Music Interviews
4:32 pm
Mon November 25, 2013

'Divided & United': Songs Of The Civil War Re-Imagined

Originally published on Mon November 25, 2013 6:59 pm

Divided & United is the name of a new, two-disc collection of songs from the Civil War. The selections tell tales of fear, loneliness, exhaustion and triumph. All recordings featured on the album, which was produced by Randall Poster, are new takes on old songs; historian Sean Wilentz wrote the liner notes for the record.

The collection features lesser-known songs of the Civil War, some by a songwriter named Henry Clay Work. According to Wilentz, Work was a key member of a group of composers that wrote the history of the era through song.

"Henry Clay Work was part of a sort of diffuse Tin Pan Alley that produced a lot of the songs that we think of as iconic Civil War songs," Wilentz tells NPR's Melissa Block. "We think of them kind of drifting up out of the campfires in the trenches of the war itself, but they were composed by commercial songwriters, much as we have commercial songwriters today. To make a hit in the 1850s and '60s meant you were selling a lot of sheet music, which is what they did."

Some of the songs written by Work and other composers became popular through minstrel-show performances. One of the songs revamped in the new collection — "Kingdom Come" sung by Pokey LaFarge — tells the story of slaves celebrating after their master has run away to escape from armed forces sent by Abraham Lincoln. Wilentz says the tune was a "pretty edgy song" at the time it was created.

"It was written before the Emancipation Proclamation, so it's prospective of all of that," Wilentz says. "It was actually being sung on the blackface minstrel stage. So, you have white guys in blackface, celebrating the end of slavery and the skedaddling of the master, who they make fun of. This is a great thing about American culture, particularly in this period. The inversions of race, of politics, of what's going on, all sung to a very rousing tune, is remarkable."

The artists featured on the album range from Ashley Monroe and Lee Ann Womack to bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and musical jack-of-all-trades John Doe. Poster says a major goal for the record was to create an inclusive, cross-generational sound.

"As it started to come together, it became part of the ambition to have voices from their 20s to artists in their 80s," Poster says. "And I felt that having all the decades of life represented would somehow render a certain element to this that would be very unique to this collection."

Wilentz says the record's expansive representation of artists is reflective of how long-lasting the effects of the war ultimately were.

"There's this vast connection through historical time connecting people fairly close to the war, to people who are coming out of all of the war's aftermath, all of the war's legacy," Wilentz says. "And I think ... ineffably and powerfully, you actually hear that on the record and how the songs are rendered."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

"Divided & United," that's the name of a new 2-CD collection of songs from the Civil War. They're songs of tales of fear, loneliness, exhaustion and also, as we hear on this song, triumph.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARCHING THROUGH GEORGIA")

OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW: (Singing) Hurrah! Hurrah! We bring the jubilee! Hurrah! Hurrah! The flag that makes you free! So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea while we were marching through Georgia.

BLOCK: That's Old Crow Medicine Show with the song that celebrates Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's March to the Sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARCHING THROUGH GEORGIA")

SHOW: (Singing) Sherman's dashing Yankee boys will never reach the coast. So the saucy rebels said and it was a handsome boast.

BLOCK: These are all new recordings of old songs. The collection was produced by Randall Poster and historian Sean Wilentz wrote the liner notes. They both join me now to talk about some of the lesser-known songs of the Civil War. Welcome to you both.

RANDALL POSTER: Thank you, Melissa.

SEAN WILENTZ: Great to be here.

BLOCK: Sean Wilentz, talk a bit about the songwriter of "Marching Through Georgia" because he also wrote a few other songs in this collection. His name is Henry Clay Work.

WILENTZ: Yes. Henry Clay Work was part of a - I don't know, a sort of diffuse Tin Pan Alley that produced a lot of the songs that we think of as, you know, iconic Civil War songs. We think of them kind of drifting up out of the campfires in the trenches of the war itself but they were composed by commercial songwriters, much as we have commercial songwriters today.

Henry Clay Work and George Root were two of the people who were represented a lot on the album. And they were professional songwriters. Some of the songs they wrote were for the black-face minstrel stage, but some of them were popular songs. To make a hit in the 1850s and '60s meant you were selling a lot of sheet music, which is what they did.

BLOCK: Well, let's flip from the Union side to the Confederate side and listen to Lee Ann Womack. She's singing the "Legend of the Rebel Soldier."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEGEND OF THE REBEL SOLDIER")

LEE ANN WOMACK: (Singing) In a dreary Yankee prison where a Rebel soldier lay. By his side there stood a preacher 'ere his soul should pass away.

BLOCK: Randall Poster, this song is so beautiful and the imagery is so vivid of this Rebel soldier, Confederate soldier dying in a prison up North, dreaming of the South.

POSTER: What strikes me is the compelling humanity of the song and the story. And it really was a primary goal to strip away, I think, some of the antique veneer of some of the Civil War era songs. And I think Lee Ann really does capture the simple humanity of loss and the dream to return home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEGEND OF THE REBEL SOLDIER")

WOMACK: (Singing) Will my soul pass through the Southland, to my old Virginia grand?

CORNISH: Sean Wilentz, do you know if this song would've been well-known during the Civil War in the Confederate side?

WILENTZ: It was sung. It was there. It was, you know, it's a very - how to put it - I mean, I have a strong Yankee heart, right? I thrill to the Yankee songs on this record. That's just me. But when you hear Lee Ann sing this song, it just stops. I mean, that just stills all of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEGEND OF THE REBEL SOLDIER")

WOMACK: (Singing) Then the Parson looked up to heaven. And in blessing raised his hand. Father, grant this soldier's wishes, may his soul pass through the Southland.

CORNISH: Sean Wilentz, you talked earlier about minstrel shows as being sort of a way that these songs became popular. One song that was written for the minstrel stage is on this collection. This is a song - would've been sung in black-face - is the song "Kingdom Come." And let's take a listen to a bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KINGDOM COME")

POKEY LAFARGE: (Singing) Say, brothers, have you seen the master with the mustache on his face? Though long the road, sometime this morning like he's going to leave this place. He's seen the smoke way up on the river where the Lincoln gunboat lay. He took his hat and left very sudden, I suspect he's running away. Oh, the master run. Ha, ha.

BLOCK: That's Pokey LaFarge singing, and there's a lot going on in this song, Sean Wilentz. The master's run away...

WILENTZ: That's right. It's...

BLOCK: ...the slaves have locked up the overseer, right? They're celebrating, drinking the wine and the cider.

WILENTZ: It's a description of a bunch of slaves who are celebrating the fact that Lincoln's gunboats have arrived and the master skedaddled.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KINGDOM COME")

LAFARGE: (Singing) Now, folks feel so lonesome living in the log house on the lawn. They moved their things into master's parlor for to keep it while he's gone. There's wine and cider in the kitchen and you and me will have some. I suppose they'll try and confiscate them when the Lincoln soldiers come.

WILENTZ: Now that's a pretty edgy song. It was written before the Emancipation Proclamation, so it's prospective of all of that. It was actually being sung on the black-face minstrel stage. So you have white guys in black-face celebrating the end of slavery and the skedaddling of the master, who they make fun of.

BLOCK: Yeah.

WILENTZ: You know, he's a fat guy. This is a great thing about American culture, particularly in this period. The inversions of race, of politics, of what's going on, all sung to, you know, a very rousing tune, is remarkable.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KINGDOM COME")

LAFARGE: (Singing) The overseer, he make us trouble and he drive us round a spell. So we lock him up in a smokehouse, set him with the key thrown down the well. The wimp is lost, the handcuffs broken, but the master will have his pail, as old enough, big enough, ought to know better than to try and run away. Oh, the master run. Ha, ha.

BLOCK: Randall, when you were thinking about the singers you wanted to have on the album, how did you choose? How did you figure that out?

POSTER: As it started to come together, it became part of the ambition to have voices from their 20s to artists in their 80s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE VACANT CHAIR")

DR. RALPH STANLEY: (Singing) We shall meet but we shall miss him.

POSTER: And I felt that having all the decades of life represented would somehow render a certain element to this that would be very unique to this collection.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE VACANT CHAIR")

STANLEY: (Singing) ...while we breathe our evening prayer. When a year...

POSTER: Dr. Ralph Stanley, I think is the oldest person on the record, was alive when there were still Civil War veterans around. You know, you'd see Confederate veterans. They'd march once a year. All the way down to young performers who came of age 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement.

So there's this vast connection through historical time, connecting people fairly close to the war to people who are coming out of all of the war's aftermath, all of the war's legacy. And I think, ineffably, powerfully, you actually hear that on the record in how the songs are rendered.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE VACANT CHAIR")

STANLEY: (Singing) We shall linger to caress him, while we breathe our evening prayer.

BLOCK: The new collection is called "Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War." Randall Poster produced the collection, historian Sean Wilentz wrote the liner notes. Thanks so much to you both.

WILENTZ: Thank you.

POSTER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE VACANT CHAIR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.