Jerry Silverman (book),
Wayne Ebersen (CD),
Ballads & Songs of the Civil War
(Mel Bay, 1993)

The American Civil War has always fascinated me -- from an old TV series back in the '60s whose name I cannot recall to the amazing Civil War series on TV in recent years. It was a bloody struggle and like all civil strife it affected everyone, young, old, black, white, North and South.

It was also perhaps one of the last conflicts, before the full impact of mass media, to depend on the oral tradition to tell its tales. Nowhere are these tales better told than in this Mel Bay set of book and CD. Each can stand alone but in combination they are a rare treasure.

The CD has 14 tracks and as I say so often, the short description of each song and the origins are a bonus that should be on every album published. Musically there are all the old favourites of the era: "Cumberland Gap," "John Brown's Dream," "Lorena" and "Dixie's Land," to name but a few. The songs and tunes are well performed and have an authentic feel with instruments like fiddles, Jew's harp, washboard, tambourines, spoons and guitars.

I particularly liked "Just Before the Battle, Mother" dating from 1862. Apparently it was a favourite on both sides and graced many a campfire before young men went out to die.

The value of such albums is illustrated by "Southern Soldier," which is a folk song passed by word of mouth until collected in 1937.

The book is another treasure. In 272 pages it documents I don't know how many songs, which could otherwise be so easily lost. There are musical notations and alternate words -- the North and South often used the same song to tell different stories. There are also background notes on the songs, tunes adapted for the tunes and the composers. In addition it is widely illustrated with photographs of the period.

If you like good music, history, social comment or some political satire, this is the set for you.

[ by Nicky Rossiter ]
Rambles: 20 August 2001

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