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

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.