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Bands play Civil War music, teach history of an era still alive in lyrics

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Posted: September 29, 2007 3:05 p.m.
Updated: October 14, 2007 5:00 a.m.
    DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — With darkness settling over the battlefield and soldiers bedding down for the night, the familiar lyrics rose — music and voices blending from both Union and Confederate camps.
    ‘‘’Mid pleasures and palaces though I may roam,
    ‘‘Be it ever so humble there’s no place like home!’’
    On more than one occasion during the Civil War, those words — from the prewar hit ‘‘Home, Sweet Home’’ — brought the two sides together, an impromptu and peaceful battle of the bands, if only for a few minutes.
    For the bored and lonely men trying to while away the evenings, military bands provided much-needed comfort and entertainment.
    Now several dozen bands around the country perform music from the Civil War era — often on authentic instruments and in period attire — but not just to entertain. By telling stories that go with the music, they also provide a lesson in history, a glimpse into the lives of the soldiers and their families as they fought to define the nation’s future.
    ‘‘We read from the actual diaries of musicians, so you can hear in their own words how they felt about what they were doing at that time,’’ said Jari Villanueva, an expert on music from the era who co-founded a band in Baltimore that has both Union and Confederate uniforms.
    The band, whose members range in age from 16 to 58, plays Union music as the Federal City Brass Band and Confederate music as the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band.
    ‘‘When you play music from a given time period, you can really look into what a society was all about at that time,’’ said Villanueva, who has pored over hundreds of the diaries at the Library of Congress in Washington.
    He said the songs from the Civil War — with their depictions of how life was before the war, their patriotic messages, and the longing for loved ones left at home — give some insight into what the soldiers on both sides believed they were fighting for.
    John James, of the Fort Hill String Band in Louisville, Ky., said one of the requests his band gets most often is for a song called ‘‘Lorena’’ that was popular before the war and was a favorite of Confederate soldiers. James said it is rumored that field commanders didn’t like bands to play the song, a sad one about lost love, for fear that it would cause men to lose morale or even to desert.
    James said that while he relishes telling the stories of the Civil War’s songs, he also hopes the music will help ignite an interest in the history of the war itself.
    ‘‘A lot of historians talk about the Civil War being a defining point in our history, and I think so, too,’’ he said. ‘‘It settled some important issues once and for all for our country — slavery, secession and the role of the federal government. So I think it’s really important for people to learn about that era.’’
    Many folks listening to the music already know the period well and for some the tensions from the war have not completely faded.
    ‘‘When we first started playing the music, we were under the misapprehension that the war was over,’’ joked Joe Ewers, a founding member of the Gettysburg, Pa.-based 2nd South Carolina String Band.
    When the band included two Union songs — ‘‘Marching Through Georgia’’ and ‘‘Lincoln and Liberty Too’’ — on its second album, it ‘‘made it virtually impossible to sell that tape in parts of the South.’’ The offending songs were dropped when the band combined its first two tapes in a CD.
    Ewers said his band has since stuck to songs that were universally popular at the time or that were specifically Southern.
    An Illinois native, the 63-year-old Ewers said he has identified with the Confederacy since he first started learning about American history at the age of 10. ‘‘I can’t explain why,’’ he said, noting that his bandmates, most from the North, feel the same. ‘‘The heart knows no Mason-Dixon line.’’
    At the end of a dance, the band plays ‘‘Dixie,’’ pairing it with ‘‘Southern Soldier.’’
    ‘‘It’s a barn burner,’’ Ewers said.
    Though strongly associated with the South today, ’Dixie’ had broader appeal during the war.
    ‘‘’Dixie’ was present in some version or another in almost every Union band book, and Abraham Lincoln is known to have requested it on numerous occasions,’’ said Bob Baccus, who plays with the Olde Towne Brass band, based in Huntsville.
    Baccus, 59, spoke on a recent evening to an audience gathered in a riverfront park in Decatur, where the band performed.
    Though the seven members of Olde Towne Brass are all Southerners, they don’t shy away from Union songs. In fact, the band is currently recording a CD to be called ‘‘Greetings From Occupied Huntsville: a Union Band in Dixieland,’’ which will feature songs played by Union bands that occupied North Alabama.
    ‘‘I’m from the South. I was born here,’’ said Baccus. ‘‘But we see ourselves as historians. We like to play the songs from both sides to tell the history.’’
    Not all Civil War bands today perform on authentic instruments, but those who do give their audiences a unique musical experience.
    ‘‘To see it live and actually performed on original instruments that the musicians used 140 or 150 years ago, you realize the sound is quite different, it’s not as harsh,’’ said Mark Elrod, who co-founded the Federal City Brass Band with Villanueva.
    The softer sound comes from the way the instruments were made. The bells of the horns were hammered by hand and the metal is much thinner than that in modern instruments, he said.
    That construction makes the old instruments more susceptible to environmental conditions — a change as slight as the sun going behind the clouds can change the pitch.
    Baccus, whose band plays on period solid nickel silver horns — including rare over-the-shoulder horns whose bells point backward, toward the troops — said the instruments are hard to come by.
    ‘‘You put your business card in every antique shop and make it known you are looking for them,’’ he said.
    Though the bands that play Civil War music today have varying reasons why they do so, the main motivation for all is pleasing the crowd.
    ‘‘We’ve found a niche that people enjoy,’’ Baccus said.

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