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Music Review: Christopher Hedge Andrew Jackson: The Atrocious Saint

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Ninety percent of the time the music for a movie soundtrack really has nothing to do with the story of the movie. Most of the time, it seems they use the music in a movie to manipulate the audience's emotions. Just in case you didn't get that a scene was supposed to be emotionally heavy, like a son returning home from war to his family, the strings swell in an attempt to pull one more tear from your eye.

On the other hand, there are the occasional movies where the composer and the director have made an effort so that instead of reflecting the emotions, the music works to reflect certain themes in the film. It still might be a little on the obvious side – look here come the Vikings and there's their theme music just in case you didn't recognize them – but at least it's not assuming you don't know when something is supposed to be happy or sad.

Once in a while though a composer will create music that is designed to reflect more than just the themes or the emotions of a movie and the music becomes another means of telling the story instead of just being an augmentation. That's the case with the music that Christopher Hedge composed for the PBS production based on the life of the American President Andrew Jackson Andrew Jackson: The Atrocious Saint. When you listen to the CD, The Atrocious Saint, you are hearing a reflection of the times portrayed in the movie.
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In order to do his job properly Hedge has brought in musicians that can reflect the various peoples who made up the population of the United States at the time. From the tribal drums that formed the basis for the music of the slaves, the Irish/Scots roots of the early settlers in the Appalachian mountains, to the sounds of the Native Americans who were displaced by the new comers. Joining him as featured performers are Titos Sompa, a drummer from the Congo; R.Carlos Nakai, one of the most renowned performers on the Native American Flute; David Grisham, of the David Grisham Bluegrass Express, on mandolin; and David Brewer playing the pipes, penny whistle, bohdran, and Irish flute of the old country. These four are joined by other musicians, including the Eighth Regimental Band from Rome, GA. supplying the needed military band, to recreate various highlights and low-lights from the life and times of Andrew Jackson.

The title of the movie, Andrew Jackson: The Atrocious Saint, comes from the contradictions that the man and his times were subject to. On the one hand, he fought for the freedom of his country and helped write the documents that have defined the rights of man for the past couple of centuries; The American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. On the other hand he owned slaves and thought nothing of ordering thousands of Cherokee people to be forced to march across America with no supplies and little chance of survival. While he proclaimed freedom for people who lived within the borders of his own country, he didn't think twice about imposing American rule upon those who might not have wanted anything to do with it, and was a firm supporter of Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine. Both of which have been used as excuses for American incursion anywhere in the Western Hemisphere as recently as the invasions of Panama and Grenada. Basically, they say it's America's Manifest Destiny to rule the Western Hemisphere, and that nobody has any business telling them what to do over here.

In 1812 the British in Canada learned that the American's meant business about this, and were barely able to repel an invasion with the aid of various Native Americans who realized they would probably be better off under British rule than American. While the British troops did successfully burn Washington DC and the first White House to the ground and defend Canada, the Americans were able to beat them in New Orleans. If General Jackson and his troops hadn't been able to make that stand, the American revolution might have come to a very quick and nasty end. For the British would have been able to seize control of all shipping travelling up the Mississippi and not only would have prevented supplies from being transported throughout the Union, would have been able to send troops all through the country and become the invaders instead of the defenders.

So it should come as no surprise to hear a certain famous bluegrass tune celebrating the defeat of the British at New Orleans in 1814 incorporated as part of the score for the movie. In fact, scattered throughout you'll hear bits and pieces of tunes that are familiar as we wend our way through history. Yet, no matter how nice it is to hear something you recognize on occasion, that's not what really distinguishes this effort. What I found most remarkable was how the music represented so many different aspects of life from the time period.

I've not seen the movie, but I can only imagine how vivid a picture this music must have been able to draw when it was joined to whatever images were being shown on the screen. Just listening to what was being played evoked strong visuals and gave you a deeper understanding of what the events being depicted might have meant to those involved at the time. The two pieces of music that I personally found most moving were Nakai's "Trail Of Tears" and Titos Sompas' "Work Song". Perhaps not being an American I identify more with the people who were run roughshod by them, but in any event they were the songs that I found most distinctive.

For "Trail Of Tears" R. Carlos Nakai sat in the studio surrounded by images of Cherokee people when they were forced to march from the hills of Tennessee over to Oklahoma and improvised the entire song. Nobody knows how many thousands of men, women, and children died on that march, and Nakai's flute is the perfect instrument to capture that sorrow. To be honest, I've never been a big fan of his playing before. I've always found it a little too insipid as compared to other flute players, but here he really taps into his emotions and delivers something brilliant.

I'm not sure how Titos Sompas was able to capture so much with so little in his "Work Song", but if you can listen to that song without gaining any understanding of how horrible it must have been to be a slave, than your heart is made of stone. I don't know any of Sompas' previous work, but after hearing his contribution to this soundtrack I'd be very interested in hearing some more.

Of course it's Christopher Hedge who is responsible for pulling all the disparate elements together into a cohesive picture and he does a remarkable job. There aren't too many people who are capable of telling a story with just music, but he has accomplished it with the soundtrack that he composed for Andrew Jackson: The Atrocious Saint. What's even more remarkable was the fact that this is completely instrumental, yet still is able to speak clearer than many a history book talking about the same subject. Movie soundtracks don't normally stand the test of time as unique pieces of music, but I think Christopher Hedge's composition will be an exception to that rule.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.