Occasionally, I get good ideas. I’m not sure if this is one of those times, but it occurred to me a few days ago that I should have a regular feature on the site in which I talk with local musicians about their vacations. Our first guest is Matt Jones, of Matt Jones and the Reconstruction.
MARK: I’m thinking of starting a new series on my website called Local Musicians on Vacation, and I was wondering if, perhaps, you might have gone somewhere recently that you could tell us about.
MATT: Ha! This is awesome. Musicians on vacation. Such an impossible title. Or, rather, totally accurate… Sometimes I’m pretty sure I’m on vacation most of my life – a vacation where you didn’t make adequate plans, you didn’t bring enough money, and you have all the free time you could ever wish for. But, yes, I did take a trip recently. My girlfriend Sarah got her family to pitch in and pay for four nights at the Eisenhower Convention Center Hotel, about two miles south of the Gettysburg battlefield. What an amazing birthday gift. We both went, so I think her observations should be included in this conversation too. At times, we had very different ideas of what was happening (i.e. what was “fun”). The trip was also during the recent government shutdown, which added a “special” flavor to the endeavor… Oh, by the way, I am an absolutely sick fanatic of all things Civil War, and all things Gettysburg.
MARK: OK, let’s include Sarah. I’ll just tweak the title of the piece a bit… Local Musicians and Their Significant Others on Vacation… Or should it be Local Musicians and Their Lovers on Vacation? That might get more readers, right? Anyway, back to the interview… As you mention that you have very different ideas concerning what constitutes “fun,” let’s start there… What was the most fun part of being at the Eisenhower Convention Center Hotel?
MATT: The Eisenhower is about two miles from the battlefield. Since the national parks were shut down at the time, and we’d been warned about trespassing, we sort of half-hatched this plan to start at the hotel and trek cross-country, through the two miles of fields and woods, and cross into the battlefield. Problem was… and this was “The Other Big Problem of the Trip”… it was raining. Not just spitting rain, but full-on torrential downpour. At the beginning of our visit, we couldn’t yet imagine tromping that far through the mud, and streams, and ticks. So, when we first got to the Eisenhower, we stayed in. It was a strange place. Lynchian. The color scheme consisted of two main shades. The first, pink. The second, gold. Shiny gold. Grandmother Gold. Throw in some wood paneling and you’ll get the complete picture. Plus, it was the off-season, touristically speaking. So, on top of all that Granny Gold and pink, and the mud, and the rain, and the ticks, there was nary a soul to be seen, excepting all the boxers (dogs) that were running around the hallways due to the fact that there was a dog show being held nearby. If you wanted to stay in and have a drink in the privacy of your hotel room, you had to look at the wallpaper. If you wanted to step out for a smoke, you had to step in dogshit. The dog owners all referred to their dogs as “their children,” which also creeped the hell out of us.
MARK: So, the most fun part of staying at The Eisenhower for you was being in your room, away from the paneling, the rain, the ticks, the Granny Gold and the boxers?
MATT: No – the best part about The Eisenhower was that it was free. Also, I just really enjoyed the whole experience. The Twin Peaks vibe. You could just sit in one spot, anywhere in that hotel, and be a part of history. Not Civil War history. More 1972.
SARAH: My parents were so kind to get us the room there. That was pretty great. And, as Matt was saying, the place itself had some character. Full of dogs, and “their people.” One night, we decided to have a few glasses of wine in our room. And, at some point, when Matt wanted to step outside for a smoke, we found ourselves running into boxers around every other corner. The place hadn’t been updated since 1978. Our room opened to the pool area that was decorated in a Hawaiian party theme. The first thing the bartender said to us in the lounge was, “I just want you guys to know… we do have Jager.”
MARK: So, the most fun part of The Eisenhower for you was the drinking?
SARAH: Ha! The most fun part was probably the insulation from the doom and gloom outside. We’d seek shelter at The Eisenhower when we’d decided that we’d done all we could possibly do for the day, as far as seeing the town and the park. We’d been so determined to go despite the shutdown. It was something we’d been talking about for months. And Matt had been thinking about it for much longer. So we let loose when we were at The Eisenhower. It seems silly, but we were a little on edge the whole time that we were away from the room. It was just such a highly anticipated trip.
MARK: Was this your first time at Gettysburg?
SARAH: Yes. Though I’ve heard about it a lot at home. And I’ve seen maps, and movies, depicting the battle. I sleep next to a map of it, in fact… it’s tattooed on his arm. It’s unavoidable.
MARK: Can you describe the tattoo? Is it just the outline of the battlefield, or are there big piles of severed limbs, flying cannonballs, and the like?
SARAH: It’s a very simple tattoo – just three circles, indicating Culp’s Hill, Little Round Top and Big Round Top, and two dashed lines – one marking the path of the Confederate army, and one for the Union army. No gore. I think he designed it with the intent of inspiring conversation. [Photo courtesy Doug Coombe.]
MATT: I’ve been to Gettysburg surprisingly few times for someone so obsessed with the Civil War. For a long time, I could only go there if I was en route to, or returning from, New York City or Philly-based gigs. And, even then, it was tough. Even though it’s only a short distance from the expressway, it’s always a situation where the gas you have is ALL THE GAS YOU’RE GONNA HAVE. I went with my dad once, and practically ran up the side of Big Round Top, with my dad standing at the bottom yelling, “You’re INSANE!”. Later, I went with my pals Misty Lyn, Chris Bathgate and Carol Gray. We only had a half hour or so to kill, so we had to keep our visit limited.
MARK: What do your musician friends make of this obsession of yours? Are they supportive, or do they just kind of roll their eyes when you say, “Hey, we’re going to take a little detour to visit this site where 10,000 or so people lost their lives”?
MATT: They’re supportive now. They have to be. When I went with Carol, Misty and Bathgate, they trudged out into the December muck with me, not knowing what exactly they were looking at. But, by the end, I think I can say that each one of them, at some point, were in tears. The ground is sacred. Jeez that sounds corny, but it is! Over 100,000 people were on that piece of ground, fighting for their lives, dying, weeping, scrambling through 96-degree July heat, while each of them had to have known that to win or lose that battle was to win or lose everything they held dear. You can’t just shrug that off and go have a martini. But they, being my closest friends, know that the Civil War is going to come up a lot in conversation. And I know that they know. And, knowing that, I have to make it interesting. I try to tell stories and stay away from the facts and figures and ratios and politics, though that stuff interests me as well. But, for the beginners, you have to make it interesting.
MARK: You mention that this vacation took place during the government shutdown. Would I be right to assume that you eventually broke in? And, if so, how’d you do it? Did you have to scale a wall? Or did you get someone to throw you over?
MATT: We technically broke in. After scouting around the outer edges of the field for half a day, we had gotten really close to giving up. (By the way, by “the field,” I mean the three-mile x five-mile battlefield park.) The rain was not letting up, and everyone we had talked to (visitor center employees, Chamber of Commerce front desk jockeys, etc.) advised against breaking in. We were pretty downhearted. We had purchased two full rain-suits, and rain boots, and were walking down the Baltimore Pike, looking out at the battlefield over the red tape and cones. There was an additional fear of getting caught because I’m studying to be a tour guide at the park, and, not knowing how severe the punishment was for getting caught, I didn’t want it on my record. So, we’re just standing there, settling for taking pictures in front of the Evergreen Cemetery Gatehouse, when Sarah just bursts across the Pike, straight onto the battlefield, yelling “GOGOGOGOGO!!!!!!!”. It took me completely by surprise, but I followed her, splashing frantically up the back slope of Cemetery Hill to a stone wall. We stood there staring at each other, vaguely aware that we had just enacted the most recent, most purposeful charge on the field of Gettysburg since Pickett in 1863.
SARAH: This is the part where our ideas of “fun” bisect. Matt was on edge because of the rain, and what was just out of reach. We knew that he would either be left with just a view from afar, or we’d be scrambling around, trying to stay out of the rangers’ view. No time for leisure and lectures. I was soaking wet and cold, and Matt was Eeyore. When we got into view of the tape and the cones, I just couldn’t handle all the pressure and pouting we were doing, so I bolted into the park, screaming for him for follow. I rallied him. And that part was awesome, because we broke in running and laughing at how ridiculous it was. From there, there were high points and low points, but Matt was driven by his love of the whole thing – the fantasy in his head. I was just driven by making sure he had a good time and getting through as much of the park as possible before we got caught.
MATT: So, we’re in. The ranger station is about 100 yards from our position, and we’re too exposed. We know we have to get out of this position quickly. So we bolt across the fields and streams, in the downpour, towards Culp’s Hill, staying in a valley to keep from sight. The sky is very ominous now… real dark… as we start our ascent up the northern slope of Culp’s Hill, where one of my most direct relatives fought with his regiment, the 66th Ohio. From the top of Culp’s Hill, we traveled to Stevens Knoll, back to Cemetery Hill, through the cemetery, and over to where the tour reached new heights – Cemetery Ridge. From there, we scampered down the length of Cemetery Ridge, past The Angle, The Clump of Trees, and down into The Valley Of Death, leading to Little Round Top. This is where it got really burly. We started seeing rangers a lot, because the rain was letting up, so we had to hide in some porta-potties. Yeah… burly. We went in and out of the woods, down little country lanes, hiding and resting behind monuments, and walked down Wheatfield Road to Emmitsburg road. We were tired. Really fucking tired. And we had to walk another couple miles back up the Emmitsburg Road to get back to town. This is where the death struggle began. Still raining, walking off-road for miles already. We each had our own “trudge style,” which I later filmed back at the hotel. [The soon to be infamous “Trudge Video” can be seen here.]
The walk was overshadowed by the fact that we had to constantly keep an eye out for rangers. So it wasn’t really possible to get the same thing out of it as if we’d been there, free to stop, and absorb things. But, still, we felt like we did something no one else had done during the shutdown. Hopefully no one will have the opportunity to do it again either.
MARK: Were you consulting the map on your arm as you dashed between positions, hoping to avoid detection?
MATT: Actually, yes. I did. We did have maps, but sometimes, like when you’re lying face down in the muddy stream in the middle of a well policed battlefield, you can’t get into your pockets to wrench out a six-panel map. So, yeah, the arm served me well.
MARK: History is weird, isn’t it? I mean, here you are, running through Gettysburg in the rain, laughing, with your girlfriend, when, just 150 years ago or so, it was the site of such tremendous bloodshed… I mean the path you were running may have been the exact path that someone ran that day. Only they very well may have died. And you went home to drinking Jager and petting boxers in the Tiki Room. [I asked Matt for a map showing their path. To the right is the image that he sent to me. Their path, if you can make it out, is outlined in red dashes.]
MATT: Yes, it’s pretty ironic for sure. But the other side of it, the part that is almost inexplicable to me, is the pull that these places have. I can’t even begin to understand it myself most of the time, which is why it’s so hard to explain to someone else why I get into the Civil War so much. On the third day of our trip, Sarah dropped me off at a different place, where my most direct relation fought… a ridge west of town called McPherson Ridge. It was another break in, and, after I was in, wandering through the woods, I found it – the 19th Indiana monument, wedged back in some trees near a creek. [Image below.] I couldn’t do anything but just turn round and round in circles, trying to conjure up the entire scene. I could have done it for days (and I plan on it). Goosebumps don’t half describe what it feels like to be in a place so… haunted… I guess. Haunted by bits and pieces of your own history, your own narrative. My mom says “blood calls to blood,” and I believe her. Just thinking about it now, while writing, is pretty arresting. So, yeah, we can run and dive into the 70’s pool at The Eisenhower at the end of the day, and we can buy a t-shirt and have an overpriced beer in some cheeseball tavern frequented solely by people who don’t own a item of clothing without a Penn State logo on it, but, after all that shit, the only thing that matters is your connection to your place, and your particular connection to what brought you. I have that connection to that time and place, and explaining it sometimes gives me headaches. I want everyone I know to come with me someday, to see if they have anything, if it affects them. It’s priceless.
SARAH: Nope, nope, nope.
MARK: Has he ever tried to talk you into it? Do you ever come home and find petticoats, hoop skirts and bonnets on the bed?
SARAH: Only after he’s been wearing them… But, really, there actually has been talk of hoop skirts and the like. He acts like he’s joking, but I know he’s not joking. If not for my appreciation for Gone With the Wind, I would be horrified, but I do have a girly weakness for that green number Scarlett O’Hara wears.
MATT: I can’t bring myself to reenact. I would have to wear a uniform that was absolutely authentic, like worn during the war. Average size for a Civil War soldier was 5’8”. I’m 6’6”. it would be nearly impossible to find a uniform my size. And there’s no way I’m going out in something Farby. Farb, meaning “far be it from authentic”… a term I picked up from the Tony Horwitz’s book Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. Farbs are the guys who stop, mid bayonet charge, to take a phone call. Or order a round of Little Ceasars to the tent. Fuck that. By the way, the tallest man in the Civil War was reported to be Captain Van Buskirk of the 27th indiana, measuring in at 6’10”. The shortest was a member of the 192 Ohio, at 3 feet. He was 24.
As for Sarah, she’s got her own period rush going on with the Lindy Hop stuff. I couldn’t crack into that… I’ve been known to attempt to dance with her. Swing-outs and all that. I’ve almost started a few civil wars of our own with my abysmal dancing skills.
MARK: Once inside Gettysburg, did you have the whole place to yourself, or were there other criminal types about, also hiding from rangers?
SARAH: Surprisingly, no, we didn’t cross paths with any other trespassers. We saw no one on the battlefield. Even when the weather cleared up a little, people seemed like they were only willing to venture a toe out into the illegal zone. On our third and final day there, Matt was feeling pretty ballsy with all we’d gotten away with and drove past one of the barriers. There were a few people parked near there and they just looked out at us in shock. That day though, we were also caught pretty much immediately by a ranger. So.
MATT: There were still busses coming into town loaded with tourists. They had to stand back, behind the barriers, with their binoculars and such, and try to act like they were getting their money’s worth out of the trip. I couldn’t understand it. You’re going to travel to Gettysburg, hop on the bus tour, and just… gaze from afar? It didn’t make any sense. There were just cones blocking the way. Just orange tape and signs. Hop over. Disappear. So, yeah, the last time we went out, towards the end of the trip, we were driving past a park entrance, which was blocked off with barrels. There were about six or seven people standing there, unable to cross, and I couldn’t help myself… I sped the truck right through the barricades, and went jetting down the park road, along Seminary Ridge. We hadn’t gotten more than a few hundred yards before a park ranger stopped us. But, even then, there was no trouble. I asked him how much it pained him to have to turn people away. He said, “Yeah, it’s a heartbreaker. But I don’t think it will last much longer.” He was super nice, and just suggested that we leave.
MARK: For those in the audience who aren’t Civil War buffs, what tips do you have for people visiting Gettysburg?
MATT: They should probably take me with them, so that they can see me run across the battlefield while they all make gunshot noises. Really, what they should see… well, there’s this weird sculpture in the town square of Lincoln. In his hand is the Gettysburg address, and his other arm is around the sculpture of a tourist. it’s strange. The Lincoln sculpture is obviously Lincoln. But the tourist sculpture is wearing a sweater, and dockers, and tennis shoes. I think he’s even wearing a little sculptured camera. Sarah overheard other real live tourists asking each other about it. “Who’s the other guy is supposed to be?” My advice is take it easy. Get into town in the evening, have a rum punch over at the Dobbin House, and hit the sack early. Get up at 5:30 AM, and walk, don’t drive, onto the battlefield, as the sun comes up, with all the mist and dew and ghostly monuments. And then just wander. Let the place draw you, and direct you. Stop as much as possible. Close your eyes and drive for that “civil wargasm” that’s so easy to achieve out there. Biggest tip: DO NOT BE IN A HURRY.
Aside from that, there’s the Biglerville Apple Harvest Festival, where you can see totally fried out 70 year olds singing karaoke to “Proud to be an American” while eating apple pizza, fried apples, and chicken apple tenders with stallone sauce and bronson poppers.
MARK: What, do you think, accounts for your interest in the Civil War? Is it just that your dad took you there when you were young, or do you think there’s more to it… like your connection through your descendants that fought?
MATT: History is in my blood. I can’t explain it. I think part of it is that my family history is pretty rich, with many characters on each side. There’s a certain magic to my family history that tied me to the past at a young age. In fact, my mom just sent me a stack of teacher evaluations she found in the attic from when I was in kindergarten. On one in particular, the teacher had written, “Matt seems to really dislike music. He also says inappropriate things to his peers. But he aced the Lincoln quiz!” My dad was really into the Civil War when I was younger. He would show me maps and such. Then I read Shelby Foote’s The Civil War, which is the bible of Civil War narratives. I got sucked in. It’s such a drama, all the characters, all the tension and back biting and highs and lows of the personal relationships. These larger than life characters: Sherman, Grant, Lee, Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, May Chestnut… I grew up imagining them as just that – larger than life. But there’s such a human side to the story, that it’s impossible for me to put down. And it never ends, with so much writing done on the subject over so many years. Also, there is the connection to my family. Blood calling to blood. My great, great, great, great, great grandfather, Adam Juday, ran away to join the Union army when he was 16. He nailed a note to his family on the barn door. [You can read Juday’s letter here.]
MARK: Sarah, I’m curious if, on the way to Gettysburg, or on the way back, you got to do anything special… I mean, is there an equivalent for you? Like, if we were taking the SATs, and the question said, “Matt is to the Civil War, what Sarah is to _____,” what would be in that blank? And did you get to experience any _____ on the trip?
SARAH: I got to do a lot of cool stuff on that trip. I love to check out a new place, and the shutdown and Matt’s obsession made it a completely unique experience for me. This trip was very much for Matt – it was a birthday present after all. We stopped in Pittsburgh for a night on our way in, which is where Matt’s dad grew up. He showed me his dad’s childhood house. I was in Pittsburgh once before, and I had the same impression of it that I did then – it’s an awesome city.
As far as my “thing” goes – I don’t have a Civil War like Matt does. I’m a worrier, a nerve bomb, and so I gravitate toward things that take me out of my brain. My equivalent is closer to Matt’s being a musician – I’m a dancer. It’s just as nerdy. I teach Lindy Hop (swing) in Ann Arbor and dance with an Ypsilanti-based all women vintage jazz dance company, Erin Morris & Her Ragdolls. I didn’t do a whole lot of that on that trip. I can guarantee that Matt will be coming to New Orleans with me at some point – my version of our trip to Gettysburg.
MARK: I think “worry” is an awesome answer…. OK, I know it’s a bit off topic, but… Top three things to do in New Orleans? Go.
SARAH: Man, um, so I’ve been there twice and both times I was there for a specific purpose – not as much time to sightsee and bum around the way I’d want to on a leisure trip. I guess I would say the highlights for me so far (since I plan on thoroughly saturating myself in that place someday) are the standard things people say about the Big Easy: 1) Go to Cafe Du Monde and get a beignet and coffee, 2) ride a bike through the French Quarter – I fell in love with that city on a bike, 3) and GO SEE THE MUSIC. It’s all over the place, and there’s some weird stuff thrown in, but there is something magical about that city. The Spotted Cat. Mimi’s on the Marigny. I’ve had some really amazing experiences in these places.
MARK: I know very little about the battle at Gettysburg, except for that it’s considered to be the turning point of the war. For those of us too lazy to get up, walk to the living room and consult the Encyclopedia Britannica, what can you tell us about the battle and why it was important?
MATT: Whew… Well, Gettysburg was an entire campaign. Not just a battle. Robert E. Lee had been fighting the Union Army of the Potomac for over a year, on his own ground, in Virginia. Virginia had been pretty well desolated by July, 1863. The farms and fields of Virginia were stripped of grain and other food for Lee’s Army Of Northern Virginia. Also, out west, Union General Ulysses S. Grant was pounding on the Mississippi River fortress of Vicksburg. Lee needed three things: to get the North to send troops away from Vicksburg, in order to lessen the pressure there; to invade up into the Union territory, so that his troops and could forage in relatively untouched country; and to damage the morale of the northern people, and possibly swing the northern presidential elections in the process, away from the Republican Lincoln, and toward a Democratic candidate who might be more inclined to end the war.
So, Lee took his army into Pennsylvania, knowing the northern army would follow him out of Virginia, and give that state a breather from the war. The Union army did follow, and, quite by chance, the two armies met at Gettysburg. Lee didn’t initially want to fight a battle there. (His cavalry was out of touch, and could give him no information as to the strength of the enemy.) But the Union army did indeed want to fight a battle there, due to their strong defensive positions on the heights (Cemetery Hill, Little Round Top, Big Round Top, etc.).
Long story short, they fought. For three days in July, 1863. The hottest the days of 1863. The fighting raged back and forth along a battle line miles long. Through small farms, peach orchards, wheat fields, and boulders. Lee hammered the northern line, ending ultimately in Picketts Charge. Lee’s last, greatest attempt at breaking the Union line. Lee failed. And his army crept back to Virginia.
Gettysburg was the first battle fought in a free state (Pennsylvania). If Lee could have won there, it would have sent a staggering statement to the northern people, and to potential southern supporters in Europe. Had Lee won, the demoralization in the north would have been huge, and Britain/France may have recognized the south as a nation, making it possible for Europe to enter the war on the side of the south. Quite possibly, the war would have been over. And… we might still have slavery today.
MARK: You mentioned earlier that you’d like to one day work at Gettysburg. Do you think, if you got the job, there would be opportunities to put any ranger type stuff to music? And, if so, what would be the first rangery kind of thing that you’d put to music? Like, do you think that you could take what you just wrote above, about the significance of the battle, and turn it into verse? I guess I’m kind of imagining something like Schoolhouse Rock for the Civil War. I think that would be pretty cool.
MATT: Haha… Yeah, it would be cool. I could see myself in my ranger uniform, pulling out a uke from my saddle bags and leading a children’s chorus… I don’t know what would happen with my music if I moved/worked there. I don’t know that I could fit anything else into my brain. I don’t even know if I could even work there. I’d be so enthralled to be there every day that I might just stroke out immediately.
MATT: All of ‘em.
MARK: OK, so I think it’s fair to say that the Civil War also carries over into your creative life. The name of your band is Matt Jones and the Reconstruction. You have a song called Antietam. I’m sure there are other examples… I’m curious as to what, when you write about the Civil War, you’re trying to get at. For instance, do you find yourself relying on it primarily in a symbolic sense?
MATT: It’s a feeling I’m trying to get at. As I said earlier, the human side… the people and places involved… is what I’m drawn to. I just wrote a song called The Bountymen. It’s about the relationship between two men, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee… two very lonely men, idolized by all around them, but still lonely as hell. They found a kinship that they couldn’t even speak of themselves, and saw in each other things they wish they themselves possessed. And then Jackson died, and Lee, in his role as indomitable idol of a nation, couldn’t really express his loss, not only of a brilliant subordinate, but of a friend. Super sad. Also, I should add, that’s my interpretation only.
MARK: If you were going to write a song about this vacation, what are the two rhyming words you would absolutely, without a doubt, be sure to include?
MATT: Longstreet/Wet Feet. Orange Cones/Ancient Groans.
SARAH: Rainsuit/Ranger Pursuit. Round Top/Had To Stop.
MARK: I should have asked this earlier, but do refer to the war as the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression?
MATT: I stick to The Late Unpleasantness.
[If you’re a famous Michigan musician, or the lover of a famous Michigan musician, and would like to tell me about a particularly interesting vacation that you’ve had, let me know.]