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25 June 2015

“The singing war”: how the American Civil War created a whole new style of music

It was not just a huge body of songs that emerged but a whole musical style that was markedly non-European.

By Antonia Quirke

Music of the American Civil War
BBC Radio 2

A two-part documentary marking the 150th anniversary of the end of the American civil war described the conflict as “punctuated by music, represented by music and remembered by music” (2 and 9 June, 10pm). The sheet-music industry responded so vigorously to the battles and massacres over those four catastrophic years (in which more than half a million people died) that it quickly became known as “the singing war”, and songs such as “The Battle Cry of Freedom” and “John Brown’s Body” were frequently mentioned in contemporary newspaper reports.

The most popular theme in lyrics? Love of one’s mother. Generic songs about loss and mourning such as “The Vacant Chair” (“We shall meet, but we shall miss him . . .”) were pushed and embraced in both the North and the South, but there are many examples of regimental and brigade bands loudly trying to outplay each other across (sometimes absurdly close) enemy lines, men from opposing sides singing their very different versions of the same song in a rising, tragicomic cacophony.

Paper was blockaded, and so less sheet music exists from the Confederates (though their flag, as we saw in the fallout from the Charleston shootings, still looms large). But buglers, drummer boys, drills, marches – scarcely a moment of the day on both sides wasn’t structured in some way around music. And because so many soldiers played instruments in camps, continually swapping techniques, it was not just a huge body of songs that emerged but a whole musical style that was markedly non-European.

All of this was narrated by Kris Kristofferson (with contributions from various musicians and historians of country and blues) in the most unshowy, tamped-down way that made me think of how terribly fond of him I used to be when he was an occasional, puppy-fatted actor in films such as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. He seemed so sweet then, not trying to project anything in particular, just easy smiles and growth-spurt limbs; double-chinned, big-headed and a little bit out of shape. There was something definitively free about him. Unfenced and cool. Here he was with that same Billy the Kid voice – just a relaxing choice of presenter, telling it straight.

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