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Sunday, September 23, 2012

folk music as entertainment and history

There's nothing more pleasing than a happy accident.  On Saturday afternoon my evening plans went awry.   Terribly awry and I was left with nothing to do that evening.  Anyone who knows me understands the only thing worse than staying home alone on a Saturday evening is staying home on Friday and Saturday night on the same weekend.  Since I was home the night before, there was no way I would not go out on this Saturday.

I decided to attend "Four Seasons, Four Years - the Civil War: A Musical Journey."  It was being presented by Caffe Lena at Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs and the material was produced by Old Songs.  

I am neither a "folkie" nor a Civil War buff, but there is no denying the credentials of those involved with this project.   An added bonus was the 11 performers who are the cream of local folk artists. It was a brilliant experience that validated my personal axiom that you never can go wrong attending something presented by people who understand and practice quality in their lives and their art.

The premise of the piece created by Andy Spence (the artistic director of Old Songs) is to tell the story of the Civil War using authentic folk songs of the era.   There is a bit of narration to set the background for the song and at other times a letter or other correspondence is read to give a personal voice to the proceedings.  For the most part the narration is short and to the point.

The result is (depending on your point of view) an entertaining night that is an insightful educational experience or an educational experience that is enormously entertaining.  Either works.

The genius of "Four Season, Four Years" is that because of the authentic music of the era it makes a powerful emotional statement.  We've all read or heard letters written by those involved in the Civil War but the songs in the show represent a more general view of what was going on.  It is not the thought of an individual about a personal experience - the songs (though written by one person) represent the feelings of the population at large.  If it didn't they wouldn't have been performed or survived.

In my mind, this defines the value of any folk art.  It is created specifically for a moment in time and like the music in this piece, clearly expresses to us - 150 years later - the sense of what people were going through - their hopes, dreams. fears and concerns.  It is extremely honest, personal and very revealing.

Enhancing the experience was the interpretive skills of the performers.  There was never the sense that the songs were performed to satisfy the taste of a modern audience.  Because everyone of the eleven performers on stage are gifted individual artists they attempted to become a person performing the material during the Civil War. In many ways this song cycle was incredible theater.

Though most of the tunes are obscure songs there are a number of familiar songs in the presentation and often it was as if you were hearing them for the first time.  "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" has a rueful tone as it signals the end of a war in which everyone lost something. In much the same way when the show closes with "Home Sweet Home" the irony is sad and touching. The rendition of"John Brown's Body" begins almost as if a community chant and evolves into a powerful anthem. 

And speaking of anthems, when the performers build the emotions of  the first act ending with "Battle Hymn of the Republic," it is easy to visualize eager young men signing oaths to die for a cause.

The second act tells of those who died for a cause they didn't understand.  While the first segment sets up the political conditions that led to the war, the second half of the show focuses on the pain, suffering and misery the conflict caused for both side.    If the show could be improved it would be during the second act to offer less detail on every major battle by exploring the the thoughts of the participants.  It might sound callous, but the truth is history has made us almost immune to the suffering of that horrible war.  For example a touching rendition of "Tenting on the Old Campground" - about soldiers retiring for the night after a horrific battle doesn't need a set up.  We get the pain of loss through the music and the lyrics.   It is beautiful and painful at the same time. And when those emotions come from the music it is powerful.

Indeed, because of the music, I left Universal Preservation Hall thinking about the Civil War in a way I had never done before.   I really didn't learn too much I didn't know already but I felt touched by the people who lived in that period in a way I never felt before.

The future of "Four Seasons, Four Years - the Civil War: a Musical Journey" is uncertain. It is a work that should not be neglected or discarded.  At the least it should be presented on every area college campus.   It's an important piece - musically and historically.  

For information on the show contact Andy Spence at Old Songs, Voorheesville, NY  765-2815,


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