No one expects a pop song to survive a century. As the hit parade marches on, most old songs are tossed away or simply forgotten; anything that's recognized just a few years later is prized as a golden oldie.
Yet "The Songs of the Civil War," a program that will be broadcast tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 9:45 a.m. on MPT (channels 22 and 67) is a reminder of just how many songs from the 1860s most Americans know in their bones -- not just "Dixie" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," but "The Yellow Rose of Texas," "Aura Lee" and even the bugle call "Taps," which was commissioned as an elegy for Civil War casualties.
By matching performers -- among them Judy Collins, Waylon Jennings, Ronnie Gilbert (of the Weavers), Sweet Honey in the Rock and Kate and Anna McGarrigle -- to venerable songs, "Songs of the Civil War" not only rediscovers material that has barely been heard in 130 years, but reclaims music so familiar that it's taken for granted, hummed but not noticed.
It returns the songs to their original context, the life-and-death struggle that documentary filmmaker Ken Burns calls "the defining event for our country." Burns produced the widely praised series "The Civil War" and co-produced "Songs" with filmmaker Jim Brown. Both programs were underwritten by General Motors. (Columbia Records is releasing a soundtrack album this week.)
"The Civil War" brought together photographs, letters, diary entries, historians' commentary and period songs, but the music was instrumental. A few weeks after the series was broadcast, Burns was approached by Brown, who had produced and directed the Emmy Award-winning "We Shall Overcome" as well as "The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time!"
"Let's be frank," said Burns. "This is a spinoff, but it's generated by, I think, a genuine appetite. If the phenomenon of 'The Civil War' proves that we're starved for self-definition as a people, the music continues it. Music is this glue that keeps our history real and connected to us. And at the moment of the Civil War, our music coalesces."
Vintage photographs and readings accompany the music. Songs that might seem to be sentimental period pieces become poignant testimony to loss and longing.
"This stuff was about families being torn apart," said Brown, "about the oppression of slavery, about fighting for abolition and fighting for states' rights, about going to war and knowing the chances were pretty good that you weren't coming back."
"There's truth in this music that can't be matched and a sentiment that is hard to find today," he added. "America at that time was going through a catalytic event, and whenever there's a big social movement it produces great music, as in the 1960s. This period was even more powerful in terms of how it affected families. War wasn't something you watched on television; it was something you went off to or something in your back yard."
In the program, country singers such as Jennings and Kathy Mattea perform Southern songs, dropping their modern country phrasing to hint at the Celtic and Appalachian inflections of the 19th century.
The vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock brings gospelly harmonies to slave songs like "No More Auction Block," the melody Bob Dylan borrowed for "Blowin' in the Wind"; Judy Collins delivers a pristine "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Military music is represented by the U.S. Military Academy marching band from West Point.
Songs were preserved in sheet music if they were parlor and minstrel songs, or passed down orally, as were many slave ballads. They are among history's most tuneful artifacts.
"Dixie," which became a Confederate anthem, was originally called "Dixie's Land" and was first heard in a minstrel show in New York City. "Follow the Drinking Gourd" was a road map in song from abolitionists helping Southern slaves escape; the "drinking gourd" is the Big Dipper.
The war generated abolitionist anthems and Confederate calls to arms, but it also spawned songs that spoke to both sides, like "Lorena," a nostalgic love song that was one of the war's biggest hits.
"It was not unusual," Brown said, "for Northern troops to sing 'Lorena' on one side of a river and hear Southern troops across the river harmonizing. There are stories of requests coming from the other side of the river and those requests being honored. These were people fighting each other by day and listening to each other's music at night."
Among the songs in the program, the only modern ringer is "Ashokan Farewell," the fiddle tune written in 1983 by Jay Ungar that carried the instrumental soundtrack from "The Civil War" onto the pop charts.
The music is played on acoustic instruments, and most of it is delivered in an impression of period style; it may be sweeter, less stentorian and better tuned then it was around campfires or in parlors, but the performers work to meet the music more than halfway.
"Lincoln spoke about the 'mystic chords of memory' that would connect us all," Burns said. "That's what these songs are."