At a time when the country is getting entangled more deeply into one war while it is getting itself disentangled from another, a CD collection that takes a look at some of the attitudes toward prior wars through the music of those times provides a significant historical context through which to view the attitudes of our own time. Bloody War: Songs 1924-1939 is just such a collection. The disc contains fifteen tracks, some written as early as the 1860’s, dealing with conflicts from the Civil War to the Spanish American War to World War I.
Most of the songs in the collection are early roots music, although there are a few songs that reflect a more pop sensibility. All the songs were recorded between 1924 and 1939, digitally remastered from the original 78’s, so the sound quality, while reasonable, reflects their age. This is the price one pays for authenticity, and authenticity, at least in this case, is worth it, not only for historical interest, but for some really nice picking and heartfelt vocals.
The songs reflect a variety of points of view towards war. There are laments by and for dying soldiers. Wade Mainer and the Sons of the Mountaineers’ “Not a Word of That Be Said” focuses on fraternal division during the Civil War in the voice of a soldier dying on a battlefield speaking to a brother on the other side, a brother who may well have been his slayer. “He is Coming to Us Dead,” sung by G.B. Grayson, uses a dialogue reminiscent of the Medieval ballad for a father to explain why he has come to the freight office to wait for the return of his son instead of to the passenger station. “Just As the Sun Went Down,” an 1898 composition recorded in 1936 by Zeke Morris, is a more sentimental take on the battlefield death theme as it describes the dying soldiers’ attachment to their loved ones at home.
While the implications of these songs may well suggest an anti-war sensibility, there are a couple of songs that make more direct critiques. The song that gives the album its title, sung by Jimmy Yates’ Boll Weevils, takes comic aim at the warrior mentality. This version of the song deals with the First World War and describes the problems a naïve country lad has as he is drafted into the military. Many of the verses are hoary one-liners. “Captain Won’t You Let Me Go Home,” a 1929 duet by Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarlton, is in the voice of a coward who just wants to get the hell out of the battle. “The Battleship of Maine,” by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers, is a satiric comment on the Spanish American War. “Blood was running and I was running too.”
Patriotic give ’em hell songs are not neglected. Fiddlin’ John Carson and His Virginia Reelers’ “Dixie Division” warns the enemy that the Southern Regiments are on their way to Europe, and ends with an instrumental medley introduced by “Are You from Dixie?” and including “Dixie,” “Yankee Doodle,” “Swanee,” and “There’s no Place Like Home.” “Everybody Help the Boys Come Home” by William and Versey Smith exhorts the people on the home front to do their part to help the men in uniform and points out the need to pay taxes. Ernest V. Stoneman’s “Uncle Sam and the Kaiser” uses the dialogue format to send a belligerent message.
In the end what the songs in Bloody War illustrate is that old saw, the more things change, the more they stay the same. There will always be those who see war as the answer to the problems of the world. There will always be those who object. But most terribly there will always be those that have to suffer the consequences. There always be the dying soldiers like the one in “The Faded Coat of Blue,” and there will always be those left to mourn him, whether it be the horror of the Civil War or the misery of the war in Afghanistan. The song ends most appropriately with an echo of “Taps.”
The CD is accompanied by an invaluable little brochure credited to Tony Russell describing each of the individual songs and providing information on the artists. It also points out that a portion of the proceeds from the CD will benefit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
When all is said and done, this collection reminds me of nothing so much as the best of the old Folkways collections. It is the kind of music that needs to be saved and savored. It is America’s history written with guitar and banjo, and sung with the twang of truth.