Lincoln historian shares about music

Karl Densmore, Lamp staff

Some aspects of the Civil War are hard to grasp through textbook passages and staged black and white photos. Music is one of these aspects.

On Feb. 12, Music in the Civil War was the topic of the 11th annual Lincoln Lecture, which was held at 9 a.m. in the R.H. Stephen’s Room in celebration of Lincoln’s birthday. The lecture was hosted by Lincoln historian Christian McWhirter, along with musicology students Benjamin Holbrook and Hannah Jellen, playing banjo and fiddle respectively.

“A lot of the work I do is exploring how music is used as a cultural tool,” Dr. McWhirter said.

The lecture detailed Lincoln’s views on music, largely through eyewitness accounts from Lincoln’s close friends and associates. McWhirter discussed how Lincoln’s broad and somewhat vulgar musical tastes seemed to transition after he became president as a result of the ongoing war.

“Lincoln saw music as something that could give him a pure sense of joy. He would sample everything from opera to folk.”. McWhirter went on to say that Lincoln did not distinguish between high and low class music, to the mockery of some of his colleagues. His song choices were often sarcastic or humorous in nature. An example of one such song was called “Nobody Loves Like an Irish Man.”

Lincoln also listened to less rowdy songs that were popular at the time. These were known as sentimental ballads, which are nostalgic songs often based around love.

Benjamin Holbrook and Hannah Jellen played one such song called “30 Years Ago,” which reminisced over places the songwriter was fond of.

McWhirter went on to tell two stories regarding Lincoln’s relationship with a family of musicians called the Hutchinsons, who sang songs on the road promoting Lincoln’s campaign. The first story was how the Hutchinsons created a controversy in 1862 after they promoted abolition in one of their songs performed for the New Jersey regiment, “We Weep Beneath the Furnace Blast.”

Abolition was not yet Union policy, and some in the Union forces felt strongly against it. As a result, the Hutchinsons were banned from performing for the Army. However, Lincoln’s cabinet reversed the decision upon receiving copies of the lyrics.

McWhirter said: “By the time he is president, he realizes how music can be used as a tool. You can get on board a political message easier in a song than a speech.”

The second story provides further evidence of this idea.

According to McWhirter, Lincoln, being a man of his time, had an unfortunate fondness for minstrel shows. Perhaps the most popular song to come out of this scene was “Dixie,” which would become the unofficial Confederate anthem. McWhirter said the Hutchinson family rewrote the song to be pro-Lincoln and performed it throughout the country. Holbrook and Jellen went on to play this version of the song. Lincoln enjoyed the song “Dixie” so much that following Southern surrender, he allowed the song to be played as a means to quickly incorporate the South back into the Union.

The last song McWhirter discussed was “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which was popularized by Lincoln’s enthusiasm for the song. Despite not being the most well-known song during the war, it is perhaps the most commonly thought of among people today, and demonstrates a refinement in Lincoln’s tastes, along with his motivation towards the war effort.

Karl Densmore can be reached at [email protected]