In timing with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Smithsonian Folkways has released a new collection, Civil War Naval Songs: Period Ballads from the Union and Confederate Navies, and the Home Front. The album consists of 13 lively 19th-century tunes that sailors sung on ships or, when docked in port, or belted out in taverns, as well as a few songs their families listened to in their absence—all performed by an all-star group of folk musicians. To hear more about the songs and their origins, I recently caught up with the collection's producer Dan Milner, a folk song collector and researcher and singer of traditional Irish songs who has teamed up with Folkways before (Irish Pirate Ballads and Other Songs of the Sea).
Download a free mp3 copy of "Monitor & Merrimac" courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways
How would you describe the style of the songs?
There are four main types of songs on the recording: firsthand reports from combatants, songs from ballad sheets, songs from urban variety theatres and concert saloons, and parlor songs.
The firsthand reports are blow-by-blow descriptions and are about victories. The losers had other priorities as you can imagine. “The Fight of the Hatteras and Alabama” and “The Brooklyn, Sloop-of-War” are examples.
Ballad sheets are a printed song format that doesn’t exist any longer. They were the first mechanically reproduced song medium. Essentially, they are the words of one song printed on one side of a sheet of paper—importantly with no musical notation—but frequently with a commonly known tune indicated as appropriate for singing. Many of these were sold on busy street corners but many were sent by mail to rural places. They are predecessors of both the modern newspaper and modern sheet music and were occasionally written by hacks working from early, sometimes sketchy, reports. They vary in tone and can be alternately rousing, sad, political, full of praise, damning, etc. “A Yankee Man-of-War” and “The Old Virginia Lowlands, Low” are examples.
Music from early variety (pre-vaudeville) theatres appears mostly in songsters: portable, paper covered booklets of perhaps 40 pages. You can liken ballad sheets to singles and songsters to albums. They’re frequently upbeat—“The Monitor & Merrimac” is an example—and some were used for recruiting purposes. Comic singers were the royalty of Civil War music halls. Our recording is very compelling because everyone is very loose and the arrangement works so well. Gabe Donohue thumps beautifully on the piano. Kate Bowerman’s piccolo and clarinet work is hilarious. The chorus is really alive. If Spike Jonze’s Jones' grandfather had been a bandleader during the Civil War, his music would have sounded like this.
Parlor songs were printed on sheet music as we undertand the term today and meant primarily for performance in middle- and upper-class homes, where popular theatres were frowned upon. Parlor songs ("The Alabama," for example) were usually more musically complex and textually refined than the other types.
How did you go about finding the tunes you included?
There are some obvious places to look, starting with archives that hold 19th century song material. The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and the Lester Levy Collection of Sheet Music at Johns Hopkins University are two such important places and they have extensive collections viewable online. But I went to a number of research libraries as well, the Watkinson Library of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, for example. “The Blockade Runner” came from the Bodleian Library of Oxford University.
Singers are always looking for good, interesting songs, and that was the first criteria in selection. But I also wanted the CD to be equally representative of Northerners, Southerners and Immigrants. I desperately wanted African-Americans in that mix too—18,000 African-Americans served in the Union Navy—but, try as hard as I could—I was not able to find any Civil War maritime songs that were identifiably the product of Black Americans, though I’m still looking. The answer to this apparent riddle is that real folk song passes from mouth to ear. Only occasionally are the words set down on paper. African-American songs were composed, they just weren’t recorded on paper and archived. Generally speaking, I bet for every one good Civil War naval song that was preserved another 99 were lost. The CD is nearly 53-minutes long and carries a tremendous amount of variety from song to song.
What can be learned about the Civil War era by listening to this collection?
Without question, people had a lot fewer diversions to occupy their time. One result of that was they probably sang a lot more. The Civil War period came towards the close of the end of the Second Great Awakening in America. During that period, the idea of duty was second only to religious commitment. I believe the ideas of service, patriotic fervor and fighting the “good fight” are strongly embedded in these songs.
(For more information on the battles and soldiers described in the song's lyrics, download the liner notes.)
What did you enjoy most about the recording process?
Making recordings is fun but it’s also hard work. I immensely enjoyed working with Jeff Davis, David Coffin, Deirdre Murtha, Bonnie Milner and the other fine singers and musicians who took part. They are an extraordinarily talented crew. All were very generous with their time and contributed mightily to the CD. For all of us, hearing moments of musical genius emerge was tremendously uplifting. For sheer fun, personally, I really enjoyed the entry of the double fiddles on “The Brooklyn, Sloop-of-War.” I jumped in the air when I heard the playback.