By Christopher Hedge, Featuring David Grisman, R. Carlos Nakai, with Titos Sompa, Joe Weed, David Brewer, and More
When a funeral was held for a slave at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, the procession sang what the whites thought was a beautiful and melodious song. What they did not hear were the words that were directed towards their master as they looked towards him; “Someday your head will bow as low as ours,” a powerful statement about the ultimate democracy, the great equalizers of time and death.
This is one of many compelling musical juxtapositions that Christopher Hedge discovered on his sonic archaeological dig into the era of 1767-1845, an endeavor that culminates in his new album, The Atrocious Saint. The recording features guest musicians bluegrass extraordinaire David Grisman, Native American flute icon R. Carlos Nakai, Congolese bridge-building percussionist Titos Sompa, Irish musical traditionalists Joe Weed and David Brewer, and more.
When Louis Armstrong visited the Belgian Congo in 1960, tears streamed down his cheeks as he came face-to-face with his heritage in a way that he never could have imagined. Faces resembling his own stared back at him from the point of origin of slaves who were brought to the Americas. The audience included a young Titos Sompa. “Titos’ music represents this connection between Africa and America,” says Hedge. “I wanted all the players on this album to get to their earliest connection to these times. Not by what they have read, but what they have inherited.”
An Irish-born fiddler in the US was captured by the British in the War of 1812. His captors put him to work playing jigs on their ship. The same man was recaptured by the Americans, and continued to fiddle. Back and forth went the fiddler between the old world and the new, fiddling all the while. Eighty years later, his family discovered a book of songs he wrote down from this period, an early soundtrack to the war.
These musical stories—a tapestry of voices from West African songs that precede the blues, and German and Irish songs imported from the old world, grandparents to Appalachian bluegrass—were what composer Hedge had in mind when musically re-enacting the historical life span of Andrew Jackson, the controversial seventh U.S. president and face of the 20-dollar bill on the album The Atrocious Saint. "Andrew Jackson was a patriot and a traitor. He was the greatest of generals, and wholly ignorant of the art of war. He was the most candid of men, and capable of the profoundest dissimulation. He was a democratic autocrat, an urbane savage, an atrocious saint," wrote James Parton, Jackson's first biographer, in 1859.
Exploring history through its music uncovers stories left out in high school textbooks. This period was arguably the most defining era in American history: one that saw the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Westward expansion, the rise of slavery, and the removal of Native Americans from their homelands to make way for the burgeoning American commercial-agricultural machine. It also shaped the first man of humble origins to become President of the new nation and founder the Democratic Party.
“I wrote this music to try to get a more realistic understanding of my own country,” Hedge says. “I wanted to try to see Andrew Jackson from the contrasts and contradictions that defined his life. I got the overwhelming sense that our times are not much different. We are just able to see them with a broader, panoramic spectrum, if we choose to.”
In an election year in which the issues of race, immigration, class, gender, and regionalism are on every citizen’s lips, many Americans may be asking themselves, “how did we get here?” Real history is in the spaces between things; it is in the dynamics, the electricity, the relationships between the moments, and people in history that really tell the story. It is visceral, multi-vocal, conversational; but rarely do we come face-to-face with history. Music reaches into the emotion of times past. The Atrocious Saint puts you right there, weaving together the voices and experiences of slaves and Indians, frontiersmen, and the Washington elite though enlisting their relics and descendants.
For Hedge, trying to understand the past through music is a participatory process, bringing elements of the past into the present, like a living history Petri dish. “Pulling out my grandfather’s gold watch, or an old pair of opera glasses, holding those in your hands and feeling history come through them is a way of understanding what I’m trying to do with this music,” says Hedge. Like a documentary film, this music engages in a process of reaching back to see how we can to make some sense of the past. Hedge describes it as a “roadmap to an entirely foreign world of the past.” About a piece recorded in a reconstructed 18th century Georgia courthouse, Hedge says that “the echo of the empty halls and the dust are part of the music.” By performing in certain places and environments, lessons learned from his decades long collaborations with flutist Paul Horn, Hedge lets both history and the present moment inspire—literally breathe life into—the music.
The album is a sensory historical journey featuring original, period-inspired tunes and improvisations performed by a handpicked cast of musicians who, says Hedge, have connections to the era “in their DNA.” Some of the songs are straight from the era: The traditional fiddle tune “The Eighth of January” is about “Old Hickory’s” legendary victory in the battle of New Orleans, “Go to the Devil and Shake Yourself” and “Off She Goes” come from songbooks that reach back to Ireland, and authentic historical field drum cadences, performed by forty year drumming veteran Edward McClary, figure heavily into the rhythms of the album. Most are Hedge’s original compositions for this project, which he says were more like suggestions; “What I wrote for people was so simple that it would only be the catalyst for them.” On “Tennessee,” a simple C, F, and G bluegrass song, he enlisted Grammy-nominated bluegrass mandolin master David Grisman and his band, the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience, to bring the song to life, eschewing perfect performance for re-enactment of the imagined subtleties of what it might have been like to be playing in old-time Appalachia in the middle of the night after plenty of whiskey. After one particular take, Hedge stopped everyone and said, “That was good, but probably too good. Let’s try it once more but like you’ve been drinkin’ for a few hours.”
Hedge sought out artists like Grisman and Congolese artist Titos Sompa who “have a direct link to this music from their families and their culture,” and sought to recreate the original context as much as possible. One of the central concepts in the making of the album was putting diverse artists together in person—face-to-face—to recreate, re-enact, experiment with the legacy of that influential period 200 years ago. “You pick the right person that would have that heritage. And each person needs to get to their earliest connection to these times. Not by what they know, but by what they can feel, what they have inherited from their ancestors.”
Of the most poignant moments in the recording process were those spent with Native American flute virtuoso R. Carlos Nakai. For “Territory,” Hedge put Nakai and Sompa—representative of Native and African cultures respectively—together to improvise a musical dialogue based on the early days of the Indian removals, during which native land was being taken over for cotton plantations and the Indians were being forced out and the slaves were being forced in.
“Trail of Tears Suite” was born of a long day of beach walking talks between Nakai and Hedge about ancestry and identity, culminating in an improvised session played by Nakai. “I had no music for him, and there was very little I could presume to say,” recounts Hedge. “Rather, we spent time simply talking, expressing the difficulty of speaking to the past, the complex pattern of our heritage as modern Americans and the nature of how history is explained to a world that is often too embroiled in the passions of our present time to be understanding of how we got here. To this end, I merely lit a couple of candles in the recording room, turned out the lights, and pressed record. What you hear is the unedited result.”
Julian Smedley’s violin and Joseph Herbert’s cello round out the personnel providing the backbone of the "parlor" and orchestral repertoire that represent another slice of American life in the era.
The Atrocious Saint is inspired by the film Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil, and the Presidency, which is airing on PBS stations in 2008. Hedge was chosen by director Carl Byker to score the film, (the two worked together previously on the PBS series The New Heroes). Of the 90 plus pieces recorded for the film, The Atrocious Saint features the 18 most poignant, remastered and re-ordered as a stand-alone work.
“Many people still love Jackson, and I'm deliberately presenting that loyalist feeling, right alongside the other realities that you would have to face, were you to take a more accurate view of history,” says Hedge. “I would like this album to keep a balance between the ‘atrocious’ and the ‘saint’ that will keep listeners ‘in the dialog,’ understanding that I am an observer and not a pundit.”