The power of home helps explain the various ways Americans responded to the Civil War. For every stereotype there were many exceptions, and these songs reflect the diversity of women and men from all walks of life as they struggled through a dark yet inspiring time.
1. Medley: Old Folks at Home / Long, Long Ago / Home, Sweet Home
Stephen Foster, 1851 / Thomas Haynes Bayly, 1833 / John Payne & Henry Bishop, 1823
Three sweet songs on the dulcimer, which was invented in Appalachia. The dulcimer and the banjo are the only two traditional instruments invented in this country. The banjo has ancestors in Africa, but the dulcimer was created here, in about 1700. Its simplicity makes for an evocative, "old-timey" sound, enhanced by the fact that it is still played in modes, the system that came before modern eight-note scales.
2. Home, Sweet Home John Payne & Henry Bishop, 1823
Throughout the century, countless women sewed the title of Payne's song into their needlework, usually above a little cottage nestled in a flowery garden. The Victorian era revered home and celebrated it as a soft refuge from the hard outside world.
During the war, Confederate and Union troops sometimes had a musical competition the night before a battle. The Southern side would play "Dixie" and the Northern band would answer with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and back and forth they would go, each playing their favorites. Often, as dawn broke and the battle loomed, they would play "Home, Sweet Home" together, as all could agree that "there's no place like home."
3. The Blue-Tail Fly anonymous, 1840's
This song was one of Abraham Lincoln's favorites -- he called it "that buzzing song" -- and he probably played it on his harmonica. The whole country enjoyed the subversive tale of a slave winning a round, and this song was featured in the minstrel shows that roamed both North and South as the prime entertainment of the time.
"Gimcrack" means shoddy and "corn" is slang for whiskey, so the singer may be toasting his master's demise with cheap liquor. A crow was called a "jimmy," so he may also be enjoying the fact that his duties no longer include shooing birds out of the cornfield. Young slaves too small to do other work were often set to chasing the crows away, armed with with an aresenal of stones.
Thanks to John Yannis for his inspired heavenly choir ushering massa into the Great Beyond, and to Chris Turner for his buzzy jaw-harp.
4. Old Folks at Home Stephen Foster, 1851
Foster was from Ohio, born in 1826, and later lived in Pennsylvania. He was inspired by the energy and beauty of music created by African Americans, both free and enslaved. Once you remove the racist language, his best songs strike a universal chord with their haunting, moving melodies and themes of longing for home and family. Anyone whose parents are aging in a distant place can relate to this song in an especially intense way.
5. Dixie's Land 1860
This song highlights the many contradictions of the 19th century. It is usually credited to Daniel Decatur Emmett, a Northerner from Ohio, who wrote it for Bryant's Minstrels, a traveling show. Members of the cast included the Snowden brothers, members of a highly successful Ohio family of free black entertainers. Snowden family lore has always insisted that they co-wrote "Dixie's Land" with Emmett. It swept the country after its debut in New York City. Its creators must have been taken aback when it became the anthem of the Confederacy. Even so, Union troops marched to it all throught the war, and made up different words to suit their mood.
"Dixie" was one of Lincoln's favorite songs, and he enjoyed it often at White House concerts. Upon the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the President asked a nearby band to play "Dixie," saying, "That tune is now federal property and it is good to show the rebels that, with us in power, they will be free to hear it again." Just five days later Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theater.
6. The Battle Hymn of the Republic Julia Ward Howe, 1862
Julia Howe and her husband (who founded the Perkins School for the Blind near Boston) visited Washington, D.C., in 1862 and met with the President. They toured the military camps outside the city, and someone suggested to Mrs. Howe that she write some new lyrics for that popular marching song "John Brown's Body." An ardent abolitionist, Julia wrote her stirring words at the Willard Hotel, and her creation soon became the anthem of the Union troops, framing the struggle as a spiritual crusade.
7. By the Hush trad. Irish, 1860's
A bitter warning sent back home from a man who hoped to find a fresh start in "Americay," but instead lost a leg in battle and, it seems, all hope as well. Some immigrants enlisted, but others bitterly resented being drafted. In 1863, terrible riots in New York City killed dozens of African Americans, who were seen as both the cause of the war and as competition for scarce jobs. Fueling the outrage was the fact that wealthier men could buy their way out of the draft or hire someone to serve in their place.
8. The Battle Cry of Freedom George Root, 1862
Root wrote many rousing songs to promote enlistments and keep the soldiers marching along. Nearly every regiment on both sides had its own band. Drummers were especially in demand, as drum beats and bugle calls were used to communicate commands to soldiers in the days long before radio. We all still know the call for "Reveille" (ya gotta get up, ya gotta get up, ya gotta get up in the mornin') and the one for "Charge!" still used to inspire sports teams.
9. When Johnny Comes Marching Home Patrick Gilmore, 1863
Gilmore based his song on an old Irish lament, replacing the bitterness of "Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye" with a joyful homecoming. In the original a mother spits her contempt for "yer guns and drums, haroo, haroo!" as she dimly recognizes her horribly maimed son. Gilmore changed "haroo" to "hurrah" but kept the minor key, so a current of sorrow persists beneath the cheering. Some 650,000 never came home. The desire to retrieve the bodies of the fallen for burial in their hometowns led to the development of the art of embalming, and to the rise of the profession of undertaker.
10. The Cruel War trad. 1860's
The Civil War was the last one in which women could get away with serving in disguise; after that the military began requiring entrance physicals. There were at least 100 documented cases on both sides. Most women warriors probably were not following a sweetheart, but that idea makes for a very romantic ballad.
11. Sixty-Three Is the Jubilee J. L. Greene & D. A. French, 1863
Published in Chicago, this song captures the joyful response to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which freed some three million people. The song's promises were overly optimistic, but the coming of freedom meant hope for a better life despite hard times to come. The line "Kingdom come is a-movin' now, and a clawin' through the land!" vividly evokes Sherman's brutal march to the sea, laying waste to Dixie's land and ushering in a new world.
12. Tenting Tonight Walter Kittredge, 1864
A tender song cherished by weary solders as well as the families hoping for their safe return. It does not stint in its depiction of war's carnage and the heartbreak of watching friends die.
13. Goober Peas anonymous, 1860's
Southern troops suffered short rations and sometimes had only peanuts upon which to dine. These protein-packed morsels were known as "goober peas." The line "Mister, here's your mule!" refers to an old story about bored soldiers hiding a peddler's mule and then running the poor man all over the camp by yelling that phrase from various corners, whilst sniggering with glee. Humor has developed a bit since the 1850's.
Chris Turner outdoes himself on the jaw-harp; it's positively dripping with deliciousness!
14. Hard Times Come Again No More Stephen Foster, 1854
Foster earned little from his compositions, despite their popularity. He longed to be known for high-class parlor songs such as "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair" and "Beautiful Dreamer," but the public preferred "Oh, Susannah" and his other minstrel-show songs. When he died in 1864 at age 37 in New York City, Foster had three cents in his pocket, along with a note that read, "Dear friends and gentle hearts."
~ Diane Taraz