Western Song: Lorena
Lorena became one of the most famous love songs prior to and during the Civil War and soon a staple of the Old West. Members of the Western Writers of America even listed the antebellum song as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.
The Rev. Henry D. L. Webster wrote Lorena in 1856 while his friend, Joseph Philbrick Webster, composed its music. Lorena was the song he wrote after a broken engagement, a long poem based on the lyricist’s love for a Zanesville, Ohio lady named Ella Blocksom. During the American Civil War, soldiers from the North and South felt the same homesickness and longing for their families, especially their wives and lovers, upon hearing the sorrowful ballad. Moreover, the song allegedly affected the troop’s morale and effectiveness of the soldier’s fighting force, so they had to ban it from performances.
Lorena remained popular decades after its release in Chicago in 1857, with several variations used in films, television series, and even video games. Famous country luminaries like Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare also recorded their versions of the song.
About the Song
The song tells the story of the lyricist’s love for his fiancée, Ella Blocksom. Originally a long poem about Ella, he changed the name to “Bertha” before settling to the three-syllabled name “Lorena,” possibly inspired by the adaptation of “Lenore” from the poem entitled “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe.
Family opposition and financial reasons blocked the marriage of the two lovers. Ella’s wealthy and prominent brother-in-law did not like the idea of her sister-in-law marrying a poor preacher, so she had to end their relationship and not see each other again. In her parting letter to Webster, she wrote the line, “If we try, we may forget,” making its way into the song.
After their parting, Webster resigned from his pastorate, left, and never returned to Zanesville, Ohio. He met composer Joseph Philbrick Webster, who was writing a song that required lyrics. He offered his poem about Ella, and within a day or two, the song was complete. The ballad used “Ella” at first, then “Bertha,” before ending in “Lorena,” as the composer wanted a three-syllable name for the song.
Popular Recordings of Lorena
Various artists have recorded their versions of Lorena. Some of the most popular ones were recorded by:
- Tennessee Ernie Ford (for his album, Tennessee Ernie Ford sings Civil War Songs of the South)
- Ralph Hunter, Robert Shaw, Alice Parker
- Johnny Cash (for his album, Johnny Cash—1970)
- Molly Mason, Jay Ungar, Matt Glaser (for the Burn’s Civil War documentary’s soundtrack album)
- John Hartford
- Seldom Scene
- Bobby Bare
Films, Television Series, and Video Games Appearances
Lorena has been featured in films, television series, and video games such as:
- Civil War (1990 Ken Burn’s documentary)
- The Searchers (used by composer Max Steiner in the 1956 John Ford Western Film)
- The Horse Soldiers (used by composer David Buttolph in another John Ford Western Film)
- Gone with the Wind (instrumental version)
- Wagon Train (on its 1961 episode, The Clementine Jones Story)
- Lonesome Dove (1989 miniseries)
- So Weird (television series)
- Mercy Street (PBS Civil War drama series)
- Cowboy & Aliens (2012 film)
- The Beguiled (2017 Colin Farrell/Nicole Kidman Film)
- Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018 Western-themed video game)
Listen (John Hartford Version)
Oh, the years creep slowly by, Lorena, The snow is on the ground again. The sun's low down the sky, Lorena, The frost gleams where the flow'rs have been. But the heart beats on as warmly now, As when the summer days were nigh. Oh, the sun can never dip so low A-down affection's cloudless sky. A hundred months have passed, Lorena, Since last I held that hand in mine, And felt the pulse beat fast, Lorena, Though mine beat faster far than thine. A hundred months, 'twas flowery May, When up the hilly slope we climbed, To watch the dying of the day, And hear the distant church bells chime. We loved each other then, Lorena, Far more than we ever dared to tell; And what we might have been, Lorena, Had but our loving prospered well -- But then, 'tis past, the years are gone, I'll not call up their shadowy forms; I'll say to them, "Lost years, sleep on! Sleep on! nor heed life's pelting storms." The story of that past, Lorena, Alas! I care not to repeat, The hopes that could not last, Lorena, They lived, but only lived to cheat. I would not cause e'en one regret To rankle in your bosom now; For "if we try we may forget," Were words of thine long years ago. Yes, these were words of thine, Lorena, They burn within my memory yet; They touched some tender chords, Lorena,Which thrill and tremble with regret. 'Twas not thy woman's heart that spoke; Thy heart was always true to me: A duty, stern and pressing, broke The tie which linked my soul with thee. It matters little now, Lorena, The past is in the eternal past; Our heads will soon lie low, Lorena, Life's tide is ebbing out so fast. There is a Future! O, thank God! Of life this is so small a part!' Tis dust to dust beneath the sod; But there, up there, 'tis heart to heart.