TV REVIEW : A Compelling Look at Civil War Ditties


Do you, as a 20th-Century reconstructionist, find that perennial song-o’-the-South “Dixie” a guilty pleasure, barely more politically correct than flying a Confederate flag on Martin Luther King Day? Not to worry. Not only was “Dixie” composed by a Northerner--first sung, in fact, at a New York minstrel show--but, initially popular in all regions of the country, it was even played at the White House, at President Lincoln’s request.

This little-remembered irony is one of many quick anecdotes that set up the musical selections in “The Songs of the Civil War,” a sequel of sorts to Ken Burns’ massively popular mega-documentary of last year, “The Civil War.” Burns co-produced this welcome spin-off special with director Jim Brown. It airs tonight at 7:30 p.m. on KCET Channel 28 and 9 p.m. on KPBS Channel 15, with time-outs for PBS pledge breaks.

As its predecessor did, this show offers a compelling plethora of still photographs, but mixed in with fluid photography of live renditions of vintage songs from contemporary performers. Richie Havens and Sweet Honey in the Rock reprise slave spirituals; Hoyt Axton and Waylon Jennings have a go at some tender Confederate ballads; Kate and Anna McGarrigle harmonize on “Hard Times, Come Again No More”; John Hartford does the instrumental “Aura Lee” (which modern audiences will recognize as “Love Me Tender”); the United States Military Academy Band even gets in on the act with some marching orders.


And, yes, the show closes with a Fiddle Fever coda of last year’s surprisingly popular instrumental “Ashokan Farewell,” which--having been written but a few years ago--is not actually a song of the Civil War but, rather, a song of “The Civil War.”

The special’s best surprise, though, is Kathy Mattea, who has always seemed a fine if unexceptional country singer but who proves a revelation in her several achingly lovely selections here.

The brief bits of historical context, from Burns, Shelby Foote and others, offer just enough mortal awareness to make these songs as immediate as yesterday’s news, if not more so than today’s spiritually impoverished pop. If Axl Rose wants to know about music that really comes out of struggle, he might tune in tonight.