Many of the songs on “Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War” had been long relegated to the dustbins of history before executive producer Randall Poster decided to pair the 19th century tunes with contemporary artists such as Ashley Monroe and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
But beyond giving fresh treatments to nearly three dozen songs and commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the project also delivers an allegory for the political polarization of the U.S. today.
“I had read a lot about it, so I wanted to cover all the various angles, both geographic and emotional angles, in terms of songs of the North, songs of the South, songs of liberation, specific battle songs,” said Poster, a music supervisor for, among many others, the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” the 2012 feature film “Moonrise Kingdom” and the 2010 film”Country Strong.” “Then there was the trove of sentimental pieces of love and loss, family at home, soldiers who were away from their families.”
Most of the artists on this two-CD set are country, bluegrass and folk musicians, with a few from other genres, notably John Doe of L.A. punk band X, veteran blues musician Taj Mahal and Jefferson Airplane founding member Jorma Kaukonen. The participants also include veterans Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury as well as young Turks Jamey Johnson and Shovels & Rope.
Several of the songs covered have been passed on from generation to generation, from the Confederate anthem “Dixie” to Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” to the folk-country classic “Wildwood Flower.” Some have morphed into new guises, notably “Aura Lee,” the haunting ballad of separated lovers that became “Love Me Tender” in the hands of Elvis Presley.
“Just Before the Battle, Mother/Farewell, Mother,” sung here by Steve Earle, is clearly the source of the melody that Woody Guthrie appropriated for his “Hobo’s Lullaby.”
Lee Ann Womack, in whose kitchen the idea first came up when Poster was spending time in Nashville working on “Country Strong” in 2010, sings “The Legend of the Rebel Soldier,” in which an imprisoned Confederate soldier who knows he’s going to die in a Yankee jail without seeing home, asks a visitor, “Oh Parson, tell me quickly, will my soul pass through the Southland?”
The emotions of participants and bystanders during war expressed in many of the “Divided & United” songs are not, of course, limited to individual battles, states or even a single war.
“Great music really is timeless,” Womack said. “These things have a way of living on and on. Regardless of whether you actually lived through the Civil War, the emotion and pain in these songs is still there.
“I was listening to the rest of the CD, and when the Loretta Lynn song came on, it blew me away,” Womack said, referring to “Take Your Gun and Go, John,” an exhortation from a wife to her husband to do his part in the war, including this line: “Don’t fear for me or the kids, dear John, I’ll care for them, you know.”
“It reminded me,” Womack said, “that this is what music is supposed to do: take you somewhere, educate you. You can almost hear Loretta saying, ‘Honey, sit down, I’m gonna tell you a story.’ It’s beautiful.”
For those who wrote, sang or heard these songs 150 years ago, they were anything but simple entertainment.
“This violent revolution touched every aspect of American life, including popular culture,” historian Sean Wilentz writes in an accompanying essay. “In music, familiar songs, some made famous by the blackface minstrel stars of the day, offered courage and consolation, but in a new, and sometimes grueling, emotional key. … Brand new songs, which were sometimes rewritten versions of old ones, stoked patriotic fervor and recorded terrible battles, while they registered the range of feelings from anguish to triumphant glee. Thereafter, American song would never sound the same.”
To wrangle nearly three dozen songs and performers, Poster essentially delegated production of several of the tracks to other collaborators, including Nashville studio ace Bryan Sutton and L.A.-based producer-songwriter-singer Joe Henry, both of whom have their own tracks in addition to those they produced.
Henry handled the musicians based in California, including Doe — who has long nurtured an appreciation for vintage folk, country and blues when he isn’t busy thrashing his electric bass with X — and Chris Hillman, a founding member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Stephen Stills’ Manassas and the Desert Rose Band, among other groups.
Hillman chose to sing Foster’s anguished “Hard Times” a song that had a significant resurgence in the pop music world in the 1980s when Bruce Springsteen, Nanci Griffith, Jennifer Warnes, James Taylor and numerous others revisited it on records or in concert.
“I’m somewhat of a Civil War buff,” said Hillman, 68. “It was an unbelievable moment in the history of this country. I love history, but the Revolutionary War I’m not as up on, and it didn’t resonate for me as much as the Civil War. There were so many layers of things going on. I didn’t realize until about 10 years ago that [Abraham] Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and had done so many illegal things at the time. What this album does for me is it retells the story. So much of the music carries a semblance of a look back and keeps it alive.”
Keeping a bygone era alive doesn’t happen without its challenges.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a historically astute band that has delved into 19th and early 20th century African American music since forming almost a decade ago, recorded “Day of Liberty.” As written, the song includes references to “darkies,” “whitey” and “massa” that presented a historical and ethical dilemma as the Chocolate Drops tackled song that joyfully anticipates the promise of freedom Lincoln and the Union Army held out for slaves.
“You don’t want to sanitize it,” lead singer Rhiannon Giddens said, “but you also don’t want it to distract from the overall message of the song. In this case, we changed it because we didn’t want the language to become the focal point. It was pretty easy because it was just a word here and a word there.”
That’s part of the broad spectrum of perspectives and emotions Poster set out to capture in “Divided & United.”
Poster also wanted to tacitly salute many of the influential musicians who have kept this music alive through the century and a half since the Civil War, from country’s pioneering Carter Family in the 1920s and ’30s to the Country Gentlemen in the ’50s and ’60s through progressive country and roots musicians including David Grisman and the Grateful Dead. Many songs those acts recorded were among those selected for “Divided & United.”
Ashley Monroe sings “Pretty Saro,” the lament of a poor young man saying farewell to his love, who abandons him for a “freeholder who owns a house and land.”
“With a lot of these songs you actually felt what that person was writing,” said Monroe, 27. “They weren’t thinking about ‘This needs a bridge’ or ‘Where’s the chorus here?’ They simply, exactly expressed what they were feeling and put to a beautiful melody. Those are the ones that endure.”
In some respects, songs are more revealing even than original newspaper accounts, diaries or first-person accounts of battles.
“The songs that come out of that era are the most reliable history we have,” producer Henry said. “Songs are fluid the way the world is fluid. It’s one thing to document events with names and dates. But it’s quite another to document a time and an emotional landscape in song.”
And for Henry, as with several other of the “Divided & United” participants, the modern-day relevance is clear. It’s mere coincidence but hardly irrelevant that the album is surfacing so recently after partisan bickering in Washington, D.C., resulted in a partial government shutdown for 16 days.
“We’re still involved in a civil war, one that feels more pronounced than at almost any time in my adult life,” he said. “Sadly, it feels incredibly resonant to be revisiting in any way such a divisive time in the nation’s history.
“We’re not looking at it through the lens of nostalgia but through the lens of affirmation,” he said. “We’re not nearly evolved as a country as we advertise ourselves to be.”