How Authentic Should Period Music Be?

The following comments, written by period music researcher Jon Isaacson, have been excerpted from The Watchdog (vol. 1, no. 4, and vol. 3, no. 2) , a publication dedicated to helping War Between the States reenactors perfect their period impressions. (Subscriptions to The Watchdog can be obtained by writing to PO Box 4582, Frankfort, KY 40604-4582.) Although intended primarily for living history interpreters and event sponsors, Isaacson's views may be of use to listeners who wish to acquire recordings that adhere to certain strict, occasionally exacting standards of authenticity.

What To Look for in a Period-Correct Performer

Perhaps the greatest obstacles the quality-minded living history enthusiast will encounter when dealing with music of the period are the myths which have been perpetuated primarily by folk musicians. For the most part, these groups and individuals came into prominence during the folk music revolution of the 1960s, when performers such as Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, The New Christy Minstrels, Tennessee Ernie Ford, the Smothers Brothers, and a plethora of others brought back to public memory music from the "olden days." This music genre usually carries the moniker "old-timey," and to these performers the beauty of everything "folk," whether it be tales, art, or music, is supposed to be the fact that it was orally transmitted, to be taken at face value or without question. Whether amateur or professional, living history interpreters should never under any circumstances allow this to suffice as "research" on any topic. Folk musicians were not historians; they were out to make money, and anyone involved in history knows you can't make money in this gig. They cared not for accuracy, documentation, research, or context, and thousands of their devotees followed avidly. Unfortunately, there are still many, many of these devotees, and many are involved in reenacting. True historians must learn to deal cautiously with these "folkies," or avoid them altogether. Here are some warning signs to look for.

Bad personal impressions.--Contrary to the old saying, you CAN judge a book by its cover. Typically, any musician who has a bad impression quite likely has not done research on the music he or she is performing either. These individuals may be quite talented, but they are mere pirates preying upon the reenacting public. They don funny clothes to get an invitation to events, and unwitting event sponsors are duped into hiring them. These bad impressions range from women wearing uniform items, to poorly constructed clothing, to modern eyeglasses.

Modern amplification devices.--Groups or individuals using modern amplification devices are nefarious to say the least. Not only is it unjustified on historical grounds, it is also quite annoying to the ambience of an event. Nothing can be more irritating than to be taking a nap in a campaign style camp, when a loud B-Z-Z-Z-Z-A-A-A-A-P crackles through the air as the band "powers up" for their performance. The only thing worse is being in the same camp when the shrill sound of feedback rips through the air...or was that a 10 pound Parrott shell?? Presumably, if they can't "out-authenticity" others, they are determined to "out-volume" them with their gear.

Modern (or more modern) instruments.-- If the instruments look like they came from the local music store, you can pretty much bet they did. Obvious giveaways are plastic mountings and hardware, but there are more subtle differences between period instruments and modern. Among these are steel strings, elaborate pearl inlay work, plastic drum and banjo heads, to name but a few. Large "Gene Autry: or "Western Style" guitars, Marine Band harmonicas, mandolins, dulcimers, high school band instruments, and bagpipes should be left at home as well.

Use of the word "traditional" on tapes or in ads.--The word traditional implies, "Well, it's always been done that way, so it must be right." The learned know that this type of mentality spells disaster with a capital "D." When combined with the word "Appalachian," drop the tape and run away quickly. The bluegrass music so popular at some reenactments has its roots in the 1930s -- it may be "traditional," but it ain't traditional to the 1860s.

Use of non-accurate songs.--This one will take some work to be proficient at spotting. Ask around or spend some time in libraries to seek out the dates of many of these pieces of work. You might be surprised at what "old favorites" are actually post-war songs. Examples include "I'm a Good Ol' Rebel," "Cripple Creek," "Old Joe Clark," and "Ashokan Farewell." Mark these and know them well, but, more importantly, don't indulge in them at Civil War events.

Use of Hillbilly Descriptive Words.--Surely the reader has seen these words used to describe a tape or a band, "Have a knee-slappin', hog-chasin', rip-roarin', foot-stompin', rootin'-tootin' good time with this band." Usually the performer has a big safety pin in his hat, too, right? This is not to say that a group which uses lively, festive wording for their ads is not accurate, but the red flag should go up when seeing this type of corny language. As mentioned above, the popularity of "hillbilly" or "Appalachian" music dates from the 1930s, not the 1860s.

Documentation.--The bane of the charlatan. The next time you see one of these folks, ask them what sources they use to do their research. More likely than not, they will not be able to answer -- or will mumble something about being graced from above -- or will claim to be obscenely talented, or something along that line. Talent does not equal research.

The sound of performers' voices.--Vocals as performed by males in the 1800s should be a "booming" (not necessarily "deep") resonant voice with lots of projection. Falsetto should be reserved for operatic pieces, and the high-pitched (from the throat) bluegrass/folk singing voices are wrong (Bill Monroe impersonators be-no-more). The soft "quivering" (Tremolo) voice exemplified by Peter, Paul, and Mary is also incorrect for the period -- leave those for the herb-gathering 60s burn-out street musician.

Notes on Period-Correct Instruments

While some instruments have changed very little in the last 150 years, others have been very dynamic in their evolution. Just as it would be totally inappropriate to use a British Mark III Lee-Enfield bolt action rifle at a Civil War event, so too would it be inappropriate to use a Gibson banjo with steel strings circa 1935. There is absolutely no difference in the comparisons. Steel strings were not used in the time period we portray; instruments were strung with catgut (sheep intestines) which, truthfully, are extremely difficult to find today. Instruments strung with catgut are the best option, but another option for those short of cash is the nylon classical guitar strings. These sound extraordinarily like gut string and although they are not "authentic looking," they are closer than steel strings.

In speaking of stringed instruments as used today, there are three "problem children," which should be avoided by reenactors. These are guitars, dulcimers, and mandolins. Although all three instruments existed in some form during the time we portray, they are not suitable for most living history encampments. The dulcimer, although popularly believed to have its origins in the Appalachian Mountain region early in the 19th Century, was really popularized much later. During the 19th Century, the dulcimer looked nothing like the so-called "mountain" or "hammered" dulcimers popularized during the 1960s folk revolution. In addition, their use in the mid-19th century seems to be confined to very small areas of Pennsylvania, and even old Appalachian musicians will tell you they didn't know about dulcimers until the early 20th century. The dulcimer was considered to be a "feminine" instrument, certainly not an instrument to be found commonly in military camps being played by men. The 19th century guitar, smaller than modern guitars, was used primarily as a parlor instrument. Some references can be found, and, indeed, some photos exist, showing Civil War soldiers playing guitars, but care must be taken that the instrument is played in Civil War period style, not strummed like Gene Autry. For a good period reference to 19th century guitar playing styles, check the guitar arrangements that Stephen Foster wrote for his songs. Finally, mandolins did not become popular until the large influx of Italian immigrants later in the 19th century. Excellent discussions of these instruments are available in scholarly works on popular music in the antebellum/Civil War period.

Isaacson's Recommendations

If you're looking for musicians to play at a period event or just interested in hearing how your favorite song would have sounded 130 years ago, try the following:

Amoskeag Players

c/o Bob Kilham
3 Appletree Road
Auburn, NH 03032
(603) 483-5989
[tapes, bookings]

This New Hampshire-based group is directed by Robert Kilham, who also reproduces 1840s fretless banjos (all banjos until the late 1860s were fretless). The Amoskeag Players perform music from the antebellum and Civil War years, and their repertoire includes music from minstrel shows, New England sea chanteys, patriotic music, and popular music. Their ensemble is composed of instruments that are correct for the period portrayed, and Mr. kilham is able to play an endless variety of instruments...For live performance, this is a first rate group.

Saxton's Cornet Band

406 Mark Avenue
Danville, KY 40422
(606) 239-0037
[tapes, bookings]

This is the creme de la creme of brass bands in this modern age. Saxton's Cornet band gives top quality performances whether on the battlefield or in the ballroom. The members are all professional musicians whose personal impressions and instruments are prime quality.

Tuckahoe Social Orchestra

c/o Joe Ayers
Box 146
Bremo Bluff, VA
(804) 842-3573
[tapes, bookings, banjo manual reprints]

Joe Ayers and his Virginia-based group (primarily composed of his family) is perhaps most famous for doing much of the soundtrack for the 125th Anniversary of Gettysburg video. This group incorporates banjos, violins, tambourines, flutes, accordions, and a plethora of other instruments documentable to period performance practice...For string bands, the Tuckahoe Social Orchestra is top notch.

Stonewall Brigade Band

c/o Gary Funk, President
2391 Highview Circle
Staunton, VA 24401

A continuation of General Stonewall Jackson's original brigade band, the modern-day band still has the group's original instruments, which General Grant allowed them to keep when they were paroled at Appomattox.

Civil War Music Collectors Edition

This selection from Time-Life Books has proven to be a landmark set for the individual seeking a wide variety of entertainment. Except for a few selections by John Hartford...that are historically off base, most of the selections have been researched and performed in a fairly authentic fashion. For just plain all around entertainment, this set can't be beat.

Heritage Americana

Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., Inc.
713 South Third Street West
Missoula, MT 59801
(406) 549-8488
[tapes, CDs]

One fad in the 1960s was to reproduce Civil War brass band music using professional musicians with original arrangements and instruments. Regardless of why this fad occurred, it has been to our benefit, because the recordings of Heritage Americana set high standards for accurately reproducing Civil War era brass band music. Recordings are still available.

Thanks to Lee Canaday of Russellville, Alabama, for sending us the Watchdog articles from which the information presented above was taken.

Music of the War Between the States