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.