So how do you make “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” interesting or what do you do with a musical tradition that is overtly racist? There were two of the issues faced in trying to put together a concert of Civil War era music to accompany the exhibit First Hand: Civil War Era Drawings from the Becker Collection, currently at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College. Everyone knows Stephen Foster, and one could easily build an entire evening around his works. Though best known and condemned for his contributions to the comic stereotyping of African-Americans in some of his minstrel show songs, Foster is less recognized for how he helped to undermine that tradition (read the later verses of “My Old Kentucky Home” that speak of the hardship and cruelty of slavery—or be aware of his little-known song “The Colored Brigade” a rare and perhaps unique patriotic song about the newly forming Black regiments). But Foster is not the whole story—he’s represented in the concert by three pieces.
The moment of inspiration in what this concert could be came when I remembered a letter of a solider Sullivan Ballou, used in Ken Burn’s Civil War series, where he says farewell to his wife using the sentimental poetic language of his time—”if there shall be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit”—the same language set by Foster in “Jeannie”—”borne life a vapor on the summer air.” The idea became to tell the human side of the Civil War—the experiences of enslaved and free African-Americans, soldiers, wives and families—through songs and writings touching on issues of slavery and abolition, the call to arms, the laments over lost loved ones, and songs of patriotism and victory. The adventure became to link prose and poetry with the songs of the day. There are the amazing voices of African Americans and the great tradition of spirituals that first came to prominence at that time, which, with their coded language of “crossing the river Jordan,” expressed their desire for crossing into the north and freedom. There were discoveries along the way—Henry Work’s “Kingdom Coming'” where he turns the minstrel show tradition upside down by having the slave comically mock the master and overseer; Emily Dickinson’s only poem that seems to reference the war directly. It is through the words and songs that hopefully one hears the people depicted in this wonderful exhibit speak of their hopes, sorrows and joys.
The concert takes place in Gasson 100 on Sunday October 4 at 3pm. The McMullen Museum will hold extended hours that day so people can visit the exhibit after the concert.
Submitted by Jeremiah McGrann, Music Department