Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Civil War Music: Themes for Yesterday and Today

Civil War music usually doesn’t enjoy the same popularity as other musical traditions of the American South. However, prominent Southerners such as Martin Luther King, Jr. have frequently used lyrics of Civil War songs to connect to our shared history as they emphasize ideas. Much like country music, blues, and gospel, music of the Civil War era can portray haunting themes of the American South with powerful language, alluring rhythms, and familiar characters.

Although Civil War music doesn’t often enjoy being the central focus of musical productions, it did when the Theater of the American South in Wilson, N.C., selected Civil War themes to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. “The Civil War in Song and Legend,” one of the productions, featured more than 40 songs of the Civil War era. It also showcased the musical talents of Bill Schustik, who bills himself as an American troubadour and often performs as a one-person show.

For this performance, Schustik was accompanied by the 17-member Unity Choir of St. John AME Zion Church (organized in 1868 as the first African-American church in Wilson) that sang harmony as well as lead vocals, and its soprano soloists provided a sweet contrast to Schustik’s rich baritone. In addition, The Many Thousand Gone Youth Chorus added 12 local youthful voices as they boosted the rhythm with toe-tapping beats.

During the performance at the Boykin Cultural Center (built in 1919), Schustik played a variety of folk instruments such as the banjo, guitar, dulcimer, drum, harmonica, and Jew’s harp. (Choir director Bill Myers also played the flute and melodica.) As Schustik moved among the instruments and changed from one musical style to another, he wove stories with his song selections to tell the history of a nation – divided between North and South – and personal narratives of the men and women who lived through or died in the Civil War.

Some songs such as “The Vacant Chair,” written to commemorate the death of soldier in 1861, were popular in both the North and the South. This song hauntingly depicts the loss at the family table:
We shall meet but we shall miss him.
There will be one vacant chair.
We shall linger to caress him,
While we breathe our ev’ning prayer.
Other songs such as “Goober Peas” acknowledge the tough duty of a southern soldier who often had little to eat except boiled peanuts (or “goober peas”), which frequently served as an emergency ration:
Just before the battle, the General hears a row.
He says, “The Yanks are coming, I hear their rifles now.”
He turns around in wonder, and what d'ya think he sees?
The Georgia Militia, eating goober peas.
“Lorena,” an antebellum song with Northern origins, was a favorite of soldiers of both sides because it expresses the longing for a wife or sweetheart back home. In fact, one Southern officer lamented that the song reduced his soldiers’ effectiveness because the mournful lyrics made them too homesick:
A hundred months have passed, Lorena,
Since last I held that hand in mine,
And felt the pulse beat fast, Lorena,
Though mine beat faster far than thine.
“Taps,” which concludes many military funerals today, was used by both Confederate and Union forces, although it was arranged by Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield in July 1862 to replace a previous French bugle call used to signal "lights out.”

Contraditions are inherent in some songs, such as “The Ballad of Shiloh Hill,” which is about the Battle of Shiloh (a biblical name that means “place of peace”) in southwestern Tennessee that resulted in 20,000 casualties in April 1862:

It was an awful struggle and will cause your blood to chill;
It was the famous battle that was fought on Shiloh Hill.

'Twas on the sixth of April, just at the break of day;
The drums and fifes were playing for us to march away.
The feeling of that hour I do remember still,
When first my feet were tromping on the top of Shiloh Hill.
Some music has definite religious connotations. “Nearer, My God, to Thee” was played by the Confederate army band as survivors of the disastrous Pickett’s Charge in the Battle of Gettysburg returned from their failed infantry assault on July 3, 1863. Another example is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” often used today as a patriotic song and included in many church hymnals; it which was created in 1861 by abolitionist Julia Ward Howe when she wrote new words to a military marching tune. The song’s lyrics appear in sermons and speaches of Martin Luther King, Jr. -- most notably in his last sermon “I've Been to the Mountaintop,” delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 on the night before his assassination. King's final public words, in fact, end with the first lyrics of the song, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The Civil War playlist is rich and includes boastful, mournful, and raucous songs. More noteworthy is how lyrics and songs are used today to represent a nation healed of Civil War divisions still seeks to attain a more perfect Union, an objective evident as the two-hour show ended with Shustik singing the little-known latter verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

For more resources on the Web related to Civil War music, consult the following:
American Civil War Music
Songs of the Confederacy

Music of the American Civil War


  1. wow!!!! I never thought that the Civil War had much to do with the music of the American South, and with Martin Luther King Jr.!!!!

  2. comment by Juan Carlos Lopez Jimenez