The acclaimed a-cappella quartet Anonymous 4 – Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek and Ruth Cunningham – have been on a rather poignant farewell tour over the past year. They’ve completed their trilogy of albums of classic American folk songs with their latest and final release 1865, a collaboration with Americana instrumental maven Bruce Molsky. The album is streaming at NPR. And the group are making what could be their final New York appearance at the great hall at Cooper Union on April 23 at 8 PM; the $10 tickets might well be gone by now, but there may be other seats available. It’s fitting that a group whose last recorded work opens with an antiwar ballad would be performing at the same venue where Abraham Lincoln addressed the city’s power brokers about the need to free the slaves one hundred and fifty-odd years ago.
Stylistically speaking, the new album looks back to a era where ambitious church groups would lend their sophisticated polyphony to the folk and pop songs of the day. The theme here is songs of the Civil War, whose grimness and elegiac qualities speak for themselves, but also have a vividly ominous contemporary resonance. The recording itself is gorgeous, Molsky’s banjo, fiddle and guitar benefiting from the same natural reverb as the voices in what is obviously a live recording.
There’s a lot of bittersweet music on this album. When This Cruel War Is Over, a Union Army wife or girlfriend’s lament, has a gently timeless power. The plaintiveness and longing in the elegaic Nellie Gray resonates as much as the lustrous sadness of the four-part harmonies on Sweet Evelina. Molsky sings Hard Times Come Again No More as a solo banjo tune, then switches to fiddle as the women return for an unexpectedly stark, swaying take of Southern Soldier Boy, which he winds up as a lively dance. Molsky’s solo banjo-and-vocal take of Bright Sunny South underscores the bravado masking dread of the Confederate soldier leaving home and maybe not coming back. Likewise, Tenting on the Old Camp Ground hides its exhaustion with war horror in an ethereal arrangement. Elvis fans will hear a familiar melody in Aura Lee, its narrative a far cry from either a military hymn or a pop ballad.
They pick up the pace with the brisk banjo tune Listen to the Mocking Bird and keep the energy up with the lively fiddle reel Camp Chase. Molsky takes over vocals on the dying soldier’s lament Brother Green. It’s telling that Faded Coat of Blue is also called The Nameless Grave; it might be the most grisly number here, notwithstanding the beautiful harmonies. Molsky plays guitar on that one as he does the sad, stately waltz Maiden in the Garden, a harshly accurate portrait of long-distance relationships in times of war. The True Lover’s Farewell has a more rustic, Appalachian feel than the rest of the vocal numbers here. The album follows a more hopeful trajectory as it winds out with themes of nostalgia and a couple of country gospel tunes. This is what life during wartime was like before Twitter and Skype – people entertained themselves and put their lives in context with songs like these.