A bandmember at the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images
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"The singing war": how the American Civil War created a whole new style of music

It was not just a huge body of songs that emerged but a whole musical style that was markedly non-European.

Music of the American Civil War
BBC Radio 2

A two-part documentary marking the 150th anniversary of the end of the American civil war described the conflict as “punctuated by music, represented by music and remembered by music” (2 and 9 June, 10pm). The sheet-music industry responded so vigorously to the battles and massacres over those four catastrophic years (in which more than half a million people died) that it quickly became known as “the singing war”, and songs such as “The Battle Cry of Freedom” and “John Brown’s Body” were frequently mentioned in contemporary newspaper reports.

The most popular theme in lyrics? Love of one’s mother. Generic songs about loss and mourning such as “The Vacant Chair” (“We shall meet, but we shall miss him . . .”) were pushed and embraced in both the North and the South, but there are many examples of regimental and brigade bands loudly trying to outplay each other across (sometimes absurdly close) enemy lines, men from opposing sides singing their very different versions of the same song in a rising, tragicomic cacophony.

Paper was blockaded, and so less sheet music exists from the Confederates (though their flag, as we saw in the fallout from the Charleston shootings, still looms large). But buglers, drummer boys, drills, marches – scarcely a moment of the day on both sides wasn’t structured in some way around music. And because so many soldiers played instruments in camps, continually swapping techniques, it was not just a huge body of songs that emerged but a whole musical style that was markedly non-European.

All of this was narrated by Kris Kristofferson (with contributions from various musicians and historians of country and blues) in the most unshowy, tamped-down way that made me think of how terribly fond of him I used to be when he was an occasional, puppy-fatted actor in films such as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. He seemed so sweet then, not trying to project anything in particular, just easy smiles and growth-spurt limbs; double-chinned, big-headed and a little bit out of shape. There was something definitively free about him. Unfenced and cool. Here he was with that same Billy the Kid voice – just a relaxing choice of presenter, telling it straight.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State