Bloody War: Songs 1924-1939

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Bloody War: Songs 1924-1939. Tompkins Square TSQ 2479.

The tragic inevitability of war has traditionally produced great literature, theatre, art, cinema, and music. Genres of war songs are more distinct than most popular entertainment forms and each war seems to inspire a repetition of a progression that begins with patriotic "let's go to war" compositions to accompany the outbreak of war, followed by comic songs about wartime on the home-front and the life of hapless soldiers in basic training, propaganda tunes mocking the enemy, romantic ballads capturing the longing of separated lovers, and, ultimately, darkly intimate works mourning the lost and savage satires condemning the decisions to go to war in the first place. In Tompkins Square's fine single-disc collection Bloody War: Songs 1924-1939 the varied vintage country and blues artists featured perform war songs of various kinds and of earlier eras, but in this case emphasizing personal responses to the human toll of war over polemical, sentimental, or propagandistic approaches (although a few of these are included). The result is a bracing immersion in vintage sounds that otherwise is startlingly timely in content as America ends its involvement in one war and expands its engagement in another.

The fifteen tracks on this unique album, recorded in the decades between the First World War and the Second, actually encompass war songs written during several conflicts, but most particularly the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. Instead of the usual Sousa-esque brass bands or upbeat show business approach to these war songs, Bloody War: Songs 1924-1939 features comparatively little-known folk artists applying a more introspective or satiric approach within the country and blues style. As such, this set offers up unique sounds for even the most familiar compositions, as is especially evident in such chestnuts as the World War I songs "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," here performed plaintively by Frank Hutchison, and "Johnnie, Get Your Gun," sung and played with brio by Earl Johnson and His Clodhoppers.

Not surprisingly, the subject of death dominates this disc in several tracks beginning with the first, "Just As the Sun Went Down," sung to his own guitar accompaniment by Zeke Morris (recorded on 14 February 1936 in Charlotte, North Carolina). This 1898 song imagines a dying soldier on a battlefield reflecting on his love for his family. A similar approach is evident in a Civil War song, "Not a Word of That Be Said" (captured on 21 August 1939 in Atlanta, Georgia) by Wade Mainer and the Sons of the Mountaineers, which dramatizes the brother-against-brother nature of civil war as another dying soldier attempts to communicate with his brother on the enemy's side, who may have shot him. The grimmest of all is African America songwriter Gussie L. Davis's Spanish-American War-era song, "He Is Coming to Us Dead" (recorded on 18 October 1927 in Atlanta), sung by vocalist-fiddler G. B. Grayson and guitar player Henry Whitter. The song is a harrowing account of a father waiting in a train station's freight department to receive his son's body. A more elegiac tone is introduced in George F. Root's Civil War ballad, "The Old Vacant Chair," which grieves for the loss of a household's head in a Dixon Brothers vocal (recorded 23 June 1936 in Charlotte). Most moving is Buell Kazee's pithy vocal (preserved on 18 January 1928 in New York) of "The Faded Coat of Blue," which memorializes a fallen Union soldier, a song performed regularly a few decades later by The Carter Family. …

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