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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage