Octagon Hall is a Civil War-era plantation house in Franklin, Kentucky, built by Confederate sympathizer Andrew Jackson Caldwell in the mid-19th century. Like many of the living reminders of that era, the house is full of stories of warfare and slavery, of humanity twisted and broken in the name of a comparatively trivial goal. The First Kentucky Brigade were stationed there during the war and it has become something of a legend how the wounded were hidden in crawlspaces and underneath stairs, while soldiers on both sides of the fight poisoned wells and livestock in order to starve their enemies. The Octagon Hall and surrounding area was the site of incredible atrocities, and the energy of those starving, tortured, murderous people still remains there to this day.
Joshua Britt (Farewell Drifters) grew up in the area hearing the famous stories, and for some years his Uncle has owned the building, previously operating it as a Civil War museum. But he thought little of it until the power went out during a recording session on Music Row in 2013, alongside long-time collaborator Neilson Hubbard. The pair began telling ghost stories, and after Hubbard took Britt to visit Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville (a reportedly haunted tuberculosis hospital), Britt decided to introduce his producer to Octagon Hall.
“On our first night there we knew there was something special about the place,” Britt tells me about the building that inspired both an album and a documentary. “It sounded beautiful and had such wild stories living in it.” They found themselves repeatedly drawn to the house and soon Hubbard had brought another collaborator, Americana artist Ben Glover, to join them. Glover, who hails from Ireland but has been living in the United States for some years, had stumbled across an old Irish folk ballad called ‘Paddy’s Lamentation’ and set about recording it at Octagon Hall. “It tells the tragic tale of an Irish emigrant leaving home and sailing to America to pursue a new life,” Glover explains to me. “As soon as he reached the docks in the US he was conscripted to fight for the Union army. It’s such [a] poignant, powerful lesson of how war can destroy a person’s life, and how it can crush their liberty.” Britt met Glover for the first time during that test recording session, and it was at that moment that all three men realized they were onto something great.
They began staying at Octagon Hall for a couple of days at a time, writing songs inspired by the journals and poetry left behind by the soldiers who fought there. Naming themselves the Orphan Brigade after the nickname of the First Kentucky Brigade, they found themselves fascinated by the intense energy present in the house. Britt in particular became more open to the existence of ghosts after multiple unexplained experiences. “I still can’t explain what these things are but a few big events made me believe it’s not just in my head,” he says. “One of which was the picture of the little girl that Jim DeMain took. A friend of Neilson’s named Zeita came up and said she was seeing a little girl peeking around a doorway in the dark. We were all looking at the doorway and seeing a movement but I definitely didn’t see a little girl. Then Jim took a picture and on his viewfinder I saw the little girl’s face in the doorway right in front of me. I couldn’t deny it.” He continues, “To me this is one of the best of those “evidence” photos I have ever seen and I was right there seeing that it wasn’t tampered with.”
Glover, meanwhile, describes ghosts as emotionally or spiritually unresolved energies that are stuck between two existences. “For some reasons those eight walls are holding an awful lot of energy that is stuck and trapped in time,” he muses. “My experience there has taught me that if we do not let go of our personal history and tragedies it will continue to haunt us.”
Once the songs were written, the trio decided to bring in a number of friends to get this gradually developing album down on record. Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey, Heather Donegan, Kris Donegan, Dean Marold, Danny Mitchell and Eamon McLoughlin joined Britt, Hubbard and Glover up at the house for recording stint that lasted around a week. “Neilson and I tried to sleep there but always ended up freaking out and sleeping in our cars outside,” Britt notes on the intense experience of being there for any length of time.
That darkness and heaviness transfers to the album, a 15-track journey through the stories that keep Octagon Hall so alive even to this day. Part artistic interpretation of the soldiers’ own experiences, part reflection on the ghosts that remain years on, the spooky, haunting feel of the record is as much to do with what inspired it as it is to do with the fantastic instrumentation and arrangements that bring the songs to life. On multiple occasions the group harmonies are enough to paint a picture of army and solidarity, even as they cause destruction to their brothers on the opposing side. Tracks like ‘Whistling Walk,’ which is lyric-less but inspired by the story of Octagon Hall slaves being made to whistle while carrying food so their owners would know they weren’t eating it; and ‘Good Ole Flag,’ which cheerfully celebrates marching in the name of patriotism, are carefully constructed to convey a sense of union, as flawed as that union was.
The reading and interpreting of these accounts led to a greater understanding for the musicians of just what these soldiers faced. Britt cites ‘I’ve Seen The Elephant’, a gritty but jazzy swing of a song, as one of his favorites. “Back in the 1800s in Kentucky when a war veteran described seeing war for the first time to new recruits he would say that he had ‘seen the elephant’,” he explains. “When I read through these old writings from the soldiers I realized that most of these boys had never seen an actual elephant. They were looking to war as adventure and what they found was madness and death.” Such a sentiment of innocence turned bloody is reflected in the Kim Richey-led ‘The Story You Tell Yourself,’ which finds soldiers lying to themselves about the reasons they fight in an attempt to justify their horrendous actions. More sinisterly, Glover reflects, “One of the most striking things I learned was that these young soldiers knew deeply what they believed in and were willing to die for it. Their commitment to the cause was so profound that it eradicated their compassion and humanity to their fellow countrymen.”
But it wasn’t just the casualties of war that influenced the Orphan Brigade in making the record. The effect of slavery and past owners of the house who oversaw such suffering merely added to what Glover calls the “magnetism” of the house. In particular, Andrew Jackson Caldwell’s widow Harriet, who continued to run Octagon Hall until her death in 1918 (52 whole years after his), is said to haunt the building. In fact, paranormal investigators who visited during the project said that her spirit had taken a particular liking to Glover. This inspired the album’s lead single ‘Oh Harriet (Trouble My Heart)’, a raspy, raucous stomp of a song that was nominated for Best Original Song at the Nashville Film Festival.
It also serves as the window into something else that came out of the group’s visits to the house. Once recording had begun and there were multiple people involved, they got a friend to start bringing a camera to document the sessions. In addition to that they were using the footage to capture the sounds of ghosts that they could use on record, and they gradually accumulated so much material that they began to organize it into documentary form. Once completed, the documentary began winning awards at various film festivals and was screened in theaters around the country. Now it is being released to the general public, alongside the accompanying album that started it all.
“It started with a fascination and then it grew into a much wider story,” Hubbard reflects. “We were talking about much more than ghosts and history. We were talking about bigger and wider themes that reach into the core of us all, personally. In an effort to explain that process, we realized we were making a documentary. The journey of the record and film is one of inward self-reflection, not just a ghost hunt.”
‘Octagon Hall,’ as Neilson Hubbard notes, is an album that uses one conceptualized case study to reach out to the human in all of us, the human who grapples with morality and how it measures up to our own beliefs and demons, the things we cannot let go of. Sonically textured, deep, dark and yet full of the hope and light that continues to guide soldiers to their own twisted destiny, it is a perfect piece of Americana and a fascinating examination of the effects of warfare.
The Orphan Brigade’s ‘Octagon Hall’ hits stores on November 6.