Among the songs that M.J. Albacete, executive director of Canton Museum of Art, took from his personal collection for a program about “Music of the Civil War” is “The Conquered Banner,” a melody lamenting the South’s loss of the war.
By Gary Brown
Posted Sep 20, 2011 @ 07:00 AM
Music, it seems, was almost as important to Civil War soldiers as their muskets.
“Both North and South used music extensively during the Civil War to rally troops, as recreation, to march by, and many other reasons,” notes the introduction to a lesson plan on Civil War Music, adapted from Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War,” that PBS makes available at its website.
“Frequently both sides would borrow each other’s tunes or lyrics,” the website continues. “It was not uncommon for each side to serenade the other, or for battle to stop while an impromptu concert was held.”
We’ve all heard songs that we might never have known originated from the Civil War. PBS teaches its online students that “probably the most famous Civil War-era song” was “Battle Hymn of the Republic, for which Julia Ward Howe used the music of an abolitionist song, “John Brown’s Body.”
M.J. Albacete, executive director of Canton Museum of Art, will present a program on the “Music of the Civil War” twice this month that will offer an even more contemporary tie to the tunes of the War Between the States.
Elvis Presley’s hit song “Love Me Tender” uses the music of a Civil War ballad, “Aura Lee.”
BORN FROM EXHIBIT
Albacete will present his “Music of the Civil War” program at 7 p.m. Thursday at North Canton Civil Center and at about noon Sept. 27 at Massillon Museum. He previously presented the program to Canton Rotary Club.
The talk, which includes recordings of Civil War music, was born of the Museum of Art’s current exhibit, “A Nation Divided,” which recognizes the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
“When we started putting together the exhibition, I tried to think of a program that could complement it,” said Albacete, who long has been an avid listener of early American music.
In fact, the music presented in the program largely is taken from Albacete’s personal collection of Civil War music.
“Over the years I’ve collected CDs of Civil War music,” he said. “After listening to enough of it, trying to develop a program, I started to see that there is a pattern in it, a very interesting pattern.”
Civil War music, as does Albacete’s program, traces the successes and failures — the overall feeling of soldiers and civilians — as the war was waged over four years.
“It starts with real optimistic and exciting music,” said Albacete, “which kind of represented the idea that the war was only going to last a short time and it was going to be glorious and wonderful.”
Such songs as “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” alternately known as “Rally Around the Flag, Boys,” is an example of the huge orchestral numbers that musically represented the belief by both Northerners and Southerners that they would win the war.
“Then there was the music on the battlefield of soldiers having fun.” said Albacete. “Tunes like ‘Eatin’ Goober Peas.’
The song includes such lyrics as “Peas, peas, peas peas, eating goober peas,” words that hardly strike a somber tone.
“There even was a song called ‘The Invalid Corps’ that made fun of the 4-Fs that got dumped out (of the army).”
But, such light tunes were followed by much more sentimental music.
“The soldiers missed their families and loved ones,” explained Albacete, adding that those left at home missed or mourned their husbands and fathers.
Such songs as “Weeping Sad and Lonely” resulted from those feelings.
“The music score for that song sold more than a million copies in print,” Albacete noted.
The “Music of the Civil War” program becomes even more subdued, said Albacete, with songs of death on the battlefield.
“Soldiers were losing friends, losing relatives,” said Albacete, who recalls one such sad song in his program that is entitled “With My Brother in the Battle,” which was written by Stephen Foster in 1862.
“Tell me. tell me, weary soldier, will he never come gain,” lyrics in the chorus ask, “did he suffer ’mid the wounded or die among the slain?”
Some songs during the Civil War related the slave experience, Albacete noted.
“There were songs that mocked the slaves and songs that called for liberation of the slaves,” he said, “And there were songs that were written by the slaves themselves.”
The hopeful “No More Auction Block for Me,” is among the latter.
“Then came the songs of victory for the North, such as “Marching Through Georgia,” and the songs of losing the battle from the South, some of them very bitter, such as “The Conquered Banner.”
The hymnlike song is set to the words of a poem by the Rev. Abram J. Ryan, and begins with the words, “Furl that Banner, for ’tis weary; Round its staff ’tis drooping dreary.” “Another that’s very bitter is ‘I’m a Good Old Rebel Soldier,’ ” Albacete said. “It kind of curses the Union and the Constitution.”
Albacete’s program ends patriotically, but in a manner that is historically accurate, considering that the nation lost more than 600,000 lives during the Civil War, including that of its leader. “It ends,” he said, “with the ‘Funeral March of Abraham Lincoln.’ ”