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.