RMSB title words

American Popular Music
in Civil War Times...

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Tracks in MP3 Format

Buffalo Gals /Camptown Ladies / Oh Susanna

Star of the County Down

Hard Times Come Again No More

Believe Me If All These Endearing Young Charms

By the middle of the nineteenth century, music in America was everywhere. Lacking modern electronic media, ordinary people had to provide their own entertainment.  Pianos were common, and sheet music sold well enough to support a growing industry in places as unlikely as Cincinnati and New Orleans. Such economic demand fueled a musical boom, and by the 1850’s American music was well into one its first great periods of ferment and creativity.

19th Century Piano Concert

As ever, the heart of what made American music special lay in the collision of our different musical traditions. During the early national period, Americans had usually settled for imitating the styles and conventions of European music. American church music, dance music, and even folk music owed their origins to European models.

In America, these western musical traditions met African music for the first time. Among the population of imported slaves, African music was melded with European conventions of lyric and melody. The combination proved more than the sum of the parts – as well as wildly popular. Into the 20th Century, touring minstrel shows, the original exponents of this sound, would circle the globe. To fascinated audiences around the world, this was American music!

The original creators of this music were almost certainly slaves or former slaves. In more candid moments, even those white musicians who profited most from copyrighting and publishing this new music admitted their debt to the sounds they had heard in the South.

Copyright laws, although often flouted, gave economic incentive to the development of this new American sound. If people liked the sound, they bought the printed music to play at home. Apparently the sound they liked best was often the most rollicking, rhythmic, and sprightly. Stephen Foster’s first burst of popular tunes like De Camptown Races and Oh Susanna, dating from the Gold Rush days of the late 1840’s, was popular well into the Civil War era. Dan Emmet’s minstrel bands swung out with Old Dan Tucker, Dixie, and other tunes that would become standards for Civil War military bands and survive into the next century.

More serious and complex music after the classic European model continued to coexist with the raucous banjo and fiddle numbers, of course. Lorena, published in 1857 and achieving widespread popularity just as the Civil War began, is one of the better of these songs. Striving for flights of poetic fancy and morality, this least African of period music now often seems quite dated and pretentious. Ironically, the great Stephen Foster came to despise his early minstrel success and seek personal vindication as a legitimate composer of such “artistic” parlor music. Hard Times Come Again No More is perhaps one of his best products in this line, but he would continue to strive for acceptance by music critics until his death in 1864.

When the Civil War began, would-be composers everywhere cranked out a flood tide of ‘patriotic’ titles in this parlor style. A few of their better efforts, such as Battle Cry of Freedom and Tenting Tonight, survive. Most are mercifully forgotten.

The final surge of energy into the swirling mix of American popular music in Civil War days was provided by Irish and other immigrant folk music. Irish music, in particular, was fertile ground for songsmiths. Lincoln and Liberty imposed an 1860 campaign commercial on an immortal Irish tune also known as Acres of Clams. When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again and The Bonnie Blue Flag both graft martial sentiment on Irish musical roots.

The African and the Irish traditions had in common a great basic appeal, excitement, and energy. Integrated into the more formal modes of classical music through the artistry and creativity of talented musicians black and white, the middle of the 19th Century saw the start of a world-shaking cultural event: the beginnings of an authentically American music.

©2007 Peter Baxter