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Art and music bring more depth to Civil War history

June 13, 2012

Some will find this to be borderline sacrilege, but the song “Dixie” was most likely composed by a couple of Ohio Yankees.

The federals had their own popular version of the song during the Civil War, and it was a favorite tune of none other than Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln, of course, would be the “despot” and/or “tyrant” who was head of the “Northern scum” referred to in the Maryland state song “Maryland My Maryland” — originally a poem that was written by one twisted cat living in New Orleans with no real claim to fame other than his screed was picked up by a secessionist Glee Club in Baltimore and put to music.

Legislatures being legislatures, it was adopted as the state song based on the title alone, without any requisite research that might have exposed some unintended consequences.

Of course, Maryland was not a sure thing for the Union at the time. Gen. “Jeb” Stuart, who dug a good time and whose cavalry employed its own dance band, had a good time at the Landon House in Urbana in 1862, where he and his men partied down with the local ladies one evening (attendance of local men was discouraged). In mid-dance they got wind of some Union soldiers afoot, so they left the girls, whipped the Yankees and then returned to finish the dance.

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This was classic Stuart. A few months earlier outside of Richmond he had parleyed some simple reconnaissance instructions from Gen. Robert E. Lee into a wild, swashbuckling ride around the entire Union army.

Which brings us to the point of all this.

You can read about Stuart’s cavalry in the history books, or you can listen to the 2nd South Carolina String Band at City Park this weekend. The band will hopefully perform its rendition of “Jine (sic) the Cavalry.”

The period band will be one of many attractions at the First Call Weekend in City Park, part of the ongoing Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration (information is at heartofthecivilwar.org/first-call).

Or you can listen to “Jine the Cavalry” on YouTube if you are hesitant to take my word for anything. Listen to that song, and you know very much of what the southern cavalry was all about.

Music and art are an interesting way of studying history, because they convey a mood as well as text. And unsanitized, original lyrics tell us what we aren’t allowed to say in print anymore.

“Dixie,” originally performed in blackface, was a propaganda piece against growing abolitionist sentiment and a scrambled lament of a former slave who regrets his freedom and longs to return to the plantation (and all the whippings, presumably).

No less an artist than Stephen Foster echoes that in “Ring, Ring de Banjo,” (all sung in slave dialect then, just for yuks). The slave is freed, but comes home because he “loves (his master) all the harder/I’ll go away no more.”

Then there’s the song about the benevolent master who calls his slaves home from the field to attend a dance, with as little thought as if he were a boss announcing a casual Friday.

I admit, usually you would have to pin me down by the ears to make me listen to banjo music, but I’ve developed a fondness for the 2nd South Carolina’s portrayal of the war in music, which runs the gamut from the upbeat, chest-thumping songs at the beginning of the war, to the self-explanatory heartbreak of “The Vacant Chair.”

To me, period music and art make history three dimensional, and, if nothing else, it’s a good way to trick the kids into learning history this weekend.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via email at timr@herald-mail.com.

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