There’s a simple dislocation between the form and content of the traditional war songs contained on this landmark release and the subjects they’re addressing: generally speaking the horror of the depicted events is subsumed inside an ironic register, the songs becoming something like a direct correlate for a soldier’s coping mechanism. They both belong to that emotional heroic rhetoric of war propaganda and yet subtly sidestep it. The songs here are rambunctious and funny instead of maudlin and gloomy, inclusive instead of introspective – made to be sung at the end of the day, a useful collective misremembering of the events. The songs here might also be said to act as a kind of buffer zone between the protagonists and the listeners – these (however superficial) gentle portrayals of army life and war protect the intended listener, be that listener a loved one or a future soldier. There’s also a naïveté to most of them that seems impossible from this distance (‘never such innocence again’), but it’s a naïveté that masks a world of knowledge most of us (thankfully) just don’t have access too.
The songs on this release from Tompkins Square, produced by Grammy Award winning Chris King with some excellent in-depth liner notes from Tony Russell, are versions of songs written as far back as the American Civil War, and also include responses to the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the First World War. A good portion of these versions haven’t been heard on record since they were first released back in the 1930s – something abundantly clear when you hear the degraded quality of the recordings. Sonically, these tracks wear their age; like they’re being played for eternity on some distant frontline and we’re merely listening to a buckled echo. This only adds to the gravity of the songs’ individual and collective impact.
‘Army Mule in No Man’s Land’, is a good marker for the tracks contained on Bloody War. It was written in 1918 by Will E. Skidmore and Marshall Walker and re-recorded here by Coley Jones (in Dallas in 1927). It comes from beneath a goodly fuzz of crackle and comically recounts the life of an African American muleteer in the First World War. It’s a tragic tale with the tragedy scoured out and replaced with an ironic sigh – the only possible response (besides being sectioned) to the horrors of the frontline. ‘He Is Coming To Us Dead’ an 1899 composition, re-recorded here by GB Grayson, a blind singer and fiddle player, recounts a shattering story of a dead soldier’s body being returned to his mother and father. Somehow though the overwhelming ‘feeling’ of the song is jaunty and feelgood, Grayson re-telling the tale as if it were at a hoe-down. ‘Johnnie Get Your Gun’ (which has been reworked many times, even appearing as a distant ghost in Metallica’s ‘One’) is similarly a ragged stomp of a song. The disconnect is startling.
Not to say that there aren’t moments of pure emotion here, ‘The Faded Coat of Blue’ for instance (recorded by Buell Kazee who appeared on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music) is a shatteringly beautiful rendition of a song first recorded in 1865; but the general tone is one of uplift and buoyancy. After listening to it a few times I wondered if there’s anything like a modern day equivalent to these songs? Or if there’s even an avenue for soldier’s songs beyond the mawkish ‘songs for our boys’ style events we’ve been subjected to recently? These staged events have tipped beyond irony to some other awful place – simulacrums of emotional involvement that don’t have half the wit or empathy of recordings such as these. Bloody War is a brilliantly conceived collection, and put together with real care and attention. Thank the lord for labels like Tompkins Square.