Mike Scott & Friends,
Home Sweet Home
(Rural Rhythm, 2013)

In this space on 20 April 2013, I reviewed the first of Rural Rhythm's planned series focused on Civil War-related music, expressing the hope that at least one disc would be devoted to genuine period tunes. God Didn't Choose Sides consists almost entirely of recently created material, albeit formed from conscientious historical research. The new, all-instrumental Home Sweet Home is 13 cuts of the more or less real stuff, plus the honorarily authentic "Ashokan Farewell" composed in the early 1980s by fiddler Jay Ungar but incorporated into the war's soundtrack via its association with Ken Burns's celebrated PBS series. (Oddly, the second word of the title is misspelled "Farwell" both on the back cover and in the sleeve notes.)

Banjoist Mike Scott is joined here by some of the current generation's top bluegrass pickers, among them Rob Ickes, Bryan Sutton, Adam Steffey, Aubrey Haynie, Tim Stafford and more. The results are, no surprise, tasteful, supple and easily up to multiple listenings. Those conversant in 19th-century American popular music will have heard the melodies, if not all in bluegrass arrangements. There was no bluegrass music in the 1860s, of course, and none until nearly a century later. But bluegrass grew out of stringband music, and these pieces -- the sturdy likes of "Turkey in the Straw," "Buffalo Gals," "Soldier's Joy" -- are stringband standards that date from the early decades of the republic.

I think, however, that till now I have never encountered "Banks of the Ohio" in an instrumental arrangement. Without the words it feels as if fundamentally altered, since the ballad derives its disturbing power from the juxtaposition of a lilting melody to a murderous psychopath's narrative. Even by folksong standards its origins are murky. It was among the first commercially recorded traditional ballads, in memorable treatments by the Blue Sky Boys (my personal favorite), Grayson & Whitter, the Monroe Brothers and others. It almost certainly was sung in the 19th century. If it matters, it less certainly existed in the 1860s.

Since so much Civil War-themed bluegrass implicitly tilts toward the Confederate side, I am pleased to find "Battle Hymn of the Republic" here instead of the expected "Dixie." Still, one wishes for a fuller statement of origins beyond "public domain" where this and the other cuts are concerned. Julia Ward Howe wrote her own lyrics to the popular "John Brown's Body," created in the spring of 1861 by two members of the Second Massachusetts Infantry Battalion to poke fun at a sergeant who bore the same name as the anti-slavery martyr. The melody was set to the hymn "Meet Us on Canaan's Happy Shore." According to Christian McWhirter's Battle Hymns (2012), Howe's lyrics were little sung during the war because even Northerners, or a fair number of them anyway, disdained its Abolitionist sentiments.

"Camptown Races" and "Angeline the Baker" (a fiddle tune based on his "Angelina Baker") ought to be credited to Stephen Foster. "Bonaparte's Retreat" is not the one that would have been played in the 1860s; it's the one Pee Wee King reworked for his 1950 country hit, often covered since. A bona-fide period version here would have been more appropriate and interesting, surely.

Still and all, this is a nicely done, enjoyable record. And maybe, if you're unfamiliar with contemporary revivalist versions assembled in something closer to period style, Home Sweet Home -- a popular song dating to the early 1800s, by the way, and performed all through the century -- will be a place to begin your musical archaeology.

music review by
Jerome Clark

13 July 2013

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