Saturday, November 23, 2013

Songs of the Civil War

I've been listening to Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War, a thirty-two track CD set of songs popular during the American Civil War sung by contemporary artists who, although preserving the original tunes, often give distinctively modern renditions. This is not an effort to re-create the sound of that time. Many of the singers are well-known country performers like Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs and Ralph Stanley, but also people like Taj Mahal, T-Bone Burnett, Chris Hillman, Steve Earle, and Jack Clement, along with groups I don't know like the Old Crow Medicine Show, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. It's all good.

With its lilting melodic hook and melancholy story line, "Listen to the Mockingbird," an 1855 lament sung by a grieving widower for his lost love, sounded "as sincere as the laughter of a little girl at play," said Abraham Lincoln.

Abe knew a hit when he heard one. One of the best-selling songs of his era—its sheet music would eventually sell more than 20 million copies—"Listen to the Mockingbird" served as a salve to listeners during the Civil War, its sorrowful image of a songbird singing over a loved one's grave resonated in a divided and grieving nation. ....

The album mixes new takes on old tunes like "Dixie" (by Karen Elson and the Secret Sisters) and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" (Angel Snow) with a raucous partisan Yankee stomp like Shovels & Rope's "The Fall of Charleston" and the rebel reel "Secesh" (The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band)—songs that have been in mothballs since Appomattox.

Some tunes sound like after-action reports telegraphed from the front. Among them are T Bone Burnett's dirge, "The Battle of Antietam," and Ricky Skaggs' "Two Soldiers," about Union soldiers caught in the deadly fire from the heights at Fredericksburg in 1862.

"I was hoping not to dust off antiques, but to capture the complex vitality of the era in song," says the album's producer, Randall Poster, a Hollywood music supervisor ("Moonrise Kingdom;" "Boardwalk Empire") and sometime record producer ("Rave On Buddy Holly"), who spent two years compiling original sheet music and old recordings, and enlisting musicians. "There is such a wealth of musical material from that time. And it all springs from such a tumultuous variety of emotions. You have families torn apart, mothers losing their children, brother versus brother conflicts, people rallying behind one side or the other. All that is expressed in the music. .... [more]