Veteran Charlottesville songwriter, Ellis Paul, was on the road during the Unite the Right rally two years ago which erupted in deadly violence. Coming back home to a city in mourning prompted him to pen “The Battle of Charlottesville” as a historical document of the incident. WMRA’s Chris Boros spoke with Ellis Paul who described why this song was something he had to write.
Ellis Paul: I felt like there was a certain amount of urgency because all of my friends who are songwriters know I live there (in Charlottesville). It would be like if you don’t tackle this then we’re going to do it for you and I didn’t want that to happen. With this one being so emotionally close to home I just like I needed to tell the story and create a document of what happened and to sort of last as a historical document and how it unfolded.
WMRA: And you mentioned that you tackled this like a journalist when you approached writing the song. Was that different for you from other songs you’ve written?
EP: Well I don’t often do these historical event kind of songs. And this one is really talking about here’s the statue, the town wants to take it down, then there’s this rally that’s been set up, and then these white supremacists come to town and this is what happened day to day, hour to hour, and walk through the weekend. It sort of wrote itself in many ways.
WMRA: There’s a great rhyme where you rhyme white supremacist with Genesis.
EP: Well I remember the torches winding through the streets and it totally looked like a snake to me or a serpent. I feel good about writing it. Every time I play it, someone comes up to me and says I want you to write from the other side, my perspective matters too. And a woman in Charlottesville even asked me to add a verse from the other side’s perspective. And the song is done, that’s my perspective on it and at this point I need to walk away but you’re welcome to write that one on your own and go play it in public and see how you do with it.
WMRA: I can’t imagine going up to a songwriter and saying, “Hey can you add a verse for me?”
EP: (Laughs). Right. We are in a divided time right now and I feel like I need to do my part in nudging culturally all of us to a better place. That’s kind of my job. Even if I can move a crowd by inches I feel like I’m making some progress.
WMRA: You mention Heather Heyer in the song, the woman who was killed in the protest. And you don’t pull any punches with that lyric and I’m wondering if you struggled at all about that line, mentioning her name in the song right next to Robert E. Lee who you reference in the chorus?
EP: I did. This is a song that needs a heavy hand. It has to say what happened in the way it happened. I talked to Heather’s mother and she suggested I put a little disclaimer at the front in a trigger warning that anyone who might see the video should be warned before watching it because I don’t pull punches and I just state the way things unfolded. Something violent happened and I had to write it in the same way it happened. So yes, I did weigh it and that’s a good question, Chris, and I appreciate it but I felt like it still had to be said the way I wrote it.
WMRA: Someone listened to “The Battle of Charlottesville” for the first time, what do you hope they come away after listening to it?
EP: Well I like to think of it as a bit of a historical document in the vein of Woody Guthrie, who would write a song about what happened and let the listener witness it, so that they feel like they’re in some way a witness to what happened on that day