Friday, November 29, 2013

Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War

The New Beginning posts the National[ist] Public Radio story I heard on the commute home about the just released collection of songs from the War of Northern Agression / War Between The States / Civil War, my Black Friday gift to myself — Divided & United. From ATO Records, three "short films" on the album:

The double-album "includes refreshed versions—sometimes radically refreshed versions—of old chesnuts," says Prof. Robert Wilentz in the liner notes. Noting that none of the "singers and players is interested in historical reenactment," he continues,
    That kind of imitation dulls the imagination required to bring old songs to life. The trick is to merge your own evolved style and sensibility—personal and up-to-date, even though ineffably connected to the past—with your sense of what the songs meant then and what they might mean now. When that happens, the singing or playing can open a spirtiual channel in which it could be 1863 or 2013 or any year at all in between. The process defies rational explanation—I can't explain it, anyway—but I've experienced it enough to respect and have faith in it.
Amen. Music that is "personal and up-to-date, even though ineffably connected to the past," is what I listen to (and attempt to play), and many of this blogger's musical heroes appear on this album: Del McCoury, Sam Amidon, Old Crow Medicine Show, Steve Earle, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Chris Thile, Pokey LaFarge, Jorma Kaukonen, who got me into this whole genre in the '80s, and Dr. Ralph Stanley, who, Prof. Wilentz reminds us, "was born a little more than 60 years after Appomattox, when a dwindling generation of grey-haired Johnny Rebs, Billy Yanks, and former slaves still talked about the war as if it was were yesterday."

There are a number of bigger names as well: Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton, Lee Ann Womack, and Taj Mahal. The most important man-behind-the-scenes, however, who backs a number of musicians on the album, is producer/musician Bryan Sutton, who is interviewed in the above videos and whom my family had the pleasure of seeing perform at the Shindig on the Green in Asheville, North Carolina, his hometown, this past summer; he was the only professional recording artist on the stage.

Prof. Wilentz says the album "presents a selection of this music that is exceptionally smart as well as moving." Moving it is, and profoundly so. From songs about confederate soldiers dying in dreary Yankee prisons dreaming of the Southland, to those about slaves awaiting the approaching armies of liberation, to ones about boys on both sides pining for their sweethearts and mothers back home, these songs bring home the apocalyptic mood that those who lived through that conflict must have felt as no history book or documentary ever could.

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