Album Review: Bloody War: Songs 1924-1936 – (Tompkins Square)

Album Reviews, Features, Music — By on September 8, 2010 9:05 pm

“War! What’s it good for? Absolutely nothin’! Good God, y’all!” The Temptations asked and answered that question, but it was Edwin Starr who made the song a hit. Springsteen covered it in 1985 on his “Born in the USA” tour, the title track of his hugely popular album, and another anti-war song.

War is hell, and like it or not it has been and always will be part the landscape of our human history. So, what is war good for? (No, not the economy, stupid!) Some pretty amazing songs, that’s what, and a taste of the average man dealing with the horrors of war — through the oral tradition of music.

Producers Christopher King and Josh Rosenthal have assembled an amazing panorama of wartime songs on Bloody War: Songs 1924-1936, spanning the Civil War, Spanish-American War, and the “war to end all wars”, World War I. Included are soldier’s laments, heart-songs, comic and patriotic tunes.

With packaging that includes period photos and art design by Susan Archie, and liner notes by country music historian Tony Russell, this anthology is a keeper. Also, a portion of the proceeds from the sale will be donated to Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA.org).

The songs pop and crackle with vinyl background noise from King’s original collection of 78-rpm recordings, and a highlight of the group of 15 songs is “Dixie Division” by Fiddlin’ John Carson, recorded in 1924. The Atlanta-based Carson made history in 1923 with The Little Old Log-Cabin In The Lane/The Old Hen Cackled And The Rooster’s Going To Crow, the first vocal recording that can be termed country music. “Dixie Division” is a booster song about Southern regiments serving in Europe during World War I, but after a few verses, Carson veers off to lead his bandmates in a medley of popular Southern tunes, most recognizable is “Suwanee.”

Other standouts are “Long Way to Tipperary” from WWI (recorded here in 1927), “The Battleship of Maine” and “Johnnie, Get Your Gun”, a rollicking and hectic string number by Earl Johnson & His Clodhoppers. Johnson, out of Atlanta, GA, was also a recording partner of “Fiddlin'” John Carson. “Army Mule In No Man’s Land” (Coley Jones, 1927) is a comic recitation about an African-American preacher-turned-muleteer in WWI, and is a folk version of the 1918 song “When I Gets Out In No Man’s Land (I Can’t Be Bother’d Wit No Mule).” It’s a fine example of black music that predates the blues. In response to tax hikes imposed on Americans during WWI, William and Versey Smith sing on “Everybody Help The Boys Come Home”, “Taxes heavy but we must pay / Helping the boys over ‘cross the sea / In the muddy water up to their knees / Facing the Kaiser for you and me.”

The title track, by Jimmy Yates’ Boll Weevils (1928) describes the comic misfortunes of a “simple” country boy: “I ran all over Europe a fightin’ for my life / Before I go to war again I’ll send my dear old wife.”

Tony Russell’s summaries and background on each song are authoritative and fascinating. This is a stellar job all around.

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