Sunday 15 February 2015

New light on old songs - a final farewell from Anonymous Four

1865 - Anonymous Four
1865 - Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War; Anonymous Four, Bruce Moltsky; Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 1 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Clarity, poise and precision in this exploration of American popular song from 1865

Anonymous Four is best known for its recordings of Medieval music, sung with clarity, poise and fine blend by four female voices (Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek). But like many such groups, their performance profile is rather more diverse than can be apparent from their recordings, including contemporary pieces and American popular song in their repertoire.

This new disc from them (their last evidently), released on Harmonia Mundi, explores American popular song from 1865, the year of the Civil War, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary. They are joined by Bruce Molsky who contributes vocals, fiddle and banjo.

Many of the songs on the disc were published in or around 1865, but some were published earlier and were simply popular during that period. Different sides in the war chose different song, but listening to them now they seem to form a stylistic continuum and no North/South divide is discernable.

Some several thousand songs were produced during the war years; songs were popular. They appeared as expensively illustrated sheet music, cheap song sheets or broadsides, whilst lyrics of popular songs were published in compendiums called songsters which were used by both soldiers and civilians.

The songs on the disc are given a variety of treatments, Some are performed in five-part close harmony (with Bruce Molsky joining the four women, to sing the lowest line), others mix voices with accompaniment from Molsky (banjo, guitar or fiddle) and in others Molsky accompanies himself. This varied approach works well in terms of providing variety, but also means that the individual members of Anonymous Four are featured as soloists as well, so a song like Aura Lea for instance is given in a lovely version with Horner-Kwiatek providing the solo, Molsky joining for the choruses as well as playing the guitar.

Some songs are well known. The opening number, Weeping, Sad and Lonely will perhaps be recognised by lovers of the musical Oh What a Lovely War as its tune re-appears there as When this bloody war is over. Abide with me, Shall we gather at the river and Home, Sweet Home need no introduction, whilst you may discover that others like Aura Lea are more familiar than you realised.

The CD booklet includes the complete texts plus an article by Marsha Genensky, plus lots of fascinating period photographs.

Bruce Molsky may be one of America's premier fiddling talents but his voice still blends nicely with those of Anonymous Four. The group sings with its familiar clarity, flexibility, pure tone and blend. Many of these songs have a strongly sentimental vain (it seems common to wartime popular songs, just think of those from World War One and World War Two). Anonymous Four's approach brings out the beauty of the music, and diffuses the sentimentality.

That said, this is a CD to dip into rather than list to from end to end. But if makes a fascinating exploration of the popular music of 1865 in superbly sympathetic performances.

Henry Tucker, Charles Carrol Sawyer - Weeping, Sad and Lonely (1863)
BR Hanby - Darling Nelly Gray (1856)
Stephen Foster - Hard Times Come Again No More (1854)
T Brigham Bishop(?) - Sweet Evelina (1863)
Traditional - Bright Sunny South
Captain CW Alexander, traditional - The Southern Soldier Boy (1859/63)
Walter Kittredge - Tenting on the Old Camp Ground (1864)
WW Fodick, George R Poulton (1861)
Alice Hawthorne (Septimus Winner) - Listen to the Mocking Bird (1856)
Traditional - Camp Chase
Traditional - Brother Green
JH McNaughton - The Faded Coat of Blue (1865)
Traditional - The Maiden in the Garden

Traditional - The True Lover's Farewell
John Howard Payne, Sir Henry Bishop - Home, Sweet Home (1823)
Henry Clay Work - The Picture on the Wall (1864)
Henry F Lyte, William H Monk - Abide with Me (1861)
Robert Lowry - Shall We Gather At the River (1865)
Anonymous Four (Ruth Cunningham, Marsh Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek)
Bruce Moltsky (fiddle, banjo, guitar and vocals)
Recorded in June, 2014 at the Concert Hall, Drew University, Madison, New Jersey
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 807549 1CD [66.51]
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