Album + Compilation
New York's Tompkins Square label is renowned for reissuing archival recordings of early 20th century Americana. Their latest release is Bloody War: Songs 1924-1939, a vivid collection of antique folk, blues and country tunes with a warfare theme.
Inspired by the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War and World War One, the songs range in style from soldier's laments to patriotic anthems, comical ditties and satirical anti-war cries. And yet despite these disparate themes, the music adopts a generally jaunty tone, even when the lyrics strike a darker pose.
This is most noticeable in the more comical, satirical pieces such as the title-track. Performed by Jimmy Yates' Boll Weevils, it sardonically recounts the saga of a hapless country boy struggling through his army service. Given the true horrors of World War One, its eye-rolling "oh bloody war" refrain evokes the blackest kind of humour.
Likewise, Army Mule in No Man's Land by black musician Coley Jones bemoans the misfortunes of an African-American preacher-turned-muleteer. "I don't mind fightin' for my Uncle Sam, but not in partnership with a mule" he sings, musically suggesting a crestfallen "little man" counterpoint to the wartime comedies of Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy.
The Battleship of Maine by Red Patterson's Piedmont Log Rollers is a bloodied anti-war hoedown. Its melody is influenced by Boll Weevil, a traditional blues duologue later covered by The White Stripes and also co-opted by Ernest V. Stoneman's Uncle Sam and the Kaiser on this collection.
The most familiar selection to non-connoisseurs is It's a Long Way to Tipperary, a favourite of British Tommies and recorded here by Frank Hutchison as a slightly manic harmonica instrumental. By contrast, the most obscure selection, Everybody Help the Boys Come Home by William and Versey Smith, is also one of the highlights. A rousing, bare-boned street duet, it's by far the bluesiest cut. Elsewhere, keening fiddles and steel-guitars prevail, particularly on poignant ballads such as Buell Kazee's Faded Coat of Blue.
Complete with illuminating sleeve notes from country historian Tony Russell, this terrific collection is of more than mere historical interest. It's an evocative and rewarding listening experience in its own right. Also note, a percentage of the proceeds from this album will go to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.