Some tell me ’tis a burnin’ shame
To make the naygers fight,
And that the trade of bein’ kilt
Belongs but to the white.
But as for me, upon my soul!
So lib’ral are we here,
I’ll let Sambo be shot instead of myself
On ev’ry day in the year.
(SAMBO’S RIGHT TO BE KILT by Private Miles O’Reilly, a Union soldier)
The cultural legacy of the American Civil War is hideously complex, perhaps the definitive event in the birth of the modern USA, but far from unique in the morbid histories of intra-national generic conflict. The division of an emerging nation into two or more opposing factions whose mutual struggle for supremacy extends over years of increasingly bitter and murderous conflict is something few sovereign nations have managed to avoid – all too familiar if you happen to be a Spaniard or a Serb or a Chechnyan or a Ugandan or a Sudanese or an Afghan.
In terms of US history, though, it’s the relative recentness of it all that’s so horrifying, given the subsequent apparent rapidity of the recovery. It’s as if, back in 1850, instead of flooding into the burgeoning cotton and wool towns on either side of the Pennines to improve their lot, the men of Lancashire and Yorkshire were being drafted into a repeat of the Wars of the Roses, sacking and burning towns like Stockport and Hebden Bridge, igniting conflagrations of mutual hatreds that were going to continue smouldering until the present day.
In the same way that the historical realities of the English Civil War have become reduced, in folk-memory, to a simplistic conflict between the humourless nit-picking ascetic Protestant Roundheads and the hard-drinking womanising freedom-loving Catholic Cavaliers (in complete defiance of the facts, which we won’t go into here) and in support of the universal axiom that the devil always has the best tunes, it’s the so-called losers in both conflicts that have been the most romanticised: vide the enduring myth of the antebellum South as a kind of American Garden of Eden as reflected in all those plucky-Rebel-themed books and movies and TV series, from ‘Gone With the Wind’ to ‘Cold Mountain’.
So what do you do if, as an American from the old Union, Boston-based, born and raised in Lancaster, PA, bastion of that most deeply conservative community of them all – the Amish – you look around you and see that same set of slave-owning Confederate attitudes as firmly in place as ever they were, but established, now, at the highest levels of governance, displacing all that the victorious Abe Lincoln stood for?
What you do, if you’re a conscientious musician like Keth Kenniff, is sit down at a piano and start picking away at some of those tunes – Marching Through Georgia, Larrows of The Field – that are so familiar to you from those nation-harrowing times, and play with them, soak yourself in them, let them take you where they will, listen to the way they work, try to understand where they came from, why they continue to carry such a poignant emotional resonance, copy them, pastiche them, try to understand….
Corduroy Road is a paradoxically soft ride. The title (for the benefit of non-Americans) refers to a pre-asphalt method of track-laying over difficult terrain whereby logs would be lashed together across the direction of the track. So you might expect severe sonic bone-jarring, to say the least. On the contrary, however, the overall tone of Corduroy Road is almost soporifically gentle – as tentative and tender as the most solicitous nurse – and purposely so, because I regard this album as one of the first to attempt something that’s most desperately needed right now in the tragically Disunited States: an exploration, through art, of the options of healing.
Goldmund is a second solo manifestation for Kenniff – as Helios he produced a debut album, Unomia, on Merck which has appeared on a number of ‘best of 2004’ lists. His Goldmund personna is a very solitary individual indeed, disregarding electronic elements almost entirely in favour of a creaking old piano that just manages to retain tuning long enough to get through another slow, sad song with the sustain pedal continually depressed, and the occasional emergence – notably in My Neighborhood – of a barely-there loosely strummed guitar. The music occasionally resembles Max Richter, or the Aphex Twin, or Keith Jarrett in monopolar mood, although this has nothing to do with jazz chords – if there were a musical equivalent of a word-count in notation, the Jarrett:Kenniff ratio per song would probably come in at something like 20:1. We’re talking attenuation to the point of near-silence here. (Both Beethoven and Chopin are there hovering in the background as well, although neither would acknowledge this as anything other than private doodling.)
The only misjudgement – but a serious one – is the stretching of material sufficient for a respectable EP to a full-length. What wanted to be said is said – with exquisite, beautiful restraint – in only half of these tracks, and is ill-served by repetition in the rest. Nevertheless, this album is an authentic new address on the alt-folk street map, and Goldmund a timely and welcome occupant.
Corduroy Road is a kind of non-committal musical séance, a summoning of the ghosts of that most divisive of American conflicts to help illuminate the more pressing need to negotiate the current one. Secession was never a realistic option, although it seems to have happened anyway at some level of the American national psyche. This haunting melding and transforming of those iconographic Civil War melodies represents a tentative act of (re)union in perhaps the only potentially restorative medium left – that of the music itself.