by Jewly Hight
In Greek mythology, the sirens had the power to siphon entire ships of sailors off plotted course with their alluring singing. And damned if Karen Elson and the Secret Sisters didn’t exert a similar power over me when I reached their track on disc two of Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War.
I’d steeled myself for the worst-case scenario — that this would be yet another hoary song collection with a misty-eyed, even misplaced sense of nostalgia — and approached the album at a coolly analytical remove. But when I had it playing in the background one evening, I caught myself absently murmuring along with Elson and the Rogers’ surprising rendition of “Dixie,” so beguiling were their harmonies, so demure their caressing and releasing of each note.
As disconcerting as it was to be reminded that I’d learned that minstrel tune turned Confederate anthem in elementary school music class, it forced me to acknowledge that I did, in fact, have a personal relationship to this music. And it led me to revisit the adolescent moment when I learned to differentiate between feelings of familial connection toward the daguerreotype portraits of long-gone kin in Confederate uniforms that my grandmother hung around her house and the general disgust I felt about a veil of tragic romanticism being draped over the historical reality of slavery.
If we learned anything from Brad Paisley and L.L. Cool J swapping hammy verses earlier this year, it’s that the legacy of dehumanizing racism can’t simply be swept under the rug, radically oversimplified or glossed over, and that the social position and vantage point a person is speaking, singing or rapping from about these things matters a ton.
There’s no rapping or oversimplification on Divided & United, which was assembled by Randall Poster, music supervisor for Wes Anderson films and plenty else (see Cream captain D. Patrick Rodgers' 2012 interview with Poster here), with a big assist from the busiest bluegrass guitar virtuoso in town, Bryan Sutton. They selected the cream of the rootsy crop to perform these 32 selections, some from the trad side of country (Lee Ann Womack, Vince Gill and Jamey Johnson, for starters), others stars of the string band realm (like Ralph Stanley, Old Crow Medicine Show and a coupla Punch Brothers) or folk and rock outliers such as John Doe.
Sutton liked the idea of applying a zoom lens by way of storytelling ballads that convey small-scale vignettes from the home front. “A lot of times history looks at the bigger conflict,” he says, “looks at the North and the South and the big generals and the big stories.”
He continues, “When you get these kind of stories — and that’s what these songs are to me, are stories and events from our nation’s history and the real people involved here — that’s the most compelling thing to me. So to hear a voice like Loretta Lynn’s assuming the character of the wife of a soldier leaving, it’s so palpable and real to me to hear her sing that and imagine that scene.”
Lynn renders the striking album opener, “Take Your Gun and Go, John,” in a steady, lilting cadence with little embellishment, sounding both resigned and resolute. Even “Dixie” veers into what Sutton describes as a “cautionary love tail” after the most recognizable verses of the song. “I think that [frame] works well for looking back on history: be careful what you get yourself into,” he says.
It would be nice, though, to hear more African-American voices represented. The Carolina Chocolate Drops — always among the canniest and brightest performers in any context — deliver a grounded liberation prophecy with crisp dignity, Taj Mahal leans into a well-known spiritual and that’s about it. But it did occur to me that a project like this might not be the most appealing prospect to many black musicians. In his writing and at last year’s Southern Festival of Books, The Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates lamented how few African-American scholars are drawn to doing work on the Civil War, and in an essay on black banjo playing in Hidden In the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, Tony Thomas explained why there’s been little space for nostalgic impulses in black music making.
I won’t dwell any longer on who’s absent from Divided & United; it’d be a shame to overlook the rich array of performances that are on here.
Sutton says he didn’t feel he should dictate to any of the singers and players what emotional tones to strike, and it’s apparent that they found lots of different ways into the material. Ashley Monroe, for example, took to the Anglo ballad “Pretty Saro” like it was her personal tale of lost love, bending her exquisitely rawboned Appalachian timbre into mournful curlicues, matched note for note on fiddle by Aubrey Haynie.
“When they sent [the song] to me, they sent me Iris Dement’s version,” says Monroe. “And I was singing the words, actually, to it. I knew exactly where it was going the whole time. Grady, my manager, said, ‘Oh, you know this one?’ And I’m like, ‘I’ve never heard it, I don’t think, in this lifetime. But apparently I do know it, because I’m singin’ it.’ So that’s another reason why I knew it was the song I should sing.”
That the East Tennessee native counts country-singing royalty like Carl Smith and, more distantly, the Carter Family among her kin, and has displayed an old-soul sensibility since her late teens, is one explanation for her instinctual ease with a mountain modal melody that feels older than the hills. It’s no accident that this isn’t the only Civil War-themed project she’s been asked to contribute to lately.
Banjo master Noam Pikelny has had a good, long time to ponder the role of music in framing historical interpretation.
“I started playing banjo right around the time that Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary came out,” Pikelny says. “That [documentary] had a profound impact on my family. We watched that, and I remember we had the sheet music of ‘Ashokan Farewell’ [a song prominently featured in it]. One of the few times that my whole family got together to play music was to try to stumble our way through ‘Ashokan Farewell,’ with my mom at the piano in the living room and my dad on the violin, and I had my banjo and my brother had his mandolin.”
On the Stephen Foster composition “Old Folks At Home,” merged with “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” an older tune of British provenance, David Grisman is the mandolinist dueting with Pikelny. The two of them apply a serene, sensitive touch to Foster’s immediately recognizable melody, and consciously work around the lyrics — lyrics that pine for “de old plantation.”
“I think there’s some fairly divisive lyrics on that,” Pikelny says. “So it was something best played as an instrumental.”
Beyond the question of who attempted to speak for whom in the writing of these songs, the question of ownership and claim-staking gets even knottier when you consider that some of them — “Battle Cry of Freedom,” for instance — were written for one side of the conflict, then adopted and adapted by the other.
“I did feel a bit of comfort in the fact that there were versions of that song for the North and the South,” says Sutton, who recorded an idyllic instrumental rendition of “Battle Cry” for the album. “That made it feel more like a national tune, more of an American-type song, hopefully, in this light. I was very conscious of that.”
Sutton’s other contribution as featured picker is the bluegrass-foreshadowing antebellum romp “Hell’s Broke Loose in Georgia.”
“That was more of an opportunity to play music that I grew up playing, that kind of sound, old-time banjos, mandolins and fiddles,” he says. [If you want to get technical, he grew up in the mountains of Western North Carolina, rather than Georgia.] “That’s who I am. Without trying to peel back too many layers of politics or apologize for my southern heritage, I know what I experienced as a kid, and that music was part of it. That’s what I know, and it’s made me who I am today musically.”
Really, though, the album is deep, thoughtful and evocative enough — in its architecture and execution — for listeners to peel back as many layers as they’re ready to, and maybe even more.
Says Sutton, “I just like the concept of telling these stories, unpacking it a little bit, digging into the nitty-gritty, the good and the bad. It’s obviously not all pretty, and I think it’s worth looking at that.”
I wouldn’t argue with that. Nor would I ignore this album.