Folklorist Uses Vintage Instruments to Perform Civil War Era Songs | Livingston/Tangipahoa
Folklorist Bobby Horton, who blends vocal music accompanied by four vintage instruments with his stories of the past, entertained a grateful crowd at the Hammond branch of the Tangipahoa Parish Library System.
Horton, who has performed at the library in the past, has been recognized for his contributions to the acclaimed television documentaries produced and directed by Ken Burns. Horton said at the start of his March 31 performance that much of his interest lies in the American Civil War because of the traumatic effect the conflict has had on the nation as a whole.
At one point in his presentation, Horton said his research led to the belief that faith and music were two major contributing factors that kept men in battle going, no matter how difficult the challenges. “They say that when a war breaks out, few men know the chaplain. But at the end of the war, almost everyone knew the chaplain. Music is also important in fighting armies because it helps a soldier not to complain too much,” he said.
Horton said music was especially important during the Civil War when other forms of entertainment providing relief from battle were unavailable. “Music historians have estimated that about 3,000 new songs were written by Union soldiers during the war while about 1,000 were written by Confederate combatants. The reason fewer songs were written by the Confederates was because there were fewer printing presses in the South and there was a shortage of paper,” he said.
During the war, men who knew how to play and play the instrument were valued because they could entertain the soldiers. “At the end of the day, when the men gathered around their campfires, the musicians offered them respite from the demands of their service in the army,” he observes.
Horton opened his performance by singing “The Army of Freedom”, accompanied by his banjo. He then broke into a second song, “Katie Wells”, which was sung by Confederate soldiers. Throughout her performance, Horton blended her storytelling and singing with stories gleaned from her years of studying the relationship between music and war.
About “Katie Wells”, he told how an old soldier, Johnny House, said that the Confederates had lost a battle protecting the port of Wilmington, North Carolina, the last open port in the South because of the song. . “He told the story that the men didn’t lose the battle against the overwhelming Union armies, they lost the battle only because when the Confederates heard the song ‘Katie Wells,’ they were so overwhelmed of tears that they forgot to equip their guns and so they lost the battle!
Discussing the tune, “Dixie,” a musical standard that has become iconic of the Confederate armies, Horton pointed out that the tune was written by an Ohioan in 1859 and was first performed in New York. He said the song became popular nationwide and it wasn’t until later that a writer from Arkansas put different words to the sheet music and turned the song into a Southern battle favorite.
Recounting the early years of the Civil War, Horton pointed out that after the war’s initial battle at Bull Run in Virginia, a month-long lull followed and many believed the war would not become the bloody conflict that ultimately is. become a reality. Everything changed with the battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April 1862.
The carnage at Shiloh after two days of fighting changed all perceptions that the war would be short and the casualties few. “By the end of the battle, 23,000 men had been killed, wounded or missing. The whole nation was amazed. It was said that if you lined up each dead man shoulder to shoulder and then looked each one in the eye, the line would stretch six miles. It was, up to that point, the most tragic day in the nation’s history,” he said. He then played a mournful tune, “Shiloh Hill”, which was written in the days following the battle.
Each story Horton told was accompanied by an appropriate song. He noted that many songs told the story of men who were alone for their homes. One such song, written by a Confederate soldier, was “Do I miss them at home?” Horton then made this point: Before the Civil War, the only thing the federal government felt responsible for was mail delivery.
At the time, there was no door-to-door mail delivery and the names of the war dead were posted on the walls of post offices. “Many people came to post offices to read these appalling lists and when they saw that a local had been killed in action there were screams and groans and loud protests. decided to start home delivery,” he said.
Continuing this theme, Horton said historians have found a wealth of letters written by soldiers to their homes, wives and lovers, while there are far fewer letters written from home to soldiers. “Men read and re-read these letters and they were folded and unfolded so many times that most of them were not worth keeping. Also, many letters were lost if a soldier died on the battlefield,” he said.
At the start of the war, most future soldiers enlisted in the army in their home town and began their training there in preparation for when they would be sent to fight with large armies. “When the day came when the men were going to war, the whole town would come out…there was a parade, the politicians were giving pompous speeches, the women were kissing the men goodbye and presenting them with flags. It was a big moment. But the men had to leave and face an uncertain future that too often ended on a bloody battlefield,” he said. He then played a song that matched the moment he had described, “Take You gun and Go, John”.
“The Civil War was different from other wars in many ways. The men who fought spoke the same language, they had been taught to believe in the same constitution, they worshiped the same God and, in many cases, followed the same religious denominations. There were times when senior officers weren’t supervising men crossing battle lines and talking to each other and complaining about why they had to fight,’ he said.
He then added: “There was a common denominator, all the men were missing home and they wanted the war to end so they could go home and get on with their lives.” He then delivered a moving rendition of the famous old standard, “Home Sweet Home.”
Horton used his vintage guitar, fiddle, banjo, and harmonica as accompaniment to the many songs that accompanied his Civil War narrative. He said in an interview that over the years he had accumulated many copies of songs written in the 19th century. He said the songs can be found in libraries, in historical collections, and book and music stores. He has made a career out of finding these songs and adapting them to the musical instruments he masters.