Monday, December 31, 2012

Music for New Year's Eve: The Year of Jubilo

Tomorrow is the sesquicentennial of the most revolutionary New Year's Day in American history, the day the Emancipation Proclamation took effect.  The Proclamation is to this day not universally well understood; the always excellent James McPherson explains the impact it had in 1863 as well as anyone can in this recent piece; he calls it "a bombshell on the American public."

The song "The Year of Jubilo" (also known as "Kingdom Coming," "Ole Massa's Run Away," and "Lincoln's Gunboats") was written in the months leading up to the great day, and imagines what did in fact go on to happen:  as the Union Army advanced, slaveowners fled, leaving their now former slaves to claim their freedom.  

It was written by Henry Clay Work, a self-taught musician who had grown up in a household used as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and who composed in his head without an instrument.  His biggest hit was another Civil War song, "Marching through Georgia," but he had post-war hits as well.  "My Grandfather's Clock," from 1876, was recorded several times throughout the 20th Century, and as recently as 2004 by BoyzIIMen.  The Oxford English Dictionary cites the song's 19th-Century popularity via sheet music as the origin of the term "grandfather clock" to refer to a weight-and-pendulum clock in a tall case.  His 1868 hit "The Ship that Never Returned" is not particularly remembered today, but its melody and basic theme were lifted in the early 20th Century for the greatest train song ever, "The Wreck of the Old 97."

The "Jubilo" recording I've posted above is by Chubby Parker, principally remembered today for having the version he recorded of "Froggie Went A-Courting" included on The Anthology of American Folk Music.  Parker was a regular on the WLS National Barn Dance in the mid-'20s, and his popularity there gave him a recording career.  He made about 50 records, mostly of songs from the previous century.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Music for Christmas

Longfellow's poem "Christmas Bells," written on Christmas Day 1863, has over the years been set to two different melodies as the Christmas carol known by its first line, "I heard the bells on Christmas Day."  In the 1870s, a London composer and church organist named John Baptiste Calkin set it to a melody he had composed thirty years earlier; in the 1950s, Johnny Marks--an American Jewish songwriter who cranked out the Christmas hits "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "A Holly Jolly Christmas," and "Rockin' around the Christmas Tree"--composed the setting more frequently heard today.

Still, there are a number of lovely recordings of the Calkin version out there, including this nice one by Elvis Presley and The Jordanaires.  What I've posted above, though, is the Marks version sung by the magnificent voice of Harry Belafonte.

All recorded versions I've heard omit the three verses of Longfellow's poem that tie it to the Civil War and thereby give it real depth.  Here's the whole poem; it's verses 3, 4, and 5 that get skipped:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,
and mild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;

"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Y'all gonna be an American.

I suppose this is not completely unrelated to the subject of the previous two posts, but it's election news worth noting that Jon Hubbard and Loy Mauch both lost their seats in the Arkansas legislature this month.  It's also news that they did so without actually losing much if any support compared to when they were first elected in 2010.

They're both Republicans, and their party did quite well overall in the Arkansas voting.  Not only did Romney/Ryan carry the state with 60.5% of the vote, but all four Republican candidates running for the U. S. House won in landslides and on the state level the GOP took control of both legislative houses for the first time since Reconstruction.  But Hubbard and Mauch, both Republican incumbents, were thrown out by voters.

Hubbard, a former high school teacher, had spent much of the campaign defending what he had written in a compilation of letters-to-the-editor he had published in book form.  A fair number of deeply offensive excerpts were publicized during the campaign, but here's the money quote:
… the institution of slavery that the black race has long believed to be an abomination upon its people may actually have been a blessing in disguise. The blacks who could endure those conditions and circumstances would someday be rewarded with citizenship in the greatest nation ever established upon the face of the Earth.
As for Mauch, he's a member of the League of the South, identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a neo-Confederate hate group.  Like Hubbard, he spent years writing letters-to-the-editor that demonstrate he is able to see American slavery as part of a bigger picture that eludes those who criticize it.  Here he is, apparently forgetting the plotline of the Book of Exodus:
Nowhere in the Holy Bible have I found a word of condemnation for the operation of slavery, Old or New Testament. If slavery was so bad, why didn’t Jesus, Paul or the prophets say something?
Okay, so these hateful clowns got elected to a single term in their state legislature when their unreconstructed racism was not all that widely known to their voters, and when their views were better publicized, they got voted out.  A good story with a happy ending.  Sure, but what I have not seen reported anywhere is the fact that the support for Mauch actually increased from 2010 to 2012, and that for Hubbard stayed about the same.

Mauch got elected two years ago with 4041 votes out of 7561; he lost this month with 4586 out of 10,141.  That is to say, he actually increased his number of votes by 13.5% and lost only because other voters turned out in much greater numbers than in 2010, presumably to express their disgust with him.

Hubbard's vote total went down, but not by much.  He won the first time with 5162 votes out of 8930, and lost this time with 5031 out of 10,709.  His decline was only 2.5%, and--like Mauch--he would have won re-election with his numbers this time were it not for increased turnout on the other side.  In neither case did the supporters of these guys turn on them.  They lost only because they were inflammatory enough to motivate the opposition.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

More on the Cold Civil War

The numbers from the election give Andrew Sullivan's theory that we're in what he calls "a Cold Civil War" a mixed verdict.  As we know, Obama carried Virginia and Florida, so Sullivan's precise prediction did not come to pass.   And for what it's worth, Romney's average margin of victory in the twelve former slave states he won was 15.9%, actually less than his 23.7% margin in the other states (two free states in 1861 plus ten that were then territories) he won. 

"For what it's worth" is a meaningful qualifier in this case, however, because the percentages above don't separate out the African American vote, 93% of which went nationally for Obama.  Sullivan is talking about the white vote.  There are a lot more blacks in the South than in the western states where Romney had most of the rest of his victories, and once this fact is adjusted for, Sullivan's theory may well be vindicated. 

That involves more research than I am willing to do on his behalf, but here are a couple of quick and rough sets of calculations.  Census data from 2010 says that black population in the twelve states Romney won that were neither in the Confederacy nor border states averages only 3.2% of population in those states.  Assuming that this percentage is roughly reflected in voter turnout, subtracting 93% of the black vote from Obama's total share in those states--38.15% to Romney's 61.85%--adjusts Romney's winning margin in those states up to 28.5%, not all that different from his actual 23.7% margin there.

By huge contrast, the census says the black population of the fourteen former slave states--including Virginia and Florida, the two Obama won--averages 19.5% of the total population of those states.  Making the same assumption about voter turnout, and making the same adjustment by removing Obama's 93% of the black vote, Romney's margin of victory across that region of the country--even still averaging in the two states he lost there--jumps from 15.9% all the way to 41.1%.

Does this prove Sullivan's inference that much opposition in the South to Obama's re-election was racially motivated?  No it doesn't, but it seems to leave the question open.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Cold Civil War

Andrew Sullivan and George F. Will disagree about the Civil War's impact on next week's Presidential election, and in doing so demonstrate that discussions about the war's continuing resonance in our national life are frequently at bottom discussions about race.

Both their heads were talking on This Week this week when Sullivan laid out his theory that the U.S. is in "a Cold Civil War,"  by which he seemed to mean that the polarizing political division in the country is to a large degree geographically reflected in old national maps of free states and slave states.  The next day he made the same point on his Daily Beast blog:  "if Virginia and Florida and North Carolina flip back to the GOP from Obama this November, as now looks likely, Romney will have won every state in the Confederacy."  He gets into more detail by showing this map of his election-day prediction

juxtaposed with this map of how things stood in 1861:

On both maps, the grey areas are those that were not states in 1861 and therefore not part of the point he's making (Washington State was admitted in 1889 and therefore should be grey in the first map).   On the second map, the blue states are 1861's free states, all of which of course stayed in the Union.  The yellow states are the four slave states that also stayed in--Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware.  The red are the eleven slave states that seceded.

On the first map, he predicts that the Republicans will take all of the old Confederacy, split the border states 50/50 with the Democrats and pick up only Kansas and Indiana from the free states.   By using 1861 as his base year, he neglects to account for West Virginia, which broke away from Virginia in order to stay in the Union and was admitted as a separate state in 1863.  By rights he should have used a Civil War map that had it yellow, but he has it right that West Virginia is expected to go red this year.

He may be wrong about Virginia. Nate Silver, the most meticulous analyst of polls there is, currently gives President Obama a 62% chance of carrying it, which would reverse part of Sullivan's equation:  West Virginia, which fought for the North, would vote with the South, and Virginia, state of the Confederacy's capital city, would vote with the North.

But his broader point--that the states of the old Confederacy have realigned themselves politically with today's Republican Party--is both interesting (in that it illustrates how the two parties have shifted over time) and unremarkable (in that the realignment has been in process since the 1960s).  What set Will off was the conclusion that Sullivan did not quite state, but also did not disclaim when Will disputed it:  if the three formerly Confederate states that Obama carried in 2008 vote for Mitt Romney this time, there might be a racial element to that fact.  Whether that's so or not, Silver's weighted averages of state polls show that if the Confederacy were a real country right now, Romney would be coasting toward a landslide win there.

Sullivan's implied conclusion is not logically rigorous, built as it is from a less than ironclad prediction and a hunch about its causation.  It was an easy mark for a sharpshooter like George Will.  "Democrats have been losing the white vote since 1964, so that's not news ," Will responded. "Here's what we're trying to talk about.  In 2008, Obama gets this many [hand held high] whites, this time the polls indicate he might get this many [hand held lower].  We're trying to explain this difference.  Now there are two possible explanations.  A lot of white people who voted for Obama in 2008 watched him govern for four years and said, "Not so good.  Let's try someone else."  The alternative--the Confederacy hypothesis--is those people somehow for some reason in the last four years became racists."

Will here commits his own logical fallacy by excluding the middle.  Are these two mutually exclusive options, one of which he has phrased to make sound ridiculous, really the only two possibilities?  One imagines not. 

Will is also not the best spokesman for the position that race does not play a part in voting decisions, as he had, in his Washington Post column only 26 days earlier, attributed support for Obama to racial motives.  He found no reason in Obama's record to explain why he is favored to win re-election and so offered this theory:

That Obama is African-American may be important . . . the nation, which is generally reluctant to declare a president a failure — thereby admitting that it made a mistake choosing him — seems especially reluctant to give up on the first African-American president. If so, the 2012 election speaks well of the nation's heart, if not its head.
Some aspect of support for Obama is identifiably racial, but it is absurd to say that some aspect of opposition to him is?  Well.

Will gave the game away--except that Sullivan didn't seem to notice--by mentioning that the loss of the white vote to Democratic presidential candidates dates from the year a Democratic president signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Certainly no one maintains that the exodus of Southern whites to the Republican Party was triggered by the Nurse Training Act or the Wilderness Act, both of which LBJ signed that same year.

Neither party has a history to brag about as regards its willingness to tolerate racism.  After being on the wrong side of the slavery issue, the Democrats spent a century courting the votes of Southern white racists.  Franklin Roosevelt brought Northern blacks into the Democratic coalition (Southern blacks mostly couldn't vote), but it was only when the strength of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s forced the Democrats to choose between these two parts of their coalition that they became clearly the party of civil rights.  The Republicans' successful "Southern strategy," originated by Richard Nixon and carried on ever since, welcomed the disaffected racists into the party of Lincoln with code words rather than with open invitations.   It's why Ronald Reagan spoke of "welfare queens" and why George H. W. Bush ran the Willie Horton ad.

Surely Reagan, Bush, Romney, Paul Ryan, Will, and the great bulk of Republicans are not racists.  They have the same political differences with Obama that they would have had with President Hillary Clinton.  Just as surely, however, the 30% of the Republican electorate who say they believe Obama is an African-born Muslim are motivated by something other than evidence.  That support for the Romney/Ryan ticket spikes in the area of the country with its least fortunate racial history suggests that there are things less fluid than political party affiliations.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Nurse uses stretcher

Though this plaque gets her maiden name wrong, Emma Edmonds is clearly the pride of Houston's Washington Cemetery.
Back from an extended summer vacation from the blog.  While I was gone, the New York Times'  excellent Civil War blog, Disunion, ran a piece by C. Kay Larson about women who served in one capacity or another, frequently disguised as men, during the war.  Larson touches on Sarah Emma Edmonds--subject of our next Civil War Project show, Comrades Mine--who served in the Second Michigan Infantry for two years under the name Franklin Thompson.  She briefly relates a remarkable event from Edmonds's memoir:  on the battlefield at Antietam, the bloodiest battle in American military history, Emma-disguised-as-Franklin comes upon a dying Union soldier who confesses to being a woman in disguise.  Emma tends her for the few moments until her death, and then, in order to preserve the secret for her sister in arms, buries the soldier in an unmarked grave there on the battlefield.

It's a great story.  We had not come across it in our preliminary research before commissioning the play, and Maureen Gallagher, our Comrades Mine playwright, had not mentioned it to me since then.  I emailed the Times piece to Maureen.  She hadn't seen the article, but she knew all about the story.  "Maybe made up.  So I didn't include that event," she emailed back.

As Huckleberry Fin once wrote about what Mr. Mark Twain put into The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, "there was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth."  When Emma published her memoir in 1865, she was more concerned with trying to sell copies than with whether Oprah would throw her out of the book club for making stuff up.  Maureen steers me to an Emma biography, The Mysterious Private Thompson by Laura Leedy Gansler.  This is from Gansler:
. . . her story is strangely, and suspiciously, similar in some respects to that of Clara Barton's experience there. . . . After Antietam, as the medics were collecting the wounded from the field, one approached Barton and said that he had found a soldier who refused to be treated by the doctor or any male medic; only a woman would do.  When the soldier was brought in, she confessed to Barton that she was in fact Mary Galloway, a sixteen-year-old girl from nearby Frederick who had fallen in love with a Union officer while his regiment was in Frederick at the beginning of the war.  When the fighting broke out at Antietam Creek, and she learned that his regiment was involved, she disguised herself as a soldier to come look for him.  In Emma's "experience" the female soldier died; in the case of Mary Galloway, Barton coaxed her into allowing the surgeon to operate, saving her life, and she and her lover were ultimately reunited.
Gansler even doubts that Emma was at Antietam at all, though some of Maureen's other research suggests that her regiment was there, but held in reserve, and that Emma--trained as an army nurse--might well have been employed after the battle to help retrieve wounded from the field.

Truth or stretcher, it's not part of Comrades Mine, which begins performances April 12, 2013.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

All of a sudden, a widely produced Civil War play

I've made sporadic attempts to track what Civil War plays are being done elsewhere in Chicago and around the country, mostly in the hope that there would be a lot to report.  The big development currently is that there is now what didn't used to exist:  a widely produced new play about the Civil War. 

It's The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez, which I wrote about back in October.  Three actors, one set.  Here's the playwright's synopsis, from his website:
It is Passover, 1865.  The Civil War has just ended and the annual celebration of freedom from bondage is being observed in Jewish homes across the country.  One of these homes, belonging to the DeLeons of Virginia, sits in ruins.  Confederate officer Caleb DeLeon has returned from the war to find his family missing and only two former slaves remaining.  Caleb is badly wounded and the two men, Simon and John, are forced to care for him.
Matthew Lopez, looking about 18, with the Old Globe cast
It made its world premiere at Luna Stage in
 Montclair, New Jersey (where my friend Jim Glossman works a lot, though I don't believe he was involved in this show), way back in 2006.  The website lists thirteen productions since then, omitting at least the Plowshares Theatre Company production that ran in Detroit for two weeks in January and the Curtain Call Theatre production which ran in Latham, New York, during April and May.  The play's fifth listed production was a highly acclaimed one at the Manhattan Theatre Club in February and March 2011, which gave the play a national reputation just as the Sesquicentennial period was beginning and artistic directors across the country started wondering if maybe there was a good three-actor, one-set Civil War play out there somewhere.

There are another thirteen productions listed as scheduled, including at Northlight Theatre in Skokie (or, as people outside the area persist in spelling it, "Chicago").  By this time next year, the play will have been produced at least twenty-eight times, in twenty states plus the District of Columbia and Canada.  Nice job, Matthew Lopez.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Late-breaking news from the Lincoln assassination

After one hundred and forty-seven years, the apparently never-before-read report of the first physician to reach Lincoln after he was shot has surfaced.

From The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum press release
Papers of Abraham Lincoln researcher Helena Iles Papaioannou came across something unexpected while searching the records of the Surgeon General in the National Archives in Washington, DC. Papaioannou discovered a copy of a twenty-one-page report by Dr. Charles A. Leale, the army surgeon who was the first to reach the presidential box to care for a wounded Abraham Lincoln on the night of April 14, 1865. Leale wrote out his story just hours after the President died the next morning, but the text of that first report had remained undiscovered, until now. The newly discovered report is not in Leale’s hand, but is a “true copy” written in the neat and legible hand of a clerk. For nearly a century and a half, it has been tucked away in one of hundreds of boxes of incoming correspondence to the Surgeon General, until Papaioannou discovered it.
Page 3 of Dr. Leale's report; full report available here
Charles A. Leale was 23 years old and had held a medical license for all of six weeks when he took his seat 40 feet away from the presidential box to watch Our American Cousin.  Remarkably, this evening would be the second time in three days he would be mere yards away from both Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth.  On April 11, he had been in the crowd outside the White House when Lincoln had given what would be his final speech, from the second story window over the main door of the White House, about his hopes for Reconstruction and endorsing voting rights for blacks.  Elsewhere in the crowd were Booth and his co-conspirator Lewis Powell, to whom Booth raged,“That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”

It seems incredible to us that a large crowd of random people would have free access to the very front steps of the White House to call the President to come to a window and speak, but of course no one had ever attacked a president before.

Leale's report is a quick and compelling read, as much for the medical specifics he details as for the simple narrative of the still-shocking events of the awful evening:
When I reached the President he was in a state of general paralysis, his eyes were closed and he was in a profoundly comatose condition, while his breathing was intermittent and exceedingly stertorous.  I placed my finger on his right radial pulse but could perceive no movement of the artery.
By the way, there's no mention of Laura Keene entering the presidential box and cradling Lincoln's head in her lap.  Leale later said that this had happened, but it's nowhere in his report filed the day Lincoln died.

Lincoln's papers are scattered all over the world.

So, big kudos to The Papers of Abraham Lincoln for finding this.  It's a joint project of  the Lincoln Presidential Library and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.  They've been at it for eight years, and will be for years to come:  locating and digitizing every document they can find that was written either by or to Lincoln.  Of course, Leale's report is neither of these, but it's hard to imagine a more important exception to make.  I believe the earliest document they've found is a heavily deteriorated page of math problems from a school workbook he had as a teenager in the 1820s, and just this spring they came across a cache of previously unknown documents held in a collection in Japan.  These include a letter he wrote in 1833 for Ann Rutledge's father on a business matter, and a very short bio of himself he wrote in the 1850s that includes this gold nugget: “Born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin county Kentucky.  Education, defective."  Next month the search moves to Australia, where they know of one document (a Presidential letter appointing a Camden, New Jersey, postmaster) and have hopes of finding more.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Chicago Tribune review of Opus 1861

Don't ask me why it's the daily paper that takes longest to get its review in print, but here at last is the Tribune review, in full, for Opus 1861.  And here is the invaluable link to buy tickets.

"Opus 1861: The Civil War in Symphony" 
     City Lit Theater's five-year-long "Civil War Project," undertaken in commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the bloodiest conflict in United States history, dovetails with the longest war we've waged — the ongoing one in Central Asia. Though one would have to stretch pretty hard to touch policy parallels between the Union-Confederacy bloodbath and Afghanistan, "Opus 1861: The Civil War in Symphony" handily makes the case that most wars take the same toll on soldiers — loss of innocence, fear, and sheer mind-numbing purgatorial boredom between fights.
     One letter summarizes the stasis between crises that defines life in the combat zone with "Every day is a Monday out here." Another lists the three things that are most likely to claim one's life in combat — "bullets, bombs, and egos."
     Putting these personal documents onstage isn't a new idea, as anyone who has seen Griffin Theatre's touring production of "Letters Home," which also features correspondence from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, can attest. But Elizabeth Margolius and Terry McCabe's decision to intersperse the contemporary experiences of soldiers on the front with a moving selection of Civil War-era songs — from well-known classics such as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" to somewhat lesser-known ballads such as Stephen Foster's "Was My Brother in the Battle?" — adds undeniable emotional heft. Classic spirituals such as "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" remind us of the human cost of slavery.
     Directed by Margolius, the six-member ensemble brings stirring vocal nuance to the songs (aided by Gary Powell's deft musical direction), and a generally understated — sometimes too understated — reportorial delivery to the letters. The structure is a bit shaggy, given the aforementioned lack of clear historical parallels between the wars. But just as many in the South viewed the Union forces as unwelcome occupiers, so too, as the letters attest, do many Afghanis. "Sometimes I feel like I'm invading their privacy," says one soldier.
     This isn't an anti-war screed by any means, though one sometimes wishes that the creators had taken a stronger point of view on what the decade-long conflict in Afghanistan has meant to our national conscience. But as a simple and moving tribute to the courage required of men and women in uniform across the ages, it leaves a lump in the throat.

Through May 13 at City Lit Theater, Edgewater Presbyterian Church, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.; $30 at 773-293-3682 or

Saturday, April 28, 2012

More Opus 1861 reviews

Varris Holmes in Opus 1861
More Opus 1861 press, with links to the full pieces:

★★★★ Nothing less than stunning: 
The cast is amazing in their musical acuity as well as the emotional range and restraint in telling the soldiers’ stories. The letters to home and the sorrowful elegies to comrades killed before their eyes are interspersed with songs such as “When This Cruel War is Over (Weeping Sad and Lonely)” and “The Vacant Chair”. . . . I found new resonance in songs that were only known to me from history classes and elementary primers. . . . Many kudos to the talented cast of Stephen Barker, Erin Renee Baumrucker, Ryan Gaffney, Varris Holmes, Elizabeth Morgan, and Tyler Thompson.  They are all in prime voice and carry the audience to another time and the present effortlessly. . . . This rich music will remain with you; the images of soldiers forever lost will haunt you.

. . . beautifully sung, with intricate harmonies and simple arrangements that never fail to achieve the desired effect, whether mournful or rousing.

Minutes can’t measure “Opus 1861: The Civil War in Symphony.”  In only an hour and ten of them this commemorative offering devised by Elizabeth Margolius and Terry McCabe employs still-potent songs about the battlefield and the hearth to connect one war with another and both to us. . . . Simple and strong, this juxtaposition of letters written from soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq and of period songs from 150 years ago (beautifully arranged by Gary Powell) makes an eloquent argument that all wars are one truth. . . . Strangely, there’s more universality in City Lit Theater’s take on the Civil War than in Steppenwolf Theatre’s very specific The March depicting Sherman’s devastation in 1864 and 1865.

And here's a link to buy tickets.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Early press for Opus 1861

Left to right:  Varris Holmes, Erin Renee Baumrucker, Ryan Gaffney and Stephen Barker in Opus 1861Photo by Anita Evans.
Mostly we're still waiting for reviews to come out.  In fact, there are some critics who are just seeing the show tomorrow.  Here are excerpts from the two things that have been written about the show so far (the first is a preview article, the second is a full-fledged review), with links to the full articles.
Don't-Miss List:
. . . our focus is on theater events commemorating The War Between the States, and there are two of them. Pride of place goes to tiny City Lit Theatre Company, which last year launched a five-year project marking the 150th anniversary of that 1861-1865 war.  For Year Two of its project, City Lit offers Opus 1861: The Civil War in Symphony, a musical revue of the rich musical legacy of that conflict.
                                                                                             Dueling Critics, WBEZ Radio

Terrific Civil War musical:
The Civil War songbook’s rich personal sensitivity toward the angst of war is deeply presented by this group of talented singers. The superb vocals and the honest presentation of the letters home added  power to the sacrifice of these honorable patriots. Get to City Lit Theater to experience the richness of  traditional American folk tunes sung marvelously by a troupe of new talents. This show will lift your spirits and give you new respect to the honorable soldiers who defend us when our nation calls.  Highly Recommended.
                                                                                            Tom Williams,

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Opus 1861 is Jeff-recommended.

The show runs Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm.  There is an added performance on  Thursday,  May 10 at 8:00 pm.

Tickets are available though Brown Paper Tickets, or by calling us at 773-293-3682.

The cast is terrific:  Stephen Barker, Erin Renee Baumrucker, Ryan Gaffney, Varris Holmes, Elizabeth Morgan, and Tyler Thompson.  And the arrangements by Gary Powell are beautiful.  

The nineteen songs in the show have been sung for generations by countless singers both famous and unknown, but never better than they are here.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The music of Opus 1861

Opus 1861 has had a weekend of previews, and I never got around to incremental posting of background material on its songs.  So here, in one fell swoop, are the program notes on the songs.  This kind of information fascinates me.  I love knowing there's a German disco version of "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," for instance, or that "We Shall Overcome" and "Blowin' in the Wind" are derived from the same Civil War-era song.

Anyway, here are the notes, with a few videos of other people's versions of some of the songs:

The Battle Cry of Freedom was written in Chicago in July 1862 by George F. Root, perhaps the greatest of all writers of Civil War songs.  Certainly he was the promptest, composing the very first popular song about the war, "The First Shot Is Fired: May God Protect the Right," the day after Fort Sumter was surrendered.  He wrote “Battle Cry” on July 23, 1862, inspired by Lincoln’s call for 300,000 volunteers.  It premiered the next evening at an outdoor recruitment rally at Chicago’s Court House Square, on the present site of City Hall, and became an important Union army recruiting tool.  In 1864 it served as the campaign song for the Lincoln-Johnson ticket.  With revised lyrics, it was equally popular in the Confederacy.

Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel? is an African American spiritual made famous in the 1870s by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, students at Fisk University founded in 1866 to provide education to emancipated slaves.  Organized in 1871 as a fundraising activity for the University, the Jubilee Singers became one of the most famous vocal groups of the century.  Their repertoire featured songs associated with slavery, what Fisk today calls “the secret music African Americans sang in the fields and behind closed doors for generations.”  The most influential 20th Century recording was Paul Robeson’s in 1936.  In 2001 the Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers recorded the song as a B-side on their CD single “Let Robeson Sing.”

The roots of Follow the Drinking Gourd are obscure.  Versions of it were collected by folklorist H. B. Parks in North Carolina in 1912, Kentucky in 1913, and Texas in 1918.  He published it in 1928 as “Foller de Drinkin’ Gou’d,” and wrote that it describes an Underground Railroad escape route from Alabama to Kentucky.  The drinking gourd to be followed is the Big Dipper, which always points north.  The version of the song most familiar today was put into finished form in 1947 by Lee Hays of The Weavers, the group who made the song’s first recording in 1951.  It has since been recorded by Richie Havens and by Taj Mahal.  It is open to speculation how much of the song as we know it was actually sung by enslaved African Americans.

Give Us a Flag is one of the great “answer songs.”  Written as a marching song by an unknown member of the all-black (though led by a white officer) 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the song is a response to—and uses the same melody as—a run-of-the-mill recruitment song called “Hoist Up the Flag.”  At the war’s outset, the Union Army had refused to allow black enlistment at all, and even after this policy was reversed, there was widespread doubt that blacks could be effective soldiers.  Black soldiers also faced execution rather than POW status if captured by Confederates.  The 54th spearheaded an assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina on July 18, 1863 and performed with such heroism while suffering horrible losses that it turned the country around on the question of black soldiers.  During the battle Sergeant William Harvey Carney became the first African American to earn the Medal of Honor.  The song was published in 1867 in William Wells Brown’s book The Negro in the American Rebellion: His Heroism and His Fidelity.  It seems to have been commercially recorded only once, by Richie Havens for the Ken Burns PBS Civil War documentary.

Hard Times Come Again No More was written by Stephen Foster in 1854 and opened Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s encore set every night on their 2009 tour.  In between, it has been consistently popular.  A much-loved parlor song through the 19th Century, it was first recorded in 1905 by the Edison Quartet.  Recent versions have been by Kate and Ann McGarrigle, Bob Dylan, Mary K. Blige, Jennifer Warnes, and many others.

Home! Sweet Home! was the most popular song of the 19th Century.  Written in 1823 by John Howard Payne and Henry Bishop for their opera Clari, Maid of Milan, it attained  universal popularity during the Civil War, the first time that large numbers of Americans had spent extended periods of time far from their homes.   In 1862, during a period of low morale, the Army of the Potomac banned the song from being sung in camps for fear it would encourage desertions.   The melody has remained instantly recognizable, and has been used—sometimes ironically—in many films, including The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, Arsenic and Old Lace. Amityville II: The Possession, and Hot Tub Time Machine.

The melody for John Brown’s Body is taken from “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us,” a hymn from the camp meeting movement that was part of the Second Great Awakening in early nineteenth-century frontier America.  An early version of the John Brown lyrics were sung for the first time in Boston in May 1861.  Different versions followed quickly as the song became a popular marching tune, and countless individuals across the North contributed to the lyrics.  Not everyone was comfortable with the song’s imagery of a body “mouldering,” or with the glorification of John Brown’s violent raid on a federal armory; Julia Ward Howe wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic in October 1861 when a friend asked her, “Why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?”

Just before the Battle, Mother was written by Chicago songwriter George F. Root, writer of "The Battle Cry of Freedom," "The Vacant Chair," "Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!" and over thirty other Civil War songs, more than any other songwriter.  After the war, some of his tunes were used by others to provide settings for other lyrics, making him the unwitting composer of such diverse later songs as "Jesus Loves the Little Children" and "God Save Ireland."  Depression-era folksinger Goebel Reeves used the melody of “Just before the Battle, Mother” for his “Hobo’s Lullaby,” said to be Woody Guthrie’s favorite song.

The lyrics to Lorena were written in 1856 by Rev. Henry D. L. Webster, and the music a year later by his non-relative Joseph Philbrick Webster, composer of “In the Sweet By and By.”   Henry had written it as a poem about a woman named Ella, who had jilted him.  He had changed her name in the poem to Bertha, but changed it again to Lorena (a name he apparently invented) when Joseph’s melody required a three-syllable name.  The tune has been used as underscoring in two John Ford westerns, The Searchers and The Horse Soldiers.  Both songwriters were Northerners, but the song has become so identified with the South that in the novel Gone with the Wind, one of Scarlett O’Hara’s daughters is named Ella Lorena Kennedy.

Many Thousand Gone (No More Auction Block) originated among African Americans who had escaped slavery and made it to Canada.  It was first published in 1867 by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a white abolitionist who had helped finance John Brown’s raid.  It became more widely known during the 1870s due to performances by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.  During the early part of the twentieth century the song’s tune combined with a 1901 hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday” and emerged by 1947 as “We Will Overcome.”   Pete Seeger added some verses and changed the title to “We Shall Overcome.”  In 1962 Bob Dylan adapted “Many Thousand Gone” into the melody for “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Michael, Row the Boat Ashore is an African American folk song, sung as a rowing song by slaves held on the Georgia Sea Islands.  First written down in 1863, it is certainly much older than that.  Michael is apparently the archangel Michael, bringing souls to heaven across the proverbial River Jordan.  During the folk music boom of the 1950s and ‘60s, it was much recorded:  Pete Seeger, Bob Gibson, The Weavers, and Harry Belafonte all did versions, and for two weeks in September 1961 The Highwaymen had it at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.  Since then there have been hit pop recordings of it by Lonnie Donegan, Trini Lopez, and the German disco group Dschingis Khan.

Shule Agrah (Johnny’s Gone for a Soldier) was brought to America by immigrants from Ireland, where versions of the song have been traced back to 1691, when thousands of Irish fled the country to fight in foreign armies following the Treaty of Limerick.  It was popular here during the American Revolution, and after being published in New York City in 1860 became so again during the Civil War.  The title derives from the Gaelic “Suile a ghra,” meaning “Come to me, my love.”  A striking version of the song was recorded as “Gone the Rainbow” by Peter, Paul and Mary in 1962.

The title of Taps derives from a Dutch expression taptoe, meaning that it’s time to close the beer taps and therefore the day is ended.  The tune, based on an earlier bugle call used in the Army, was composed by Union General Daniel Butterfield for use as a lights-out call.  Its use at military funerals was begun in July 1862 by Union Captain John Tidball, when a corporal’s burial was held too close to Confederate lines to risk firing guns in salute.  “Taps” was recognized as an official bugle call by the U. S. Army in 1874 and has been sounded at all U.S. military funerals since 1891.  It is played at ceremonies held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery 2,500 times every year.

The lyrics to The Vacant Chair were written in 1861 as a poem by Henry S. Washburn to commemorate the death of 18-year-old Second Lt. John William Grout of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry, who was killed at the Battle of Ball's Bluff.  The melody, composed by the mighty George F. Root, was lifted in 1890 by another composer and used as the tune for “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” which went on to become a country music standard in the 20th Century, with recordings by The Carter Family, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and many others.  The original song has been memorably recorded by Kathy Mattea.

Was My Brother in the Battle? is a Stephen Foster song, written in response to the July 1862 Battle of Malvern Hill, the final engagement of incompetent Union General George B. McClellan’s failed Peninsula Campaign (McClellan won the battle, then retreated anyway).  Casualties were so heavy that one officer reported that the wounded strewn across Malvern Hill “give the field a singular crawling effect."

When Johnny Comes Marching Home was written in 1863 by Patrick Gilmore while he was serving as the Union Army’s bandmaster general.  An Irishman from County Galway, he took the melody from an early 19th Century Irish anti-war song, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, written to protest Irish being forced to fight in the British Army during three consecutive colonial wars in what is now Sri Lanka.  Johnny Fill up the Bowl is one of countless variant versions written to the melody during and after the Civil War.  Gilmore went on to become the nation’s leading bandleader.  He conducted the orchestra at the 1876 Centennial celebration in Philadelphia and at the Statue of Liberty dedication in 1886.  He set up a concert venue in New York City that evolved into Madison Square Garden, and originated the tradition of welcoming the New Year in Times Square. 

When This Cruel War Is Over (Weeping Sad and Lonely), written in 1863 by Henry Tucker and Charles Carroll Sawyer, sold over a million copies of sheet music.  It makes appearances in both the novel and film of Gone with the Wind.  In the novel, it is the song to which Rhett and Scarlett waltz (not actually possible, as it is in 4/4 time) after he bids $150 in gold to dance with her; he even sings the first verse to her.  The same scene in the film replaced the song with a Virginia reel.  Film composer Max Steiner used the song’s melody as underscoring in the scene outside the newspaper office as families get news of war casualties.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Trampling out the vintage

In 1860 there were a mere 16,000 soldiers in the U.S. Army--and, of course, no Confederate Army at all.  By 1865, three million men had served in one army or the other.  Given that staggering increase in such a short time, it's no surprise that whatever systems there might have been for keeping track of numbers of casualties would be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of death and injury.  As a result, nobody really knows how many men were killed in the Civil War.  The textbook answer up to now--618,222--comes from an estimate made in 1900 and was based on fairly primitive statistical methods.

The New York Times reports that a demographic historian, J. David Hacker from Binghamton University, has combed through 19th Century census data and come up with a number that's more than 20% higher.   His estimate seems reliable to credible Civil War authorities; if he's right, 750,000 soldiers (and maybe, he allows, as many as 850,000) died during the war from wounds, infection and disease inflicted by the war.  "Wars have profound economic, demographic and social costs,” the Times quotes Hacker as saying. “We’re seeing at least 37,000 more widows here, and 90,000 more orphans. That’s a profound social impact, and it’s our duty to get it right.”

The Times article, from which the graphic above is taken, is fascinating.  Go read it.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Just Before the Battle, Mother

Opus 1861, our Civil War show for this season, has had two weeks of music rehearsals now and the list of songs seems to be final, though the order is still in question:
For Bales! (We All Went Down to New Orleans)
Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye
Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel
John Brown's Body
Give Us a Flag
Michael, Row the Boat Ashore
Just Before the Battle, Mother
Shule Agrah (Johnny Is Gone for a Soldier)
When This Cruel War Is Over (Weeping Sad and Lonely)
Was My Brother in the Battle?
All Quiet along the Potomac Tonight
The Battle Cry of Freedom
Home! Sweet Home!
The Battle Hymn of the Republic
When Johnny Comes Marching Home
The show is being built from these songs and about six letters from modern-day U.S. soldiers stationed in Afghanistan.  From time to time between now and when the show opens in April, I'll post some information about at least some of the songs, including videos if I find worthwhile versions.  Above is a 1912 Edison cylinder recording of "Just Before the Battle, Mother" sung by Will Oakland: a 100-year-old singing of a 148-year-old song.

Oakland is a footnote to a footnote.  To the small degree he's remembered at all today, it's not for his own work but for having supposedly discovered Al Jolson--a singer who is himself more and more forgotten as decades vanish behind us.  Oakland had a substantial career during the days of acoustic (pre-electric microphone) recording.  He recorded from 1908 until at least 1914, as a solo act as well as a duet partner with Billy Murray and as counter-tenor with the Heidelberg Quintet.  He had a #1 record in 1910, "I Love the Name of Mary."

"Just Before the Battle, Mother" was written in Chicago in 1864 by George F. Root, perhaps the greatest of all writers of Civil War songs.  Certainly he was the promptest, composing the very first popular song about the war, "The First Shot Is Fired: May God Protect the Right," the day after Fort Sumter was surrendered; the publisher had it in print and on sale the day after that.  He wrote "The Battle Cry of Freedom," also included in Opus 1861, as well as "The Vacant Chair," "Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!" and over two dozen other Civil War songs, more than any other songwriter.  After the war, some of his tunes were used by others to provide settings for other lyrics, making him the unwitting composer of "Jesus Loves the Little Children," "Hobo's Lullaby," "God Save Ireland," and "Life's Railway to Heaven."

Opus 1861 begins performances on April 13.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

203-year-old man in the news

One of the four people lined up against the wall in this photograph is actually a drinking fountain. Can you tell which one? 

Lincoln in the news on his birthday:

Today Ford's Theatre held an open house for its new $25 million Lincoln Museum.  From the New York Times article:  "Lincoln has long been at the heart of the capital city: the National Mall is an affirmation of the Union he championed, the Lincoln Memorial on one end, and the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial on the other. But there was, until recently, no extensive exhibition here about Lincoln and his times. Ford’s Theater, Mr. Tetreault explained, used to be a brief stopping point.  Now, with these exhibitions, Lincoln has found a home in a place best known for his death."

A famous portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln, and the tearjerker story behind it, have both been revealed as frauds concocted in the 1920s to cheat the Lincoln family out of a few thousand dollars.  Via the Boston Globe:  "The Lincolns were not the only ones fooled. Ever since The New York Times announced the portrait’s discovery in 1929, on Feb. 12, Lincoln’s birthday, historians and the public have assumed it depicted Mary Todd Lincoln. It was reproduced in The Chicago Tribune and National Geographic, and versions of it still illustrate at least two biographies, including the latest paperback edition of Carl Sandburg’s 1932 Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which Lincoln created in 1862, is celebrating this week in Springfield by giving away free seeds for the Lincoln Tomato.  The Springfield State Journal-Register has the details.

Lech Walesa was in Springfield Friday, two days too soon to get free Lincoln Tomato seeds, touring the Lincoln Museum there, which has an exhibit on Walesa running through March 5.  Here's the Rockford Register-Star.

People like to argue over whom Lincoln would agree with today.  Here's Jackie Hogan in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution claiming today's Republican Party would have nothing to do with Abe:  "He was the first American president to sign federal income tax into law. And not only that, but it was a progressive income tax, with the wealthiest Americans paying a higher rate."

On the other hand, Joseph A. Kohm Jr., blogging for The American Thinker, believes that if Lincoln were alive today, he's be part of the anti-abortion rights movement:  "Historians tell us the deaths of his mother, sister, first love, and second child, each took a heavy emotional toll on his psyche.  The well-chronicled depth of Lincoln's despair as he mourned those mentioned above was so profound that it is impossible to conclude that he did not contemplate and examine the very quintessence of life, including its significance, origin, cessation, and most importantly for the unborn, qualification." 

The best news of all:  At an Anaheim (California) City Council meeting on Tuesday, Patsy Bauman's kindergarten class, dressed in homemade stovepipe hats and fake beards, recited the Gettysburg Address, which they had spent two months learning by heart.  They repeated the performance for their whole school on Friday.  The Orange County Register has the scoop, and a video of all 19 of them going at it in what passes for unison.

And then there's this.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

When Lincoln Paid

For Lincoln's birthday this Sunday--203 years old and still lookin' good--here is a one-minute clip from a recently rediscovered 1913 silent film called When Lincoln Paid.  It had gone missing for 90-some years until a print was discovered in 2006 in a barn in New Hampshire.  It stars and was directed by Francis Ford, the older brother and professional mentor of the great American film director John Ford.  I learn from Wikipedia that Francis Ford played Lincoln in at least seven silent films--all of them lost, until this one was found.  Francis was a big name in silent movies, but his career declined thereafter.  His last directing credit was in 1928, though he worked as a character actor into the 1940s.  His younger brother John, who learned much about film-making from him, consistently cast him in small, relatively unimportant, roles in his films, including an uncredited bit part in 1939's Young Mr. Lincoln, which starred Henry Fonda.