Music in the Civil War Letters of Seneca B. Thrall

Music played a key role in the American Civil War on the home front and on the battlefield. Letters home from Civil War soldiers record much of what we know of music in camps and on battlefields. An officer of the 13th Iowa Infantry, Seneca B. Thrall, wrote 44 letters, mostly to his wife, that provide an officer’s-eye view of part of the Union army’s successful campaign in Mississippi.   It seems to be a fairly well-known collection. A Google search of Thrall’s name turns up several hits. Several of the letters describe music within the regiment. … Continue reading

When the trombone was almost cool




There have been two periods in history where solo trombone captured the popular imagination. Most recently, jazz made stars of Kid Ory, Jack Teagarden, Leonard Brown, Tommy Dorsey, J. J. Johnson and too many others to mention. Jazz no longer defines popular music in America. No living trombonist has the same standing in public esteem. The other period began in Germany early in the 19th century and quickly spread worldwide, even to the US, then struggling to establish its own musical life. English musical life included many trombone soloists, all but one of them human. France also produced very successful … Continue reading

Kingdom Coming by Henry C. Work: abolitionist minstrel song




Popular songs usually don’t have a very long shelf life, but sometimes they’re more than just songs. Some of them affect the course of social and political events. Even after no one sings them or recognizes them any more, these are worth studying for their historical significance. I thought “Kingdom Coming” by Henry Clay Work was such a song. In form it’s a minstrel song, with a text in the slave dialect. Unlike almost any other minstrel song, it conveys a strong abolitionist sentiment. Poets who disdained the minstrel song tradition wrote abolitionist texts in dialect, which also became popular … Continue reading

Before Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony Became a Cliche




Not too long ago, when an orchestra announced it would play a piece of new music, they had to program it carefully. They performed between two very well-known and popular pieces and right before intermission. The audience was stuck if it wanted to hear both favorites. New music was like medicine. It’s good for you, but no one expects you to like it. All of the favorites were once new. They never would have survived if audiences of their day behaved like modern audiences. What is classical music, anyway? Narrowly speaking “classical” music refers to the generation of Haydn, Mozart, … Continue reading

Medieval Night Watchmen and the Modern Wind Band




What do a night watchman and a professional musician have in common? The first professional wind musicians were night watchmen. Many modern wind instruments can find their ancestors being played from towers to keep the city safe at night and entertain citizens by day. Protective walls surrounded every European town of any significance until the 18th century. Many cities had hundreds of towers. … Continue reading

The most song-inspiring Northern general: McClellan?




Of all the songs published during the American Civil War, many are dedicated to individuals. They are mostly about generals, although Union publishers issued two tributes to captains. It’s no surprise that the greatest number of these songs concern the best-known leaders. But who would have thought there would be more about Gen. George B. McClellan than any other general? … Continue reading

Street music from antiquity to now




In many places in many cities all over the world, pedestrians are treated to live music. Pop singers, jazz musicians, gospel singers, even classical musicians perform for whomever passes by, most often with instrument cases or some other container open in order to solicit donations. Collectively, these entertainers are known as buskers. They represent an ancient tradition. I say all over the world, and I’m sure that’s no exaggeration, but this post concerns only street entertainments that can be traced back to the Roman Empire. … Continue reading

Music in Letters Home from Civil War Soldiers




In this series of posts on Civil War music I have occasionally cited Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music. Author Christian McWhirter commented twice about letters. On the very first page he noted, ” Almost any war diary, letter collection, or memoir contains at least a passing reference to music.” Later, in the chapter on soldiers, he wrote, “Music became intrinsically linked to the soldiers’ Civil War experiences—even combat performance—and is mentioned in almost every wartime diary, letter collection, or reminiscence.” My sister-in-law, the family genealogist, presented us with a 100-page treatise at Christmas that fleshed out not only … Continue reading

American booster songs




Everyone knows hit songs about cities, such as “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Wannabe commercial songwriters churned out thousands more that never became hits. I have also found a surprising number of songs about cities written with no apparent thought of commercial success. They exist only to promote the virtues of a particular town, almost like an advertisement or jingle. I call them booster songs … Continue reading

Children and the Eastern Music Festival




What picture do you suppose many people associate with “string quartet”? A bunch of old white men dressed like penguins playing stodgy old music for a few people who have learned to hold it in awe? Children don’t know that. When they hear a string quartet, or any kind of classical music, they love it. I got a chance to witness it in person at one of the Eastern Music Festival’s “EMF Encircling the City” concerts. Greensboro violist and EMF faculty member Diane Phoenix-Neal conceived and started the series three years ago as part of the celebration of the festival’s … Continue reading