Entry 41: Live from 1860s New York!

Saturday Night Live. “Civil War Soldiers,” from Season 42, Episode 18, “Jimmy Fallon.”

Remember when Obama was president and we kept calling things “teachable moments?” Well, I can’t resist indulging in one today, since Saturday Night Live did a skit last night that could almost have come completely out of Battle Hymns. Indeed, far from pedantically criticizing the skit for its inaccuracies (something I generally frown upon—even more so with comedy), I’m struck by how much it’s built on actual history. I’m not crazy enough to think someone at SNL read my book, and I suspect the skit’s factual success is accidental, but I’d definitely show it to a US Cultural History or Civil War class. I don’t have either of those things right now, so instead I’ll subject you to my thoughts on how the skit reflects actual musical culture in Civil War armies–probably sapping away all the humor along the way. Read More


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

Entry 34 (Part 1): Hearing Roots

Roots. Episode 1. Directed by Phillip Noyce. Written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Alex Haley.

Release Date: May 30, 2016.

“They’ll think I’m playing for them, but I’m really playing for you.”

This is what Fiddler (Forest Whitaker) tells Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) on Christmas day, as a means of distracting their white masters while Kunta tries to escape, but it really could be a thesis statement for much of the music enslaved Africans performed and created. It’s a vital statement for the new version of Roots to make because music plays a central role in portraying Kunta’s forced journey from Gambia to Virginia. There was much to like in last night’s premiere installment but, as a music historian, this aspect resonated with me, so I’m going to explore it a little here. Read More

Maryland “Dissidents” Strike Back

Update: McClanahan has written an additional response back at the Abbeville Institute. Given its tone, I think it’s pretty clear where this is heading, so I’ll happily give him the last word. Also, it looks like the Maryland legislature is going to let the issue lie until the next session, so we’ll see if it gets any legs next time around.

I was wondering if my article on “Maryland, My Maryland” that Time.com picked up would drum up some opposition from the neo-Confederate crowd, and it looks like this article by for The Abbeville Institute fits the bill (I’m unfamiliar with the institute, but the fact that it’s pushing a book titled, Emancipation Hell: The Tragedy Wrought by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, tells me all I need to know). Besides McClanahan immediately casting doubt on his research skills by calling me “James McWhirter,” he speciously tries to undermine my argument that any state should have an official song as openly dissident as James Ryder Randall’s poem. I’m not going to dissect each of his points, but I’ll draw your attention to a few juicy bits. Read More

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 18: The Plastic Punk Goes Confederate

Billy Idol, a British rock star, even displays the Confederate flag on his guitar.

“Rebel Yell,” Billy Idol. Produced by Keith Forsey. Written by Billy Idol and Steve Stevens.

Release Date: October 24, 1982.

I recently reviewed Craig A. Warren’s The Rebel Yell: A Cultural History for The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society. I liked the book and my review is largely positive, but there’s one aspect I’d like to discuss here because it pertains directly to Civil War memory in popular culture. Warren commendably incorporates “Rebel Yell,” Billy Idol’s most famous tune (with the possible exception of his cover of “Mony Mony”), into his study but I disagree with Warren’s interpretation of the lyrics. This was too small an issue to warrant a lot of attention in my review, but it seemed like good fodder for a blogpost–especially since there’s some overlap with my previous discussion of the Confederate flag. Read More

On the Confederate Battle Flag

Dukes of Hazzard: Return of the General Lee - PS2 Artwork

In the wake of last week’s horrifying tragedy in Charleston, SC, there has been a long overdue widespread discussion about public displays of the Confederate Battle Flag. I’m reluctant to add to the conversation because it’s becoming cacophonous and I’m generally in line with those who believe that the flag, like the Confederacy it represents, is inseparable from its white supremacist origins (there have been an absolute flood of articles and think-pieces about the flag since the shooting, some of which are excellent, but I’ll just recommend Jon Coski’s wonderful book on the flag). Since then, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley has called for the removal of the flag in Columbia and, last night, Mississippi House speaker Philip Gunn requested a redesign of the state flag to eliminate the Confederate emblem. What truly shocked me, though, was Walmart and Ebay stating they will no longer carry any products that display the flag. With this development, the issue moved into the realm of popular culture and I thought I’d chime in on that score. Read More