Sunday, February 6, 2011

Civil War Mixtape - Take 1

UPDATE: For the latest version of this mixtape, which fixes some broken files and changes up the list a bit, please see this post.

For years I've been in search of the perfect Civil War era music compilation. Disappointed with what I found along the way, I eventually started experimenting with making my own CD-length Civil War mixtape. It always ends in frustration as I end up being miserably unhappy with the results. Though I've since given up on the whole perfection thing (part of growing up, right?), anthologizing/mixtaping is nonetheless a surprisingly difficult art. My attempts at establishing parameters is usually one of biggest snags. Do I only include songs that can be absolutely verified to have existed during the Civil War? And what about the instruments and playing styles? Must they be also confirmed as absolutely accurate? I admit, this is a terribly neurotic way at approaching the task.

The Smithsonian Folkways album, Back Roads to Cold Mountain significantly changed my way of looking both at this mixtape project and at Civil War music in general. It's a ghostly collection, brilliantly compiled by musicologist (and former New Lost City Rambler) John Cohen and Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier. Many of the songs in it eventually made it into the movie, covered by a number of artists, including musician/actor Jack White of the White Stripes. Cohen and Frazier undoubtedly took some liberties in assembling this album, but it really got me thinking about what constitutes "authentic," particularly when it comes to studying a period that pre-dates recorded music. Many purist students of Civil War music, whose research is indispensable, won't consider something true Civil War music unless it can be verified in period sheet music and instructional songbooks. Such is the duty of a respectable scholar. But what if we go about this as informed artists? It gives us a little wiggle room, to be sure, but this is not just a lazy man's way out. I believe imagination is vital to the understanding of the Civil War. It would be foolish to assume that colloquial musicians of the period were all learning from books. Many people learned then as they did a century later, in the heyday of Appalachian field recordings--by a combination of oral, passed-on tradition and the occasional bit of improvisation. There's no way of knowing for certain what music sounded like that far back in the telephone game, which is where imagination comes into play.

So here's my disclaimer: this is not at all an attempt at collecting fully authentic Civil War music. Most of the songs here definitely existed at the time of the Civil War. I've certainly more than filled in some gaps. I've also added a bit of literature to the mix, including a wax cylinder recording, supposedly of Walt Whitman himself, and a turn-of-the-century recording of an excerpt from Uncle Tom's Cabin. These recordings date from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century. You may find some of them to be strange or even hard to listen to. This is a compilation inspired by the American Civil War, after all. Comfort is a cop out.

This is still a work in progress, so any feedback will be more than appreciated. In the meantime, tilt back your slouch hat, kick off your brogans, and prepare to be rocked in the cradle of the deep:

Download: Spring of '65

1) French Carpenter - "Camp Chase"
2) J.D. Cornett - "Spring of '65"
3) Walt Whitman - Excerpt from "America"
4) Thomas Alexander (37th NC veteran) - Rebel Yell
5) Glen Faulkner - "Short-Cycle Blues Pattern)
6) Camptown Shakers - "Ol' Dan Tucker"
7) Clifton Hicks - "Going Across the Mountain"
8) Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton - "And Am I Born to Die (Idumea)"
9) Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham - "Fall on my Kness"
10) Len Spencer and Company - Excerpt from Uncle Tom's Cabin
11) Hobart Smith - "Cuckoo Bird"
12) Bob Holt - "John Brown's Dream"
13) Frank C. Stanley - "Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep"
14) Bob Flesher - "Jim Along Josie"
15) Seán Ó Riada & Le Celtóirí Chualan With Darach Ó Catháin - "Ag Scaipeadh Na gCleití"
16) Carolina Chocolate Drops - "Dixie"
17) Texas Gladden - "Two Brothers"
18) Wayne Erbsen - "Southern Soldier Boy"
19) Jim Taylor - "Getting Out of the Way of the Federals/Run, Rebel, Run"
20) 16 Horsepower - "Wayfaring Stranger"
21) Seneca Indians - Funeral Chant
22) Dillard Chandler - "The Soldier Traveling From the North"
23) Buell Kazee - "The Dying Soldier (Brother Green)"
24) Frank Kittrell - "Want to Go to Meeting"
25) Woody Guthrie - "Buffalo Gals"
26) Oscar Parks - "The Battle of Stone River"
27) John McCormack - "Kathleen Mavourneen"


  1. Lovely compilation, which I'll be sharing with a few like-minded friends here (Winnipeg). I'd be interested to know why you chose "Spring Of '65" for the link-name. I've always been fascinated by that tune and recently recorded a version using Appalacian instruments.

  2. Thanks, Roldo. It is a fascinating and mysterious ballad. I chose to name the mix "Spring of '65" because the song of that name seems to speak of a thing (namely, the war) without ever directly stating it. I admire this quality in any form of art, and it's something to which I've aspired here and elsewhere. As for the song itself, I really think it hints at what a lot of what veterans encounter in dealing with returning home after surviving a war. It is likely, however, that the "spring of '65" reference may be an alteration to previous versions of the tune. The entry in Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle's extensive Traditional Ballad Index ( is worth a read.

    The only other rendition I've encountered is by The Holy Modal Rounders. I would love to hear your version.

  3. That's easily done - here it is
    and I hope you like it.

  4. My God. I think I found my new favorite blog. This is amazing stuff! Thank you.

  5. Awesome song, Roldo--thank you for sharing. Fittingly trippy, sorrowful and joyous at the same time.

    JV, thanks for your comment. Glad you like it!

  6. Brendan -
    Truly a wonderful effort. I have one problem tho - track 12 John Brown's Dream by Bob Holt is a locked iTunes track and is unplayable.
    Thanks again for what obviously is a labor of love and shows it!

  7. Brendan,
    Sorry, make that 12 and 19...

  8. Dang. Thanks for letting me know. I lost track of where I got all these. I've been meaning to do a Take 2 anyway. I'll have to replace those. I was also thinking of doing a more CW-appropriate Tommy Jarrell/Fred Cockerham tune. Any other suggestions?