Civil War music conference to be held at Shepherd College

April 07, 2001

Civil War music conference to be held at Shepherd College

By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - When it comes to music of the Civil War era, you're not just whistling "Dixie."

Before, during and after the war, large numbers of pieces were written because of the conflict that was such a central part of American life, said two people helping put on a two-day program of music from the era. The event will be held at Shepherd College on April 20-21.

"It was a horrendous conflict and it spawned so much music," said Bruce Kelley, professor of music at Shepherd College. He and Mark Snell, director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War, have been spearheading the work for the academic and musical events at the conference.

Kelley said their research has uncovered 20 to 25 musical pieces that grew out of the battle of Gettysburg, "and I'm sure we didn't find them all."


Kelley said many aspects of the Civil War have been researched and publicized, but little has been done on the music of the war or the era. That's why they decided to have the conference, which may become an annual event.

"Without television or video games or other things, music was really important at that time," said Denise Messinger, assistant to the director of the center. "People made and sang their own music."

It was so much a part of the war that regiments had their own bands.

"Some soldiers marched into battle to music," she said.

Kelley said one bugler played so beautifully both sides would stop fighting at night just to listen to him play across the lines. Bands from both sides would have "good-natured competitions" with each other during lulls in the fighting, he said

"The Union would play "Dixie" and the confederates would play "John Brown's Body,' " Kelley said.

The quality of the music varied, Kelley said.

He described the song "Gettysburg, My Gettysburg" as a "rollicking, rolling song" written by the Union side following the battle, jubilant over its victory and full of "many disparaging words" about the other side.

Another song, "Break it Gently to My Mother," was written as though by a dying young soldier.

"And some of it was just musical dreck - almost comical," Kelley said. "It wasn't that way on purpose, somebody was trying to write a serious song."

The conference will be an academic and musical exercise. It will study questions related to African-American music, "Musical Portraits of Women in Songs in the Civil War" and how southern symphonies and culture were affected by the war, among other topics, Kelley said. Performance workshops also will be held.

The cost for the conference is $95. The public concerts on Friday and Saturday night are $5 each.

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