Sunday, April 5, 2009

Music of the Civil War Era – to get you in the mood

The season is coming up fast - - - - -

It seems that most major wars tend to bring out the best in music. The Vietnam era of the 1960’s produced bands like the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Byrds, CCR, Mama’s and Papa’s, and the Rolling Stones, who amassed a remarkable collection of hit singles and/or albums, as did the Motown label in general. And we can’t forget all of the one hit wonders of the period.

The music of World War II is still as recognizable today by people of all ages as it was when first released. Who doesn’t know Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood,” or the Andrews Sisters “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy?” The big band sound flourished with other artists during this time period such as Benny Goodman, Harry James, and Louis Jordan, as did the vocal sounds of Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and Perry Como.

Thirty years before WWII was ‘The War To End All Wars,’ more commonly known as World War I. This period in time, too, produced a large selection of popular tunes that are still familiar to many people: “Over There,” “Oh Johnny Oh,” “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down On The Farm,” and “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary.” Artists like Al Jolson, Billy Murray, and Nora Bayes were the rave of their day.

Musically, the Civil War era was not unlike war times of the future. In fact, many songs played and sung during the 1860’s are still, over 140 years later, well known today.

One must remember that music of the 19th century was not perceived in the same way as we listen to it in our modern times. Obviously, there were no records, tapes, or CD’s available: it wasn’t until 1879 that Thomas Edison was able to record for posterity the human voice (anyone know what that very first recording was? A recitation of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’).

To listen to music during the era of the Civil War was to hear it live, either by a fife and drum corp while in camp, a brass band play in the village square on a hot summer night, a family member who could play the guitar, piano, or fiddle, or even hearing a lone voice singing to pass the time away. Sometimes learned by ear or, in many cases, played from sheet music purchased at a store or from a catalogue, it was in this way that the folk music of the period was passed along, family member to family member, parent to child to grandchild. There were no ‘hit songs’ in the way we recognize the phrase. No top 40 or oldies. All music belonged to everybody. Songs that were popular during the Revolutionary War such as “Yankee Doodle,” “Soldier Will You Marry Me,” “Road To Boston,” or “Barbara Allen” remained popular 90 years later during the War Between the States. The music told a story in song, many times encapsulating the events of the day (“Fifteen Miles On the Erie Canal” comes to mind).

Of course, during the Civil War, there were plenty of new tunes being composed such as “Dixie’s Land,” written shortly before the War began and was said to be one of President Lincoln’s favorites. Now just known as “Dixie,” it is as well known today as it was during the rebel uprising. But, although it has become the Southern National Anthem of sorts, the tune was written in New York City.

Like Dixie’s Land, many of the songs written in the period just before and during the war were distinctly north or south: Kingdom Coming, Battle Cry of Freedom, We Are Coming Father Abraham, I’m Nothing But A Plain Old Soldier, Marching Through Georgia, John Brown’s Body, and Just Before the Battle Mother were very popular in the north. Bonnie Blue Flag, The Bright Sunny South, Cumberland Gap, Goober Peas, and The Homespun Dress all have a decidedly southern flavor to them.

And then there were the songs that were very popular on both sides of the battle: Lorena, Johnny Is Gone For A Soldier, Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!, Why Have My Loved Ones Gone, Shady Grove, Wayfaring Stranger, and Bring My Brother Back To Me.

I also do not want to leave out what has become probably the most poignant tune of the Civil War – surprisingly written 130 years after the war ended – Ashokan Farewell by Jay Unger for Ken Burn’s phenomenal Civil War series on PBS. An amazing piece of music.

To listen to this music – both north and south – brings the Civil War home for me personally. One can hear the sorrow of the loved ones left behind as the boys marched off to battle in so many of the lyrics. And yet, the ‘pride for country’ in the patriotic numbers are as strong today as they were 140-odd years ago. To every Civil War event we head I throw on my music to help get me in the mood.

All of the above listed tunes are readily available on various CD’s and tapes by what I like to call musical re-enactors. A musical re-enactor, in my book, is one who faithfully interprets period music in the way that it may have originally been played or sung, whether in a music hall, home parlor, or in a camp.

For the Civil War era, here are a few musical re-enactors and their CD’s that I highly recommend. Most are available at many of the sutlers at the larger re-enactments like Jackson, as well as on or even at Greenfield Village:

Amy Miller & Carson Hudson Jr. - "Hard Times: Stephen Foster Remembered." My absolute favorite of any of my 60 or so Civil War era CD's. In fact, last year I dedicated a blog to this set. Stephen Foster Remembered It is very traditional - not professional - sounding, played on period instruments.

Camp Chase Fife and Drums – anything by them - the best out there for fife and drum music

Linda Russell – “Stephen Foster Civil War Songs” and “Stephen Foster Songs – Parlor, Minstrel, Dance, and Instrumentals.” Wonderful ‘upper-class’ style music done for the ‘rich folk.’ On period instruments to boot.

Wayne Erbsen – He has numerous Civil War CD’s, including “The Home Front,” “Love Songs of the Civil War,” “Ballads and Songs of the Civil War,” “Southern Soldier Boy,” and “Battlefield Ballads of the Civil War,” among others, all done in a very ‘little cabin home’ style.

Soundtrack: More Songs and Music from Gettysburg – Better than the original soundtrack. A mix of fife and drum, brass, and traditional vocals. Professional sounding.

Acoustic Shadows of the Blue and Gray – “Echoes Through Time”. Excellent sitting around the campfire style. All the hits all the time.

Dodworth Saxhorn Band – “Home Sweet Home.” Great brass band music – very traditional.

Jay Ungar & Molly Mason – “Civil War Classics: Live At Gettysburg College.” Another collection of the big hits of the period done in the traditional style. Includes ‘Hard Crackers.’

Soundtrack: Cold Mountain – This has perhaps the finest version of ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ I have ever heard, sung by Detroiter Jack White.

Jim Taylor – “The Civil War Collection.” A collection of parlor and dance instrumentals with period instruments.

Olde Towne Brass – “The Blue and Grey Olio.” Battlefield, concert hall, and parlor instrumentals. 36 known and not-so-well-known period dance tunes.

Camptown Shakers – “Tooth & Nail.” Very back woods with songs popular in both the north and south.

Colonial Traditions – “Early American Traditional Collection.” Colonial, yes, but many of the tunes were still played during the Civil War era. Hammered dulcimer instrumentals.

There are plenty more CD’s available. These are just a few of my particular favorites, and all are done as if they were recorded during that time.

Choose whatever style of music happens to appeal to you, but, as a re-enactor, do yourself a favor and purchase at least some period music. It truly adds to our moods as we travel to a re-enactment, and I’m certain it will do the same for you.


Mrs. G said...

We, too, enjoy the music of the era. And what about minstrel music, such as the Free and Accepted Minstrels of Old New Orleans? That morphed into the medicine show music which we also love! Good post. ;-)


Historical Ken said...

I will have to check minstrel music out. I'm not familiar with that style.
I find myself listening to period music more and more lately. There's just something about it...