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

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.