It's not the most comfortable thing for a a pinko-leftie Berkeleyan to admit, but war has always fascinated me. Throughout my life I have consistently been drawn to military themes and imagery, be they in history, in fiction, or in music. This interest has been met with puzzlement by many, and I've long struggled to explain my interest.
To some degree this can be justified as merely a function of the literature major's inherent fascination with conflict, the driving force behind all narrative and much of poetry as well. What is war, after all, but conflict brought to its greatest extreme?
It's also just, well, everywhere. My training in both music and literary criticism have heightened my awareness of patterns, and once you've noticed one allusion to war it's difficult not to see how ubiquitous they are. And is it any wonder? Whether celebrated or condemned, war has been a part of the human experience for as long as there have been humans (and, if our observation of chimps is anything to go by, probably before). Although there is almost nothing more dehumanizing, arguably, there is also nothing more human.
While thinking about how to describe my low-key obsession, I found resonance in the opening verse of this song by Chris Brashear:
Our family is proud of its lost soldier son
Not because they believe in the flag or a gun.
They miss him because they remember him well
And love him so dearly for the day that he fell.
War has always fascinated me, not out of patriotism or an interest in violence, but because of its capacity as both a component of and a context for the human condition.
It should come as no surprise that I've been planning this edition of Bluegrass Signal for a long time. I think it was Laurie Lewis's song "Return to the Fire" that initially put the idea in my head; I wanted to build a show in which Laurie's powerful unaccompanied singing wouldn't get lost in a sea of banjo-driven cheating songs. A few years later, I came across Mark Kilianski's song "The Blue Sky Ain't No Friend of Mine," a Woody-Guthrie-esque meditation on modern warfare and its costs. I immediately threw both tracks into a playlist in iTunes labelled "Soldiers and War," and the program grew from there. Some contributions were solicited, but many just fell into my lap over many months of listening. The collection spans over at least three hundred years of songs about soldiers, with contemporary songs like Mark's, Laurie's, and Chris's alongside ballads written during the Civil War and some even earlier. When I saw that the 99th anniversary of Armistice Day, the official end of WWI, was to fall on a Saturday, I felt the time was ripe to finally pull the trigger (pun intended) on this program.
In preparation for the Veterans Day show, I did a ton of research, not so much on the recordings as on the songs themselves: when they were written, by whom and about which war. Many fascinating patterns emerged in what is, I hope, a compelling program. As usual, only a fraction of my research and observations made it onto the air--hence, this supplementary blog. In this case I've opted to split the commentary up into several posts. I'll try to get as much of my commentary out as possible while the show is archived. In the meantime, let this post (and the playlist below) serve as a teaser for this Saturday's Veterans Day Edition of Bluegrass Signal!
To stream the show live online, visit KALW.org between 6:30 and 8 pm Pacific, Saturday November 11th. The show will be archived until Saturday November 18th; to listen to the archive, click here and then select "Bluegrass Signal."
VETERANS DAY - 11/11/17
STANLEY BROTHERS: Soldier's Grave/What A Friend We Have In Jesus (King/66)
DON RENO & RED SMILEY: Military Five String/The Very Best Of (Dot/64)
BILL MONROE: Rotation Blues/Bluegrass 1950-1958 (Decca/51)
THE BUCKING MULES: The Soldier And The Lady/Smoke Behind The Clouds (Free Dirt/17)
TIM O'BRIEN: Pretty Fair Maid In The Garden/Fiddler's Green (Sugar Hill/05)
TOM, BRAD, & ALICE: Fair Beauty Bright/Carve That Possum (Copper Creek/05)
RHIANNON GIDDENS: Julie/Freedom Highway (Nonesuch/17)
ANNA & ELIZABETH: Goin' Across the Mountain/Anna & Elizabeth (Trade Roots Music Group/15)
THE BLUE GRASS CARDINALS: Blue-Eyed Boston Boy/Welcome To Virginia (Rounder/77)
THE COUNTRY GENTLEMEN: Two Little Boys/25 Years (Starday/62)
THE WALLER BROTHERS: Faded Coat of Blue/The Old Photograph (Strictly Country/08)
PHARIS & JASON ROMERO: The Dying Soldier/A Wanderer I'll Stay (Lula/15)
RED ALLEN: Purple Heart/Keep on Going: The Rebel & Melodeon Recordings (County/66)
PIEDMONT MELODY MAKERS: Some Old Day/Wonderful World Outside (self/16)
THE STANLEY BROTHERS: Pray For The Boys/King 1961-1965 (King/66)
DEL MCCOURY: Take Me To The Mountains/Classic Bluegrass (Rebel/94)
CHRIS BRASHEAR: Lost Soldier Son/Wanderlust (Copper Creek/99)
MOLSKY'S MOUNTAIN DRIFTERS: Between The Wars/Molsky's Mountain Drifters (Tree Frog/16)
HOOT AND HOLLER: The Blue Sky Ain't No Friend of Mine/Reasons To Run (self/16)
LAURIE LEWIS: Return to the Fire/Blossoms (Spruce and Maple/09)
GINNY HAWKER: My Warfare Will Soon Be Over/Letters From My Father (Rounder/01)