Various Artists: Divided & United: Music from the Civil War
At 32 tracks, performed by an even greater number of pickers and singers, Divided & United is not a tidy album with a single, unifying theme, a consistent
vantage point or a particular, easy-to-pinpoint sound. Producer Randall Poster had a lot to do with that. As music supervisor for HBO’s prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire, he’s practiced ferreting out period-appropriate material.
On first listen, it may seem like disc one presents Union songs, since several on there celebrate the trouncing of Southern cities, and disc two contains music of the Confederacy, leading off as it does with a pair of tunes sympathetic toward the rebels. But it’s impossible to draw that neat of a line. There are songs that originated on one side, then were claimed by the other, songs that borrowed their stories from far removed subjects who lacked a voice—slaves in particular—and songs written by pro tunesmiths like Stephen Foster, then absorbed into the folk canon. So there’s a lot here to digest when it comes to ownership of music and memory.
The performances on Divided & United come in many different flavors of roughness, wryness and sentimentality, from the craggy, mountain-hardened austerity of Ralph Stanley’s singing to AA Bondy’s iced-over alt-rock angst, Old Crow Medicine Show’s wild-eyed, good-natured gang vocals to the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ artfully crisp narration and Lee Ann Womack’s eloquently tenderhearted trills.
All told, this isn’t a nostalgic affair. It’s as compelling a musical treatment of the Civil War as it is an unsettling one—and that seems just about right.