There was a terrific two part series on the music of the US civil war recently on BBC Radio 2. Presented by Kris Kristofferson, part one dealt with the music of the war, the second installment dealt with the music inspired by the conflict. Inspired maybe not the right word and being loosely taken as war is no inspiration in reality. War is ugly at the worst of times, a civil war is at the bottom end of the minger scale. I should know having lived in a country that had it's own civil war in the early 1920's after the foundation of the State when we became independent from Britain. More recently of course there was another long running conflict on the island that was a civil war in all but name. The deep rooted after effects become entrenched and are at times impossible to reconcile for generations.
In both cases the legacy of those brutal conflicts lives on. You only have to switch on the telly any night to see how the race conflict is still not quite resolved over there, 150 years after peace broke out. It would be inaccurate to say the triumph of the winner or the pity of the loser is celebrated in the music of the time and thereafter but it does serve as a barometer of the contemporary and the seemingly never ending legacy issues. Not romanticised but merely humansied as is the cost of such mindless escapades.
For us outsiders needing a gateway in to this conflict, we can look no further than to our own bard. Taupin of course has been a great student of such matters, his 'outside looking in' persona was celebrated here a while back. His unbiased view from that standpoint has led him to become our teacher, his snapshots have led us to further explore the little features he presented us with early on. Whilst the first part of the Radio 2 series was very enlightening in it's historical context, part two and the songs that followed on right into the 21st Century had a glaring omission. Namely Elton musically portraying Bernie's tales from the foot soldiers steps.
As per usual, almost by default, it referenced the noted social commentators of Dylan and Springsteen on this matter. And their take on the conflict, how it impacted then and now and how they expressed it through their music. Lesson's not learnt, etc. And of course Elton was overlooked. Not for the first time on these type of programmes, either. There are reasons for that of course, but that's for another day to be expanded on. What should have been in it was Bernie's latter day take on it all, this time from the 'inside looking inwards' perspective.
|The 'Men From Shiloh'...nothing to do with the other men who are said to have 'Gone To Shiloh'|
The Men From Shiloh weren't just The Virginian and Trampas, but the men of what was by all accounts a bloodbath in another part and another time in US history. The mention of Sherman (not the tank) as name checked in the lyrics was enough to instill fear and loathing down south in the early 1860's. Controversial at the time, still in that category today due to the nature of the 'slash and burn' techniques he employed. But Bernie instills humanity in the narrative; the family left behind as your typical 'Johnny' goes marching off to war. Whether he came back or not we never know, but one thing is for certain. The family left behind irrespective of whether he did return or not would be changed forever. Which goes to prove that the battlefield scare has a far and reaching touch. The entire lyric has to be in Berrnie's top 10, a direct cousin to the Tumbleweed imaginings. It's life in song would travel far with various (and quick) uniform changes.
The version on The Union with two 'outsiders' (though both have strong connections with the south in fairness), Elton and Neil Young stand shoulder height with Leon Russell to take turns in describing the unfolding life changing events of this simple farming family. Lyrically it's looking southwards, but in truth could have been written (as Bernie has done before) from a southern perspective. The sound is almost shrouded in mist and dense fog, the background sound is hard to make out clearly in the swirling fine vapour. Ah, the producers touch. His light feel in conveying the military sound of the time (brass and drums) is understated. Too much so. The brass in particular hints at something all true Eltonites will find familiar. If Buckmaster had been present to flesh out that arrangement it would have even more pleasing. If a style similar to My Father's Gun had been employed, he could have 'upped' the brass and kept it on top whilst keeping the strings low and below and maybe introducing them higher up near the finale (as he did on My Father's Gun also). The folly of absenting the song of such a terrific embellishment would be clear later on.
One of the early forays of the song into the live arena was in Italy in Autumn (we don't 'Fall' here!) 2010. The solo shows with Ray Cooper...always full of promise and delivery but with a new song always one to savour in terms of what are they going to do with it. Gone To Shiloh appeared not as pure solo but with Ray plucking the most obvious device from the original and making it a central part of the song's message. Pushing it to the front, he took aim on the snare drum and drove Elton along, proud and upright with defiance. Defiant in showcasing a new song and equally purposeful in it's delivery. The longer, brighter intro was the first clue to that line of intent. A light magical touch from Ray and we had an instant classic live version of the song to deal with. Not the first or last, luckily.
I'll skip over the Beacon Theatre, NY and Roundhouse in London performances with Leon. As they don't really butter my parsnips. Elton and Leon gave some tour de force versions in early 2011 with one version fully of irony. A March 2011 example at MSG, NY with a genuine southern rocker Gregg Allman taking the position (not for the first time) of the other 'Southern Man' is a strange curio. He's been asked to take the role of what would be for him the 'other side' and act it out. No surprise maybe that his performance was unsure and oddly distracted. I wonder...did the irony of ironies become too much.
We return to Italy again for the Lucca festival in summer 2011. This time Elton, the band and the singers are joined by an early appearance of the The 2Cello's. This is where the rubber stamp marked 'definitive' is inked and slammed down. Hard. If Buckmasters arrangement was a wish, then the 2Cellos almost grant it to us. A song that is suited and booted to a tee to their talents, as soon as they quite literally swing into action, the hard sound with it's deeply melancholic lament are all paired perfectly. But of course the 'rock edge' that I love is providing reinforcements. Davey's light bluesy licks are like putty between Elton's vocal on the verse's, holding it all together. John and Nigel split up and weave at various times during the engagement. John on solo snare again shows he can be just as adept as Ray when it comes to marking out his own territory. Nigel, sure footed as ever, quite literally and very explicitly drives the rhythm on both kick drums. What a sound! If the 2Cellos are masters of the lower ranks, then up loud and proud is Kim. He boosts the brass and makes it as it should be. On the battlefield it had to be strong to try and compete with the artillery bombardments and flying bullets. The marching bands of the era were vocal and purposeful and that is what we hear.
But we hear even more from Elton. His vocal, which in turn is led what is by now a more experienced understanding of the song, has given him a more insightful take on it. The final chorus and it's vocal lift and jump testifies to that. But it's his harmonising with Tata Vega on the chorus that needs further noting. Her vocal is slightly behind giving it an eerie echo at times, the completely contrasting voices never drown or smother.
As was noted on the programme the strength of the songs to be still remembered 150 years after they were first appeared is an epitaph to the men featured in them. Their relevance may have changed but their legacy has not. I think Bernie has got both elements nailed down.