Forgetting Ole Times at Ole Miss

Well, it finally happened. Earlier today, the University of Mississippi Athletics Department got a jump on the college football season by banning “Dixie” from all athletic events. This is a story I’ve been following for years, as it was a major part of my chapter on memory in Battle Hymns. The controversy at Ole Miss is a perfect example of how difficult, even impossible, it is to separate Confederate symbols from their white supremacist legacy (the flag being the other prominent example). The song’s author, Daniel Decatur Emmett, never intended “Dixie” to be the anthem of a pro-slavery southern state, but Confederates imprinted that meaning on the song and white supremacists reinforced it for decades after, giving “Dixie” a permanent subtext odious to most people. The Civil War generation left their mark on numerous songs (the multiple lyrics and associations given to the melody for “John Brown’s Body” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is the northern equivalent) and we can’t help but hear those songs the way they did. “Dixie” is no exception. For years, Ole Miss tried to dilute that context by pairing “Dixie” with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” but these efforts ultimately failed, as audiences made the song’s pro-Confederate associations explicit by chanting “The South shall rise again” over the “Battle’s Hymn’s” “His truth is marching on.” 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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“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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Entry 5: Henry Clay Work, Abolitionist Minstrel

150dpi JPEG image of: Wake Nicodemus

“Wake Nicodemus.” Words and Music by Henry Clay Work.

Release Date: November 23, 1864.

Available: As sung by Burl Ives & as sheet music.

As the end of the Civil War sesquicentennial approaches, so too does the end of one of its most successful elements, the New York Times Disunion Blog. Clay Risen has done a great job curating and editing this collection of thoughtful short essays and I’ve been fortunate enough to be included among its authors. My final contribution will appear in a couple of weeks and discuss the history and resonances of “Marching through Georgia.” I grew to admire the song’s author, Henry Clay Work, while researching my book,  so I’ve decided to devote a couple of entries to some of Work’s lesser-known pieces in anticipation of my Disunion article. Today, I’ll focus on one of his most abolitionist Civil War tunes, “Wake Nicodemus.” Read More