As Christopher King notes in the liner notes to this record, when most people think of war songs, or even anti-war songs, they tend to think about tunes from the Vietnam War era or perhaps even patriotic “hoo-rah” from the Second World War. But as the new anthology of Bloody War: Songs 1924-1939 on the Tompkins Square label illustrates, folk and country tunes on this topic have been a staple of American life during the last century, with roots that go back even earlier to the War Between the States and the Spanish-American War. The 15 tracks presented here offer just a snippet of this music, but one that allows the listener an understanding into the deep effects war has had on those who fought and those who stayed back home and waited for their loved ones to return.
Be forewarned: This is old-timey music remastered from scratchy recordings. Its historic value outweighs audio fidelity. But that doesn’t mean the performers lack talent as players, singers, and songwriters. The attentive listener will find much to enjoy here. And it’s not all tears and dreariness, although tracks such as the Dixon Brothers’ “The Old Vacant Chair” and G.B. Grayson & Henry Whittier’s “He is Coming to Us Dead” are as morbidly serious as their titles indicate. The humor of such tunes as Tom Darby & Jimmie Tarlton’s “Captain Won’t You Let Me Go Home” reveals the tradition that modern day folksingers like Phil Ochs later mined on songs like “Draft Dodger Rag”. And the gumption of addressing German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II as “Bill” in Ernest V. Stoneman’s “Uncle Sam and the Kaiser” in such lyrics as “C’mon, Bill / Come take your pill” to a playful harmonica melody still makes one laugh.
The topicality of such earnest sing-along tracks as William & Versey Smith’s “Everybody Help The Boys Come Home” is self-evident in the titles. Unfortunately, too many of the music’s concerns are just as true today as they were in the past. Whether the tunes here are explicitly about a specific battle from more than 100 years ago or about war in general, the themes (national aims versus personal liberty, collective responsibility versus familial duty, and personal honor versus private horror) remain constant.
The record does include some great instrumental solos, including Fiddlin’ John Carson on “Dixie” and “Swanee River” on the medley “Dixie Division” and a full-length, up-tempo version of the popular First World War ditty “Long Way to Tipperary” by Frank Hutchinson on harmonica and guitar. War might be hell, as William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, but that doesn’t mean you can’t dance to it! The songs here were originally meant to serve a variety of entertainment purposes, and not all of them are sad and serious in intent.
However, this collection does have a serious intent. A portion of the proceeds from the album will benefit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. These songs may be from our past, but this disc serves to remind us that war still has profound effect on many Americans today.