Over at our Civil War blog, we’ve got a guest post today from Civil War music historian Christian McWhirter. Music was everywhere during the Civil War. Tunes could be heard ringing out from parlor pianos, thundering at political rallies, and setting the rhythms of military and domestic life. With literacy still limited, music was an important vehicle for communicating ideas about the war, and it had a lasting impact in the decades that followed. Drawing on an array of published and archival sources, McWhirter’s book analyzes the myriad ways music influenced popular culture in the years surrounding the war and discusses its deep resonance for both whites and blacks, South and North. Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War is now available in paperback.
Generally speaking, Civil War music is now a cottage industry. Re-enactor bands and professional musicians occasionally release albums that can be found in battlefield park or museum gift shops (and on the ever-reliable Amazon) but these are usually small-scale affairs. It is rare that the mainstream music industry engages with this subgenre. During the folk revival of the mid twentieth century, some of the war’s tunes resurfaced (several artists, including Pete Seeger, released an album of Civil War tunes in 1960, and Bob Dylan has recorded a version of “Dixie”) and they’ve popped up here and there since then (Elvis Presley’s “American Trilogy” is the most prominent example, and Ry Cooder’s slow rendition of “The Battle Cry of Freedom” on Boomer’s Story is excellent) but Civil War music has largely remained the property of musicologists and musical antiquarians. The only other notable exception is the 1978 country album, White Mansions, which did not use actual Civil War music but tried to tell the story of the Confederacy through original pieces. Despite a strong roster led by Waylon Jennings, the compilation was overly maudlin and steeped in the Lost Cause.
All of that changed recently with the release of Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War—a well-budgeted two-disc compilation of Civil War tunes interpreted by a host of well- and lesser-known country and bluegrass musicians. The track listing represents a broad sample both chronologically (some songs are from before the war, some songs came after the war) and stylistically. White, black, northern, and southern perspectives are all represented, as are the homefront and battlefront. Producer Randall Poster clearly aimed for an inclusive approach in his song selection and this pays real dividends for listeners.
Before proceeding any further, let me say that the album is musically excellent—a real pleasure. There is hardly a dud in the bunch and everyone involved sounds engaged and eager to maintain the album’s overall tone. That tone, however, can sometimes be problematic and merits further analysis. While Divided & United does a fine job entertaining listeners and sharing the Civil War’s music, academics and educators seeking to use it as a resource should proceed with caution.
Read the full blog post at UNCPressCivilWar150.