We welcome a guest post from Christian McWhirter, author of Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War. Music was everywhere during the Civil War. Tunes could be heard ringing out from parlor pianos, thundering at political rallies, and setting the rhythms of military and domestic life. With literacy still limited, music was an important vehicle for communicating ideas about the war, and it had a lasting impact in the decades that followed. Drawing on an array of published and archival sources, Christian McWhirter analyzes the myriad ways music influenced popular culture in the years surrounding the war and discusses its deep resonance for both whites and blacks, South and North.
In today’s guest post, McWhirter shares his thoughts on the album Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War and how the album holds up historically.
Generally speaking, Civil War music is now a cottage industry. Re-enactor bands and professional musicians occasionally release albums that can be found in battlefield park or museum gift shops (and on the ever-reliable Amazon) but these are usually small-scale affairs. It is rare that the mainstream music industry engages with this subgenre. During the folk revival of the mid twentieth century, some of the war’s tunes resurfaced (several artists, including Pete Seeger, released an album of Civil War tunes in 1960, and Bob Dylan has recorded a version of “Dixie”) and they’ve popped up here and there since then (Elvis Presley’s “American Trilogy” is the most prominent example, and Ry Cooder’s slow rendition of “The Battle Cry of Freedom” on Boomer’s Story is excellent) but Civil War music has largely remained the property of musicologists and musical antiquarians. The only other notable exception is the 1978 country album, White Mansions, which did not use actual Civil War music but tried to tell the story of the Confederacy through original pieces. Despite a strong roster led by Waylon Jennings, the compilation was overly maudlin and steeped in the Lost Cause.
All of that changed recently with the release of Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War—a well-budgeted two-disc compilation of Civil War tunes interpreted by a host of well- and lesser-known country and bluegrass musicians. The track listing represents a broad sample both chronologically (some songs are from before the war, some songs came after the war) and stylistically. White, black, northern, and southern perspectives are all represented, as are the homefront and battlefront. Producer Randall Poster clearly aimed for an inclusive approach in his song selection and this pays real dividends for listeners.
Before proceeding any further, let me say that the album is musically excellent—a real pleasure. There is hardly a dud in the bunch and everyone involved sounds engaged and eager to maintain the album’s overall tone. That tone, however, can sometimes be problematic and merits further analysis. While Divided & United does a fine job entertaining listeners and sharing the Civil War’s music, academics and educators seeking to use it as a resource should proceed with caution.
The album begins with a simple rendition of H. T. Merill’s “Take Your Gun and Go, John” featuring Loretta Lynn on vocals with a banjo and fiddle accompanying her. This simple, rootsy, bluegrass treatment suits the song well and Lynn’s persona and vocal style perfectly complement its depiction of a wife willingly but mournfully encouraging her husband to enlist. Unsurprisingly, it has received the most media attention of any track on the album and became the centerpiece of pre-release promotions. Several other songs on the album use a similar approach—a single vocalist with acoustic string accompaniment—and some are very successful (Del McCoury’s “Lorena” is outstanding, and Stuart Duncan and Dolly Parton do a fine job of rescuing “Listen to the Mocking Bird” from the Three Stooges).
But the album’s focus on bluegrass and Appalachian roots music creates significant historical problems. The impression most listeners will get from Divided & United is that the fiddle and banjo were the predominant instruments of the Civil War era. What’s more, the preponderance of bluegrass implies that these songs would have been most commonly heard in rural unindustrialized settings.
In reality, America was in the midst of a middle-class musical boom during the 1860s. While rural areas, especially in the South, may well have enjoyed an abundance of string music, many of the pieces on Divided & United would have been more commonly heard performed by brass bands (which are scarcely evident on the album) or on parlor pianos (which the album usually relegates to the background behind all the strings).
For instance, songs from Root & Cady—Chicago’s most successful wartime music publisher—appear most frequently on the album. However, these tunes are almost all interpreted in the same manner as “Take Your Gun and Go, John,” which Root & Cady published in 1862. These songs were products of an industrializing and increasingly middle-class America and they were marketed as such. Divided & United wants to link them to an agrarian past traditionally celebrated in bluegrass and country music, but many of these pieces were more closely tied to urban or, at the very least, educated and professional performers and settings.
The album is often more successful when its artists veer away from roots music and instead use modern production and arrangement techniques to make the songs more resonant to modern listeners. As historian Sean Wilentz advises in an essay included with the album, a performer should “merge your own 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.”
Steve Earle and Dirk Powell’s medley of George Frederick Root’s “Just Before the Battle, Mother” and a parody, “Farewell Mother,” most successfully follows Wilentz’s advice. Although the song adheres to the collection’s overall preference for strings, it does so with a level of menace and mournfulness that stands apart from the overall tone. More significant is the way Earle and Powell repeatedly switch between the patriotic lyrics of Root’s original and the parody’s more cynical take. These competing dialogues between a soldier willing to die for his country and family, and another boldly announcing his intention to retreat and avoid death as soon as possible, splendidly convey the conflict between war’s glorification and reality.
T Bone Burnett’s arrangement of “The Battle of Antietam” is similarly effective in its use of discordant notes and stilted rhythms to convey the horror of battle and the emotional scars worn by its participants. Other attempts to extract these songs from their historical contexts are less successful. Karen Elson and the Secret Sisters try to take “Dixie’s” lyrics seriously but only provide further evidence that Daniel Decatur Emmett’s words are largely silly and nonsensical. Furthermore, their decision to change “Will the Weaver” from “a gay deceiver” to a “sly deceiver” seems futile, given that the song’s entire premise is “politically incorrect.”
This is not to say that Divided & United only really succeeds when it doesn’t try to be historically accurate. Shovels and Rope’s rendition of “The Fall of Charleston” is both unorthodox and effective—seemingly placing the listener in the midst of a night of drunken revelry. Several singers not quite in time or tune and accompanied by the sounds of breaking glass present a vivid aural image. The raucous elation expressed by the arrangement suggests we might be hearing a group of Union soldiers (despite the prominent inclusion of a female vocalist) rejoicing over their victory—perhaps in the eponymous city itself. Similarly, Taj Mahal’s bluesy take on “Down by the Riverside” easily conjures up images of African Americans celebrating their newfound freedom.
Despite some historical problems, Divided & United is far from a failure or even a mixed bag. It is an excellent and enjoyable album that admirably breathes new life into a host of historically useful and musically appealing Civil War songs. However, listeners should not treat this as an accurate representation of how most of these songs would have been played when they were written. The producers and performers of Divided & United should be commended for ambitiously reviving these songs and attempting to make them resonate in a variety of ways. The album is not always successful in these efforts, but when it is, it’s something special.
Christian McWhirter is assistant editor for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois. His book Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War is now available in paperback.