By Dan Augustine
First posted within THE DRUM & BUGLE
Voice of the Rappahannock Valley Civil War Round Table
Rappahannock Valley Civil War Round Table Newsletter
February 2018, Volume 15, Issue 2
By 1860, upwards of 20,000 pianos (aka pianofortes) were being sold in the United States each year. This was with a total free population of only 31,000000. Some sold for as little as $300.
During the period leading up to the Civil War, most sheet music consisted of imported compositions. European music, especially Italian operas, was very popular and could be copied and sold in the U.S. without the payment of royalties. International copyright laws did not come into being until the turn of the century. By the 1840’s so-called “parlor songs” composed by writers like Henry Russell of England and Stephan Foster became popular because they had simple melodies which were easy to play on the piano and easy to sing.
When the Civil War erupted, the sheet music industry was a well-oiled machine, and was ready: a vast number of composers were poised to crank out songs with lightning speed. For example, George F. Root’s “The First Gun Is Fired, May God Protect the Right!” was on sale in stores on April 15, 1861; just 3 days after the Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter.
THE PUBLIC DEMANDED WAR SONGS!!
Patriotism and commerce were brought together. The industry was ready to give the public what it wanted. Patriotic music made people feel good, and when the people felt good, the sheet music industry made money.
In this simple age, war songs generally fell into the following topics: Notable by their absence are any anti-war, anti-government, or anti-anything (except the enemy) songs. Although there were some very strong anti-war and anti-Lincoln feelings, people did not sing about these things.
It has been said that this type of song was more chauvinistic than it was patriotic. If patriotism can be defined as a “disinterested self-sacrificing concern for the well-being of one’s country”, these songs symbolized blind enthusiasm for one side and hysterical hatred for the other.
Music borrowing was accepted and commonly practiced. Root’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” is the ONLY Civil War patriotic song that contained both fresh words and fresh music.
On the other hand, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was typical. It had previously been sung as “John Brown’s Body” to a Sunday school tune.
Parlor music gave the civilians a view of the soldier’s life both in and out of battle. Marching songs full of masculine fellowship were common.
“Marching through Georgia” depicted a “sunnier camaraderie” as Sherman made his march to the sea. To this day, most Southerners despise this song because it is a reminder of Northern destruction of the South.
“Just Before the Battle Mother”, as sappy as it is, inspired a sequel: “Just After the Battle”.
“Tenting on the Old Camp Ground” was an expression of sorrow for something now in the past. The song starts out singing about “tenting” on the old camp ground, and ends with a stanza about “dying” on the old camp ground.
Next Month: Battlefield Deaths, The Home Scene, Emancipation, and Civil War Music Today