Ken Burns' Civil War
We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. We have felt - we still feel - the passion of life to its top. In our youths, our hearts were touched with fire.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes
So began Ken Burns' epic series The Civil War
and for the next 11 hours he held us enthralled by the big picture and the little details in this most bloody of wars.
First shown on the American Public Broadcasting Service in September 1990, it reached a record audience, won a swagger of awards and established Ken Burns as the premier American documentary maker. The book from the series and the VHS tapes became bestsellers, and the boxed DVD set has been released just this month.
Ken Burns went on to create such notable series as Baseball
, Lewis and Clarke
, all in what has now become known as the Ken Burns style. Burns takes a bottom-up look at history, focusing on the individuals, both great and small, their lives, letters and loves. And so we get a picture of the Civil War not just from Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, bit also from the words of common soldiers, unknown slaves, workers, farmers and women.
I am not a Civil War buff. I'm not even American. But somehow Ken Burns touched a universal note that made this story very real. He matches the words to a selection of photographs from the War, sometimes of battlegrounds, but more commonly of people. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things in terrible times. And he followed these people through the conflict, describing the battles, their day-to-day life, the weariness, the horror.
And through it all is the music. Handpicked both from the times and in the spirit of the times, the music made The Civil War
magnificent. Simple words, simple images and simple music - a magic whole.
The soundtrack features 2 dozen of the most evocative pieces of music from The Civil War
. As a whole, it represents an entire era, the righteous conviction of both sides, the early naivety and the later realization of the horror that had been unleased. Taken individually, the pieces of music, as much as the photographs and letters, reveal the sadness, fear and lonliness of the people caught up in the war.
The most famous piece is the Ashokan Farewell
. It is such a simple, poignant melody that you would be forgiven for thinking it was from the nineteenth century. In fact it was written in 1983 by Jay Ungar, a folk musician and teacher from New York. It fit so well with the themes of The Civil War
that it became its signature tune, tying each episode together. And it went on to win a Grammy Award.
All the well-known music is here: When Johnny Comes Marching Home
, Battle Hymn of the Republic
and Yankee Doodle
. All sensitively performed, sometimes by a military brass band, or gospel choir, or a folk ensemble, and sometimes just a single guitar. Shenandoah
on a cello is a revelation, and the little known Irish song Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier
is especially moving.
But the highlight of the CD is the very moving letter by a simple soldier, Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah, as he faces the prospect of death in the up-coming Battle of Bull Run. The letter is read in its entirety, sad but not self-pitying, fearful but warm, set to the background of the Ashokan Farewell
. This is a hauntingly unforgetable moment.
If there was ever a justification for not
throwing away the television, it was Ken Burns' The Civil War
. And in a single CD, this soundtrack album captures its power and atmosphere, and will leave you with a tear in your eye.
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The Civil War
Original Soundtrack Recording
from the PBS Documentary
by Ken Burns
- Drums of War, Old Bethpage Brass Band - :08
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Paul Roebling - :29
- Ashokan Farewell, Jay Ungar / Matt Glaser / Evan Stover - 4:02
- Battle Cry of Freedom, Jacqueline Schwab - 1:40
- We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder, Reagon, Bernice Johnson - 4:22
- Dixie/Bonnie Blue Flag, New American Brass Band - 1:55
- Cheer Boys Cheer, New American Brass Band - 1:09
- Angel Band, Russ Barenberg / Molly Mason - 1:03
- Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier, Jacqueline Schwab / Jesse Carr - :51
- Leorena, Matt Glaser / Jay Ungar / Molly Mason - 1:10
- Parade, New American Brass Band - 3:28
- Hail Columbia, New American Brass Band - 2:18
- Dixie, Bobby Horton - 2:03
- Kingdom Coming, Matt Glaser / Jay Ungar / Arthur Baron - 1:00
- Battle Hymn of the Republic, Matt Glaser / Jacqueline Schwab - 1:36
- All Quiet on the Potomac, Jacqueline Schwab - 1:13
- Flag of Columbia, Jacqueline Schwab - 1:03
- Weeping, Sad and Lonely, Peggy James / Jacqueline Schwab / Jesse Carr - 1:08
- Yankee Doodle, Old Bethpage Brass Band - :39
- Palmyra Schottische, New American Brass Band - 3:08
- When Johnny Comes Marching Home, Old Bethpage Brass Band - :42
- Shenandoah, John Levy / John Colby - :40
- When Johnny Comes Marching Home, Matt Glaser / Yonatin Malin / Molly Mason - 1:43
- Marching Through Georgia, Matt Glaser / Jay Ungar / Molly Mason - :54
- Marching Through Georgia (Lament), Jacqueline Schwab - 1:10
- Battle Cry of Freedom, Jacqueline Schwab - 2:30
- Battle Hymn of the Republic, Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir - 3:20
- Ashokan Farewell/Sullivan Ballou Letter, Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir - 3:23