Our new music feature Track by Track finds musicians delving into the deeper stories behind each track on their latest album.
Since being founded by Alex Blumberg and Matthew Lieber in 2014, Gimlet Media has become one of the biggest names in podcasting, with hits like Crimetown, Startup, and Reply All. Their latest achievement is Uncivil, a gripping series unearthing previously untold tales that reshape our vision of the Civil War. The debut episode of the pod, “The Raid”, just took home a Peabody Award for News, Radio, Podcast, and Public Service Programming.
But it wasn’t just the fascinating storytelling that earned Uncivil the recognition. The team behind the podcast’s soundtrack — Bobby Lord, Haley Shaw, Saidu Tejan-Thomas, and Matthew Boll — have been working hard to “better represent the stories being told and push the boundaries of what can be done with original music composition and sound design in audio storytelling,” as Boll puts it. They did so for Crimetown, again for the Mars Mission crew documentary The Habitat, and now for Uncivil.
Gimlet’s third official soundtrack release, the score for Uncivil came together on both sides of the Union/Confederacy line, from the Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina to Gimlet’s own studios in Brooklyn, New York. Together with collaborators including JC Brooks, Ann Caldwell & The Magnolia Singers, Rocko Walker, and the Mt. Zion Choir, the team created 14 tracks that are as captivating a listen as the podcast stories themselves. Blending neo-soul, spiritual, gospel, and even a bit of hip-hop, the truly original music pays homage to the Civil War era while fitting beautifully into this modern medium, a reminder that narration isn’t the only place where creativity shines in podcasting.
Take a listen to the whole thing below.
For more insight on how this remarkable album came together, Boll and Lord have broken down the Uncivil OST Track by Track.
Bobby Lord (Uncivil mix engineer and composer): This is one of the first tracks we made, and it’s based on the traditional African-American work song “It’s A Long John”. I originally based the remix off of the actual Alan Lomax recording of the workers singing, but our producer Saidu Tejan-Thomas (also a musician on the soundtrack) and host Chenjerai Kumanyika helped us to better represent black voices with purpose, rather than co-opt the uncredited and unpaid singers in the Lomax recording. In this spirit, we asked JC Brooks, a friend and popular Chicago musician, and Rocko Walker to record their own reworking of the Lomax recording.
Matthew Boll (Uncivil music director): In a lot of ways this song was the start of building the soundtrack for Uncivil. We used the original work song recording as the guide and then commissioned those two different artists to essentially cover the song. Bobby then cut up all the parts and basically wrote a composition around it. Because of this approach the score for the show became this collaboration of different parts with the voices of the artists we recorded leading the way.
“Ship of Zion”:
BL: We went to Charleston, South Carolina to record authentic gullah-style choirs to be the basis of Uncivil’s sound. (Gullah refers to the African-American people who live in the US Lowcountry). One of these choirs was the Mt. Zion Church Choir, and we were lucky enough to record them rehearsing in their beautiful church on Glebe Street. They did a version of an old hymn called “The Old Ship of Zion”, and this song is based around a vocal sample from the recording.
“Well Well Well”:
BL: The second choir we recorded in Charleston are called The Magnolia Singers, led by Ann Caldwell. We were lucky enough to record the five-piece group, made up of four women and one man, singing a bunch of their favorite hymns/standards. Uncivil host Chenjerai Kumanyika gave us a lot of neo-soul references when conceptualizing the shows sound, so this song is a good reflection of that.
“Hice Dah Winduh Nora”:
BL: Our producer Saidu Tejan-Thomas originally envisioned hearing black voices humming when he envisioned the sound of Uncivil. As Ann Caldwell and The Magnolia Singers sang this song, aka “Norah, Hist The Windah”, Saidu asked them if they could do it again, this time just humming.
MB: I think this was the first song we asked them to step outside the regular arrangement of the song and kind of riff on the harmonic structure. This really great choral thing happened. The singers had such a familiarity with this song it was amazing to see them walk around it like it was nothing. Of course Bobby then brought it back, took a beat from our studio sessions, and wrote the song around it again… turned out to be one of my favorite tracks.
“I Done Done”:
BL: This was one of the first songs made for the Uncivil soundtrack. I looped the bassist’s part in The Magnolia Singers’ version of “I Done Done What You Told Me To Do”, and started playing bass guitar under it. This informed the sound from there on out.
“Nobody’s Fault But Mine”:
BL: The earliest references for Uncivil’s sound were more hip-hop based than neo-soul. This is Ann Caldwell and The Magnolia Singers performing “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, originally written by Blind Willie Johnson, mashed up with one of the earlier, more hip-hop tracks.
“I Done That Too”:
BL: The spiritual sequel to “I Done Done” — made from the same Magnolia Singers track.
“Road So Lonesome”:
BL: This was originally a version of “I Wish I Was In Dixie”, aka “Dixie”, for our episode “The Song”. Co-host Jack Hitt said he wanted a version of “Dixie” that sounded like it was “walked into the gates of hell.” This idea was killed, and this song was repurposed with a sample from the Mt. Zion Choir.
“Run Children Run”:
BL: Based on another traditional work song, we mixed some Magnolia Singers singing together with music we recorded in New York to try to make a frantic, disconcerting atmosphere.
“Free At Last”:
BL: The sound of Uncivil became the intersection of Chenjerai’s original neo-soul vision and Saidu’s choral vision. This song, featured at the end of the episode “The Portrait”, is simply an unmodified version of The Magnolia Singers performing “Free At Last”. This one was too beautiful to mess with.
“Calid B x Ann C”:
MB: We have been working with Calid B’s music at Gimlet for the past year or so. He’s a great composer out of Chicago (and fun fact, wrote the theme song for our other podcast The Nod!). He provided some tracks to us for the show and one worked really well to mash up with Ann Caldwell’s voice.
“Can’t Help From Crying”:
BL: Based on another Blind Willie Johnson song, this is another Mt. Zion performance mixed with one of our neo-soul inspired tracks. Saidu likes this one and keeps it on his desktop.
“Hold My Dying Hand”:
MB: Haley Shaw (Gimlet engineer and composer), Bobby, Saidu and I spent a day at a studio in Chelsea, NY writing and recording a bunch of beats and progressions to use as sort of bed music throughout the show. In the end they were much more useful as beat samples to put the vocal recordings we made in South Carolina on. On this track, Saidu had set up this percussion circle and started playing this beat. Everything kind of fell in line behind it. The vocals on this track are from the Mt. Zion A.M.E. Choir.