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'Divided & United's' Civil War music bridges eras

The two-CD set 'Divided & United' featuring the likes of Loretta Lynn, Ashley Monroe, Taj Mahal and John Doe commemorates the conflict but delivers a nod to today's polarization.

November 02, 2013|By Randy Lewis

This post has been updated. See note below for details.

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.

Civil War-era songs: An article in the Nov. 3 Calendar section about the CD set "Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War" said Woody Guthrie took the melody of the song "Hobo's Lullaby" from "Just Before the Battle, Mother." "Hobo's Lullaby," recorded and popularized by Guthrie, was written by Goebel Reeves. —

"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."

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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?"

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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.

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