Located in the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, Cold Mountain has become the inspiration for both a novel and a film, depicting a wounded Confederate soldier's journey westward to his wife as he encounters many people along the way and faces hunger, snow, and other deterrents.
Filmed in the Transylvania region of Romania, Cold Mountain
the movie creates a bleak atmosphere very much reflective of the times and events taking place near the end of the Civil War, as the Confederacy faced many more problems and a near evident loss. But even with this, Anthony Mingella also showed even natural beauty exists in a place of death, war, and struggle.
These aesthetics are represented in the original soundtrack, nineteen pieces of blues, Appalachian folk, oldtime country, sacred harp singing, and scored orchestral pieces. Because of this, there are many comparisons to O' Brother Where Art Thou?, a might more light-hearted film revolving around con-artists in the south, bluegrass, and a vast array of references to Homer's The Odyssey
. Despite the obvious comparisons, Cold Mountain
generally maintains a serious tone on both the silver screen and in the music, and I feel is much more representative of certain styles of music in the late 19th century.
As stated earlier, many of the songs chosen for this soundtrack are very much in the traditional sense, even the ones that are not actual traditional songs themselves, and serve the atmosphere of the film and compilation very well. Even Jack White, who plays a minor role and the film and contributes his presence on five songs, manages to adapt to the music and give solid performances even if his voice occassionaly seems too smooth to give certain tunes the proper elderly feel. This is evident on "Never Far Away", a song that resembles an acoustic White Stripes song than a traditional bluegrass or folk piece. "Great High Mountain" is the redeeming factor for White, though, with an enjoyable, authentic tone that fits with the rest of the album.
The Reeltime Travelers' original "Like a Songbird That Has Fallen" is the first highlight of Cold Mountain, with a mid paced, almost frolicking rhythm that sets a relaxing pace for the quirky, Southernesque female vocals and fetching banjo melody, accompanied with fiddle, light acoustic guitar, and mandolin. "I Wish My Baby Was Born" follows and immediately establishes a much more sorrowful tone and a dragging, depressive tempo. With dolent violin work provided by Stuart Duncan, the vocalists, who include Tim O'Brien, detail the story of a baby that never lived, "I wish I wish my love had died / And sent his soul to wander free / Then we might need our ribbons five / Let our poor body rest in peace".
Also represented on Cold Mountain
is a style of Protestant chorale singing often referred to as Sacred Harp, a form of shape note music that began in the South where the four sections of vocalists (Trebles, tenors, altos and basses) sit in a square pew setting facing each other as they produce a large sounding, often robust cluster of notes. Two of the pieces here, "I'm Going Home" and "Idumea", provide an excellent look into this form of music. The former is exuberant and lively, proclaiming "Farewell, vain world! I'm going home! / My savior smiles and bids me come / And I don't care to stay here long!" while the latter is meditative and clerical, with harmonies and movement similar to traditional church hymns.
Finally I come to the most chilling, descriptive, and astounding songs here, "Lady Marget". Here, the narrator describes the often mournful times that the people of Appalachia faced in the late 19th century and prior, often living in isolation. Death is a grotesque but natural entity, something that nobody themselves would be able to prevent, even if today it were considered a minor illness. Cassie Franklin perfectly captures the plaintive tone of the lyrics, such as: "And let me kiss those cold corpsy lips for I know they'll never kiss mine / Then once he kissed her lily white hand / And twice he kissed her cheek / Three times he kissed her cold corpsy lips then he fell into her arms asleep." One of the most affecting performances of anything ever.
It's understandable to find that someone would not enjoy this music, but to deny it based on preconceptions is a foolish thing to do. The music contained within Cold Mountain
is joyous and disheartening, presenting an often death-ridden, autumnal image of the area and time. Even with those often depressing pictures in your mind, there is still a sense of accomplishment and love for life in the music. This isn't necessarily music as it is humans interpreting humans and their faith, something that we all do from day to day, past or present. And I think everyone can relate to that.