The music of an era

Doug
Doug Gallant
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Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War remarkable body of work, educational and entertaining at the same time

The Civil War that raged across the United States from April of 1861 to May of 1865 was a horrendous event.

An estimated 750,000 soldiers and an undetermined number of civilians were killed.

That’s an extraordinary number given that the population of the U.S. at that time was only about 30 million.

Look at it this way.

Ten per cent of all males age 20 to 45 living in northern states and 30 per cent of all white males aged 18 to 40 living in Confederate states perished.

The Civil War has always interested me, but I became even more interested after learning that approximately 60 of my own ancestors fought in it, 33 for the Union and 27 for the Confederacy.

Why am I rambling about American history in a music column?

There’s a very good reason, actually.

Randall Poster, who has served as the music producer and/or consultant for more than two dozen film and television projects, recently devoted a large block of his time to the music of the civil war.

The project that came out of that is an exceptional collection of material entitled Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War.

Poster pulled together more than 30 songs from that period, including campfire songs, marching songs, campaign songs, ballads, laments and more.

Songs of courage and conviction.

Songs to inspire soldiers heading off to war and to mourn those who did not return home.

Songs sung by slaves hoping for a brighter day.

Poster put these songs in the hands of a stellar group of artists that includes both legendary folk, country and bluegrass artists and relative newcomers.

Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, for example, was entrusted with The Vacant Chair, while Day of Liberty was rendered by the much more contemporary Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Some of the treasures included here include Cowboy Jack Celement’s version of Stephen Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer, Taj Mahal’s rousing take on Down by the Riverside, Bryan Sutton’s moving version of Battle Cry of Freedom and a version of Marching Through Georgia performed with gusto by the Old Crow Medicine Show.

I’m also partial to a version of Dixie by Karen Elson and the Secret Sisters and Vince Gill’s rendering of Dear Old Flag.

Other artists featured here include Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Chris Thile, Joe Henry, Steve Earle, Lee Ann Womack and David Grisman.

United & Divided is a remarkable body of work, one which is educational and entertaining at the same time.

Some songs, like Dixie, Battle Hymn of the Republic, Wildwood Fire and Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier are songs almost everyone knows.

Others, like Lorena, which was sung by soldiers on both sides, and Tenting on the Old Campground may only ring a bell if you, like me, tuned into series like Ken Burns’ The Civil War or The Blue and The Gray.

I have to confess there are a number of songs here that until now I didn’t really associate with the war, songs like Listen to the Mockingbird, which was apparently a favourite of President Abraham Lincoln, Hard Times, Beautiful Dreamer and Down by the Riverside.

Poster deserves a major pat on the back for gathering these songs together and offering the opportunity to discover and rediscover what was essentially the pop music of the day.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5.

 

Doug Gallant, a reporter with The Guardian, writes his music review column for The Guardian every week. He welcomes comments from readers at dgallant@theguardian.pe.ca or 629-6000, ext. 6057.

Organizations: Secret Sisters, The Guardian, The Blue

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