I love songs from the far past for the beauty of some, the power of others, and the combination of both. Songs written and sung in times of war are particularly moving, all the more so because “the pomp and circumstance of glorious war” (as Othello puts it) are seldom celebrated by the men in the front lines. Songs of the American Civil War (or, as some prefer, the War Between the States) are particularly poignant because the “enemy” consisted of our own young countrymen.
There are many recorded programs of songs of that conflict—I even have a disc of songs sung by the Confederate Navy!—but an especially good one has come to my attention. It is a Harmonia Mundi CD titled “1865: Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War” that features the Anonymous 4,whose names and pictures are cheerfully revealed in the program notes: Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham, and Marsha Gehensky. They are joined by Bruce Molsky, who provides an occasional fifth voice, as well as accompaniment on fiddle, banjo and guitar.
The songs heard here were “originally intended for the stage and parlor” and are “stylized, versified, personal stories prized by so many men and women and children who lived through ‘This Cruel War’.” (From the program notes.) There is a strong feeling of authenticity about the arrangements which the group found in archives and which they perform in the “old time” style.
Among the familiar selections are “Darling Nellie Gray,” “Tenting on the old camp ground,” “Aura Lee,” “Home, sweet home,” “Abide with me,” “Listen to the mockingbird,” and “Shall we gather at the river.” “Among the not too familiar are “Weeping, sad and lonely,” “Sweet Evelina,” “Brother Green,” and “The true lover’s farewell.” Notice how many of songs are straight love songs that could be sung in any time of departure throughout history.
The booklet gives all the lyrics and program notes in English, French and German (for comparative linguists!)
Great listening for history majors, Civil War buffs, and lovers of songs from the past that still reflect what we feel today.
Some other CD sets of vocals from the Civil War in my collection may still be available. “The Civil War, Its Music and Its Sounds” (Mercury), “Civil War Naval Songs” (Smithsonian Folkway Recordings), “Songs of the Civil War” (New World Records), and “Civil War Songs with Historical Narration” (WEM Records). The narration makes the latter set the most valuable.