Monday, June 18, 2012

New and Noteworthy: Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War

Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War, Christian McWhirter, The University of North Carolina Press, 352 pages, $39.95.

From the publisher: 
Music was everywhere during the Civil War. Tunes could be heard ringing out from parlor pianos, thundering at political rallies, and setting the rhythms of military and domestic life. With literacy still limited, music was an important vehicle for communicating ideas about the war, and it had a lasting impact in the decades that followed. Drawing on an array of published and archival sources, Christian McWhirter analyzes the myriad ways music influenced popular culture in the years surrounding the war and discusses its deep resonance for both whites and blacks, South and North.

Though published songs of the time have long been catalogued and appreciated, McWhirter is the first to explore what Americans actually said and did with these pieces. By gauging the popularity of the most prominent songs and examining how Americans used them, McWhirter returns music to its central place in American life during the nation's greatest crisis. The result is a portrait of a war fought to music.                                                                                                            

                                                                                                                                                                              Readers' Reviews

"With facts, figures, and firsthand accounts, Mr. McWhirter powerfully demonstrates the important role played by music in the lives of Johnny Reb, Billy Yank, and the folks back home during the war between the states. As a longtime student and performer of Civil War songs I am excited to have this valuable and informative resource available."  Bobby Horton, multi-instrumentalist and composer

"A stirring patriotic air almost never failed to restore Civil War soldiers or renew them to their respective causes but the soundscapes of war offered more than inspiration or escapism from a brutal and tedious military existence. Those in the ranks and back home found their political voice through song and ballad, and no historian has done more than Christian McWhirter to open our ears to Civil War music as a powerful expression of political action. Neither side, as McWhirter brilliantly reveals, was just 'whistling Dixie' in camp or on the battlefield, as their music pulsed with the rhythmic melodies of revolution and revenge." - Peter S. Carmichael, Fluhrer Professor of History, Gettysburg College

"In this marvelous study of the production and consumption of music of the Civil War, Christian McWhirter enriches our understanding of the soundscapes of America's bloodiest conflict. It is a deeply researched and beautifully executed examination of a curiously understudied aspect of the War."  Mark M. Smith, author of Listening to Nineteenth-Century America

Battle Hymns is engagingly written and creatively researched. Over 50 contemporary periodicals and over 70 newspapers were mined to give the reader a rich sense of the importance of music to daily life in this era. Some might wish the author had delved deeper into the psychological and spiritual appeals of various texts and tunes; but the author excels at showing us how music altered people’s consciousness in this bloodiest of wars. Students of the Civil War will learn much from reading this excellent book. Randy Finley, Professor of History at Georgia Perimeter College. Review from Civil War Monitor

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