Ron Radosh

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


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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There have been many Civil War albums, and there are of course bands devoted to playing how they assume the songs were sung back then. In all cases, it is a guess since we have no way to know how they were performed. All we have is the sheet music and the evidence of which songs became standards, and which songs were the equivalent of hits throughout the nation.

What the various artists who contribute to this CD have done is to combine the modern with the past. In his enlightening essay accompanying the CD, historian and musicologist Sean Wilentz writes that

“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.”

The artists sing the songs in what they obviously believe are as close to how they would have been sung during the Civil War. Yet they bring to it the modern day sensibility that informs their performance. Consider the haunting version of “Two Brothers” sung by Chris Stapleton. You think you are listening to a Civil War soldier lamenting the fate of brothers who fought on different sides, a fate that many families faced. Compare it, if you have the old tracks, to Fred Hellerman’s rather maudlin and stylized version that he sang with “The Weavers,” which sounds anything but authentic, and was meant to be “commercial.”

The artists manage to combine past and present to sing in the way they assume people sang. Most of the arrangements, as well, are played with traditional instruments with exceptions. Stapleton sings with drums in the background, which were not present in homes in the 1860s.  They are reinterpreting the songs with fidelity to the original sheet music, singing in the idiom that is traditional, but they are modern interpretations.

The album has many gems, and thankfully, only a few that are not memorable. For my ears, most outstanding and the CD’s highlight is the performance by Chris Thile and Michael Daves of the Punch Brothers, with their rocking instrumental and singing of  “Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel,” taken, of course, from “Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel,” and which Wilentz informs us was the Yankee soldier’s single favorite tune.

Daniel Decatur Emmett, a northern, antislavery singer who performed in blackface, wrote the words. Emmett also wrote “Dixie” as an antislavery song! Yes, you got me right. The ballad taken up by the South as the Confederacy’s anthem was meant by the writer to be performed in the North in minstrel shows as the hope of a free black slave to return to the site at which he was born as a free man. Here it is sung by Karen Elson and the Secret Sisters – Laura and Lydia Rogers – as noted by old time music performer and writer John Cohen, as a “song about longing, loss and tragedy.” It is not the “Dixie” you are used to hearing.

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You will also find two most familiar tunes. “Listen to the Mockingbird” is the first, sung by Stuart Duncan and Dolly Parton—perhaps the single most famous hit of the 1860s, if we use today’s term. The other is the ballad “Aura Lee,” which you have heard before, but this time, with its original words. Sung here by Joe Henry with harmony vocals by the incredible “Milk Carton Kids,” Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, who soon, I predict, will be superstars and this generation’s version of Simon and Garfunkel and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

The notes tell us this song about a maiden with shining hair was written in 1861, was played on drums, fifes, fiddles, banjos and brass at campfires, and sometimes even in battles. I will not tell you why you know the song–listen once, and you will immediately recognize it, and learn that the commercial market of our own time did not hesitate to put new hit-making words for today’s audiences to old tunes. It is similar to what The Weavers did when they took Leadbelly’s tune about an old cow who knocked down a kerosene lamp and supposedly started the Great Chicago Fire, and wrote new lyrics and then called the song “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” So, to find out what the song is known as, I’m afraid you’ll have to take a listen. Buy the album, or listen to it on “Spotify.”

And for those who thought the Carter Family wrote “Wildwood Flower,” we hear Sam Amidon’s very different performance of the song, written in the 1860s by Maud Irving and Joseph P. Webster. Sung slowly and without the familiar style guitar picking of the Carters, we hear it as it might have been sung in that era.

Given the setting of the Civil War, there have to be Stephen Foster songs. He is, after all, our nation’s most well-known composer. We are treated to Vince Gill’s singing of “Dear Old Flag,” about a drummer boy’s last words as he lay dying at the battle of Gettysburg; “Hard Times,” written by Foster in 1854, and which tells of us the plight of the poor and downtrodden. It is sung in a straightforward fashion by Chris Hillman, the bluegrass virtuoso once a member of the Byrds and other 60’s era groups, accompanied on harmony vocals by The Milk carton Kids. The album ends with Cowboy Jack Clement’s  performance of “Beautiful Dreamer,” perhaps one of Foster’s most highly performed ballad, of a lover singing to his possibly dead dearest.

I am tempted to go through all the songs, since many are so excellent. Del McCoury and his bluegrass band give us “Lorena,” performed in today’s bluegrass style; the Carolina Chocolate Drops give us “Day of Liberty,” with Rhiannon Giddens’ gorgeous voice shining in her vocal and old-time banjo picking. The group, dedicated to resurrecting the African-American old-time music tradition of forgotten groups that sang with five-string banjo and other traditional instruments, appropriately gives us one about the urge for freedom by black slaves. Noam Pikelny and David Grisman give us a master instrumental of “Old Folks at Home” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” It is a pairing of an old timer with a new artist – Grisman was Jerry Garcia’s partner in “Old and In the Way,” and Pikelny is perhaps the best of the group of New York City’s new five-string banjo masters. Finally, Ashley Monroe sings “Pretty Saro” beautifully, in a mournful voice, with fiddle accompaniment by Aubrey Haynie. Many of you will know it from Bob Dylan’s equally beautiful version that appears in his recent release of “Another Self-Portrait,” the no.10 in The Bootleg Series.

There is much more material that Poster could have chosen to include. My only regret is that he did not commission anyone to do “The Cruel War,” which some say is actually a song from the Revolutionary War, but is widely regarded as a ballad made popular during the Civil War. In an album devoted to the theme that John Cohen writes “seeks reconciliation” through music of the “heritage of America born in pain, war and prejudice,” this ballad about a woman who seeks to accompany her male lover to battle and pleads with him not to go to war, is certainly universal. There are many fine recorded versions, but I would have loved to hear Alison Krauss attempt a version.

Nevertheless, this is perhaps the single best compilation of Civil War songs, performed by artists of great integrity, from superstars of country including Loretta Lynn, Lee Ann Womack, Vince Gill and Dolly Parton, to bluegrass pickers like Bryan Sutton and Stuart Duncan, Del McCoury, Ralph Stanley, Chris Thile, Noam Pikelny and David Grisman, to folk pickers like Jorma Kaukonen, Norman and Nancy Blake, and Taj Mahal. And there are the new traditional string bands including the fabulous Old Crow Medicine Show, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Shovels and Ropes.

So read some books on the Civil War, and take a break, and listen to Divided and United. Perfect for a fine relaxing weekend, or even today, this Veterans Day.