WE'LL RALLY 'ROUND THE FLAG - THE CIVIL WAR IN SONG presents the story of the Civil War as told through its songs

The Civil War unleashed an avalanche of music from professional songwriters and the common folk, all speaking to the horrors of the conflict in one way or another.  Some drip with sentiment, others with sarcasm; some recall home and mother, others mourn the dead.  These are songs from North and South, home and the front, which were known and loved by millions during and after this most traumatic era of our history.

Pick a Bale of Cotton

traditional

I thought this was the proper place to begin, since it's cotton which kept slavery alive and it's slavery that caused the Civil War. The basic contradiction in our country's founding as a land of liberty which allows human bondage finally became impossible to ignore. Those who wished to end the institution and those who did not were beyond reconciliation; the Civil War was the bitter outcome. It's hard to know when this song was created, but whether it was actually sung in slavery is not as important as the fact that something similar to this call-and-response work song certainly was. Slaves worked from "can to can't," from the time you can see the sun in the morning until you can't see it at night, and if there's a moon and work to do, work they did. Picking cotton is back-breaking work, yet the song makes it sound like lots of fun. It was how enslaved African-Americans dealt with an impossibly bleak situation: they made it bearable through music. Their culture, born in Africa and forged in fire here, can be heard in almost all popular music we listen to today.

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Follow the Drinkin' Gourd

traditional

Although this song is fairly well-known and a wonderful one to sing, its provenance is unclear. Very little is known about whether there was a "map song" used by slaves to escape, and it's more likely a 20th century creation. When I learned the song I was unfamiliar with the "Peg Leg Pete" aspect which is often included, and so I've left it out. But regardless of whether it really dates from ante-bellum days or whether its story is accurate, it's a great song, and a wonderful image. Many, many slaves attempted escape and many succeeded, but most were from the border states such as Maryland or Missouri. The mention in the second verse of "...when the sun comes back and the first rail calls..." refers to when the hours of sunlight increase, and birds begin to return. Traveling at this time was safer, perhaps because ice and snow were gone. A rail is a shorebird which is very slender. 'Thin as a rail' refers to this, rather than to a fence post.

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Go Down, Moses

traditional

There is good reason to believe that this song was indeed sung by slaves, using the imagery of the Israelites in Egypt to mirror their own condition. It is also a good song to sing in honor of Harriet Tubman, called the Moses of her people for her role in bringing slaves out of Maryland to freedom. Tubman's story is one of incredible courage and daring. After escaping herself, she made thirteen missions back to Maryland to gather relatives and others and bring them north, resulting in freedom for about 70 people. She also helped many more slaves to escape and was a commanding figure in the Underground Railroad. In her later life she was a spy for the Union during the Civil War and a fighter for Women's rights.

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Clear the Track

Jesse Hutchinson - 1844

Written in 1844 by Jesse Hutchinson, to the tune of Old Dan Tucker, Clear the Track had a great influence on people, similar to Harriett Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, although not remembered today. The Hutchinson Family Singers, three brothers and their little sister, performed at anti-slavery rallies all over the free states, sharing the stage with Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimke, and many more. Their appeal was huge and their message clear: Emancipation! Now!

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The Bonnie Blue Flag

Harry McCarthy - 1861

This was written by Harry McCarthy, an Irishman who was an entertainer in his adopted home in the South. He wrote the words to celebrate South Carolina's secession from the Union in early 1861. South Carolina had adopted a flag which was blue with one white star. For a short time it was the flag of the Confederacy. McCarthy set his song to the tune of The Irish Jaunting Car. It was sung to soldiers at New Orleans and became an instant hit. It was one of a couple of "unofficial anthems" of the Confederate States of America. By the way, the "property" mentioned in the first verse is slaves. Later versions of this song changed the word to "liberty," to be less obvious and support the notion that the war was about states' rights.

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The Homespun Dress

Carrie Belle Sinclair - c.1862

Immediately after Fort Sumter was fired upon, Lincoln called for a blockade of Southern ports. He hoped it would dissuade other states from joining the Confederacy, but, like his calling up of troops, it had the opposite effect. Southern women could no longer get the fine cloth and fashions they had enjoyed from Europe, and took up spinning to support the war effort. Wearing homespun became a badge of honor.

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The Battle of Shiloh Hill

words by M.G. Hill, music tradtional - 1862

This is certainly one of my favorite songs from this period. I love storytelling songs, especially hard-hitting ones. This scores on both points. The song tells the story of the battle of Shiloh, which took place on April 6th and 7th, 1862. It was the bloodiest engagement ever experienced on American soil, although its carnage would be overshadowed by other battles in the next three years. Overnight, between the two days' fighting, the dead and wounded lay out in a downpour. Ulysses S. Grant had been surprised by the attack under generals Albert Sidney Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard, but Union reinforcements turned the tide the next day. The casualties were prodigious: Union casualties being 13,047, Confederate casualties, 10,699. The total dead, however, were far less than stated in the song, which claims 10,000; in reality, about 3,500 men lost their lives, still a terrible number.

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The Vacant Chair

words by Henry Washburn, music by George F. Root - 1861

The Vacant Chair was written to commemorate the death of John William Grout, an 18-year-old second lieutenant of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry who was killed in the Battle of Ball's Bluff. This is also the only battle in history in which a sitting U.S. Senator, Edward Dickinson Baker, was killed. The battle, which was really a disaster of miscommunication and inexperience, occurred on October 21, 1861. Grout's body was found on November 5th, having floated down the Potomac nearly 35 miles to Washington. It was a sad Thanksgiving that year for Grout's family, and Henry S. Washburn wrote this poem to commemorate the day. George F. Root wrote the most popular setting of the poem, and the song became a huge favorite at home and with the troops, both North and South.

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The Battle Cry of Freedom

George F. Root - 1862

George Root was a major Civil War figure through the songs he wrote which inspired Union troops throughout the conflict. This is probably his most famous work, and it gives the title to this CD and concert series, as well as the most famous single work on the war, John McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. Many of Root's songs were adapted for use by Southern troops as well. Root was a tireless composer, music publisher, and businessman. He knew a good thing when he had one, and he eventually published other versions of this song, a "battle" version, and another which was a campaign song for Lincoln and Johnson in 1864.

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