The American Civil War was a brutal, bloody struggle, pitting North against South and brother against brother. It literally tore the country in two. But the set list was great.
Old Songs’ presentation of “Four Seasons, Four Years – The Civil War: A Musical Journey” brings the songs and sounds of the Civil War back to life without stinting on the truth, the tragedy and the horror.
Ken Burns famously fused folk music with history in his PBS “The Civil War” series, but “Four Seasons, Four Years” creator Andy Spence (whose great-grandfather fought for the Union) has truly brought the war home by focusing on New York State sources.
Selections from letters, historical papers and soldier’s diaries are read between the musical passages, creating a seamless flow of narration and song. In fact, at the program’s debut weekend in November, sold-out audiences at Old Songs’ Voorheesville homebase were asked to hold applause until the end of each half, in order to allow an uninterrupted telling of the tale.
What telling! What a tale! And what applause when patrons were finally able to express their appreciation.
Spence – who is also Artistic Director of Old Songs – has assembled an unbelievable cast for “Four Seasons, Four Years,” made up of musicians who have long associations with the organization.
Adirondack legend Dan Berggren serves as chief narrator, and his preacher’s voice fits perfectly with the material. Reggie Harris reworks traditional Spirituals as though they were Philly pop songs. And John Roberts adds an Englishman’s perspective to the battle.
But they are only three of eleven, rounded out by Greg Artzner, Terry Leonino, Steve and Besty Fry, Toby Stover, Susan Trump, Bill Spence and George Wilson.
All of the above offered solos as well as joining in with others for specific tunes. And while Berggren served as a sort of emcee, the narration passed through many lips as well.
With Old Songs, the audience is as much the star as anyone on stage and in November, many sang along, with a single voice rising up into the rafters.
“Go Down Moses,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Give Us A Flag,” “Oh Freedom,” “Home Sweet Home.” These were just of the few of the songs shared.
As noted, the Civil War – despite its darkness – offered a previously undreamt of musical richness, not least because it marked the real advent of American songwriting. Composers like Stephen Foster, George F. Root and Dan Emmett were relentlessly fusing parlor songs, minstrel music and classical themes into new forms. And the oral traditions of the Spirituals were in flux, as slaves buried coded messages into their hymns, signifying, for example, a route out of the South with “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”
Spence’s text, gathered from such potent sources, puts the music in its original context, and given the local origins of that text, it sometimes made the program almost emotionally overwhelming.
“Four Seasons, Four Years” is an amazing effort perfectly timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Someone needs to get PBS on the phone and get this program to the wider audience it deserves.
Review by Mr. Eck