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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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge