Historical context is important to understanding our ancestors—and throughout history, music reflects the times. Music of a different age helps us to better understand social conditions, political sympathies and life experiences. And what we ultimately find is that we identify with those same experiences, suggesting the universal nature of music that rings through the ages, evidenced by the reprisal of many songs at different times in different places. The "Songs of Yesterday" series helps us revisit the past and experience these sometimes heart-rendering connections and learn something more about the motivations and inspirations of music in our culture. You can have fun sharing the music and maybe put together a little song trivia.
Songs of the Soul
Some songs speak to us in such a way as to become anthems of their own, but there may be more to the story. An interesting feature of songs is that the music and lyrics do not always come together at the same time. Just as a tune may be written without lyrics, so a set of lyrics may be written and later set to music. Then sometimes a tune may see a second, third or even a fourth life, as the lyrics change, and not always for the better. It was just such a situation that prompted poet, Julia Ward Howe to restore dignity to a favored tune, as discussed in Glory Hallelujah!
And just as entire lyrics of a song might change, so might there be different versions, as lines or stanzas are dropped or new ones added, each reflecting the attitudes and beliefs of a particular audience. This social influence on the music is explored in the continuation of Glory Hallelujah!
Often a song becomes so connected with tradition, we may not think much about what the lyrics may reveal—when we examine the lyrics, we may gain a new perspective on the story. And in many cases, the story behind a song might be as engaging as the lyrics of the song itself. It would seem there is nothing more Irish than the tune, "Danny Boy," yet this beloved ballad appears to have a mixed heritage, as discussed in Danny Boy.
Paul Harvey is famous for his "Rest of the Story" broadcasts, which showed there is often more to a story than meets the eye. And such it is with the familiar, "Tom Dula" or "Tom Dooley," as it is more commonly known, a ballad based on a true story. While none of the characters in this story seem to have any redeeming qualities, one can see how this Appalachian Tragedy might have stirred the imagination of songwriters.
As has been noted, a melody is often composed long before the words are written and vice versa. Sometimes a poem is set to music many years after its composition and may evolve over time with the contribution of more than one person to give it mass appeal. Such is the case with familiar Home on the Range.
We may not expect a song that seems so quintessentially born of the American West to have found its birth in the Irish gallows. Dating back to at least the 1700s in America, social mores came to bear and the lyrics were changed, and through its evolution of this "cautionary tale, laments wayward men and women from across the occupational spectrum, the most enduring and familiar, "The Streets of Loredo," also known as The Cowboy's Lament.
And then there are the bigger-than-life legends, at once, symbols of a nation, its power and progress, and of a society gone wrong. Examining the life of the man and separating fact from fiction, is the subject under discussion in The Legend of John Henry.
Depending on your point of view, a legend can also serve as social commentary: man against machine, white against black, the weak against the strong or, simply, the spirit of a nation. And, of course, the song is adapted to match the purpose. Such undertones and the enduring quality of a legend is explored in the continuation of The Legend of John Henry.
Folk & Play Songs
Folk songs are those songs that "belong to the people," meaning that they are subject to interpretation and variation through the years and yet manage to endure. Determining a song's original "meaning" or basis may be hard to detect as it changes from one region or generation to the next. An examination of this process at work is found in The Folk Process.
The history of a song may become more important as people who become very attached to a song hear it sung differently, especially a song they've grown up with since childhood. And the battle begins over who is right and how it was sung originally, right down to an examination what the words really mean: so what is the "Pop!" in "Pop Goes the Weasel"? This and more is the subject of discussion in The On-Going Weasel Debate.
A simple phrase can take on different meanings, but it may take a bit of digging to find the true meaning. And because songs are so closely tied to social context, a better understanding of the song can be found in an examination of its context—children's play-party songs can tell a good bit about social attitudes, as illustrated in Can't Dance and It's Too Wet to Plow.
Songs of Christmas
In the film, "The Nightmare Before Christmas," Skelton Jack, the absolute King of Halloween becomes mesmerized with Christmas, even taking on the persona of Santa Claus to see if he can discover its meaning. Mixing it up between Halloween and Christmas may not be such a new idea, as traditions from one holiday or "festival" have long overlapped, one with another. So it is with the tradition of wassailing, as discussed in House to House.
And then there is Santa himself, a quite jolly old elf that may well find his origins in Good King Wenceslaus, the legendary Bohemian Duke known for his "uncommonly generous behaviors." Unfortunately, Good King Wenceslaus came to a tragic end, but Santa lives forever. The intrigue of kingdoms and principalities and a little Bohemian history is discussed in How Our Ancestors Sang the Holidays.
Many of our holiday songs were "born of battle," songs inspired by or in response to war—examples are found throughout history. One such song, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" or "Christmas Bells" was penned by legendary poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, just six months after the Battle of Gettysburg. An understanding of the song's historical context brings new meaning to the words, in the continuation of How Our Ancestors Sang the Holidays.
Civil War Songs
Indeed, the American Civil War (1861-1865) was a frightful time for the country, literally pitting brother against brother and dividing families; one of the costliest wars in terms of the number dead, as a result of battle or from disease, ending with the assassination of a President. As with wars in our modern times, the Civil War was expected to end quickly . . . but it did not. Many songs emanate from the Civil War, some revived from earlier times and some sung on both sides of the battle. The message, of course, is that the experience of war is universal, regardless of your side in the battle.
"The Battle at Shiloh is one of the most memorable and written-about battles of the war," resulting in the deaths of some 23,000 men. A song in honor of this battle presents war in graphic detail, from the soldier's point of view and sung on both sides of battle with lyrics adapted accordingly. Considered an accurate account, we can learn much about the battle through voices of those present at The Battle of Shiloh.
A fate sometimes worse than death was life in a military prison—we've seen examples of inhumane treatment on both sides of the war (and in every war, it seems). In another song from the period, again from the soldier's point of view, the focus is on family as a means of overcoming despair. And so it has been shown in other times and other places that the ability of the mind to focus can determine one's survival. A discussion of the song, it's origin and uses over time is the subject in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.
When we think of anti-war songs, the Viet Nam War comes to mind, but in the mid-1860s as the war drug on and with the great loss of life touching every family, songs of war were grim reminders. One anti-war song initially rejected by publishers found its way to market and became immediately popular, and it continues in popularity today, albeit with greatly different lyrics. An examination of song's journey to publication, its early lyrics and later uses is discussed in Tenting on the Old Campground.
Civil War songs served many purposes, including raising morale among the troops, enlisting the support of the public (as well as protesting it), and promoting patriotism. Abraham Lincoln was the central focus for much of the country's patriotism, and understandably so. His 1860 election and 1864 re-election provided opportunity to spin the cause and rally support as illustrated in Lincoln and Liberty Too.
A song celebrating the return home of someone's Johnny or Will is little comfort to those whose sons, husbands, fathers, brothers did not return. The reality of war is often too much to bear, as evidenced when lyrics shift to become less descriptive and more comforting. A look at one of the most popular and frequently heard Civil War songs, examines its Irish origins and deeper meanings When Johnny Comes Marching Home.
It also happened that some songs had such an adverse affect on the troops that an effort was made to forbid their being sung, usually to no avail. Keeping morale high was of vital importance to maintaining a fighting force, but there was little "surcease of sorrow" in songs of lost love, as illustrated in this examination of the soulful Lorena.
Much of our treasured music comes through the Irish, and the Civil War was a defining time for the Irish in America. For decades the subject of prejudice and derision, the Irish gained new respect in battle. Today, everyone wants to be Irish, especially on St. Patrick's Day, and to discover an Irish heritage is a badge of honor. One popular song during the Civil war, "originally composed during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 . . . gained new fervor during the [American] Civil War." For more on how the Irish related to the "cause" and the origins of this touching melody, see The Minstrel Boy.
Many of the more popular Civil War songs came to light through a select group of composers and publishers, including Frederick Root and abolitionist Hutchinson Family. Of Root's music, one song, in particular, was considered the most popular and enduring for its ability to stir the hearts and minds of the people. For more on the history of this song, its inspiration and effect on the troops, see The Battle Cry of Freedom.
Songs can also serve as form of communication, even covert communication as in many of the slave songs. A fascinating history underlies the familiar "Taps" and the more obscure "Tattoo," which gave way to "Taps" in signaling days' end, but was later used in variation to communicate the soldier's way of life, as in What Did the Privates Do Then?
"War is Hell" — words immortalized by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. And so it is. By 1863 and 1864, the "people were weary of war" and no longer receptive to songs heralding battle. But new inspiration came with Sherman's March to the Sea, in anticipation of the War's end . . . at least for the North. The March to the Sea was devastating, even "Sherman admitted that the wreckage was extreme." Two songs, in particular, marked the event—the more popular song downright rejected by Sherman, but a connection he could not escape. The battle and its songs are discussed in Marching Through Georgia.
"The more things change, the more they stay the same," and so it is with war—no matter when or where, on each side of the battle, some things never change: there will empty chairs at the table come Thanksgiving. A song written to protest the human cost of war, is also a tribute to the fallen in The Vacant Chair.
It is fitting we close this series of Civil War songs with song of peace, its origins dating to the Holy Land, the last month of the last year of the War, and a rejuvenation of spirit, authored by a Philadelphia preacher who had seen the effects of war first hand. The experiences of this preacher and his travels after the war are recounted in O' Little Town of Bethlehem.
Upcoming, The Music of Stephen Foster . . .