Friday, November 15, 2013

Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War

As I walked through the ruins of Fort Sumter off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, it was clear just how much of my sense of history relies completely on the crutch of popular culture. And nowhere is my dependence on pop culture more obvious than in matters of war.

Name a war, and my mind works thusly: what movies? What books? What soundtracks? What songs?

Even as I walked through the ruins of Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie, I found myself trying to connect it to thoughts of The Last of the Mohicans and Glory. As we walked the streets of The Battery, sifting through houses that felt as true to their history as any place in the midst of a city could manage.

This is true even though I work every day on the same ground were Union and Confederate soldiers died 150 years ago.

I’d like to think this instinct to connect our history with the shallowness of popular culture is unique to me, but I don’t think so. We hardly know what life was like before GPS systems and wireless internet. We think back to cassette tapes and rotary phones as if they were leftovers from the Industrial Revolution. So how else, truly, could we be expected to place ourselves in a time of our great-great-great-great-GREAT grandfathers without the mental assistance of Matthew Broderick or Stephen Crane, James Horner or Ang Lee?

Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War is a 2-disc collection of songs from a rogue’s gallery of names from country and folk. There’s Dolly and Loretta, Ralph Stanley and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. There’s Steve Earle and Vince Gill. There’s a dozen names most casual music fans and many folk fans couldn’t pick out of a lineup.

For someone like me, who needs a crutch in the present to push the mind 150 years back, this collection is wonderful. It’s far from perfect -- what 2 CD compilations are? -- but even the imperfections or less-desirable renditions lend the project a greater heft and legitimacy. Divided & United isn't aiming to top the Billboard charts, nor is it an attempt to drag the music of 150 years ago kicking and screaming into The Now at all costs.

In one sense, it’s an album of covers. But can someone “cover” a Psalm, or a (Negro) Spiritual, or a Beethoven piano concerto? Can you “cover” a song that didn’t have an original recording artist?

Many of the songs have a modernized tinge, or are too stylized, to feign authenticity, but the spirit of the project holds everything together. The album is an impressive and creative exploration into a sort of alternate universe version of the Civil War.

Vince Gill’s “Dear Old Flag” is the most syrupy song in the bunch, but with that delicious mandolin leading the way, and a choir of backup vocals to offer it depth, it’s impossible to ignore. Gill’s smooth product is perfectly counterbalanced by the next song, “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” by Steve Earle and Dirk Powell. Their grungy and raw vocals grate across a sonic floor of fiddle and accordion. One song laments the passing of a young drummer boy, and the next laments the fleeing of a cowardly soldier.

Then Charleston’s own Shovels & Rope concludes the best hat trick of the collection with “The Fall of Charleston,” a rowdy rip appropos of a song glorifying Sherman’s march to the sea, a sort of twisted celebration and rude exclamation point to the previous dirges.

Although the second CD contains a number of very familiar tracks, including a slowed-down and forlorn “Dixie” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” it’s the tougher CD to get through without a break. No matter. When adults buy over two hours’ worth of music, they rarely expect to get many opportunities to hear it uninterrupted and with total focus.

You want to pay homage to our War Between the States? You want to get a sense of things in a way the screen can’t capture, in places a book can’t quite reach with mere words? Cover your ears with some high-quality product and play this collection. As you’re imagining the devastation and horror of a fight whose outcome of which we should all be proud and relieved, remember that, on both sides of the conflice, up and down the coast and all the way to the Mighty Mississip’, the war was full of boy soldiers and young men who missed their moms, wished to find true love, and above all desperately wanted to survive.


G. B. Miller said...

Sounds interesting, but I think to get a better appreciation of Civil War music, is seek out those in the folk/Americana/bluegrass genres that can play it with a better feel than most modern country artists.

Perhaps Ken Burns's monumental documentary would be a good starting point for music exploration.

Bob said...

G.B., take a look at the list. It's an impressive list of artists taking on this project.