Songs of the Civil War

By Jamie Dawson, Contributor
February / March 2004

David Kincaid talks to Jamie Dawson about his albums of Irish songs from the Civil War.

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Irish-American musician and Civil War historian David Kincaid moved from Seattle to New York in 1985, leaving behind him not only the West Coast he’d been rooted in since birth — he was born and raised in Los Angeles, the son of an oft-transferred Navy father — but also the Seattle music scene in which he’d become a fixture. Kincaid’s proto-rock band, The Allies, was one of the biggest club draws in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1980s and won the first MTV Basement Tapes Award with “I’m in Love with Emma Peel,” an homage to the British television series The Avengers.

Kincaid defines the cross-country move as having been crucial to his artistic and business survival. “I’d hit kind of a wall with The Allies — there wasn’t much more the band was going to do in Seattle.” In his search for a bigger market, one with higher standards for its resident artists in all genres, New York was the obvious choice, he says.

Soon after arriving in New York, he enlisted Allies drummer, Larry Mason, to join him in a new band, The Brandos, formed with New Yorkers Ernie Mendillo and Ed Rupprecht. The Brandos struck a nerve with “Gettysburg,” Kincaid’s roots-rock ode to the famous Civil War battle, an event to which Kincaid had ties he didn’t fully comprehend until he visited the site.

“All the men in my family served in the military, and I knew my great-grandfather had been in the Civil War. I knew his name. I knew his unit. But I didn’t know he’d died at Gettysburg until I found his name on a plaque,” recalls Kincaid. He composed the song almost on the spot, conjuring up the atmosphere of the battle and the site itself.

“I’ve seen a lot of wicked things

Heard a lot of people cry

I know it couldn’t touch the pain

of seein’ 50,000 die…”

“Gettysburg” became a modest hit on radio and MTV, giving the band enough clout to tour the United States, opening for headliners like The Georgia Satellites, INXS and The Cars. Since then, The Brandos have released nine albums and have a devoted audience primarily based in Europe.

In the wake of the band’s success with “Gettysburg,” Kincaid found himself drawn — nay, compelled — to acquire more knowledge of the Civil War and, specifically, about the role of Irish-Americans in the conflict.

Kincaid believes that the Civil War changed the attitude towards the Irish in this country, winning them some acceptance. “You take any group of people and tell them they’re not as good as everyone else, they’ll fight to prove you otherwise. That’s what the Irish did here in America during the mid-1800s,” he emphasizes.

During the 1980s and ’90s, Kincaid became a Civil War reenactor and a proud member of Company A, 69th Regiment N.Y.S.V. — an Irish Brigade Unit. He is featured with his regiment in Gods and Generals, the Ted Turner-produced Civil War epic, in which he gets the chance not only to don his authentic uniform but also to play music of the period.

Kincaid has fused his twin passions for Civil War history and Irish/Celtic music in his two collections of songs from that era: The Irish Volunteer (Union Irish songs) and The Irish-American’s Song (a blend of Union and Confederate Irish songs).

When asked why the albums are lopsided regarding the balance of Union and Confederate Irish songs, he reminds us that “There were only 50,000-80,000 Irish soldiers on the Confederate side compared with more than 160,000 on the Yankee side. A huge disparity.”

When Kincaid started participating in Civil War reenactments, he found that the songs that were being played around the campfires at night were “the same old songs everyone knows.” But a friend of his, historian and musician Tom O’Carroll, played him a song called “Paddy’s Lamentation” and hinted that there was more Irish material out there just waiting to be discovered. “Knowing full well that the Irish don’t do anything without writing a song about it, I started asking `Where’s the Irish stuff?’ and I was told, `You’ll never find it.'”

Undeterred Kincaid started digging. He spent the better part of the last five years scouring libraries, museums, private collections and historical societies. At the Armory of the 69th New York (the oldest regiment in the U.S. Army) he met historian Ken Powers, a retired Lt. Colonel, who made him copies of some of the archives.

What he found was that “there are more than enough songs for a third and fourth record.”

Kincaid performs the Irish-American Civil War songs in a theatrical way, wearing authentic costumes and playing period instruments, mostly at Irish festivals, Civil War round tables, historical societies, and, most notably, at the Music Muster, held at Gettysburg National Park each summer.

“We’ve done the Music Muster four years now. It’s very difficult to get into; they’re very selective about who they let take the stage there,” says Kincaid. “If I play Irish festivals, I’ll usually be on the Cultural Stage.

“Irish-Americans, in general, don’t know about the great contribution the Irish made towards the development of this country,” he says.

When asked why he pursued these songs so diligently, he smiles broadly. “Because it hadn’t been done before. These songs have to be preserved so that everyone can have access to them. Irish and non-Irish alike.”

Kincaid’s love of Irish music has also filtered its way into his primary musical outlet, The Brandos, an American roots-rock band, molded in the style of Creedence Clearwater Revival (“John Fogerty — probably the best Irish-American songwriter ever,” declares Kincaid). Early on, Kincaid infused a bit of Celtic spunk into the middle of the band’s set, launching into a blistering version of “Paddy on the Turnpike/Exit 57,” a tune also learned from pal Tom O’Carroll.

“Whenever we play `Paddy,’ there’s this roar that goes up and suddenly everyone in the audience is stomping and having a great time.

“There’s something rhythmically appealing about Irish music that audiences — doesn’t matter whether they’re Irish or not — seem to latch onto. The Irish stuff generally gets the biggest response during our shows, but Irish music isn’t the bulk of what The Brandos do,” says Kincaid.

Even though The Brandos have a larger following in Europe, Kincaid calls New York home and lives just steps away from Grant’s Tomb on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “New York is tough but fair…like a good drill sergeant,” he says with a laugh. ♦

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