Music and especially singing played a major role in the American Civil War. It helped pass the time; it entertained and comforted; it kept memories of home and family fresh; it strengthened the bonds between comrades and helped forge new ones. Singing patriotic songs infused a sense of national identity and mission and spurred the emotional drive so necessary for an army to do its job.
Susan Dunn, soprano, and David Heid, piano, put together a lecture/recital program to introduce a sampling of the songs of the Civil War. This performance took place in the intimate space of Duke University's Nelson Music Room. Both members of Duke's Department of Music are highly regarded for their exceptional musical artistry.
The program opened with "Our Army Polka" by Lidy L. Johnson. It was the kind of ditty that reminded me of an up-right piano in a boisterous western saloon. Don't snigger – such places were the only resources of culture west of the big cities of the East in mid-19th century America. They often featured touring opera singers performing Mozart or Rossini arias, and this polka was a charming delight.
A group entitled "Songs of Patriotism" included, first, "The Bonnie Blue Flag" a marching song from 1861 that became exceedingly popular in the Confederacy. The words were written by Ulster-Scots entertainer Harry McCarthy, and the melody was taken from a song called "The Irish Jaunting Car." The unofficial first flag of the Confederacy was a blue flag with a single white star. The song sheet was first published in 1861 by A. E. Blackmar and Brother in New Orleans. When Union Major General Benjamin Butler captured New Orleans, he allegedly arrested Blackmar, fined him $500, destroyed all copies of the music, and ordered that anyone caught whistling or singing "The Bonnie Blue Flag" would be fined $25.
The second patriotic song was "Maryland, My Maryland," set to the tune of Lauriger Horatius (the German carol, "O Tannenbaum"). The lyrics are from a nine-stanza poem written by James Ryder Randall in 1861. The song's words refer to Maryland's history and geography and calls for Maryland to fight the Union. It was used across the South during the Civil War as a marching battle hymn and has been the controversial state song of Maryland since 1939.
"Songs of the Soldiers," the second grouping, featured songs that found their way into the culture in different versions. "Shule Agra" was the original Irish version of "Johnny is Gone for a Soldier." In slightly different renditions, this song was popular in the Revolutionary War as well as the Civil War and has been sung by recent artists such as Pete Seeger and James Taylor.
"Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye" and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" are two slightly different songs that derive from the same root and have maintained popularity as anti-war anthems. Recordings of note include Bud and Travis (1960), The Clancy Brothers (1961), Susan Dunn (1982), Joan Baez (1993), and several others. Dunn's mellow voice and Heid's artistry at the piano proved a special treat in these performances.
The next grouping of songs that played roles in the Civil War consisted of "Songs of the Slaves." Two of these wondrous spirituals with double meanings were "Follow the Drinking Gourd" (understood to mean the big dipper pointing to the north and freedom) and "Steal Away to Jesus," which also had hidden codes directing slaves in their efforts to escape. This was clearly a highlight on the program with Dunn's soaring voice, both powerful and radiant, and Heid's awesome embellishments in the accompaniment.
The program closed with a grouping of three songs under the heading "Songs of the Parlor." These were songs that were popular with those who were well-off enough to afford a parlor piano that had undergone significant technical advances in the early 1800s. "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh," written by Will S. Hays for Harpers Weekly, may have been inspired by the legend of John Lincoln Clem, who claimed he ran away from home at the age of 9 and tried to enlist in the Union Army. Rejected because of his age, he tagged along anyway and won respect and affection. He was allowed to enlist as a drummer-boy at the age of 12 and retired from the Army in 1915.
"Just Before the Battle, Mother" was composed by George F. Root, an American who became particularly successful during the Civil War with more than 35 hits including "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp," "The Battle Cry of Freedom," and "Just Before the Battle, Mother" which, as you may imagine, reflects the woeful thoughts of a soldier saying farewell if he should be numbered among the slain.
In the same vein, "Weeping Sad and Lonely" (the words of the chorus of which are "When This Cruel War Is Over"), by Henry Tucker, refers to the same sentiments, but from the point of view of those back home. These songs helped a nation grieve, both South and North, and much of it there was. Well over a million copies of the sheet music of this song were sold.
These songs, part of the cruel history of those days from 1861-65, became a part of the spirit and character of the nation we live in today. We express our thanks to Dunn and Heid for an outstanding program in giving them a fresh life for us.