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Posted April 21, 2003
Civil War Songs From the Western Border, Vol. 1
Rebel in the Woods:
Civil War Songs From the Western Border, Vol. 2
$15.00 each (CD); s&h $2.50 per order
Reviewed by G. E. Rule
It isn’t often that one gets an honest opportunity to “gush” in a review. As historians, rather than music critics, some might even question our authority to do so in this context. They will have to get over it.
There are some pretty decent versions of Civil War music available on CD; you can find examples listed in our bookstore music section. “Tucker’s War” was written mostly while listening to “I’m a Good Ole’ Rebel”, “Lay Ten Dollars Down”, “No. 292”, “Lincoln and Liberty Too”, and the like everyday. Nothing like getting in the proper mood to make the words flow.
At the same time, I was hankering for some authentic Civil War music from the Trans-Mississippi theatre in a quality format. I wanted to hear “Shelby’s Mule” and “Missouri, Bright Land of the West” sung for real, not just a tinny midi file on a well-meaning website. So I asked around and was told to check out the works of Cathy Barton, Dave Para, and Bob Dyer.
It was love at first note. The trio’s two albums of “Western Border” Civil War music are nothing short of marvelous. The first, Johnny Whistletrigger (1993), combines traditional songs with dramatic readings (from Sterling Price and John N. Edwards) and new songs as well. A well-written booklet is included to educate the listener on the history of this music and carefully identify what is traditional and which parts are new. Personal favorites from the 22 songs included on this album are “I Goes to Fight Mit Sigel”, “Johnny Whistletrigger”, “Honest Pat Murphy”, “Battle of Pea Ridge”, “Shelby’s Mule”, “The Last Great Rebel Raid” (which immediately made me wish I’d had it to listen to while writing of J. W. Tucker and his OAK buddies), and “Knot of Blue and Gray” (a hauntingly beautiful song of a sister’s love for her dead brothers –one Federal and one Confederate).
Having set the bar high with the first album, it was with some curiosity that I stuffed the second CD –Rebel in the Woods (1995)-- into my player to see if it could possibly stand up to the original. Well, damned if it wasn’t just as good; if a little shorter at 15 songs. Personal favorites from this one are “The War in Missouri in ‘61”, “Missouri, Bright Land of the West”, “The Death of General Lyon”, “Kelly’s Irish Brigade”, “Rebel in the Woods”, “The Swamp Fox”, “Daniel Martin”, “Anderson’s Warning” (here Cathy Barton took a historical letter written by Bloody Bill Anderson and fleshed it out a bit with inspiration from John N. Edwards), and “Jesse James” (a pastiche of the traditional “Ballad of Jesse James” with newer material).
A word on the three artists: Barton, Para, and Dyer. Cathy Barton has a world-class voice, and apparently is one hell of a banjo player too. Indeed, all of the instrumental work on the albums is first class, but the fiddle and banjo work stood out to my ear. Dave Para, with a pleasant and versatile voice, strikes me as the glue of this group, providing the reliable center around which the others can soar. Bob Dyer provides some of the best “new” songs (see “The Last Great Rebel Raid” and “The Swamp Fox”) with a serviceable, gravelly twang that is more than the sum of its parts –for some reason I was reminded of Burl Ives (Lord only knows what Dyer would make of that comparison!)
The production values evident in these CD’s were a pleasant surprise as well. When a group doesn’t have the resources of the major labels (read $$) behind them, one fears that the quality of the recordings will suffer. As someone who has a few CD’s of traditional American music performed by bands who were not well-funded, I am always prepared to find out that the CD will not sound as good as the group itself did live. Well, I’ve never heard Barton, Para, and Dyer live in concert, but I find it hard to believe that they could sound better than they do on these CD’s, or that the instrumentals could be any better either. There isn’t a sour note, squeaky background noise, or poor mixing anywhere to be found on these albums. Either the three had the devil’s own luck with first takes (of course, when singing about Quantrill and Anderson there are many who would be unwilling to discard this theory out of hand), or a lot of careful studio work went into presenting these songs at their best --almost certainly the latter.
Now, having completely blown whatever small reputation as a nit-picking curmudgeon I might have enjoyed as a reviewer, I can only say that anyone who has any interest whatsoever in the War in the West simply must own these CD’s. You won’t regret it.
©2003 G. E. Rule
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