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Did Jason Isbell write ‘Decoration Day’ about the Egg Bowl? An investigation

‘Till the last living Lawson’s last living day.

Love Letters: Thistle Farms Turns 20 Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for The Green Room

The southern revenge saga has a dirty job to do. It needs contain the horror, violence, and hatred bound up in civil strife between constantly warring factions — or families — who have no idea how the odium began nor how it will end. It must balance all of these cups at once, while at the same time making perhaps some profound observation on the human condition. Or maybe others are more suggestive. So it goes.

The southern revenge saga can trace its roots back to the concluding books of the Odyssey — books 22-24 in particular — where after Odysseus carries out the slaughter in his palace, the rest of Ithaca declares war on him and his family. At the moment the rabble is set to do battle with him, Athena descends from Olympus and installs a grand forgetting in everyone’s minds. The people go home, and the poem ends. So much for the unending cycle of violence that could have broken out.

The southern revenge saga is underpinned by just this wheel of violence. Jason Isbell knows this, which is why he can pen such sublime lyrics as these:

Now I said, they ain't give us trouble no more
That we ain't brought down on ourselves
But a chain on my back and my ear to the floor
And I'll send all the Hill Boys to hell.

Violence, hate — these are both the cause and the endgame here. The Lawson boys don’t necessarily need to whip the Hill boy’s ass, but absolutely must whip that Hill boy’s ass.

And I don't know the name of that boy we tied down
And beat till he just couldn't walk anymore.

It doesn’t matter what his name is; he just is, and he’s a Hill boy to boot.

Which brings us to the Egg Bowl rivalry between Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Two hours of hard Magnolia State driving separates these two axes, but they couldn’t be linked any closer. Linked by relative proximity, yes, but further linked by what lies without Mississippi. Linked by the fact that they comprise the top tier of American football in the armpit of the Bible Belt. Linked by their mutual hatred for one another. Linked by sameness, by difference. The hatred borne of familiarity, and vice versa.

Can the rivalry actually trace out a beginning? Is it even productive to do so? Perhaps it has infinite beginnings, extending forever backward and forward.

I never knew how it all got started
A problem with Holland before we were born ...

And I'd fight till the last Lawson's last living day.
I'd fight till the last Lawson's last living day.
I'd fight till the last Lawson's last living day.

This is compelling stuff, to be sure. The droning repetition. The liquid and soupy alliteration. The multiplying and enfolding vow to fight till the last Lawson’s last living day — barring of course this particular Lawson’s premature death, in the event. There’s a certain religiosity in this chant, this moaning, crooning thing. It’s alive and immediate. It’s loud, sluggish, and soaring.

It seethes with pure, white rage. The same rage induced by maroon and white for red and blue and the other way around. But there’s also something like respect for the enemy.

Daddy said one of the boys had come by
The lumber man's favorite son.
“He said, beat him real good but don't dare let him die ...”

Don’t dare let him die. Beat him real good but don’t dare let him die. Because the saga will never end — it can’t. There is no grand forgetting here. The saga will continue out forever, out there across the delta and down to the coast. Down the Mississippi River and back up, pinging around between Lafayette and Oktibbeha Counties, forever and ever.

It’s Decoration Day.