Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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SONGS OF THE CIVIL WAR (1991)

***

With Waylon Jennings, John Hartford, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, and others.
Directed by Ken Burns.
(SMV Enterprises, color, 60 mins.)

By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

The secret of Ken Burns's monumental television documentary The Civil War was that Burns let his long-dead principals speak for themselves. Of course he shaped the meaning of the letters, journals, and photographs that told his story--with editing both verbal and visual, well-orchestrated expert commentary, even evocative background music. But Burns's research was so palpably thorough that the amassed period detail took on an irresistible gravity of its own.

By comparison, Songs of the Civil War is a spinoff, a casual minisequel. This is a shame, because the Civil War was a watershed in American popular music. Over 10,000 songs were published between 1860 and 1865, and decades after Appomattox they were still being collected into best-sellers. We would have loved to hear what the correspondence of such seminal pop composers as George Root and Henry Clay Work had to say about the conflict. Failing that, more relevant quotes from combatants and their loved ones and less dubious pontificating from the likes of Richie Havens and Ronnie Gilbert would have helped.

Luckily for Burns, the songs are so strong and his backlog of detail so rich that the presentation is pretty interesting anyway. We could do without some of the "favorite singers" he chose to interpret--not recreate, despite sporadic attempts at historical costume--the material. But John Hartford, Waylon Jennings, and Sweet Honey in the Rock make up for Judy Collins and Kathy Mattea. And in two amazing cameos, Kate and Anna McGarrigle and their families--who as it happens are Canadian--offer up an uncanny sense of how the music might have sounded and felt to the people whose lives it was about. That's even harder to do with songs than with pictures. But just because it's difficult doesn't mean Burns shouldn't have made the effort.

Video Review, [??]