- January 07, 2021
- Henry Carrigan
- Hear It First
by Henry Carrigan (@henry.carrigan), Folk Alley
When banjo innovator Tony Trischka embarked on this 18-track story cycle 12 years ago, he could not have envisioned a group of right-wing protestors breaching the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC, as part of thrumming movement to reverse the results of a democratically held election. He could not have envisioned a country almost as deeply divided as the country that emerged from the smoke that cleared from the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. He could not have envisioned that after over 150 years following Gettysburg that some factions in the United States would still be calling for secession. Yet, the vision that moved him, the spots of light that illuminated his writing were the glimmers of hope that one moment in history provided for him.
“I was checking into some things as part of the research for the album, and I happened onto this video of this reunion at Gettysburg on the 75th anniversary of the battle. I watched these former soldiers—some who had fought for the Union and some who had fought for the Confederacy—shaking hands across a stone fence one final time. Many of them were in their 90s. It made a strong impression on me. The fact that they could put differences aside and that they could still shake hands was what gave me hope that things can change. Though it might have been more a photo op than an indication of changes of heart, it was a poignant moment and on a deeper level, a reason for hope.”
While Trischka had a pretty good idea of the direction his project was going to take, “seeing the video,” he says, “allowed me to use flashbacks to tell the story.” This is a work of historical fiction, he points out, though he develops several of his characters out of historical events and bases some of them on actual people. While Trischka wanted originally to start with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech at the dedication of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial in Gettysburg on July 3, 1938, he decided to close with an excerpt from that speech—John Lithgow lends his voice to the project as he utters Roosevelt’s words. The album opens with the sounds of the battle itself as the opening prelude, “Clouds of War,” where we hear bullets whistling through the air.
The album opens with “This Favored Land,” which depicts the 1938 gathering at Gettysburg: “Those who could, came/Traveled by train/To gather together in kind/To honor the slain…On either side/Of the wall they stand/As brothers this time/In this Favored Land.” The song opens sparely with Trischka’s cascading banjo rolls that blossoms into singer and fiddler Phoebe Hunt’s setting of the story. The song introduces the cast of characters in the story cycle—enslaved African John Boston, who fights at Gettysburg; Cyrus Noble, riverboat gambler and Union spy; Maura Kinnear, Irish émigré, seamstress, and Cyrus Noble’s wife; Colin Noble, son of Cyrus and Maura, and drummer boy, among others.
After a brief interlude, “Paddle Wheel,” which features the blowing steam whistles of the riverboat, the story ease into the scampering bluegrass rambler, “On the Mississippi (Gambler’s Song),” in which mandolin, guitar, banjo, and fiddle race around each other as they lay the groundwork for the tale of Cyrus Noble’s shooting a man over a dance hall girl and his survival of the sinking of the river boat after one of its boiler’s blows up. “On the Mississippi (Gambler’s Song)” was the first song I wrote,” says Trischka. “I put it to a Jimmie Rodgers’ blue yodel format but I decided to rewrite it after I wrote ‘This Favored Land.’”
The scene shifts to Maura Kinnear and her journey from Ireland to the United States in “Carry Me over the Sea.” Maura Connell’s lead vocals bring Kinnear and her story to life: her miner husband is killed in a mine cave-in in Ireland; she escapes the poverty and the famine in Ireland, leaving her children behind, to come to America on a “coffin ship of exiled humanity,” and in her new land she meets and marries Noble. “I wrote the song on a cello banjo,” says Trischka, “which is an octave lower than a regular banjo. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, but I wrote Celtic kinds of tunes on it, and later one of these tunes became the basis for this song.” A friend of his in England told him of a true story of a mine lay under the sea that collapsed and killed many miners. “So, those lines are based on an event that really happened, but I just moved it Ireland,” he laughs. “Maura Connell also told me that the ships on which people made the voyage to America were called ‘coffin ships’ because people would die on the ships on the way to America.”
“’The General’” was the second song I wrote for the album,” Trischka says. Michael Daves gives voice to Noble in this song that opens slowly in imitation of a train starting up its run, but opens energetically into skittering reel in which Trischka’s banjo and Brittany Haas’ fiddle chase each other around, spiraling under the tale of Noble’s robbery of The General, a story based on an actual train robbery in 1862.
In a song cycle within the larger song cycle, Trischka tells the story of enslaved Africans in “Leaving This Lonesome Land,” “I Know Moon-Rise,” and “Gotta Get Myself Right Back to You.” Trischka based his character of John Boston, voiced by bluesman Guy Davis, on an actual person whose letter to his wife provides an interlude between “Leaving This Lonesome Land” and “Gotta Get Myself Right Back to You.” Boston, a grave digger, sings about the burial of Cato, in the country blues “Leaving This Lonesome Land.” Trischka wrote the song following a visit to the South Asheville Cemetery near Warren Wilson College where slaves, over 1,900 of them, had been buried in wicker baskets with no headstones; he conflated, he points out, John Boston with that cemetery’s original grave digger, George Avery. After his visit to the cemetery, he says, Trischka wanted to find out about African burial rituals, and the spiritual, “I Know Moon-Rise,” sung by blues and jazz singer Catherine Russell, recounts such practices. The lyrics are collected in Thomas Wentworth Higginson in Army Life in a Black Regiment (1809), which consists of various accounts of wartime experiences by the leader of the first regiment of emancipated slaves.
Other songs on Shall We Hope capture the experience of soldiers preparing for war—the traditional “Soldier’s Song,” with vocals by the Violent Femmes—the brief interlude between battle on Christmas in “Christmas Cheer (This Weary Year),” and the horrors of battle in “Clouds Still Drift across the Sky.” Trischka says he also wanted a march on the album so he wrote the jaunty “Big Round Top March,” arranged by Van Dyke Parks, while Brian O’Donovan contributes his voice to tell the stories of young drummer boys marching ahead of the troops on the way to battle.
Shall We Hope takes its title from a poem by Philis Wheatley called “On the Death of General Wooster” (July 1778) and reflects the aspirations and ideal of those moments at the 75th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. Tony Trischka’s breathtaking project offers a glimpse into the devastating loss, the searing hunger, the desperate yearning, the raging inequities of a culture torn by division and disunity and war. Yet, on Shall We Hope Trischka also illuminates the enduring character of courage and the durable power of love in the face of such disunity, as well as the fervent power of hope to heal the hearts torn asunder by injustice and inhumanity. Trischka has produced an album that urges us to listen to the stories of the past and embrace the hope that things can indeed change, no matter how bleak they look.
'Shall We Hope' is available for pre-order now - HERE.
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