Ben Glover and The Orphan Brigade: Soundtrack to a Ghost Story
The Orphan Brigade is a ghost story set in one of the most haunted dwellings of the Southern United States of America. It is an award winning documentary that follows a group of musicians over the course of a year.
The group The Orphan Brigade were writing and recording a collection of songs telling the story of the people who lived and died, in Octagon Hall in Kentucky – the owners, the slaves, the soldiers; it’s a story of war, childhood, fear, courage, tragedy and survival.
The Orphan Brigade, aka the 1st Kentucky Brigade of the Confederate Army, were known to have stayed near Octagon Hall during the Civil War. Octagon Hall’s owner, a known Confederate sympathiser, and all other occupants of the house, are rumoured to have suffered desperately because of that support for Confederate troops.
Glenarm singer song-writer Ben Glover was one of the musicians involved in the musical project, and he was keen to point out that the soldiers’ stories aren’t the only voices that are heard in the music. “We felt a very strong connection with all the characters associated with the house, not just the soldiers. This album is much more than just the story of that particular brigade. In many ways we took the name The Orphan Brigade to represent the universal soldier rather than the actual soldiers who were stationed there.”
This is not the only reason why Ben, who is now based in Nashville, was so keen to be involved. “It was a fascination with Octagon Hall, the magnetism of the house, the history of the place and the allure of its reputation. It was also a great artistic challenge. The idea of writing and creating an album in such a fascinating location fired me up. I wanted the opportunity to tap into its unique atmosphere.”
Ben wrote all but one of the album’s tracks with Joshua Britt and Neilson Hubbard. There were six more members to the core group including Kim Richey, and further support from musicians including Gretchen Peters. “It was the first project that I was involved in that was a proper collective, so I felt a great sense of relief in that the responsibility of everything wasn’t on my shoulders as it is when I put out a solo project. I reveled in working with this collaboration, from Neilson, Josh and I writing the songs to being part of an eight piece band. It was very liberating and inspiring for me.”
“It’s always very special to collaborate with an artist as immense as Gretchen (Peters)” he added. “As well as singing on a few of the songs, she did an amazing job of narrating the film documentary. Her voice was so compelling and her delivery so intuitive that it made her perfect.”
The reputation of the house still appears to have some resonance today. “I’m not sure what any of the things I saw or experienced in the house were, or what they convinced me of. All I know is that we witnessed some weird things, including dark masses that looked like shadows moving across the walls, voices, laughter, banging, footsteps, objects moving on their own accord, mood /energy changes, and we captured images in photographs that are very bizarre.”
How do you sleep with all that going on? “We visited the house on and off for a year but didn’t actually sleep there,” he explained. “We did spend full nights there writing and working but there’s no way I could have slept in the house. It’s impossible to switch your mind off there and it’s too unsettling to rest. Neilson and Josh did attempt to spend a night there during the recording but twenty minutes into it they heard what sounded like a woman cackling and laughing, at which point they realised that sleep was not going to come easy!”
From the beautiful but ominously mutable ‘Last June Light’ to the Pentecostal work song that is ‘Sweetheart’, each track carries something; a story, a hint of Octagon’s presence, the weight of its history. ‘Oh Harriet (Trouble My Heart)’, named after the mistress of Octagon Hall, is a banjo laden, hot, sweaty desire of a song. While the traditional Irish ‘Paddy’s Lamentation’ highlights Ben’s voice, offering a background to the Irish involved in the American Civil War.
The website says “The house became a symbol of how we are all haunted by the things that we cannot let go of.” I asked Ben what they mean by that. “If indeed the house is haunted then there are presences, energies there that are not free and that are prisoners of that place. In the same way if we do not let go of our past, our history, then we continue to be haunted and tormented in our lives. Freedom only comes with the letting go of the past. That applies to houses and humans.”
In July of this year, the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina State House after years of protest and a tragic shooting. I wanted to know if themes like these were an issue when they were considering this project. “That flag was carried on one side of the battlefield but this album is concerned with many different perspectives. These are the stories of soldiers from both armies, the personal experiences of the family in the house, the slaves who worked here and children who witnessed it. War affects everyone regardless what side they are on. That is a timeless and universal truth.”
Photography: Jim DeMain