I am a fan of music and a fan of history. The two are inseparable companions. Long before Gutenberg created the printing press, history was recorded by pictures, stories, and music.

The Egyptians documented complex history through graphical symbols, while our early ancestors embellished their caves with art depicting great hunts. History was also kept in an oral format. Professional ‘storytellers’ would move from place to place, and earn their keep by retelling the stories. This is still a common practice if parts of Africa. The problem with oral history is that either by accident or by design the message gets corrupted over time.

Music is also a great keeper of historical knowledge. You can learn a great deal about history through music. Oh it is flawed, just like oral history it can change over time and influence the meaning.

There is a saying along the lines ‘History is bunk, the victor writes the books from his perspective and so we shall never know the truth’. This is a valid argument, George Orwell used it in ‘1984’. history is malleable, it can be rewritten to make whatever point you want to make.

Without doubt the most widely studied and dissected war is the American Civil War. I read a comment a while ago that claimed that since the end of the war there has been a book published every single day! That’s approximately 160 X 365. It makes my head hurt just contemplating the number.

The great news about the civil war is that much documentation exists so there is much to be discovered. But the written word is who’s truth? Don Bracken wrote a great book The Words Of War. You can find my review here.

So that brings us to music. Music is not immune to being fiddled with, but sometimes it is possible to use it as a true source of the truth.

I grew up in England, and while I cannot sing, and the only keyboard I play is attached to a computer, I do love music. Music tells many stories. And leads you down many rabbit holes! I spent a year trying to find the writer of a piece of music known as Waters End and is the music used in the Hymn Glad That I Live Am I.

I am sure that the answer is to be found in the Bodlean Library in Oxford, but I will leave it to someone else to find the answer.

The music of the civil war is so revealing. The difference between North and South, and just as interesting, the adoption and adaption of music.

A good example is Dixie. What tune could be more southern? For many this was the very essence of the Confederacy. That assumption is incorrect. Dixie wore both Grey and Blue coats. The song itself was written by a Northern supporter. .
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Back in August 2018 I pitched an idea at Civil War novel writer Joel Moore, “lets do a weekly radio program about the Civil War”. The focus was to be on the less talked about aspects of the war, and each week we would invite a guest or two to join us, an expert in the topic of the week. The topics are wide and varied, Spies, signals, black soldiers, native indians, the list is compendious.

One of my interests is music, I spend a good deal of time reviewing music and interviewing musicians. I was sure that the Civil War had some great music, the problem was how to find it.

I had subscribed to a couple of Civil War pages on Facebook. One day a musician posted about a confederate band Lost Cause. In November 2018 we ran two programs with the founders of Lost Cause, Mike Byrd and Keith Letson. They were great fun, and very knowledgeable on the subject, clearly they had researched the subject. You can find links to the programs here.

What surprised me was the depth of influence that Irish and English Folk music had. My eyes got really wide when I heard a Confederate version of the classic English folk song Matty Groves. How or why it ended up on the confederate playlist is far beyond me. But apparently it was quite popular, there were several versions, verses were hacked and added at will. The Brit Folk Band adopted the song on the early 70’s and after 10 gazzillion changes of personnel are still playing the song, this dreadful renditions was from 2018.

This 1970 version with Sandy Denny singing and the ‘Real’ line up of Fairport Convention nails it.

Having had a taste of the Confederate side of music, it was time to try the Union. The good news is that the war ended well over 15 years ago and most grievances have long since been settled. I told Mike Byrd of my interest in doing a program about the music of the Union, and he put me in touch with Steve and Lisa Ball.

This couple know their stuff! Steve and Lisa not only play the songs of the era but tell the story behind them. You can listen to the program here.

Yes music and history are joined at the hip. There have been other wars but only the Civil War seems to have created such a large catalog of music. I was dumbstruck when Steve stared to talk about John Browns Body. I grew up in England and as a child in the 1950’s I recall this song. I had never thought about the origin of the song, nor its meaning. More than likely it hopped the pond during WWI.

Music is a vital resource in researching history.

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