Sunday, April 8, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 8: Civil War songs

Sometime around the beginning of 1945, Faulkner's editor and friend Malcolm Cowley wrote to him commenting on a set of recordings of songs from the Civil War. His letter and Faulkner's reply are included in Cowley's The Faulkner-Cowley File: Letters and Memories. 1944-1962 (1966). Cowley wrote:

I had been listening to an album of records, "Songs of the North" and "Songs of the South." The Confederate songs, I said, had disappointed me, with a few exceptions like "Eating Goober Peas," which had been sung by the starved men in the trenches at Vicksburg; most of the others seemed to have only a marginal connection with the soldiers. The Union songs, on the other hand, were immensely better than the army songs of World Wars I and II (except "Lili Marlene"), and even better than those of the volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, though the International Brigades had some good ones. The Union songs had primitively stirring melodies, ideal for a regimental band. Their lyrics, though written in clumsy doggerel, expressed the whole sequence of emotion in the armies, from the first brash confidence and hurrah of "We Are Coming, Father Abram," through the boredom and grousing of the camps in northern Virginia ("They Grafted Him into the Army"), the longing for home, the grief for the dead ("There Will Be One Vacant Chair"), and the immense war weariness of the year 1864 (as revealed in "Tenting Tonight," a great song that might be sung by any army of tired veterans, fighting for any cause), to the bursting hope of "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys Are Marching" and the wild exultation (but in a minor key) of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." The Northern armies had sung themselves into popular legend. But eighty years later, I said —

The situation in our own time had been completely reversed. Not songs but novels about the Civil War had been pouring out in a flood, and they were mostly Southern novels. Not only were the Northern ones a minority, but most of them were feeble and conciliatory, like Hervey Allen's Action at Aquila, while the Southern books were defiant, dramatic, and rich in characters, so that they had easily conquered the reading public. And why this change? I asked Faulkner. Why were the Southern army songs less effective than the Northern ones (not to mention that many of them were written by Northern minstrels, like the author of "Lorena"), while the Civil War novels of our time were indubitably Southern and seemed to be whining the war that was lost at Appomattox?
Various recordings of Civil War songs are available. My own favorite complilation is the Folkways collection, Songs of the Civil War. It includes several the songs Cowley mentions there, and features Pete Seeger, Bill McAdoo and Cisco Houston, among other performers.

There is also a Columbia collection also called Songs of the Civil War with various artists, including Hoyt Axton, Kate McGarrigle, Ronnie Gilbert, John Hartford and Sweet Honey in the Rock. John Hartford's is a beautiful rendition, as is Johnny Cash's version on his bicentennial album, America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song. It's hard to beat the sound of Cash's distinctive voice on a sad, romantic tune like that.

Irwin Silber, the founder and owner of Folkways Records, is a hero of American music. He collected a wide variety of folk songs, including many by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. He willed the entire set of masters to the Smithsonian Institute, with the stipulation that all titles would have to remain permanently in print. The
Smithsonian Folkways Collection fulfills that obligation for the titles that are not currently being pressed as CDs by making them available by special order, and at a decent price.

Silber also wrote liner notes for his Civil War songs collection. He argued that the Civil War produced some rapid innovations in American popular music. For example:

One of the most fascinating aspects of Civil War music is the sentimental song. The maudlin and melancholic popular ballads of the late 19th Century were descendants of an era vhich catapulted pathos and sentimentality into a national musical idiom. Five such songs from the vast lachrymose literature have been selected for this record set. "Weeping Sad and Lonely," "Just Before the Battle, Mother," and "Who Will Care For Mother Now" were all incredibly popular, with sheet music sales reportedly running more than a million copies for each song. While all three were the products of Northern composers, the songs enjoyed equal favor on both sides of the battie-lines, and many a Rebel thought that Confederate composers had been responsible for the songs. Vastly popular also, was "The Vacant Chair." Of the Southern-created songs of sentiment, the most widely popular was "Somebody's Darling," which also appears in this collection.
"Somebody's Darling" is performed on the Folkways collection by Elizabeth Knight and The Harvesters, on the Columbia collection by Kathy Mattea.

Silber writes of the popular music of the time:

In l86l, in those fierce and turbulent months when the Union was falling apart, America's music was struggling to break through the thick crust of its European legacy. True, for the two decades preceding the Civil War, a few gifted tune smiths bad begun to write a new kind of music. It was a zestful, lively, tuneful, rhythmic music composed of plaintive plantation chants and energetic pioneer shouts, seasoned liberally with a healthy dash of Irish and Scottish melody, with traces of French and German song idioms occasionally audible. Such men as Stephen Collins Foster and Daniel Decatur Emmett had discovered the rich melodic and rhythmic patterns of the Southern Negro and had begun to fashion them into a music which the world had never heard before. On the minstrel stages in the big cities and in small meetinghouses on the lonesome frontier, an indigenous American music was growing. ...

It was with the Civil War that the music of the Negro began to penetrate fully the national consciousness and play the decisive role it eventually assumed in the emergence of a distinctively American musical idiom, combining with the Scotch-Irish-Anglo-Saxon tradition which had been, up until then, the main form of musical expression of white America. It was, by no means, an overnight development. Many songs of Civil War America continued to reflect the European heritage. But where America of 1312-I8l4 produced, as its most lasting musical memory, the patriotic verses written to the nelody of an old English drinking song, which eventually became our national anthem, from the Civil War emerged such undeniably American works (in "both tune and lyric) as "John Brown's Body," "Dixie," "The Battle Cry of Freedom," and "Marching Through Georgia." (my emphasis)
In that connection, Paul Robeson's renditions of African-American spirituals are especially interesting in that regard. Sterling Stuckey writes of Robeson's youth in Princeton("Paul Robeson and Richard Wright on the Arts and Slave Culture" in Slavery and the American South, Winthrop Jordan, ed.;2003):

Despite their poverty, he found among the ex-slaves and sharecroppers folk wit and tale and the joy of laughter. Theirs was a world in which the home was concert stage, theater, and social center where the whole range of Negro music was heard: songs of trials and triumphs, of love and longing, hymn-song and ragtime ballad, gospels and blues, and the "healing comfort of the illimitable sorrow of the Spirituals." The Robesons, together with others, cherished spirituals and blues at a time when many in the black middle class, seeking approval from whites, shunned them. That they sang blues as well as spirituals was by then exceptional, especially in the home of a preacher. During slavery, the two musics enjoyed a closer relationship than is generally conceived today, and Paul's father continued that tradition, so Paul did not conclude, as some students of slave music have, that the spirituals were sacred, while the blues were profane and the devil's music.
This direct association with former slaves (his own father had been a slave) and his openness to their experiences and culture had major effects on his own music. When Robeson sang spirituals, he made a point of using original dialect:

Robeson knew that Negro dialect was the language of the slave artist/field hand, an aspect of slavery not yet touched on by students of slavery. Like W. E. B. Du Bois, he rejected the view, popular among some Reconstruction historians, that modern black culture owes more to developments from Reconstruction than to slave culture. As explicitly and precisely as Du Bois in Black Reconstruction, Robeson, recognizing himself as a direct and natural beneficiary of vital aspects of the artistic heritage of his ancestors, remarked: "The spirituals and Negro dialect were also part of my earliest background. My father was the minister of a small Negro community, and so the spirituals must have been known to me before I was born. I 'learned' Negro dialect and the spirituals as I learned to talk and walk and breathe and sing." Apparently no attempt by others to encourage him to sing spirituals like a white man made much of an impression. Thus, in his voice as he sang spirituals, the world came to hear, perhaps without knowing it, the projection of slave vocal potential and fulfillment, of which his ex-slave father's voice provided a prime example. (my emphasis)
I agree with Cowley's view of "Tenting Tonight" as "a great song that might be sung by any army of tired veterans, fighting for any cause". It's actually one of my favorite popular songs. And it is really kind of a timeless antiwar song. The Folkways set has a fine version by Pete Seeger, sung in the high voice at which he was adapt. (Pete is still alive and still singing, but the years have reduced his vocal range.) "Tenting Tonight" was popular among both Union and Confederate troops.

Both Songs of the Civil War collections include what is thought to be a Reconstruction-era parody of an unreconstucted and unreconstructable Southerner,"Oh I'm a Good Old Rebel", the Folkways version sung by Herman Nye, the Columbia version by Hoyt Axton. Well, it was a parody according to historian Shelby Foote, who says it was written by Confederate Major Innes Randolph, according to the Columbia liner notes. It's safe to say, though, that it does reflect the Lost Cause attitude:

Oh, I'm a good old rebel
Now that's just what I am
And for this Yankee nation
I do not give a damn
I'm glad I fought again' her
I only wish we'd won
I ain't asked any pardon
For anything I've done

Three hundred thousand Yankees
Is stiff in Southern dust
We got three hundred thousand
Before they conquered us
They died of Southern fever
And Southern steel and shot
I wish they were three million
Instead of what we got

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