180 Degrees of 24 Years

White Mansions

Outline of a stage musical production of Paul Kennerley’s 1978 White Mansions

White Mansions was one of the great concept albums of the seventies, and it surprises me that a lot of people still don’t seem to know about it. ‘A Tale of the American Civil War’, it mixes the best musical styles of country-rock and drives it forward with a compelling but simple narrative based on characters from the period, played as vocal performances by some of the best country and western singers of the 1970s.

You don’t have to like country music to appreciate White Mansions, but it does seem to demand a certain acceptance of operatic ideas, at least a willingness to listen to musical theatre in the Rock and Roll milieu. Looking at it that way, the closest equivalent record from around that time would be David Bowie’s Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, so you can understand that it might have been hard for conventional young country music audiences to dig it, and still do find it hard.

But this amazes me. As theatre, White Mansions is far better drawn than Ziggy Stardust, it actually tells a completely character-driven story with no digressions into sociographic  fantasy, and still manages to arrive at the same place, the apocalypse of an entire society and the destruction or death of most of the main characters, but still leaves you feeling uplifted.

Musically, White Mansions towers over most of the rock opera genre, pisses all over Tommy or Godspell, even stands easily next to The Wall or Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s really great music, I still listen to the whole album at a stretch and have three or four of the songs in my busking repertoire. It’s just a solid piece of work that has not found widespread recognition.

But what’s most amazing about this great piece of musical theatre is that to my knowledge it has never been produced as a stage musical with character-based performances. There are a few Ozark-style outfits in the US that have all the songs in their repertoire and perform them back-to-back in the time it takes to play the album, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

So at some point in my fragmented writing career I must have decided to sit down and sketch out the storyline, linking the events in a way that the album doesn’t actually need but an operatic stage production obviously would. It’s a very simple story that any small-town dramatic society with good musicians would be able to put on: just three scenes, the third set being a reprise of the first, and nothing more challenging than the use of horses onstage, which is something Australian theatre producers seem to know about. There’s no script, it’s all in the lyrics.

An outdoor performance would work well, the only set required being the back porch of a palatial house which is removed in the middle scene change to reveal the outdoor location with at most a few wrecked wagons and shattered trees to show it is a battlefield, then the Mansion set returns in the final scene with evident smoke damage and a window and porch rail broken.

Too easy, as the theatrical people I know in this artistic-musical country town would probably say. In fact this might be why it has never been done: it’s actually a fairly small, self-contained story that encapsulates the immense human drama of the American civil war in only fifteen tightly written songs, two “sides” (reverting to vinyl-speak) of not even a double album. It might leave audiences wondering, you know, is that it?

Again I claim absolutely no rights to this idea or the actual writing, it’s a free gift I make to the wide world, Paul Kennerley fans in particular. I’d be delighted to hear from anyone who wants to steal these simple stage directions and take the next larger steps to put it on as a show. Get in touch if you’re interested or feel free to just take it and let me know how you go.

I want to see this show, not do it! I could play the drifter but I’d rather see Bill Chambers again, and Kasey as Polly!

PDF Version: White Mansions Stage Production Notes

Scene 1: Long piano intro as bright morning light rises. Rich southern planter’s porch, Georgia, 1861. Black slave girl washing and hanging clothes. Old man dressed in fine southern broadcloth sitting in old-fashioned wheel chair with a determined but vacant, haunted stare. POLLY ANN STAFFORD, the planter’s daughter, dressed in good handmade clothes, emerges from door with pitcher of iced water, places it on side table and kneels to look at old man. He does not acknowledge her. Rising, she sings Story to Tell:

There is a tear, old man, on your face, and your hands are shaking
Is it fear, old man, or just a trace of hatred awakening
You’ve a story to tell, and you tell it so well
But the story is not in the lines of a page
The story is in the lines of your face.

This is the world, old man, for which you worked and loved with passion
A cultured pearl, old man, that your heart and hands helped to fashion
They want to change your way of life, a life you thought was right
All you held dear since birth they’ll rearrange
But I don’t think you’re going to live to see the change.

Long piano fade as Polly returns inside. Rhythm guitar over as THE DRIFTER, a battered Mexican war veteran in his late 50s with piercing, intelligent eyes, enters on horseback, dismounts and removes his hat to climb the steps. He notices the old man in his chair, the rich furniture and fine glassware, stops and turns to survey the fields and sky around the house, steps down and sings Dixie, Hold On:

Oh Dixie, what’s this black cloud roll,
It’s comin’ down to tear away your soul
How much longer can you pretend
That’s your plough ain’t threatened by their pen
Hold on, oh Dixie, hold on.

To stand alone, to cut America in two
Means everything’s lost, the constitution’s fallen through
To leave the union is to weaken what is strong
You think it’s right, they think it’s morally wrong
But you’ll fall, oh Dixie, you’ll fall.

King Cotton, your reign
Is shadowed with pain and burning emotion
You need slaves to keep alive
But the North could help you survive your misguided notion.

Oh Dixie, you are bold and strong
You could have ’em beat before too long
You have a birthright, a lifestyle to defend
You must hold on until the very end
Hold on, oh Dixie, hold on.

Music continues as the drifter climbs the stairs, Polly comes out of the house. He lifts his hat, she curtsies nicely and offers him water. Electric guitar bridge as a band of wild young horsemen ride in, whooping and hollering, leap down in a cloud of dust. Polly, frightened and angry, moves quickly to wheel the old man indoors. The drifter moves back into shadow and watches. Among the crowd MATTHEW J FULLER, a planter’s son, runs up the stairs after her, hesitates, then turns and brandishes a newspaper, sings Join Under the Flag:

The States’ called its sons to its side, boys
They’re hoisting up the stars and the bars
We must all prepare to fight
For a cause we feel is right
And join Jeff Davis from near and far.

They can’t understand our way of life, boys
They don’t want slaves in the new territories
But the knowledge that they lack
Is there’s no cotton if there’s no blacks
And this gives us a reason to secede.

Come out of the meadows and plantations
Come away from the shores down by the sea
Join under the flag with your musket and your bag
We’ve got to break ties with the North to be free.

Since Abe got elected there ain’t no choice boys
We showed ’em what we meant when Sumpter fell
And if they try to take it back
Or come and free the blacks
The good Lord knows we’re gonna give ’em hell!

Come out of the meadows and plantations
Come away from the shores down by the sea
Join under the flag with your musket and your bag
We’ve got to break ties with the North to be free.

[spoken] Hell, I never did like them Yankees anyhow, always lookin’ down their nose at us like they was something special. God dammit, this thing could be over in 10 weeks time anyhow! We’re gonna whup their ass, show them we can live on our own.

Distorted electric guitar bridge as the crowd cheers, yeee-haa!, Matthew turns and boldly enters the house, the drifter comes to the rail to watch the crowd bring out muskets, bandoliers and a keg of Southern whisky. Shots fired as CALEB STONE, po’ white trash with a sharp, calculating face, climbs halfway up the stairs with a bottle, drinks deeply, sings White Trash:

Well ya heard a how the South is said to be graceful
White mansions, live oaks and velvet lawns
The ladies and the gentlemen dress most tasteful
‘Course it just depends into whose hands you was born.

They call me white trash, ’cause my hair hangs long
My ragged pants got no buttons on
My teeth are black and my shoulders sag
But I fly the confederate flag.

Well I drink lots of corn and I know where to find my sugar
But I guess I’ll volunteer for the war against the Blue
‘Cause there ain’t much to do here that’s much better
I’ll break some blue-belly bones before this thing is through.

They call me white trash but I’m a fighting’ man
And I’ll sure do the best that I can
I may be bad and have a foul mouth
But I’m ready to defend the South.

[snarl] Come on… Come on and get your white trash… Come and get it…

Music jams wild but ends raggedly as night falls to quartet playing a waltz inside, brightly coloured lights in the windows. Wild boys shrug indolently, stagger off with their gear and horses, the drifter steps past Caleb with a dangerous look, they move off alone as Polly and then Matthew emerge from the house, she in a fine crinoline dress, he in a Confederate officer’s uniform. She stands at the porch rail, he watches her, then approaches and they sing The Last Dance and the Kentucky Racehorse:

[Matthew]: The ladies they glide, through the ballrooms they glide
With the young men hot at their heels
They know how to tease, they know how to please
But you’re the only one who knows our love feels.

Would you dance with a friend, for until this war ends there’s no more time
Would you take this next waltz, would you hold me so close, just one more time.

As the orchestra plays I watch you amazed
At the grace of your step and your poise
It’s grieves me inside to know I’ll soon ride
And leave you lost in the laughter and noise.

Would you dance with a friend, for until this war ends there’s no more time
Would you take this next waltz, would you hold me so close, just one more time.

[Polly]: Your regiment is leaving Georgia, you must join them right away
Your orders are to ride to (Sinteree?) and engage without delay.
But before you turn your back on me, before you finally go
There are some things that I must give to you, some things that you should know.

I’ll send a Kentucky racehorse, with a rider and a prayer
To speed my words of love to you, so you know that I still care.

I’d pay a Kings ransom, and live on cornbread too
Just to keep your precious smile alive and to live my life with you
All the time you’ll be away from me, all the days that lie ahead
(Your heart please keep the memories?) we share like you share my bed
And although I won’t have your helping hand or keep your sweet company
Darling when you (find each one?), please think a little bit about me.

I’ll send a Kentucky racehorse, with a rider and a prayer
To speed my words of love to you, so you know that I still care

[Matthew]: Your carriage awaits with its horses at the gate
To take you home to your mansion so grand
Where in comfort you’ll stay, safe from the fray
Until I return to ask for your hand.

[Both]: So would you dance with a friend, for until this war ends there’s no more time
Would you take this next waltz, would you hold me so close, just one more time [Repeat]

Music and lights fade as they kiss.

Scene 2: Distant shots, rockabilly music, blood red sunset reveals battlefield smoke and ruin, corpses in Union uniform, a southern military tent camp. Unruly confederate soldiers including Caleb led by Capt. Matthew Fuller ride in triumphant, dusty, some bloody and bandaged from the battle. Fuller steps with authority into a tent, fires are lit as night falls. Boys break open kegs, fire shots, rebel yells, Caleb and company sing Southern Boys:

[Caleb] They brought parasols and picnic boxes, just like they was huntin’ foxes
But could no more fight than fly
They thought at Bull Run they’d put us down
But that ain’t quite what they found
Now here’s the reason why.

[all] We’re just Southern boys
Raisin’ hell right now
We’re just Southern boys
Doin’ well right now.

[Caleb] They got many more men than us
Got the arms but not the guts
They ain’t the kind to win
We whipped ’em bad at (Earbone’s?) Bluff
Wilson’s Creek and treated ’em rough
Pretty soon they’ll give in.

[all] We’re just Southern boys
Raisin’ hell right now
We’re just Southern boys
Doin’ well right now.

Sweet spirit of Dixie just drives us along
Like the Mississippi flows, the South land goes on and on.

[Caleb] We’ve got horsemen like you’ve never seen
Gunmen who shoot so clean
Farm boys with fists of steel
We’ve got the finest generals ever known
Jackson stands like a wall of stone
We won’t beg and kneel
[all] We’re just Southern boys
Raisin’ hell right now
We’re just Southern boys
Doin’ well right now. [Repeat]

Fires die, soldiers gradually collapse to drunken sleep, music tails away. Moonlight through clouds over the battlefield. Acoustic guitar as the drifter enters on horseback, dismounts, looks over the camp, the dead and the battlefield, stray horses grazing, he shakes his head and sings The Union Mare and Confederate Grey:

Two horses were trotting, they pranced and they ran
Each one was commanded by the cavalry man
Two horses stood grazing where their dead riders lay
A Union Mare and a Confederate Grey.

They nuzzled each other, as they teased and had fun
They bathed in the warm rays of the old Southern sun
No more senseless orders for them to obey
So they acted like lovers, this mare and this grey.

[light on Polly stage right, Polly and the Drifter singing]

Now these are such sad times that we’re are all living in
But killing your brother is the mightiest sin
How happy we’d be if we acted the way
Of the Union mare and the Confederate grey.

[Drifter] Two horses were trotting, they pranced and they ran
Each one was commanded by the cavalry man
Two horses stood grazing where their dead riders lay
A Union Mare and a Confederate Grey.

Drifter sits heavily on a log, falls asleep as the music ends. Thunder and lightning break, rain falls and whole scene seems suddenly exhausted, blue-lit, the sleeping men are soaked and wake to struggle with horses and campfires as frantic rockabilly music begins over the rain. Matthew bursts from the tent, bandaged and ragged, sits trying to write letter in the rain, sings No One Would Believe a Summer Could be so Damn Cold:

I’ve needed you from time to time but never as much as now
I’ve grabbed some love from the whores in town but it don’t satisfy somehow
I’ve still got the letter you sent last summer when I fell at Mechanicsville
I guess you don’t know when you’ll see me again or if you ever will.

It ain’t easy, this livin’ off the land
It ain’t easy, oh how I need your hand to hold
God no one’d believe a summer could be so damn cold!

You may have heard of the cost of the Gettysburg loss, well I was there with Lee
And now Pittsburgh’s gone it won’t take ’em long to capture Tennessee
Sometimes I wonder if we’re doing the right thing, if we’re going to win this war
I start to forget just why we’re here, or what we’re fighting for.

It ain’t easy, this livin’ off the land
It ain’t easy, oh how I need your hand to hold
God no one’d believe a summer could be so damn cold!

Sweet Polly I’ve tried to get back to you
To be by your side, but I can’t leave now
Grant’s army’s pushin’ through.

[bluegrass lead break and thunder]

They tell you stories of valour and glory, but they ain’t near the facts
Heroes look bad when all they’ve had’s been eaten by the worms and rats
I’ve seen dying men calling with gangrene crawling through the flesh and bones
I’ve seen thousands pleading as they live bleeding, ain’t it time to go back home?

It ain’t easy, this livin’ off the land
It ain’t easy, oh how I need your hand to hold
God no one’d believe a summer could be so damn cold!

Music continues as Matthew stops, head in hands with exhaustion. The sound of artillery awakens him, along with Caleb, the drifter and most of the soldiers. Explosions and gunfire erupt, killing many of them, throwing the drifter to the ground. Matthew and Caleb rally the men as Union soldiers storm the field. Intense hand-to-hand fighting, charges and retreats, the drifter dragging himself to one side as the noise of battle fades slowly and heavy bass music rises, pulls himself up on a tree stump to watch the battle, sings The Southland’s Bleeding:

The Southland’s bleeding
The Union’s pierced the heart of Dixie
Still our generals are leading
With the courage to set us free
Maybe it’s time to count up all of the cost
We’re just hoping there’ll be some changes
Wishful thinking, we’re headed downhill
The only way now is surrender
But were fighting still.

No there ain’t no real chance for us to win this
There won’t be any victory dance at the finish
It’s just Southern pride
It’s just stubborn blindness

No young man’s adventure, holding on to a fading lifestyle
Maybe at first, now it’s terror running wild
There’s no one willing to lend a helping hand
They say where foolish, and you can’t blame them
Let’s stop this fighting while we can
It takes a brave man, but to end this killing
It takes a braver man.

No there ain’t no real chance for us to win this
There won’t be any victory dance at the finish
It’s just Southern pride
It’s just stubborn blindness
It’s just Southern pride
It’s just stubborn blindness

Music and fighting continue until a shattering explosion throws everything into darkness, almost immediately a red light falls on Matthew, screaming in the sudden silence for his artillery, while a white light picks up the pallid, ragged figures of his soldiers, a line of broken ghosts, together they sing Bring Up the Twelve Pounders:

Matthew: Bring up the twelve pounders!
Soldiers: All the horses are dead here sir.
Matthew: Well bring them up by mule then!
Soldiers: All the mules are dead here sir.
Matthew: Well bring ’em up by hand, boys!
Soldiers: All the battery men are dead here sir.
Matthew: Well I need them twelve pounders!
Soldiers: There ain’t no artillery left here sir.

Darkness falls. Low-down guitar and dawn light reveal Matthew, Caleb, Polly and the drifter, separate, disarmed and bandaged, walking in shock among refugees as hordes of union soldiers stream in the other direction, firing shots, laughing, drinking, and brutalising the helpless people. Matthew, Caleb, Polly and the drifter lead the refugees in singing They Laid Waste to Our Land:

They laid waste to our land, they took it from our hand
From Atlanta to Savannah they scorched our earth
They stole our corn and wheat, they left no food to eat
They slaughtered all the cattle, took the things of worth.

Well we got women and children too
Just the same as you
Ain’t it enough to know that you got us beat

The hatred will never cease, even now that there’s peace
The feelings will run as deep as the scars we bear
This ain’t cloth we wear it’s rag, we’re at the mercy of the carpet-bag
What you call justice is plain unfair

How the hell can you ever claim
It’s been worth all the pain
Just to have us live together under one flag?

The drifter pauses centre stage and narrates as the song repeats under:

On November 15th, 1864, General Sherman cut out the back of Atlanta with 68,000 hard worn Yankees and drove down through Georgia to the sea. With hate in their hearts they moved in a line, cutting a scar through God’s blessed country, 50 miles wide, burning, looting, gutting our land like vultures. They tore up the railroad tracks, they burnt the cotton and the gin. Lord, they made everybody suffer.

Choral voices join the song as he finishes. He turns to see Polly being pulled down and raped by soldiers, tries to help her but is struck to the ground by a Union soldier’s rifle butt. Darkness falls, but the choral voices continue, singing wordlessly.

Scene 3: Daylight rises slowly with choral voices to reveal the planter’s house, now decrepit with windows and porch rail broken. A Negro choir, dressed in the plain clothes of free men and women, are standing on the porch, they sing Praise the Lord:

Sing praise to the Lord, I’m a free man
Massa Abe done take these chains offa me
I will walk all the way to Ohio
‘Cause the Lord done set me free.

A guitar picks up the song as Caleb walks on, dressed in simple dark clothes and a travelling preacher’s flat hat, standing straight and proud with a look of peace and integrity he has not shown before. He is carrying a Bible. He joins the choir on the porch, embraces them and sings The King has Called Me Home:

I’ve been living like a dog for the last four years
And the maggots been eating at my bones
I’ve been burning up my body with drinkin’
And I can’t leave the women alone
Every man gets sick deep down
When he looks inside himself
So he turns towards the outside
Just to disregard his health.

But I found salvation
The King has called me home
I know where I’m going now
The King has called me home
I don’t need no one now
The King has called me home
I know where I’m going now
The King has called me home

When the only guts and brains that you got
Are the ones that are stuck to your boot
And you’re ridin’ like hell through Virginny
Just to find somebody to shoot
You start to feel disgusted ’bout the bones you busted
And the sight of leaking spleens
Well my mind got numb so I put down my gun
And I turned to the Nazarene.

I found salvation
The King has called me home
I know where I’m going now
The King has called me home
I don’t need no one now
The King has called me home
I know where I’m going now
The King has called me home.

They turn and enter the house as a congregation, the music fades as a desolate-sounding wind begins to blow. Dust and dim light virtually obscure the house and a hollow music rises as Matthew rides at a gallop onto the stage, pulls to a halt and leaps down, begins to climb the stairs then stops, his eye caught by a poster nailed flapping to the post. He tears it down to look at it, aghast and angry, then grieving as he looks back at the house, comes down the stairs and sings Bad Man:

The poster on the wall tells me I’m a bad man
Tells me I’m a madman, tells me I’m a wanted man
The one who makes me fall will be such a glad man
Five thousand dollars in his hand
Makes me such a hunted man.

They left me with a navy colt
A heart that’s bitter and a spirit that’s broke
Got to steal from the railroads, steal from the banks
Take it all back from the thievin’ Yanks
Just to keep alive
The only way I can survive

The newspapers call me Desparado
A man who lives real low
Well how the hell would they know
What it’s like to come back and find your sweetheart dead
Your home destroyed and your family fled
All I want is to see blood shed.

This war taught me how to kill
A man can only live by his will
Put a gun in your hand, a mask on your face
Crawl through life, live in disgrace
Try to settle the score
Remember what I had before.

Polly forgive me
But you died at their hands
Gonna make them pay
Take all that I can
Your dyin’ eyes
Haunt my mind
Gonna make them bleed
They’ll pay in time
They’re damned unjust
With their twisted laws
They want to take my life
But they could have saved yours
Polly forgive me… [Repeat, fade]

The wind and dust rise again as Matthew leads his horse away in the gloom, still crying out for Polly as the music fades. The wind and dust blow all to darkness, then a bright summer light gradually rises and a black woman dressed in servant’s clothes comes out to sweep the porch. A white nurse pushing an old man in a wheelchair comes out of the house, leaves him against the wall as per the old man in scene one, and goes back inside. The old man raises his head and we see it is the drifter, beaten and aged. A piano plays sparse, slow notes and he sings Dixie, Now You’re Done:

Oh Dixie, hang your head and cry
You have seen so many children die
You had courage and you had pride
But the Union could never see your side
At all, oh no, not at all.

Oh Dixie, now the land is scarred
The States are bleeding, they’re wounded and marred
Mr Lincoln isn’t here to lend a hand
Now he’s gone and bitter hate rules the land
You’re done, oh Dixie you’re done.

Oh Dixie, oh Dixie, oh Dixie, now you’re done
Oh Dixie, oh Dixie, oh Dixie, now you’re done
Oh Dixie, oh Dixie, oh Dixie, now you’re done
Oh Dixie, oh Dixie, oh Dixie, now you’re done…

The music rises, many voices join him in the final chorus, he bows his head as the lights slowly go down, the music draws out to a powerful finale.

Advertisements

Do I understand your comment?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s