“When the Master Calls the Roll,” a brilliant story song from Rosanne Cash’s triple-Grammy-winning album The River and the Thread, has a back story that must be a rarity in the annals of songwriting: an artist co-wrote it with her husband and ex-husband. In the case of this song, Cash’s collaborators were producer/guitarist John Leventhal (her current spouse) and singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell (former).

In this dual interview for Acoustic Guitar magazine (published in the June 2014 issue), Cash and Leventhal described to me the elaborate process of writing this song, which traces a Civil War romance and incorporates some real-life Cash family history. 

The story

The seed for what became “When the Master Calls the Roll” was music composed by Leventhal.

Leventhal I actually had that melody for a year or so. Rodney Crowell mentioned to me he was doing an album with Emmylou [Harris], and I said, “Man, this melody that I have would be good.” I played it for Rodney and he loved it. He wrote a set of lyrics to it, which were decent but I don’t think either one of us felt were great, and Emmylou passed on it. Rosanne loved the melody and liked elements of Rodney’s lyric, but she really improved it exponentially.

Cash Well, I wouldn’t say that. I mean Rodney and I really rewrote the song.

Did Rodney’s original lyrics relate to the Civil War story you tell?

Cash It was a completely different story. We kept the first four lines that Rodney had—it was an actual 19th century personals ad. I wanted to keep that and then turn the rest of it into the Civil War song, where she found him through a personals ad. It’s based on two of my own ancestors. I researched them and we wrote it together. He came over to my house, we wrote part of it at the table, and then we wrote part of it by email.

How did you wind up incorporating the stories of your ancestors?

Cash Our son was studying the Civil War, and I went on the Civil War database to show him that he had Cash ancestors on both sides of the war. And this picture of William Cash was on the database. He happened to be a Union soldier, but there were also William Cashes from Virginia and Georgia who were Confederate soldiers. I really didn’t want to say which side he was on in the song. I thought that in itself was a metaphor for the Union, and also because it was a record about the South, I did not want to get into that about the Confederacy.

But he was a real person. The one on the website was from Massachusetts, but I didn’t say that [in the song]—I said he was from Virginia. And then my daughter, who’s kind of a Civil War buff, she said, “Mom, you know Virginia went both ways during the war.” So I thought that was even better. And Mary Ann Cash was a real person too—she was about 20 at the start of the Civil War. I don’t know what happened to her, but I put them together.

Was it challenging to tap into the archaic language you used? 

Cash Yeah. I’m glad you picked that up—nobody has asked about that. The use of the word whence, for instance.

Leventhal Initially made me wince [laughs].

Cash That was tough for John when I gave it to him. I said, “No, this is historically accurate, you know.” I wanted to keep all of it that way, to create a landscape and almost like a cinema feeling to it, so we could see where they were, the James River. Rodney and I talked at length about what he would have in his hand besides his father’s rifle. I finally said, “Yeah, he would have her locket. It would be either her picture or her locket.” So those little details became really, really important. We obsessed about it. I dreamed about these characters. I couldn’t get them out of my head.

Leventhal I think I was not initially as convinced about delving into a kind of, for lack of a better term, antiquated language, because I felt the music had a kind of visceral, emotional pull to it that I didn’t want to lose. I didn’t want to put any distance between that and the listener. But I have to say, it didn’t take me long to come around. I really thought it was extraordinary, the arc of the story. In a lot of ways it was the most challenging for me to produce—to make sure the story came across, and yet it still had some sort of interest apart from just an acoustic guitar and vocal.

Cash And it actually felt like those great old Irish ballads that take you through a whole story.

The lyrics

Girl with hair of flaming red
Seeking perfect lover
For to lie down on her feather bed
Soft secrets to uncover
Must be gentle, must be strong
With disposition sunny
Just as faithful as the day is long
And careful with his money
And so the open letter read
The newsboy did deliver
Three months later plans were made to wed
Down by the King James River

Lo, the season may come
Lo, the season may go
What love has joined together
Will forever be made whole
When the master calls the roll

Oh my darlin’ William Lee
Take me to the altar
I don’t have strength to watch you as you leave, but my love will never falter
Oh my darlin’, Mary Ann, the march to war is calling
Somewhere far across these Southern lands are bands of brothers falling
My tender bride, the tides demand that I leave you with your mother
With my father’s rifle in one hand and your locket in the other

Lo, the season may come
Lo, the season may go
Beware the storm clouds gather
Take heed, dear mortal soul
When the master calls the roll

But can this union be preserved?
The soldier boy was crying
I will never travel back to her
But not for lack of trying
It’s the love of one true-hearted lass that made the boy a hero
But a rifle ball and a cannon blast cut him down to zero
Oh, Virginia, whence I came I’ll see you when I’m younger
And I’ll know you by your hills again this time from six feet under

Lo, the season may come
Lo, the season may go
What man has torn asunder
Will someday be made whole
When the master calls the roll
Though the storm clouds gather
Let the union be made whole
When the master calls the roll

More

Behind the song

The Complete Singer-Songwriter