Popular Songs During the Civil War
The American Civil War was the deadliest war this country ever fought. Over 600,000 soldiers were killed on both sides, surpassing by 200,000 the number of dead in World War II. Yet, for the first time, Americans in large numbers began to hear Southern slave music and this changed our reliance on European musical models from then on. Native black folk music blended with European music to develop a new kind of American music. This happened through the socialization of white and black soldiers, the creation of new songs to spur the war effort and through songs that recorded the progress of the war.
In 1863 Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in an effort to bring slaves over to the Union cause. The North had just begun winning battles after two years of steady losses and the president hoped this trend would continue with the freeing of the slaves. Negro spirituals before the Civil War cried out for freedom in heaven because their true intent had to he disguised from their oppressors for fear of punishment. "Walk in Jerusalem," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Get On Board, Little Children’’ carried secret codes and signals to help many slaves escape. "Oh Freedom’’ was
created by black Union soldiers during the war and started a trend toward the militant protest spiritual.
Oh freedom, Oh freedom,
Oh freedom over me.
And before I’ll be a slave,
I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.
These same soldiers were fortunate to actually pick up a rifle and fight for their freedom. Most of the newly freed slaves were confined to digging ditches behind the lines and doing the hard physical labor they had already known as slaves. As the war went on, new Negro spirituals became more tuned into contemporary reality and the imagery became more direct and outspoken. "Slavery Chain Done Broke at Last" uses the tune of "Joshua" but it doesn’t
disguise its meaning.
Slavery chain done broke at last
Gonna praise God till I die.
The first popular war songs were calls to arms, especially after the South announced its secession from the Union and passions and enlistments ran high. "John Brown’s Body" and "Battle Cry of Freedom" inspired the North, while "Rally Round the Flag," a Southern parody of "Battle Cry of Freedom" stirred the emotions of the South. To the North freedom meant freedom for all citizens, black and white, while to the South freedom meant freedom for individual states to secede if they disagreed with the Federal government. Selling property, even if it meant slaves, was also part of the right. Southerners felt they were as justified in breaking away from the Union as the original thirteen colonies had been in breaking away from England. The "Bonnie Blue Flag" hails the Southern states "fighting for the property we gained by honest toil."
Minstrel songs and sentimental songs had been popular in the North and South in the 1840’s and ‘50’s and the 1860’s continued this tradition. "Dixie," written by Dan Emmett in 1859, was picked up and performed by other minstrel troupes. It traveled to New Orleans where it spread throughout the South. Emmett was a marvelous composer whose songs were very close to Negro plantation songs in style and content. Since Southern composers were prevented by their social class and sense of history from using local Negro music, they tended to draw on the minstrel show for much of their material. The "Blue Tailed Fly," "Old Dan Tucker," "Boatman’s Dance" and "Jim Along Josey" have all been revised and parodied countless times. The "Yellow Rose of Texas," another popular Confederate marching song, was also the product of the Northern minstrel stage.
At the time of the Civil War, the singing and writing of ballads was still very much alive and the war created a tremendous audience for all kinds of new song material. Songs that told of the separation of lovers, the heroism of youth and the bravery of the dying hero were written and sung by Northerners and Southerners alike. Longing for home and mother was another popular topic and "Home Sweet Home," written in 1823, was taken off the shelf and sung again with great enthusiasm. By today’s standards, Civil War sentimental songs are naive and simplistic, but they were new and fresh when first written and performed in the 1860’s. Certainly, songs about brother killing brother over differing beliefs was a reality never experienced before on such a wide scale, especially in the border states that divided North and South. Scores of ballads celebrated victories and bemoaned defeats while professional soldiers made up songs about dirt, the lack of women and the absence of edible food. As the South ran out of supplies due to the Northern naval blockade, soldiers were reduced to eating peanuts which they called "Goober Peas."
Just before the battle the general hears a row, He says, "The Yanks are coming, I hear their rifles now." He turns around in wonder and what do you think he sees? The Georgia Militia —— eating goober peas.
Although the Civil War created wholesale death and destruction, it developed a large, new body of American music based upon a large, new body of American music based upon Negro spirituals, parodies of minstrel show songs and ballads that protested injustice and promoted the war effort. Approximately 10,000 songs have been taken from folksong collections and regimental histories. The stage was now set for future American musical innovation.
Tom Faigin is a guitar and banjo teacher in the San Fernando Valley since 1960 and is on staff at many schools, colleges and music organizations. He lectured on American folk Music from 1982 1985 at Cal. State Los Angeles.