A War of Songs

  • By Philip Gerard
  • Photography by 19th-Century American Sheet Music Collection, Music Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

From battlefields to minstrel shows, music becomes a rallying cry of loyalty and motivation. But as deaths and hopelessness mount, the songs convey a haunting sense of loss
(Volume 2, Part 2)

I-Wish-I-Was-in-Dixie's-Land

America in 1860 is enjoying a spirited musical age, and so its new war becomes a musical war.

Music is played, sung, and heard everywhere: in the theater houses, in genteel parlors, on street corners, aboard riverboats, in churches and social halls, in slave cabins deep in the heart of the plantation South, on the crooked front porches of Appalachian homesteads, in lessons chanted in rustic schoolrooms, and at the fraternity sings of college chapter houses. Those who join the armies have no contradiction between the urge to sing and play songs and the urge to destroy the enemy. They are mostly amateur soldiers, trained for just a few weeks, if at all, before battle. Their average age is 18. They bring into the armies their civilian habits, their hobbies and pastimes, their baseballs and banjos.

Above all, they carry with them their songs.

Their families sing them off to war, and their own singing now unites them in their brotherhood of death.

One out of every 1,500 Americans owns a piano, a prized possession in many North Carolina homes. Girls play after supper for their families and guests, although in aristocratic circles public performance is considered vulgar. Young women also learn to sing, and they entertain guests with sentimental airs and ballads, story songs with numerous long, complicated verses punctuated by short, memorable choruses. The performances are private — parlor music meant to edify fathers, brothers, and male suitors. Musical training is thought to complete a well-bred girl’s character, so long as she doesn’t grow too proficient and come to crave a life on the stage.

The 1860 U.S. Census identifies 25 pianoforte makers in North Carolina — more than twice the number of sailmakers or agricultural-implement manufacturers. But in the whole state, only two men make other kinds of musical instruments, and none build guitars. Five-string banjos, adapted decades ago from the African “banjar,” are mostly homemade, though they can be bought from a drum maker in Baltimore, Maryland, named William Boucher. The playing style is a syncopated clawhammer method originally learned from slaves, although a softer finger-style of pinching the strings between thumb and fingers is catching on.

North and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, choral groups are wildly popular. Men and women sing music arranged for a solo tenor or baritone melody, accompanied by a four-part harmony on the chorus.

Minstrel shows are the fashion on big-city stages and travel with the riverboats into the hinterlands of the Midwest and South. The genre debuted in New York City in 1843, when the Virginia Minstrels promised their patrons a lively experience of “Ethiopian” entertainment showcasing the “oddities, peculiarities, eccentricities, and comicalities of that Sable Genus of Humanity.”

The three-act productions are written mostly by white Northerners who have never set foot on a plantation. They include jokes and slapstick routines, satirical speeches and ridiculous repartee, all spoken by stock characters in thick dialect for comic effect, interspersed with plenty of songs intended to mimic black slave ballads, spirituals, and songs of jubilation. White performers with faces blackened by burnt cork portray negroes as shiftless and ignorant, hapless and prone to pratfalls, always exuberantly singing and dancing, happily ensconced on a benevolent plantation. Rarely do minstrel shows employ black performers.

The reality is that black slaves participate in a rich and complex tradition of songs that set the cadence for work, encode the map toward freedom, celebrate heroic stories and bemoan tragedies, praise the Deity, woo lovers, and encapsulate a homeland history largely stolen by the Middle Passage.

Strange to say, the mocking minstrel show creates a tenuous bridge between black and white musical cultures. Words from the West African-inspired Gullah language — a Creole still spoken by slaves from south of the Cape Fear River through the sea islands of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida — percolate into the lyrics of white composers: goober peas (peanuts), cooters (mud turtles), bile (for “boil”), and gumbo.

The exaggerated dialect of the minstrel show is a fanciful distortion of a Creole language that evolved in West Africa and was carried to the states. It allows slaves from a wide range of linguistic traditions to communicate with a shared grammar and lexicon. In mocking it as simply fractured English, white performers display their ignorance of its true role in uniting the slaves with a common language. They have not comprehended its code, any more than they recognize the traveling song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” for what it is: a map song that reminds escaping slaves to navigate by finding the Big Dipper, the “drinking gourd,” in the night sky. The stars that form the front of its cup point toward the North Star, which does not shine as brightly as the stars in the Dipper but will lead a fugitive toward freedom:

When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd.
For the old man is a-waiting to carry you to freedom,
If you follow the drinking gourd.

Even as war breaks over the nation, three white “songcatchers” are collecting melodies and lyrics among the Gullah — William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison. They publish more than 130 of the songs they discover, noting “the rich vein of music that existed in these people.”

“Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” and “Go Down, Moses,” like “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” contain instructions to break the bonds of slavery disguised as biblical admonitions. “Let my people go” is directed at overseers much more local than Pharaoh, and “The Promised Land” lies just north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

As North Carolina troops mobilize for war, congregating in camps outside Raleigh, Goldsboro, Fayetteville, Wilmington, and a score of other mustering points, they entertain themselves by putting on minstrel shows — sometimes in camp clearings, other times on elaborately constructed stages. Their popularity never flags. Even in the grievous aftermath of battle, men gather in the pale of campfires to watch the silly antics of their blackface comrades and laugh along with the shopworn slapstick routines.

Overnight anthem

One popular minstrel ballad written for New York theatergoers, “I Wish I Was in Dixie,” is penned one weekend by Daniel Decatur Emmett, a banjo player, to be performed in blackface by Bryant’s Minstrels. Emmett is a well-known songwriter of American favorites, such as “Turkey in the Straw,” “Old Dan Tucker,” and “Blue-Tail Fly.” But his new tune is already familiar to some black slaves in the South, and Emmett may well have heard a version of the song as a child sung by Ben and Lew Snowden, two African-American brothers born to slave parents in Maryland who emigrated to Emmett’s hometown of Mount Vernon, Ohio.

Almost overnight, “Dixie” becomes, by popular acclaim, the anthem of the Confederacy, more ubiquitous even than “Bonnie Blue Flag,” with its roll call of Confederate states. Emmett’s song has six stanzas, but only one becomes well known in the South:

I wish I was in de land ob cotton,
Old times dar am not forgotten,
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie land.
In Dixie land whar I was born in
Early on one frosty mornin’
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie land.

The song’s success is no doubt due to the rousing, infectious spirit of the chorus:

Den I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand,
To lib and die in Dixie!

When a Union officer just back from the front encounters Emmett in a Manhattan bar, he tells him that every night, across the distance separating the armies, he could hear Confederate bands playing “Dixie.” Is he aware that the song has become the battle hymn of the South?

Emmett hardly disguises his anger. “Yes,” he says. “And if I had known to what use they were going to put my song, I will be damned if I had written it!”

Up in Pittsburgh, Stephen Foster has written another universally popular, sentimental valentine to plantation life, “Old Folks at Home”:

Way down upon de Swanee Ribber,
Far, far away,
Dere’s wha my heart is turning ebber,
Dere’s wha de old folks stay.

Foster has never laid eyes on the Swanee River. He picked the name out of an almanac after rejecting Yazoo and Pee Dee as not sonorous enough.

Precious instruments

In North Carolina, mountain boys pick up hand-me-down fiddles or make their own, slipping the dried tail from a timber rattlesnake inside the sound box to dehumidify the precious wood during the warm, rainy months. Poor farm boys make cigar-box banjos or play the “bones” — a percussion instrument common in minstrel shows carved from the shinbones of oxen or of a hardwood, such as ash or maple.

Some lucky men can afford store-bought guitars, portable enough to carry into the army. A rosewood parlor guitar made by C.F. Martin, neck bound in elephant ivory with a pretty abalone rosette compassing the sound hole, can be ordered from the factory in Pennsylvania at a cost of $45 — nine weeks’ salary for a factory hand, three months’ profit for a small farmer.

All brass instruments are manufactured in the North, so captured band instruments become prize battle trophies for Confederate regiments.

In the plantation slave cabins on “the line,” musical instruments abound: African drums with animal-skin heads; fretless “banjars” made from gourds and strung with waxed horsehair or twine; violins made from scrap pine; one-string African fiddles; flutes; and all manner of percussion idiophones fashioned from bone, wood, and scrap metal. The songs mingle Christian hymns with rhythms from the West Indies and Africa in a variety of dialects. Sometimes the only instrument is the voice, chanting words and melodies that fall strange on the ears of white listeners, an ecstatic clamor that goes on for hours and is called only “the shout.”

These men, too, carry their instruments and their songs into the army — the Union Army, after they bolt for freedom or are liberated by advancing Yankee troops — and it becomes an item of curiosity among their white officers that they sing almost constantly. Moreover, their style of singing is new to their officers’ ears. As the team of “songcatchers” notes, “There is no singing in parts, as we understand it, and yet no two appear to be singing the same thing — the leading singer starts the words of each verse, often improvising, and the others, who ‘base’ him, as it is called, strike in with the refrain, or even join in the solo, when the words are familiar.”

But improvisation is not the province of the United States Colored Troops alone. It is rampant in both armies, among all classes of men. If they don’t know the verses, they make them up as they march. They substitute lyrics for the other army’s tune. They turn a straight song satirical, so John Brown’s body moldering in the grave turns into Jeff Davis hanging from a sour-apple tree.

Pirating bonanza

A handful of music publishers exist in the South, in Richmond, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; and New Orleans, Louisiana. When war comes, Southern music publishers reap a bonanza. The Confederate government no longer recognizes United States copyright, so the publishers pirate whole catalogs of popular songs and sheet music, and sell them under their own trademarks. Sheet music for the piano becomes ubiquitous throughout the Confederacy — love songs, ballads, classical numbers — written for amateur piano players with arrangements for two hands, four hands, even six hands.

And songwriters churn out new material as fast as they can rhyme new words to traditional melodies — not just professional songwriters like Emmett and Foster, but also lawyers, housewives, clerks, and of course, soldiers. The tunes are often complicated and recursive, the lyrics spooling into epic stanza counts and a rousing chorus calling on honor, God’s protection, victory, and freedom.

Early in the war, the songs are full of martial boasting, heroic sentiments, and braggadocio. “Maryland, My Maryland” is adapted from a broadside by James Ryder Randall, written after secessionist radicals attack a Union regiment crossing Baltimore between trains. The mayhem kills four Massachusetts soldiers and 12 civilians. Though Maryland never joins the Confederacy, the song becomes a favorite even in North Carolina regimental camps because of its bloody call to vengeance:

Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore
And be the battle queen of yore
Maryland! My Maryland!

The soldiers already know the tune, taken from the familiar German Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum.” Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, Lee’s flamboyant cavalry commander, enjoys the song so much that he names one of his favorite horses My Maryland. He travels with his own banjo player and a mixed-race servant who sings and plays the bones.

The hymns and ballads sung by the marching ranks goad the men on to greater exertion and instill a sense of heroic purpose in their endless marching. Walter Clark, whose unit is ordered from Virginia to Garysburg, in his home state of North Carolina, reports on the effect the music has on the footsore marching column: “Our men almost began to believe the rumor that we were being carried to North Carolina to hunt up deserters. Unpleasant as such duty would have been, there was rejoicing at the thought of being nearer home, and with a pathos that cannot be described, the men sang William Gaston’s glorious hymn.”

Carolina, Carolina, Heaven’s blessings attend her,
While we live we will cherish, protect and defend her.

Gaston’s chorus to “The Old North State” is typical of the ebullient spirit of such marching songs:

Hurrah! Hurrah! The Old North State forever!
Hurrah! Hurrah! The good Old North State!

Every battle, it seems, provides material for the hawkers of sheet music. “The Battle of Roanoke Island: Story of an Eyewitness” has bugle calls and stirring anthem chords, finishing with a death march in C minor. Manassas, Port Royal, Antietam, and New Orleans all inspire ballads. There are marches dedicated to artillery units, quicksteps for the infantry, rousing charges for the cavalry. Even the signal corps is memorialized in song. The lyrics are aimed at one or the other army, but both armies adapt their own lyrics to the tunes.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” has long been the unofficial national anthem of the United States. Southerners now reject its lyrics but will not relinquish the melody. In March 1861, George Tucker renames it “The Cross of the South” and endows the anthem with Confederate words that finish in a patriotic crescendo:

’Tis the cross of the South, which shall ever remain
To light us to freedom and glory again!

From celebration to sadness

As the war wears on, churning out little but death and want, the songs grow sadder and commemorate particular beloved fallen comrades.

In camp, North Carolina troops relax to the plaintive lyrics of “Lorena,” “Kathleen Mavourneen,” and “Aura Lee.” Like their Yankee counterparts, they sing “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” as American soldiers have been singing it since the Revolutionary War.

They sing in groups, by companies, around the campfire, and in ranks. One Confederate regiment sings for three straight hours, standing in the pouring rain to allow the army’s baggage train to pass. They dance to fiddle tunes, and sing parodies of Yankee marching songs and sentimental favorites. “Hard tack, hard tack, come again once more,” they sing with empty bellies.

The war becomes, strangely, a war of songs. Just as the regimental brass bands play off against one another across the deadly space between slumbering armies, the men of both armies fortify themselves with communal singing and can be inspired to heroism or brought to tears merely by a scrap of a beloved tune. One Confederate soldier, Carlton McCarthy, complains that he and his comrades must fight against the Yankees’ more forceful songs — “John Brown’s Body,” “Rally Round the Flag,” “The Stars and Stripes,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Hail Columbia,” and “all the fury and fanaticism that skilled minds could create — opposing this grand array with the modest and homely refrain of ‘Dixie,’ supported by a mild solution of ‘Maryland, My Maryland.’ ”

Not all the singing and dancing is pleasant diversion. Margaret Thornton of Four Oaks never forgets the day the war arrives at her home: “I wus jist five years ole when de Yankees come, jist a few of dem to our settlement. I doan know de number of de slaves, but I does ’member dat dey herded us tergether an’ make us sing a heap of songs an’ dance, den dey clap dere han’s an’ dey sez dat we is good. One black boy won’t dance, he sez, so dey puts him barefoot on a hot piece of tin an’ believe me he did dance.”

By war’s end, the music has turned wistful, even mournful. The words anticipate going home, rejoining family and friends, getting on with life. Charles Carroll Sawyer’s sentimental ballad “When This Cruel War Is Over” — also known as “Weeping Sad and Lonely” — is sung plaintively in the camps of both armies, and its lyrics weigh so heavily on morale that many commanders on both sides ban soldiers from playing or singing it. Still, it sells more than a million copies in sheet music, making it the best-selling American song of all time.

Oft in dreams I see thee lying
On the battle plain.
Lonely, wounded, even dying,
Calling but in vain.

The heartbreaking chorus offers a sorrowful prayer for the living and the dead:

Weeping sad and lonely
Hopes and fears, how vain.
When this cruel war is over,
Pray that we meet again.

On April 9, 1865, with the slaughter nearly done, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant rides toward the McLean house at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, to the strains of a Union band playing “Auld Lang Syne.” Grant himself has made it plain that he does not enjoy music and is tone deaf. “I know only two tunes,” he is fond of saying. “One of them is ‘Yankee Doodle,’ and the other isn’t.” He has come to dictate terms of unconditional surrender, and there is no song in either army for that.

Gen. Robert E. Lee emerges in silence from the house. There is no brass band playing, no lusty singing by victorious troops. Grant will not allow even cheering. For now, the music has stopped.

Selected Sources

The author is grateful to the following sources: Music and the Southern Belle by Candace Bailey (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010); Music of the Civil War by Steven H. Cornelius (Greenwood Press, 2004); The Singing Sixties by Willard A. and Porter W. Heaps (University of Oklahoma Press, 1960); Musket and Music by Kenneth E. Olson (Greenwood Press, 1981); The Ballad of America by John Anthony Scott (Southern Illinois University Press, 1983); Just Listen To This Song I’m Singing: African-American History Through Song by Jerry Silverman (The Millbrook Press, 1996); The Music of Black Americans by Ellen Southern (W.W. Norton, 1997); “Dixie” by Cynthia Johnston of National Public Radio for the Present at the Creation series on “Morning Edition”; “American Fretted Instrument Musical Instrument Makers, pre-Civil War to WWII” by Michael I. Holmes (http://www.mugwumps.com/AmerInstMkr.html).

Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

To view all stories from Our State‘s Civil War Series, visit http://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series

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