“Can You Run?” by The Steeldrivers

I am not a big bluegrass music fan so a great deal of it related to the Civil War goes unnoticed by me.  Luckily, I have readers who are kind enough to email me with references to the Civil War that they have come across.  This post is the result of just such an email from a reader in Toronto.  The song tells the story of slaves escaping to the Union lines to join the army.  It was written and performed by The Steeldrivers.  Enjoy.

The lyrics can be found below.

“Can You Run?”

There’s smoke down by the river
Hear the cannon and the drum
I’ve got one thing to ask you honey
Can you run?

You know I hate to ask so late
But the moment’s finally come
And there won’t be time to change your mind
Can you run?

(chorus)
Can you run, to the freedom line of the Lincoln soldiers?
Where the contraband can be a man
With a musket on his shoulder
I’ve got to stand up tall before I’m done
Wrap these hands of mine around a gun
And chase the taste of bondage from my tongue
Can you run?
Can you run?

I’m takin nothin with me
We’ve just got time to beat the sun
And the boys in gray are never far away
Can you run?

(repeat chorus)

There’s smoke down by the river
Hear the cannon and the drum
And even if I die, I’ve got to try
Can you run?

(repeat chorus)

Can you run?
Can you run?

About the author: Thank you for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and join the discussion in the comments section. Looking for more Civil War content? You can follow me on Twitter. Check out my latest book, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is the first book-length analysis of the black Confederate myth ever published. Order your copy today.

13 comments… add one
  • Robbie Sep 14, 2018 @ 13:38

    Sticks That Made Thunder is about the Battle of Nashville.

  • Mike Feb 22, 2016 @ 13:41

    I have listened to this song only recently 2/21/16. Big fan now of the Steeldrivers, I think a couple of the lyrics are incorrect.
    ” Hear the cannon and the gun” and
    “Chase the taste of varmint from my tongue” is what I am hearing from link I will post.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBjlze_2F98

    • Jeremy N White Sep 14, 2018 @ 16:36

      I watched the video several times and zoomed in on his mouth. He is without a doubt saying bondage

  • Travis Dec 5, 2014 @ 11:41

    What does it mean by” chase the bondage from my tongue”? I’m recently watched them play here in newberry at the opera house and I’m a really big fan, I love there music but I’d like to know what that means in that context.

    • Jeremy Apr 21, 2015 @ 9:51

      Well it is actually “Chase the TASTE of bondage from my tongue” Its a turn of phase similar to when someone says” That experience left a bad taste in my mouth”. Its not refering to the actual act of tasting but rather to cleansing of a bad experience from someones memory in order to move on.

    • Leita Spears Sep 6, 2020 @ 14:40

      The song is about enslaved people escaping from slavery by running from their enslavers through the battle lines of the Union troops. Once across that line they could be free and become a soldier. The large number who ran to freedom attached themselves to the army for protection from the Confederates. They were called Contraband because that was the only category they could find to allow them to stay with the army. So this song is is about taking the chance to run for freedom.

  • Bob Free Jan 6, 2011 @ 14:37

    Another great Civil War song is Ben McCulloch by Steve Earle, not exactly bluegrass but pretty close as he has all 5 star musicians that frequently play bluegrass such as Norman Blake and Peter Rowan playing on it. He says “This ain’t my unplugged album” in the liner notes but it is all acoustic so you be the judge. A fantastic slice of Americana. Highly recommended.

  • Marianne Davis Dec 31, 2010 @ 13:56

    They’re both credited to Michael James Henderson and Chris Stapleton. I understand that Stapleton has left to concentrate on songwriting. In any case, isn’t this song a nice fresh breeze? It goes a long way toward the debunking of the image of Southern musicians as racist rednecks.

  • Kirsten Schultz Dec 31, 2010 @ 10:20

    Hello Marianne and Kathy,

    Who is credited with writing “Can You Run” and “Sticks That Made Thunder”? I wonder if it’s the band member who left the Steeldrivers a few months ago.

    FYI, _Reckless_ has been nominated for a Grammy.

    Kirsten M. Schultz

  • Kathy Dec 31, 2010 @ 9:35

    On the Steeldriver’s previous album is a song about a Witness Tree’s view of the Battle of Gettysburg. The song is titled “Sticks that Made Thunder”. After I I heard it the first time I had to buy the album.

  • Marianne Davis Dec 29, 2010 @ 6:33

    This is a terrific song from a group of well-established Nashville musicians, thanks for posting it. Having said that, did anyone else notice it was recorded at the Joe Val Festival? That’s held in, wait for it, Boston! I understand that Boston is in Massachusetts, natal site of Robert Gould Shaw, home of countless academics, and therefore the last 7-11 on the road to Hell.
    For those of us not distressed by such Sothron sedition, the song is on the The Steeldrivers’ Reckless album, which I just purchased.

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