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Songs Bring Civil War to Life for Fifth Graders
11/03/2009   Reported By: Tom Porter

If you think back to what you learned at school about the U.S. Civil War era, you probably remember the battles of Gettysburg, and Antietam; or the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves, or maybe Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Underground Railroad. But when one group of midcoast fifth-graders thinks back in a few years time, their memories will likely have a musical flavor.

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A rendition of the group singing "Battle Hymn of the Republic" was recorded not at a church meeting, but at a recent public lecture delivered at Bowdoin college in Brunswick, a lecture in which loud public participation was encouraged.

History professor Patrick Rael explains: "I'm teaching my Civil War class this semester, and today Josephine Cameron, who I know as Josie Johnson because she's my department co-ordinator in the History Department here at Bowdoin, but she's also a fabulous roots folk artist and she's performing a concert for us on period music from the Civil War.

Cameron - who in the interests of full disclosure is my cousin by marriage - says the Civil War era spawned a musical blend which, for the first time, was considered uniquely American. "As the Civil War era went on, more and more you had people like Stephen Foster, who was writing original American songs that dealt with American themes and with original melodies, and then you had the African-American spirituals that everyone started to borrow from, and by the end of the Civil War era, we had something that across the world was considered American music."

"As a historian it's really important if you're trying to capture the flavor and texture of the past to think about all realms of experience and all senses," Rael says.

Among the audience are around 50 school children - fifth graders from Longfellow Elementary school in Brunswick.
They're studying a Civil War unit this year, says Rael, which culminates in the re-enactment of a Civil War camp in the spring.
"What we're really trying to do here is turn some kids on to the Civil War and trying to expose them to some aspects of Civil War history they might not get a chance to otherwise. To have a live concert of this music by a gifted musician is really a special opportunity."

Cameron runs a song-writing camp for kids in the summer. She introduces them to the art of song-writing by teaching them about traditional songs, and how they're structured. Ten-year-olds, she says, have no trouble empathizing with the lyrics.

"And when I teach them the traditional songs and tell them the stories of how they were written, why they were written, and who might have been singing them, they suddenly feel a really personal, deep connection with the music that they didn't before," she says. "'Oh Susanna' is the perfect example -- we sing that a lot. We think of it as this happy song, but it's really someone trying desperately to find his true love and doesn't think that he's going to make it back to her. And, you know, suddenly they say 'I know what that would feel like because my grandfather lives far away and I miss him and that's how I feel. So I think they'll be able to get a different sense of the history that way."

With the aid of her guitar and her voice, Cameron explains how songs bought over by European immigrants - especially from the British Isles - mutated into distinctly American pieces.

One example, she says, is the Irish Jaunting Car - a cheerful ditty about a horse and cab driver from Dublin. The melody remained, but the words changed, to turn this song into the Bonnie Blue Flag, a recruiting song for the Confederate army. Not to be outdone, says Cameron, the Union came up with its own version - again using the tune of the Irish Jaunting Car - called the Stripes and Stars.

And then there's the example of what is possibly the most famous song to emerge from the Civil War. It began as a tribute to a martyred abolitionist leader, who's body lay rotting in the grave, and ended up as a fully fledged hymn - or 'battle hymn,' to be more precise.

This tendency for people to alter a song's words to get their message across was not uncommon in the mid-19th century, explains Patrick Rael. "Often times what they did was they would take common melodies and turn them into campaign songs, so if Hannibal Hamlin was running for some office, they would have a Hannibal Hamlin song, which might have sounded very much like a song sung for Zachary Taylor or somebody else. They would sort of recycle these melodies and put modern lyrics to them."

Fifth graders like Jared Rolfe, Ketty Stenson and Christopher Guertler from Longfellow Elementary, may not yet be familiar with too many 19th century political or military campaigns, but they seemed to get something out of listening to the songs.

Tom Porter: How do think the songs will help you learn about the Civil War?
Jared Rolfe: It'll help us learn how they were feeling and stuff, how they were feeling after battles and everything.
TP: Do you think it's more fun to learn this way than reading a book?
JR: Yes.
Ketty Stenson: I think they'll help us understand more about how hard it was for the soldiers.
Christopher Guertler: They help you know what mood they were in, and what they were thinking, almost.

For more information on public lectures at Bowdoin visit the college Website,


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