on YouTube or Spotify or anywhere else, but I did spot the introduction.



So why didn't Napoleon XIV do a version of "Bonaparte's Retreat"?

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