Jennie Avila finds inspiration for ballads in Civil War letters and scrapbooks

December 12, 2012|By MEG TULLY | Special to The Herald-Mail
  • Jennie Avila's new CD is her second collection of original songs based on letters and scrapbooks of people living during the Civil War. She found many ideas in the archives of the Boonesborough Museum of History, shown here.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

Folksinger Jennie Avila is bringing the past back to life in her second album of Civil War songs.

Avila tells intimate stories about the lives of real people in the Civil War, many of the stories found right here in Washington County.

“I’m approaching a big event, the whole Civil War, from a very intimate perspective,” Avila said. “I hope people realize how people can solve problems other than through war. It was very difficult — starvation, disease, death through killing, and fear, and all those sorts of things.”

Avila’s album, “Love and Lore of the Civil War,” is scheduled to be launched at a release party Saturday night at Georgia Boy at Park Circle in Hagerstown.

The album was recorded at Echoes Recording Studio in Sharpsburg, which is on the site of a Civil War field hospital. Avila, 57, played acoustic guitar during the recording, and overdubbed some hand percussion, as well. Steve Wright played percussion on his handmade clay drums.

The album also includes performances by several local musicians, including Ralph Gordon on upright bass, and John Turner on guitar, along with almost a dozen other musicians. One of Avila’s Hot Soup bandmates, Christina Muir, designed the album booklet and contributed musically by singing and playing guitar and dulcimer.

Avila teaches art and drawing at Hagerstown Community College. She has released five solo albums and five albums with musical groups since 1986, and is a member of the group Hot Soup.

She became inspired to write about the Civil War when she went on a date with Wright to Antietam National Battlefield for a Fourth of July celebration in 2005. Wright, now her fiancé, lived in the area and brought her there. Avila said she was struck by the beauty of the place and imagined soldiers marching through the roads as she watched smoke from fireworks and cannons drifting through the hills.

She was just thinking of soldiers marching down the roads when she saw a Confederate private. She pointed him out to Wright, who replied that re-enactors were everywhere and he has seen a Union soldier, too.

Avila turned to look and they were both gone — she says it’s her own personal ghost story and inspired the song “Warrior Spirit and the Keeper of the Bones,” which is included on both of her Civil War albums.

Avila found many of the stories featured on the album at the Boonsborough Museum of History in Boonsboro. She worked with Doug Bast, owner/director at the museum, to find stories and inspiration.

She said one of her favorites was Mary Vance’s scrapbook, which is on display at the museum. A Union soldier touring in the South sent items back to Vance in Washington, Pa., and she placed them in the scrapbook. One particularly poignant item for Avila was a tiny curl of baby hair in a little pink ribbon. The soldier wrote to Vance that a dying rebel soldier gave it to him and said, “Take good care of this.”

“I said, ‘Oh, that sounds like a song,’” Avila said.

She uses the phrase in her lyrics:

“A rebel grabbed my hand. He said ‘Take good care of this,’ a satin ribbon of pink, tied around a tiny curl. Oh Mary, do you think someday, we’ll bring a beautiful girl into a peaceful world?”

Another favorite story Avila captured on the album is the story of the grandparents of a local woman, Adelaide Bushong who lives near South Mountain. Bushong told Avila the story of her grandfather who was an independent Huguenot and fled for religious reasons rather than fight in the war.

Avila played the song for Bushong, who started gasping while it was playing. Avila thought she didn’t like it until Bushong reached the end of the song and sighed, “Oh, it’s poetry.”

If you go ...       

WHAT: CD release party for Jennie Avila’s album, “Love and Lore of the Civil War”

WHEN: Saturday, Dec. 15; 6:30 p.m. reception with Southern-style snacks; 7:15 p.m. concert with special guests

WHERE: Georgia Boy Cafe at Park Circle, 325 Virginia Ave., Hagerstown

COST: No cover

CONTACT: Call 240-313-8219

MORE: Jennie Avila’s album, “Love and Lore of the Civil War,” is available for sale at Her website is

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