Even in a time when so much in life is debatable, one thing on which most of us can agree is that war is a terrible thing, greatly to be avoided. It is perhaps the worst conceivable scenario for human beings, especially as it is practiced in the modern world. And in degrees of horribleness, civil war must surely be the most unimaginable. Pitting countrymen against one another, even finding family members on opposing sides, the notion of seeing a nation divided by war is something we should never wish upon each other.
But it is often said in our day that the United States is in a period of cold civil war, with sides that are unwilling to even grant basic humanity to the other, and a eagerness to use the power of the state to punish those who disagree. Perhaps we will see less of this fierce partisanship when the recent election is well past us, but it is worthwhile to consider how like today this country was in the early-to-mid 19th century, split down the center over the issue of slavery.
Contemporary Americans are as loathe to consider slavery as acceptable as modern day Germans are to revisit Nazism, but the passions of today’s sectarianism are just as deeply felt, and viewed as moral imperatives in much the same way. Those who feel that revolution or war are acceptable outcomes in the face of stark division would do well to dwell on the actual history of Civil War in these United States. Romantic visions of rectitude and courage were less often the story, with death, destruction, and deprivation more commonly the norm.
One artist who has done just that is banjoist Tony Trischka, devoting much of the past few years to composing an epic musical narrative surrounding what was known by many at the time as the War Between the States. This work will be presented in its entirety in January as Shall We Hope, on Shefa Records.
Trischka calls this latest effort a dramatized listening experience, retelling stories of our Civil War through the voices of both real and fictionalized characters from the time. He has written all the music and lyrics, and has called upon the talents of a great many prominent artists in the worlds of alternative and progressive bluegrass and popular music.
Guest vocalists include Michael Daves, Catherine Russell, Guy Davis, John Lithgow, Maura O’Connell, Abigail Washburn, Phoebe Hunt, Brian O’Donovan, and the Violent Femmes, along with Tony’s collection of banjo family instruments, and a variety of acoustic string accompaniment.
In describing this project, Tony says that it took its final form gradually, over a period of many years, before being completed as a testament to a sense of positivism and hopefulness.
“Shall We Hope began without the intention of making a Civil War album, though I’ve had an interest in the conflict since childhood. In 2008, I found myself writing lyrics about a Mississippi riverboat gambler, and paired it with a Jimmie Rodgers blue yodel form. I enjoyed writing songs for a change, rather than instrumentals, so I wrote another-—this time about the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862.
Shall We Hope, a phrase taken from a Phillis Wheatley poem, evolved to be just that, a story of hope. It was not created to mirror the divisions that currently exist in our nation. However, I would wish that the timeliness of a hopeful message would ring true today, and that, in some small way, this album could bring positivity, healing, and hope in these troubling times.”
A debut single is released today, Carry Me Over The Sea, sung by Irish folk singer Maura O’Connell, sharing the feelings of desperation felt by many Irish in the period just prior to the Civil War, when repeated crop failures caused widespread famine, and led many impoverished people to head for America where the promise of freedom and abundance was spread in legend. Many of these same recent arrivals found themselves recruited to fight in a war not of their own making.
Here’s the track, with Maura supported by Tracy Bonham on harmony vocals, Michael Daves on guitar, Brittany Haas on fiddles, Brian Fleming on percussion, John Mock on whistle, Skip Ward on bass, and Dominick Leslie on mandolin. Trischka is playing cello banjo, a low-tuned five string with an oversized head.