The best ways to interest people in learning history is (IMO) through music.
These songs have been standards for well over 150 years, and here is why they remain popular.
by Leon Pantenburg
Us history nerds need no reason to read and research esoteric events and happenings from way back. I don’t recall not being interested in history, but that isn’t the case with many people.
After all, why be concerned about a bunch of dead people and what they did long ago?
Probably the best reason to study history is that old mossy cliche, attributed to several different sources, that “Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.”
I enjoy doing living history programs because it is fun. For several years, I was a member of the Thorn Hollow String Band, the house band of the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. Every month, we’d do a program of music from the 1800s on back, dressed in historically-accurate clothing. Our musical skills were pretty good.
Tourists from all over the world videoed us, and our shows were always well attended. Spectators learned old time dances, and we’d play music that was popular hundreds of years earlier. And people were amazed at how many old songs were familiar to them.
Here are several.
Around Christmas time we hear a song that today is known as “Greensleeves.” Christmas and New Year texts were associated with the tune from as early as 1686, and by the 19th century, almost every printed collection of Christmas carols included some version of words and music together.
One of the most popular of these is “What Child Is This?“, written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix. (Check out the video below to hear part of Thorn Hollow’s version.
Many songs were popular with both sides during the American Civil War. Some songs, such as “Lorena” or “Weeping, Sad and Lonely” were banned at some camps because the melancholy song lead to more men deserting!
“Home Sweet Home” was another classic that appealed to everyone. According to an article written by Ernest L. Abe that originally appeared in the May 1996 issue of America’s Civil War magazine, the song was wildly popular. (Read the entire article here.)
Prior to the Battle of Stones River the song caused a momentary respite from hostilities. According to Determining the Facts Reading 1: The Soldiers and the Battle of Stones River, a publication of the National Park Service:
“On the evening of December 30, 1862, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg and Union Gen. William S. Rosecrans and their combined total of 83,000 soldiers were camped near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Everyone knew that a battle was only hours away and that the victor would have a strategic advantage. The bands of both armies played, each trying to drown out the other, as they could be heard for some distance. Then, one of the bands struck up “Home Sweet Home,” and “as if by common consent, all other airs ceased, and the bands of both armies, far as the ear could reach, joined in the refrain.” Together, the soldiers sang the bittersweet song that brought back memories of home and family.”
Finally, “Dixie,” that composition most commonly identified as a THE southern song, was appreciated by many northerners. It was one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite songs.
Subsequently, “Dixie” was played on the White House lawn, at Lincoln’s request, on April 10, 1865, the day after Robert E. Lee surrendered to U.S. Grant. Here is part of Lincoln’s speech on that night:
‘FELLOW CITIZENS: I am very greatly rejoiced to find that an occasion has occurred so pleasurable that the people cannot restrain themselves. [Cheers.] I suppose that arrangements are being made for some sort of a formal demonstration, this, or perhaps, to-morrow night. [Cries of `We can’t wait,’ `We want it now,’ &c.] If there should be such a demonstration, I, of course, will be called upon to respond, and I shall have nothing to say if you dribble it all out of me before. [Laughter and applause.] I see you have a band of music with you. [Voices, `We have two or three.’] I propose closing up this interview by the band performing a particular tune which I will name. Before this is done, however, I wish to mention one or two little circumstances connected with it. I have always thought `Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. [Applause.] I presented the question to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize. [Laughter and applause.] I now request the band to favor me with its performance.’” (The entire speech can be read here.)
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