Rebel bullets and songs of the South

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The Independent Online
WHO Said That? A new service in which Professor Eustace Skilpern helps you to track down that elusive quote which may be maddening you.

I was in the market the other day listening to two old biddies complaining about their woes, and heard one say philosophically to the other: 'Well, who said life was wonderful anyway?'. This got me thinking, because I had no idea who said life was wonderful anyway. Any clues?

The actual quote is 'Ain't life wonderful?' and it was said by General Tranter just after he won the Battle of Bearskin Bluff in the American Civil War. Ironically, it was the last thing he said, as a moment later he was hit by a stray rebel bullet and expired in the arms of his faithful sergeant, Julius Silberman. All was not lost, however, as the dying man's parting phrase was noted by the sorrowing officer. Back in civilian life, Silberman became a songwriter and - changing his name to Jules Sandy - had a tremendous hit with his mock-heroic ballad, 'Ain't Life Wonderful?' which made him a millionaire, even though he was sued (unsuccessfully) for plagiarism by General Tranter's heirs.

However, Sandy's fortune was wiped out in the little-remembered financial disaster of 1882, the so-called Wall Alley Crash, and he died a few years later, an embittered man. He ordered the ironical epitaph 'Ain't Life a Bitch?' to be carved on his gravestone. This was noted in the early years of the 20th century by a young poet wandering disconsolately in the graveyard to forget his rejection by a young Chicago heiress, and it inspired him to write a song with that title, which became a favourite with the US forces sent to Europe in 1917.

Nice story, Professor, but what happened to the rebel bullet?

Curiously enough, 'What Happened to the Rebel Bullet?' is the title of a popular country and western song penned in the Twenties by the grandson of General Tranter, Whistlin' Jeb Tranter, based on the demise of his illustrious military forebear. The song opened: 'What happened to the rebel bullet/My daddy used to keep?/He laid it on his pillow-case/Each time he went to sleep/To remind him of the rebel dog/Who shot his pappy dead./ He buried pappy where he fell/With a gravestone there, which read/'Oh, lay my body on this field/But keep the bullet by/For when the South should rise again/So one more rebel may die'. . . '

There followed another 87 lachrymose verses, full of the threats of revenge so dear to country songwriters. The idea was that if the South should rise again, the singer would dig up the bullet and use it for revenge.

But who seriously says the South will rise again?

Lots of people. For many years 'The South will rise again' was used as a rallying cry in the old Confederate states. When two or three Southerners, or more, or even fewer, were gathered together, they would raise their glasses, tinkle them together and roar out the rousing toast: 'The South will rise again]' Strictly speaking, the toast is treasonable, and northern lawmakers have sometimes seriously thought of bringing prosecutions against those who utter it. But second thoughts have convinced them that they would be making fools of themselves, and they have never given the rebels that satisfaction. These remarks, incidentally, should not be thought to apply to Texas, which has always thought of itself as a country on its own, though there are those in Mexico who still dream of getting it back again.

And who, if anyone, wants Mexico back?

This is the misquoted opening line of a Gershwin song commissioned for (though never used in) a Fred Astaire film. It went: 'Who on earth wants Mexico back?/Does anyone need Peru?/ Who's that gunning for Ecuador?/The Spaniards, that's who]/Once they had an empire/ And everyone thought they were grand/But nobody speaks to you any more/If you don't own foreign land/So the Spaniards now want Paraguay/They feel silly not having/Chile . . .]'

Is there any truth in any of all this farrago?

Not a word, honey child. . .

Important Notice to Readers. It has been brought to my attention that Eustace Skilpern is not a bona fide professor of quotations, but the defrocked professor of 19th-century American Studies at Milton Keynes University, whose recent drink'n' drugs departure from there caused such a scandal. I am sorry. It will not happen again.