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Civil War Songs and Sounds

Speaking of the impact music had on his troops, Confederate General Robert E. Lee said, “Without music you cannot have an army.” With this in mind, the music collected here is not so much an account of what came to be known as America’s most violent war as it is the culmination of the anxieties, politics, and the racial divide that started the war in the first place. Certainly the origins of the Civil War are present in its music: the abolitionist’s cry for freedom in songs such as “The Ballad of Frederick Douglass” and “John Brown’s Body”; the irrevocable violence and censure laced into America’s founding in “Cumberland Gap”; and the bureaucratic irony of warfare in “All Quiet Along the Potomac.” But many of the era’s songs also convey intense personal longing, and struggle (see: “Just Before Battle, Mother” and “Go Down, Moses”). Frederick Douglass (through the voice of actor/activist Ossie Davis) speaks of this struggle in the playlist’s final track when he says: “A man who will not fight for himself, when he has the means of doing so, is not worth being fought for by others.”