Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil WarPurchase 1865 at:
Four a cappella voices making divine music: This has been the heart of Anonymous 4's mission for nearly three decades. And as the group bids farewell this season, they're saying goodbye in a poignant way — with the release of an album that couldn't feel more timely. It commemorates the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction.
1865 — subtitled Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War — is the third release in what's become an Americana triptych from this quartet (less anonymously, Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek).This time around, they're joined by an excellent old-time musician, Bruce Molsky, who sings and plays fiddle, banjo and guitar. It's an organic collaboration, but the combination also evokes a specific dynamic: women tending the homefront, men on the battlefield. And as in their two previous releases of American songs, American Angels and Gloryland, the singing is gorgeous, with deep, sweet feeling. By the time "Abide with Me" and "Shall We Gather at the River" roll around at the close of this album, it's quite possible you'll be sniffling.
One hundred and 50 years on, there are still a few songs whose tunes and ideas remain familiar, including Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More," published in 1854, and Robert Lowry's 1864 "Shall We Gather at the River?" Another, the 1861 love song "Aura Lee," found new life in another context altogether, as the melody for one of Elvis Presley's biggest hits, "Love Me Tender." But some have largely receded from popular memory; if some of today's alt-folkies are looking for "new" material, there's plenty here.
It's nearly impossible to overstate how important singing was during the Civil War, not just for those waiting back home but to the fighting men as well. Songwriters raced to churn out thousands of new tunes and publishers created small booklets of lyrics, called "songsters," that soldiers and civilians could carry in their pockets. Some were abolitionist songs, some were Southern and in many, words were switched out to favor one side or the other.
But as Anonymous 4 mention in their liner notes, there are many wartime accounts of opposing soldiers, in their camps pitched across a battlefield or river from each other, trading songs back and forth in succession and even raising their voices together. In the present days of deep rifts and political enmities — hard times, to be sure — it's good to remember what has the power to bind us together.
-- Anastasia Tsioulcas, 1/4/2015
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Anonymous 4 won a deservedly stellar reputation from their performances and recordings of medieval music, and achieved similar acclaim for their first two forays into American music: American Angels and Gloryland. The latest, 1865, concentrates on a handful of the many songs associated with or inspired by the Civil War.
That war inspired enough music to shift our national musical identity away from the Irish melodies that dominated a few decades earlier. The rise of minstrelsy in the mid-19th century contributed an overlapping strand. Stephen Foster contributed to both, and his “Hard Times Come Again No More” gets a five-part setting that brings out the rich beauty of this seemingly simple tune.
It makes the performance all the more pleasant to listen to, although I have to get used to the lack of any rough edges—and that’s only because I’ve had frequent exposure to much of this material as sung in my neighborhood (a bunch of us get together monthly to sing) and by the reenactors who populate the region.
As soon as Bruce Molsky’s banjo is heard—it happens on track two, “Darling Nelly Gray”—the fabric of the collection changes, and it’s just the right addition. Molsky joins the quartet in vocal harmony, adds fiddle at times, and even takes a vocal solo on “Bright Sunny South,” accompanying himself on banjo, summoning the spirit of Dock Boggs in the leanness of the performance.
The shifting textures also are magnificent. “Aura Lee” is a solo sung by Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek to Bruce Molsky’s guitar, with Molsky joining in on the refrains. “Sweet Evelina” alternates between two-part (verse) and four-part (refrain) harmony, all unaccompanied.
And the repertory is excellently chosen. “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground” benefits from a straightforward, a cappella performance, letting the lyrics twist the knife. “Listen to the Mocking Bird” was the best known of Septimus Winner’s “Alice Hawthorne” songs (so credited because they sold better when thought to be the work of a female writer) and deserves better recognition than the farcical treatment it typically receives. Maybe this recording will help.
Other highlights are “The True Lover’s Farewell” sung by Marsha Genensky and Molsky, the almost-too-poignant-to-be-believed “Faded Coat of Blue,” a reminder that nothing puts a song across like passionate sincerity; Molsky’s voice and fiddle and “Brother Green,” and the most popular of all the Civil War songs, “Home, Sweet Home,” a perfect fit for the Anonymous 4 voices (Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek).
“Shall We Gather at the River?” asks the final song, and my suggestion is to gather wherever this ensemble take this program during their current tour. They’ve promised that they’re nearing the end of their performing career in this configuration, and are doing so at the height of their game.
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Discography:   Three Decades of Anonymous 4 1865 Marie et Marion love fail The Drop That Contained the Sea Secret Voices
The Cherry Tree Four Centuries of Chant Gloryland Noel The Origin of Fire American Angels
Wolcum Yule Darkness into Light la bele marie The Second Circle 1000: A Mass for the End of Time Legends of St. Nicholas
A Lammas Ladymass 11,000 Virgins Christmas Music from Medieval Hungary Miracles of Sant'Iago The Lily & The Lamb Love's Illusion
On Yoolis Night An English Ladymass Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light A Portrait of Anonymous 4
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