One of the highlights from any show with Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, at least for me and what seems like the whole audience, is “Decoration Day.” This is one of the first songs that Jason wrote during his time with the Drive-By Truckers, and there’s certainly a good reason it’s usually included in his setlists. It’s just a damn good song with some ripping solos, slide included.
I’ve been listening to this song for a long time. Most notably, on the Live from Alabama album that debuted in 2012. I love that whole album, especially the song choices, like “TVA,” which I rarely hear played in current setlists. But “Decoration Day” takes the cake. To me, it’s better than the first version on the Drive-By Truckers’ 2003 album, Decoration Day. The song’s been around a long time, and I’ve listened to it again and again, but for some reason it wasn’t until recently that the lyrics finally fell into place like some kind of card trick. And I realized that all this time I’ve heard this song, I hadn’t been listening closely enough to get the whole story.
Even listening to the first few lines with a deeper understanding might change the story’s song. It certainly did for me. “It’s Decoration Day. And I’ve a mind to roll a stone on his grave.” For those who don’t know it, and many of us today don’t, Decoration Day refers to Memorial Day. In fact, there’s a disputed history of the way Decoration Day came into existence. Many say it was a Southern tradition to decorate the graves of dead Confederate soldiers with flowers. Eventually, a northern general who was commander-in-chief for the Grand Army of the Republic in 1868 declared that “Decoration Day” should be recognized officially every year, and that year many cemeteries took his lead by decorating graves of dead soldiers in late May. Then, after World War II, “Memorial Day” supplanted “Decoration Day”—the holiday finally nationalized in 1967.
Knowing that little piece of history emphasizes the hatred that the narrator has for his father. Instead of placing flowers upon his father’s grave, he says he’d like to “roll a stone on his grave.” In the next lines of that first verse, the narrator recognizes that putting a large stone on his grave won’t keep the ghost of his father from haunting him. He sings, from his father’s perspective, “Keeping me down, boy, won’t keep me away.” Right away there’s a story introduced here in the first four lines that the narrator has lost respect for his father, and these few words suggest a sordid past that continues to hurt the narrator.
Hearing those first four lines, you may begin to make sense of the theme of the song. But the second verse is where things start to get confusing, at least for me. There’s a feud between two families, the Hills and the Lawsons. The narrator can’t remember “how it all got started,” but the feud has come to some kind of culmination. And it’s important to know that the singer is a Lawson. In the second verse, the narrator sings, “And I knew the Hill boys would put us away, but my daddy wasn’t afraid.” He continues by saying they’re going to fight to “the last Lawson’s living day.” The diction of that line is fantastic on Isbell’s part because of the alliteration. It’s such an important line, too, because he ends the song by repeating that line several times, which again highlights its significance to understanding the theme’s song.
While we’re talking about the first eight lines, whether we consider them two sets of four lines or one set of eight lines, it should be noted that they all have the same rhyme, a long A sound and sometimes a slant rhyme like with the word “afraid” rather than all perfect rhymes. As one of the first songs that Isbell wrote with the Truckers, using the long A makes for easy and readily accessible rhymes. It’s by far one of the easiest rhymes to create in English, but nevertheless it doesn’t detract from the song. For me, it makes it a lot easier to remember and sing.
But as the song and story develop in the next eight lines, Isbell leaves behind the rhyme scheme, adopting alternating couplets and more slant rhyme. And this stanza has been the most difficult for me to understand over the years. Only recently, while driving with my wife and listening to the album, did I finally declare, I just got it. It was a sudden moment of clarity.
Here’s what I gathered. So the feud has continued through the years, and Holland, the patriarch of the Hill family, had a son beaten nearly to death by the Lawsons. The narrator sings, “I don’t know the name of that boy we tied down / And beat till he just couldn’t walk anymore.” We don’t know how the beating was broken up, but Holland shot the narrator’s father, most likely, in retaliation for the Lawsons almost killing his son. The narrator’s father wasn’t killed, but the narrator says, “I know the caliber in Daddy’s chest.” So Holland Hill, we can presume from the lyrics was arrested for this shooting of the narrator’s father, and maybe, we might imagine that someone going to jail might bring the feud to an end, but rarely do things improve as most mafia movies have proven to us over the years. When revenge is concerned, where there’s a will there’s a way.
However, Holland doesn’t stay in jail, and the narrator recognizes that there’s going to be more trouble for his family. He sings, “The state let him [Holland Hill] go, but I guess it was best / ‘Cause nobody needs all us Lawsons alive.” The narrator knows Holland is coming back to get the job done this time, and so does his father. And furthermore, he believes the “state” may have let him go purposely, though most likely there was not enough evidence to convince them that Holland wasn’t shot in self-defense.
In the next eight lines, Isbell continues to tell the story through alternating couplets. Here, we see some friction between father and son. The narrator’s father tells his son to give “the Lumber Man’s favorite son” a good beating because he believes he’s coming over to stir up trouble or get revenge. Interesting lyric, because it ties a profession to Holland Hill, suggesting a kind of strength and ruggedness to the man. Even the word “hill” stirs up similar connotations for me, too. People that work the land.
The conflict that develops here, though, is that the son, the narrator, doesn’t want to continue the feud. He pleads with his father that, “They ain’t give us any trouble no more / That we ain’t brought down on ourselves.” In response to his plea, the narrator is beaten by his father with a chain, and afterward, tells us he’s ready to kill all the Hills. The feud, then, will continue onward.
The rest of the lyrics in the last two verses relies on the listener to infer much of the story after the beating of the narrator. The narrator reveals that his father is now dead, and he also has dead family in many different parts of Tennessee, but he himself has a family in Mobile Bay. Isbell suggests that the narrator has escaped from the feud alive while many others in his family have not. He also tells us, “My daddy got shot right in front of his house / He had no one to fall on but me.” The second line here is open to interpretation. One could say that the narrator was “fallen on” by his father. He’s seen the worst of this feud, his father dying right in front of him, and one can imagine the irreversible damage that might cause a teenager. Another way to read the line is that the narrator was the last person that could exact some kind of revenge on the Hill family, especially since all his brothers are dead, from what we can only imagine, is the results of the feud. The line works nicely with both interpretations.
My assumption, too, is that a Hill, whether his favorite son or he himself, killed the narrator’s father. But for the sake of the argument, the lines are so open to interpretation that one could make an argument that the narrator killed his father, which comes back to the beginning of the song in a weird way. He says, early on, that he knows the caliber in his father’s chest. That builds an intriguing suggestion that the narrator himself shot his father.
At the end, we get probably the hardest hitting lines of the theme as I see it: self-hatred. We come back to the present in these lines where the narrator is looking back on the holiday of Decoration Day, which for most people means honoring the dead, especially dead veterans of war. Instead, the narrator says his family has never seen his father’s grave, and it’s not marked. (Another suggestion that he might have killed his own father.) And he continues, by singing, “I’ve got a mind to go spit on his grave.” I like the way this comes round circle to the beginning where he wanted to roll a stone on his grave—now he wants to spit on it, which to me is a much more insulting image.
He ends the song by embracing the Hill’s point of view on the subject of the feud. He says, “If I was a Hill, I’d have put him away / And I’d fight to the last Lawson’s last living day.” This line gets repeated twice more, providing lots of emphasis that the narrator didn’t respect his father—and that his father deserved to die. And perhaps, that he himself deserves to die as well for his part in the feud, which is why it’s still haunting him from his father’s grave. Remember, at the beginning of the song, the narrator sings that he hears his father’s voice saying, “Keeping me down, boy, won’t keep me away.” The suggestion Isbell makes is that the narrator’s father is still filling him with self-hatred.
It’s such a compelling song, and though the lyrics are complicated, it’s worth sitting down and reading them to get a clearer picture of what’s happening. Indeed, there is this self-hatred that permeates the lyrics of the song, becoming a major theme, but there’s also this theme of survival that surfaces by the end of the song. The narrator confesses that he has dead family everywhere, but he has a family in Mobile Bay that has moved on from the feud. They don’t visit the father’s grave, which seems to make him more of a ghost and legend; however, the narrator is still haunted by that ghost, and for some reason, that ghost is most ugly on Decoration Day, perhaps because it’s a holiday to respect the wars fought by others. And maybe the war between the Hills and the Lawsons was not a large-scale military engagement, but it was a war nevertheless, that makes the narrator reflect upon his father’s lost battle against the Lawsons.