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Divided and United, Songs of the Civil War that Demand to be Heard Again and Again

The best ever musical interpretation of the era's most popular songs. Essential listening.

Ron Radosh


November 11, 2013 - 12:00 pm
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Divided and United: The Songs of the Civil War

Produced by Randall Poster, Essays by Sean Wilentz and John Cohen.

Meant to honor the memory of the most divisive time in America’s past, the Civil War, this tribute to those who lived in our country at the time is a CD to cherish and play again and again. Indeed, nothing is more appropriate to explore the meaning of the War during its 150th Anniversary than listening to the stories of the soldiers. These citizens fought, lived, loved, and died in the thousands in this time of trouble.

If there is any justice in the music business, this compilation, produced by Randall Poster, music advisor for Wes Anderson’s films, assisted by the bluegrass guitar virtuoso par excellence Bryan Sutton, will win the Grammy for best traditional folk album. The much-abused and actually fairly meaningless term “folk music,”- since those playing the kind of songs on this album call themselves traditional singers and not folk-singers. So too does “Dr.” Ralph Stanley, who on these discs contributes “The Vacant Chair,” a song memorializing the death of Lt. John William Grout of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry, who died at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Stanley, whose voice long ago passed from the quality he had as a young man, could be singing in the voice of chastened veterans who themselves might have seen many of their comrades fall in battle.

What makes the performances stellar and unique is that the artists are drawn from the royalty of the best Nashville has to offer. From the community of old-time and traditional singers and pickers, as well as others like the young New Yorker and banjo master Noam Pikelny, they each use their own musical taste to try and capture what they think is how the songs were meant to be played and sung in the era in which they were written.

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Sounds like a nice anthology, though my favorite collection of Civil War Songs is by Tennessee Ernie Ford:
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I read that "Taps" was composed by a Union general in the field one day and given to a bugler to use at night. It caught on I guess.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Just for the record "Dixie" was never adopted in any official sense as the anthem of the Confederacy. At the time of secession, the song was better known and more popular in The North than in The South, though it did come to be very popular in The South and remains so, even if all but outlawed for public performance. The closest to a political anthem in the WBTS South was "Bonnie Blue Flag," with lyrics so politically incorrect today that even the mostly accurate "Gods and Generals" movie changed the words when it was sung at a gathering of Confederates. Though I was not really aware of the implications and history at the time, I can recall "Bonnie Blue Flag" being played to introduce the Governor of Georgia's TV addresses in the late '50s, early '60s.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Hmm....not so sure about "Dixie" not being as well known and popular in the South as it has been presented.

I seem to recall reading that "Dixie" was already very popular in the South prior to the Civil War, even though it was written by a northerner - and according to a brief bit of research it appears it was originally performed by Daniel Emmet and a minstrel show as it traveled the South, long before it was performed in the north.

As for contentions by the author of this article that it was an anti-slavery song, don't see how that flies either.

While the songwriter was definitely a unionist, the time frame it was written in was prior to the war and the songwriter himself performed in black face - not exactly something that can be seen as sympathetic, racially speaking.

If you actually look up the lyrics, there isn't a word about slavery - or even clarification of race for that matter. Plenty of Southerners were known for their exaggerated manner of speaking and would have been quite comfortable using the language and dialect as indicated in the song, regardless of race.

Lastly, Emmett's reasons for writing the song in 1859, it can be reasonably suggested, may not have been the reasons he would have given in 1865 after his creation was used as a patriotic song by those who stood as his enemies.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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