Anne and Ridley Enslow Curate the Civil War Through Music
In their albums When Johnny Comes Marching Home and Music for Abraham Lincoln, musicians and historians Anne and Ridley Enslow deliver a powerful gift to anyone interested in the Civil War’s cultural history. The former CD provides a more general approach to this often-overlooked subject, while the latter focuses more on the mythology and public sentiment surrounding our nation’s 16th president. The liner notes in both albums treat each track as a separate artifact and do an excellent job examining each song’s cultural context. Without this commentary, it would be difficult to fully appreciate not only the historic importance but also the aesthetic life of each song. The Civil War witnessed a tremendous outpouring of music. The Enslows provide a refreshing look at some of the mindsets and ideologies that helped sustain the war on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.
When Johnny Comes Marching Home begins with a warmly rendered arrangement of “The Battle Cry of Freedom”— my one complaint is that the vocals seem overenunciated throughout, though, granted, this is perhaps a nod to the conventions of the time. The North conceived of itself as a liberator, and the album demonstrates how necessary that stance was to rally popular support for the war. Two tracks later, “Get Off the Track” picks up the pace, with Linda Russell as lead vocalist (on both albums her lower range brings life to any song she touches). This song is a jumping piece of Appalachian-style rabble-rousing, written during the war by the Hutchinson Singers, whose goal was to raise support for the abolitionist cause. The cause of freedom is argued in a variety of styles that would have spoken to different classes and geographic locales; the folk dance sensibility of the Hutchinson Singers, for example, is a far cry from the stately “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which appears at the end of the album.
There was also a need to address the pain and turmoil that so many people faced during the war. “Weeping, Sad and Lonely,” about a wartime wife struggling not to give up hope, reminds us of the war’s cost. The shared experience of grief transcended the conflict’s boundaries. As such, both albums leave you with contradictory feelings, since the biggest hits of the times were either songs that rallied support for the cause of war or songs that mourned war’s inevitable consequences.
On Music for Abraham Lincoln the two real standout tracks are “Funeral March to the Memory of Abraham Lincoln” and “Do Not Leave Me, Mother Darling.” The first contains a rich interplay of major and minor key over a constant, menacing bass; it is far more modern sounding as a result of its more complex emotional field, recalling the style of more contemporary composers. On the second, fluttering, ethereal vocals make for one of the album’s more interesting musical experiences. Overall, each album is an asset to anyone who would like to explore not only the aesthetics, but also the psychological complexity of one of America’s most turbulent periods.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.