Entry 38: The Legend of Nat Turner

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The Birth of a Nation. Directed by Nate Parker. Written by Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin.

Release Date: October 7, 2016.

Rarely have I walked into a movie with so much external context bleeding through the theater walls. Almost two weeks into The Birth of a Nation‘s run, and the film is more successful as think piece fodder than as a commercial enterprise, making it almost impossible to evaluate on its own merits. How does it relate to the controversial and complicated historical record of Nat Turner’s rebellion? Where does it fit in the new filmography of slavery? Why aren’t more people seeing it (I was alone in my 7pm Thursday night show) and, if they stay away, will the “white savior” remain Hollywood’s preferred slavery narrative? Finally, should we take the troubled personal histories of Nate Parker and Jean McGinanni Celestin into account when evaluating this film? Read More

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Entry 31: Ending the Patriotic Gore

“Maryland, My Maryland.” Written by James Ryder Randall.

Release Date: April 1861.

Update: I just found out Time Magazine picked up the article! I’m absolutely thrilled! You can read it here.


 

Those of you paying attention probably noticed this post was supposed to be about WGN’s new show, Underground (I also said I wouldn’t be writing as much for awhile, but historians’ gonna historian). I still plan to write about the series (I’m 1 episode in, and it’s great. “Black Skinhead” FTW!) but the Maryland Senate’s recent decision to alter the words of its state song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” prompted me to write an editorial giving my thoughts on this long-awaited move. History News Network was kind enough to run the article. So follow this link, have a look, and let me know what you think. Read More

Entry 30: Battle Cries

“The Battle Cry of Freedom.” Written by George Frederick Root.

Release Date: July 26, 1862.

“The Battle-Cry of Freedom.” Music by Hermann L. Schreiner. Lyrics by William H. Barnes.

Release Date: 1864.

I’m currently neck-deep in an article on the mid-19th Century Chicago music publishing firm, Root & Cady. It will likely appear in the fall edition of Chicago History and I’ll probably expand it into a longer piece down the road. In practical terms, this means I’m blogging a little less, at least for now. In intellectual terms, it means I’m starting to think about Civil war music more deeply—something I haven’t really done since I wrote my book a few years ago. Those of you who read Battle Hymns probably picked up on my fondness for Root & Cady, since the firm embodied my central idea of Civil War Americans using popular music to reflect and influence public opinion. Thus, although I’ve already blogged about three Root & Cady songs (here, here, and here), I thought it would be fun to write a little about the firm’s biggest hit, “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” But I think I’ll do it with a twist. A lot of people wrote their own versions of the song, but the most popular contrafactum (as musicologists call songs with the same melody but different lyrics) was probably a Confederate version by Hermann L. Schreiner and William H. Barnes. So, let’s compare the two and see what we find. Read More

Jammin’ with Lincoln

Last night, while you guys were watching the worst/greatest debate intro in history, I was attending a piano concert at Edwards Place here in Springfield. It commemorated the recent restoration of the Edwards Family piano, which the patriarch, Ninian Edwards, acquired sometime in the 1830s. Mary Todd was a relative of the family and stayed with them when she moved to town. Lincoln also came into their orbit as a rising young lawyer. Mary and Abraham would have frequently heard the piano during their courtship and it likely provided the music for their wedding. The instrument had been unplayable until a recent kickstarter raised enough money to restore it. I did a small part to help by co-authoring this newspaper article with the home’s curator Erika Holst on 19th Century parlor piano culture. This is how I got invited to the premiere performance. For someone interested in Lincoln and historical music, it was a double whammy and sparked a couple of thoughts I want to share here.
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Entry 26: Dreaming of a Confederate Christmas

General Lee and Santa Claus. Written by Louise Clack. Modern revision by Randall Bedwell.

Release Date: 1867; December 1997.

Original Available Here.

We’re in the heart of the holiday season and it seems fitting and proper to offer up some Civil War Christmas content for your perusal. Fortunately, I’ve had just such an item sitting on my bookshelf for almost a decade. Back before Amazon, I had to subscribe to a Civil War book catalog to get a sense of what was out there. One issue prominently featured the hilariously titled General Lee and Santa Claus. Of course, I immediately ordered it for laughs and out of morbid curiosity. As with most such purchases, it’s sat unread on my bookshelf ever since—at least until now. Read More

BBC Radio’s Civil War Music Doc is Great!

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During the past two weeks, BBC Radio 2 ran a documentary on Civil War music and I strongly recommend it. It gives a good mix of narration by Kris Kristofferson, commentary from experts, and great renditions songs from and inspired by the war. The first part covers music during the war and the second examines its influence on music history and Civil War memory. It brings a great deal of depth to the subject and the producer should be commended for the amount of work that clearly went into the project. Civil War historians, buffs, and even those just interested in music or history should really give it a listen. I’m really honored to have been a part of it.

Part 1

Part 2

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Entry 10: Death, Comedy, and Lincoln

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Our American Cousin. Written by Tom Taylor.

Release Date: October 15, 1858 (in America).

Script Available on Google Books.

Our American Cousin comes down to us primarily as the play Abraham Lincoln was watching when John Wilkes Booth shot him. It also has a reputation for being terrible. However, this was more than just a random play for Lincoln. He and Mary reportedly saw it several times while in Washington, and after viewing and reading it recently, I can see why. It’s humor is precisely the kind Lincoln enjoyed. Indeed, Our American Cousin may have been for Lincoln what something like Anchorman is for me–a piece of popular comedy comfort food that you can settle into and enjoy for its familiarity as much as its humor. Lincoln probably anticipated the final line of Asa Trenchard’s take-down of Mrs. Mountchessington–“you sockdologizing old man-trap!”–the same way I eagerly await Ron Burgundy’s nonsensical insult of Veronica Corningstone, “Why don’t you go back to your home on Whore Island!” But to us, Asa’s line is exclusively remembered as the last thing Lincoln heard before a bullet entered his brain. So, as I suggested doing with “Dixie,” let’s take Our American Cousin out of its April 14, 1865, context and try to cut through the myth and consider why Lincoln liked the play. Read More

“One of the Best Tunes I Have Ever Heard.”

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150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln publicly declared his love for the song “Dixie.” Having just returned from the recently-captured former Confederate capital of Richmond, he settled back into the White House and soon found himself “treated” to a serenade. These were a common occurrence in 19th Century America, in which groups of people would perform music outside of the homes of people they admired as a show of respect. I put “treated” in quotations because the serenade’s recipient was expected to respond and Lincoln reportedly hated coming up with the necessary little impromptu speeches. According to his contemporary biographer, Joseph Hartwell Barnett, Lincoln once declared (with typical folksiness), “These serenades bother me a good deal, they are so hard to make. I feel very much like the steam doctor, who said he could get along well enough in his way of practice with almost every case, but he was always a little puzzled when it came to mending a broken leg.” Read More

Entry 7: Hurrah! Hurrah! We Bring the Jubilee!

“Marching through Georgia.” Music and Lyrics by Henry Clay Work.

Release Date: January 9, 1865.

Available: Audio by Old Crow Medicine Show and as sheet music.

I’m delighted to announce that my final New York Times Disunion piece is up. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it discusses Henry Clay Work’s most popular song, “Marching through Georgia.” You can read it here. Thanks again to Clay Risen for including me in this awesome endeavor.

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