Dark River: Songs of the Civil War Era is an interesting album. From the little research I did (read: Wikipedia) it looks like, yep, all of the songs on the album originated in the mid-nineteenth century or before. So they’re “Civil War” songs in the sense that they were all written by that time. But I think it’s used here more as a marketing term than anything else. Still, it is a collection of folk songs that were popular during the nation’s formative years. And for that alone, it’s worth a listen, if only for the time-travel vibe of it all.
For whatever it’s worth, it says on the cover that the songs are all performed by musicians from Austin, Texas. Interesting enough, I guess. But I think I could care less, really, where a musician comes from, especially in the 21st Century, where our culture is more socially connected than ever before. It’s a kind of backward notion to assume that someone from the South or Southwest will have a better handle on country or folk music than someone from, oh, say, Maryland or something. Well, anyway, no big deal. Because there isn’t a bad track on the album.
Some of these songs you’re bound to recognize, if only from elementary school music classes (if you’re from the U.S.). Which means that you might have to wretch back a few bad memories. But, no matter, these songs won’t resemble those terrible sing-alongs you were forced to participate in. Each artist makes the song their own. Tunes like “Red River Valley” and “Oh! Suzanna” are both intimately familiar and new.
But speaking of “Oh! Suzanna,” I think it’s the only song that doesn’t belong on this album. It doesn’t feel right. It’s too contemporary. The song itself, reworked as a piano and vocal jazz tune, is great and would work well on another album, I’m sure. Sure, none of the other songs sound exactly like they would have a century and a half ago. But with just a little suspension of disbelief, they can take you back, make you feel like you’re not of this century.
Standout tracks include James McMurtry singing “Red River Valley,” Slaid Cleaves singing “She Moved through the Fair,” and “Swing Low,” sung by Rebbeca Folsom and Celeste Krenz. But, like I said, there’s not a bad song on the album. Be warned, though: this album should be played from beginning to end, maybe as you sit on a comfortable couch or chair or somesuch.
Oh yeah, something else: It’s fun to listen to these songs while looking up their Wikipedia entry. Learn a little while you listen. Definitely something worth spending some time on.