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More blood and guts than an N.W.A. album: 'Bloody War: Songs 1924-1939'

September 23, 2010 |  9:27 am

TSQ2479_BloodyWar_15001 The first lyrics on “Bloody War: Songs 1924-39,” a recent collection of pre-World War II fight songs, sets the tone for the entire 15-track compilation: two soldiers lay dying on the ground, “just at the seams of the battle floor.” A singer named Zeke Morris, in a flat raspy voice and with plucked guitar accompaniment, describes the scene as though he were standing right there with them. “One held a ringlet of thin gray hair/the other a lock of brown/bidding each other a last farewell/just as the sun went down.”

It's a wrenching image presented without judgment, other than to acknowledge the soldiers’ final thoughts: “One thought of mother at home alone/feeble and old and gray/One of the sweetheart he left in town/happy and young and gay.”

Released by New York City folk label Tompkins Square, “Bloody War” is a follow-up to the Grammy-nominated “People Take Warning: Murder Ballads and Songs of Disaster,” which compiled three compact discs worth of musical death and destruction from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and rivaled an N.W.A. album in sheer body count. “Bloody War” is just as deadly, and features songs about the Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, and World War I recorded by nearly lost-to-time artists such as Jimmy Yates’ Boll Weevils, Buell Kazee, Frank Hutchison and Earl Johnson & His Clodhoppers. A portion of all proceeds from the release will be donated to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Those expecting protest songs decrying war, though, will be disappointed. Rather, most of the selections on “Bloody War” are slices of life that capture the many facets of the battlefield, before guided missiles and drones forever changed the landscape. “The Battleship of Maine,” as performed by Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers, tells the story of the sinking of the Maine in the harbor of Havana in 1898. G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter’s tragic “He Is Coming to Us Dead” conveys a narrative about parents awaiting the train that’s carrying their fallen son’s body. And the release’s namesake cut, “Bloody War,” recorded by Jimmy Yates’ Boll Weevils in 1928, is a funny story-song about a cowardly soldier’s many foibles after enlisting for battle.

The collection features liner notes by country music historian Tony Russell, who annotates each song with details on the composition’s background, and was compiled by Tomkins Square label head Josh Rosenthal and musicologist Christopher King. Writes King in the introduction, “These recordings were the folk foundation both of the common soldier’s perspective of the battlefield and of the family and loved ones that were left behind.” 

Tompkins Square is also responsible for the recently released "Unheard Ofs & Forgotten Abouts," a collection of rare gramophone recordings compiled by Frank Fairfield, an L.A.-based old-time country blues singer, guitarist, banjo player and fiddler. Like "Bloody War," Fairfield's collection captures the sound of antiquity, transporting the listener to other times. Tracks excavated from old 78 shellacs capture songs of the '20s and '30s Japan, Scotland, Kenya, the Sudan, Mexico and Long Island City. 

-- Randall Roberts

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