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Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Carry Me Back: "1865" in Concert

DID UNION ARMY GENERALS actually ban this song? It wouldn’t surprise me. Even a crude, campfire rendition of “Weeping, Sad, and Lonely” ought to provoke tears and regret as soldiers sang lines like “Oft in dreams I see thee lying on the battle plain/Lonely, wounded, even dying, calling out in vain.”

Anonymous 4 | Photo by Dario Acosta
As the opening number in Saturday’s concert by Anonymous 4 and Bruce Molsky, its opening strains, sung in a hymnlike four-part harmony, had an angelic cast. It sounds like an anthem of praise. Performed without amplification, the natural tones seemed to burrow into the wood surrounding us at Hamilton College’s Wellin Hall and draw out a burnished resonance.

The chorus, from which the title is drawn, added Molsky’s low voice, just enough of an ominous boost to underscore the sadness in the lyric. It’s hearts-and-flowers sentimental, as characterizes any popular song from that period, but those choruses put a knife in the heart and twist it.

The performers sang most of their most-recent recording, “1865,” and in much the same order (no need to mess with a good set list), but the difference between recorded and in-person listening is impressively different.

Don’t get me wrong: the recording is a marvel. But the concert, forcing, as it does, your complete attention, reveals the powerful nuance threaded through the selections. We came back to earth slightly with “Darling Nelly Gray,” moored by Molsky’s banjo and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek’s easygoing way with the opening verse. Again, there’s that kicker: what starts as a wistful paean to the woman of the title reveals itself, as we round into the quartet-sung chorus, as a lament for her death.

American music took on a new vitality in the 1840s as minstrelsy, that now-embarrassing, then-vital phenomenon, swept the country and boosted the popularity of Stephen Foster. In 1854 he wrote “Hard Times Come Again No More,” one of the most beautiful of his many beautiful ballads. “‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,” begins the chorus and, as Foster biographer Ken Emerson notes:
“Hard Times” is exceptional and haunting because the “sigh” is not the singer’s or his beloved’s, for a change. For once Foster was able to venture outside himself and see other people looking at him, their pinched faces pressed against the window pane.
The song began gently on Molsky’s fiddle, and if ever there’s a sound rooted in the 19th century, it’s the passionate double-stops of a violin. He sang the first verse, and then those voices came in for the chorus, those voices so nonchalant in their perfection of harmony that a sense of otherworldliness began to emerge. Could it have sounded like this in a contemporaneous parlor? Probably not – at least, probably not with so accomplished a sound, but if it sounded amateur parlor-funky, it wouldn’t have the aural transparency that opens us into the past.

Molsky met Susan Hellauer, A4's low voice, a decade ago when she sought banjo lessons. His deep involvement with the Civil War-songs project began about eight years ago, and he added not only his distinctive sound on banjo, fiddle, and guitar, but also an expressive voice equally compelling as a solo instrument and as part of the ensemble.

Bruce Molsky | Photo by Irene Young
“Bright Sunny South,” a lament from a soldier to his family as the young man goes off to way, was played and sung by Molsky. The playing was on a Civil War-style banjo, and in a clawhammer style that sounded like a 1928 Clarence Ashley recording (“The House Carpenter”) that became part of “The Anthology of American Folk Music” record collection in 1952, inspiring a new interest in traditional American stylings, and won a fresh audience with its 1997 CD release. All of which is to say that these songs, these styles have been picked up again and again as 1865 has eased away, and Molsky is the sum of those parts but with a voice of his own.

He chose the Carter Family sound as a model for “The Faded Coat of Blue,” backing the singers on guitar, with Hellauer and Marsha Genensky singing the verses with voices full of Southern inflection and the right amount of scoops and other note-shaping – and, as all joined in to sing the chorus that begins “No more the bugle calls the weary one,” the word “calls” got a deft little scoop that added to the flavor.

Most of these songs are made up of multiple verses and chorus that’s repeated. But the ensemble, which created all of the arrangements used here, varies the sound from song to song, as in “Sweet Evalina,” started by Ruth Cunningham, who was joined by the other three for the chorus, and then duetted the other three verses with Hellauer.

The Hutchinson Family Singers toured the country singing songs in four-part harmony during the 19th century, and were wildly popular. One of the members, Walter Kittredge, was drafted to fight the Civil War; by the time he was rejected for medical reasons, he’d written one of the great protest songs of its era: “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground.” Like so many others on this program, it’s a pretty-sounding song that tells a not-so-pretty story (in fact, the final chorus changes the well-known words to “dying tonight on the old camp ground”), and is the more effective for that technique.

One song that became wildly popular during the War, a paean to General George B. McClellan, was titled “Little Mac” and was published in disregard of the fact that McClellan had been dismissed from his command by President Lincoln. It was one of the few songs that Septimus Winner published under his own name, and it almost resulted in his arrest. Winner ran a music store, and it’s speculated that he published most of his songs under pseudonyms so as not to be seen plugging his own work. In any event, as “Alice Hawthorne” he issued a considerable body of work, one of the most famous of which is “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” a truly odd song – it’s an uptempo meditation on death.

With Molsky on banjo, the foursome did their magic, singing verses in unison, choruses in chiruppy harmony, and making use of the always-effective technique of singing the penultimate chorus a cappella.

The program comprised 18 songs, including a version of the popular “Home, Sweet Home” that wore no false sentiment on its tear-dampened sleeve and was therefore all the more convincing; “Aura Lee,” which persists as “Love Me Tender” but succeeded in its own right as a solo vehicle for Horner-Kwiatek against Molsky’s guitar; and all five singing, as they began the program, without accompaniment in “Shall We Gather at the River,” each long note getting its full value and shiftings of timbre that suggested the river itself. Called back to the stage, they encored with “The Land of Beulah,” more commonly known as “Angel Band,” the only song on the list not on the CD “1865" – but it’s on their earlier “American Angels” which, with “Gloryland,” are the others in their trilogy of Americana.

A concert in which unamplified voices dance their sounds upon your ears draws you in as participant. Even if you’re not singing along at the moment (and it wouldn’t have gone over well, I suspect), you’re absorbing this material in a manner no recording allows. That’s how this tradition has enjoyed so vital a life. Anonymous 4 is packing it in after their tours this year and next, so it’s going to be up to us to keep alive these glorious songs.

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