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Probably the biggest event in Whitman’s life was the American Civil War. He would have fought in it if he had been a little younger. Instead he served with the Northern troops as a wound-dresser. The experience inspired some of his most powerful, most personal, and most disturbing poetry.
The selection of war poems that I have used for these songs begins with an instrumental introduction, vaguely military in sound, but only vaguely. Whitman’s war poems don’t glorify war, they focus more on the suffering that comes with it. The music begins with a march, but it doesn’t march with a smile on its face looking forward to victory. It marches with gritted teeth because it can see no viable alternative to war.
The introduction runs straight into a song in which Whitman says he isn’t genteel, but he doesn’t apologise for being rough and ready, he proudly proclaims it. Don’t be fooled though. He was a lot more cultured than he wants us to believe – which is why the accompaniment for this song is mostly scored just for a pair of those most genteel of all instruments, harps.
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