Local musician Mike Beresh, mastermind and frontman for Volumes I and II of Letters to Baltimore From the War, has initiated a work that bridges the experiences of World War II to those of the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Volume I draws on letters from Beresh’s great uncles, Walter and Henry, both of whom shipped out from Highlandtown to Europe and lost their lives in battle in the mid-1940s. For Volume II, Beresh and guitarist/singer/harmonica player Adam Miller of Lawnchair worked with the Veteran Artist Program at 225 S. Robinson St., and sat down with more recent veterans, and in one case, a Gold Star Mother.
“World War II is almost at this mythological point, and Volume II is now, and somehow a bit more tangible and real,” said Miller.
“The emotion is a bit more raw.”
On Oct. 20, Beresh and Miller—with bandmates Todd Boyle, Chris Pumphrey, Bob Brooks,, and Greg Pardew—will attempt to connect the catalogued past with the chaotic present, when they play both volumes of Letters to Baltimore From the War together for the first time at the Windup Space, 12 W. North Ave. Tickets are available at www.brownpapertickets.com.
“We did a concert for Volume I, and we did one for Volume II,” said Beresh. “Now we’re doing one for both.”
Beresh also fronts the Country Devils, an alternative country group, and Volume I—with acoustic guitars, harmonicas, and other “country” instruments—largely reflects that influence. For Volume II, Beresh reached out to renowned musicians from a range of genres in the Baltimore music scene.
“I basically just picked musicians from my favorite local bands,” said Beresh. “You don’t generally get the avant-garde jazz guys hanging out with the country guys.”
“How often do you get a pedal steel and a trumpet together?” added Miller.
Although music is second nature to these guys, they took great pains to accurately and effectively convey the still-raw emotions of the four soldiers and one Gold Star Mother referenced in Volume II. Beresh found the task extremely daunting.
“I was overwhelmed, to say the least,” he said. “I called Adam and said, ‘I need help please.’”
Through the Veteran Artist Program, Beresh had conversations with Tracy Miller, mother of Marine Corporal Nicholas Ziolkowski, who died in the Battle of Fallujah.
“How do you ask these questions?” said Beresh. “It’s kind of shaky ground to walk on.”
Two songs deal with Ziolkowski’s story—one from his mother’s perspective, and one from his own perspective. In “Heavy Burdens,” written to take place in the midst of the Battle of Fallujah, the crux quote “This is what I wanted; this is what I chose” illustrates the 22-year-old soldiers convictions as told to his mother.
For a completely different narrative, Miller wrote the song “Freedom” about Jeremy Johnson, a soldier at the time of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
“He basically told,” said Miller. “The crux was his letter to his commanding officer, telling him he was homosexual.”
After the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Johnson re-enlisted.
“He’s an intense guy, a heavy character,” said Beresh of Johnson, who attended the first concert of Volume II in November of last year. “It takes conviction, basically.”
Both Beresh and Miller write songs as well as perform them, and both have a quick-and-dirty approach to songwriting.
“I try not to rewrite songs too much,” said Beresh.
“They lose the earnestness of the original thought,” added Miller.
For more information, visit www.letterstobaltimorefromthewar.blogspot.com
by Erik Zygmont