About the Music

“If we’d had your music, sir, we’d have whipped you out of your boots.”

Confederate officer at Appomattox

The Songs in Reunion

The songs in Reunion all come from the Civil War or earlier. Many are familiar to most Americans, but some have stayed under the radar for decades. Some of the most popular songs of the war, like “Just Before the Battle, Mother” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” won’t be found in the show because they didn’t specifically support the action. Most came from commercial music publishers, but there are a number of spiritual and traditional songs as well. Taken together, they present a unique narrative of this American tragedy.

Documenting a War in Song

The American Civil War was documented in many ways as it unfolded—in newspapers, in weekly magazines, in official documents, by painters and sketch artists, by photographers, by poets, and by the participants themselves in the letters and diaries they left us.

But not everyone knows it was the first war to be documented by professional songwriters, the original citizens of what the next century would call “Tin Pan Alley.” Earlier wars produced songs and ballads, but they were passed along traditionally as folk music, from musician to musician or listener to listener.

The Rise of American Popular Music

In the years leading up to the Civil War, a number of factors fell into place to establish a vital, mature music publishing industry in America. This industry, well-developed by the time the war began, would play a major role in defining our feelings and memories about the conflict.

The Industrial Revolution, with the rise of factories, interchangeable parts, and a vast continental transportation network to deliver manufactured goods, made large-scale piano production possible. For the first time, the middle class could own an instrument that had always been reserved for the wealthy. The radical new sales gimmick of “installment purchases” on credit made a piano that much more common in mid-century American parlors.

And once the piano found its way into the home, there would have to be music to play on it. Along with the improvements and expansion of commercial printing, this demand for product led to explosive growth in the music publishing business. Although songwriters were poorly paid by modern standards, they churned out new songs for music halls, minstrel shows, theatres and homes. Now an American could attend a music hall or minstrel show, hear a new song for the first time, and quickly own a copy to play at home.

Successful popular songwriters like Stephen Foster, Septimus Winner, Henry Clay Work, and George F. Root were well-established by the beginning of the Civil War, and as the momentous events drove demand, they were more than happy to fill them. Each new headline served as an excuse to toss off another song capitalizing on the fame of a battle or a general—often competing songs by rival writers using the same title or catch-phrase. One example in the show is “We are coming, Father Abraham, 300,000 more!” This catch-phrase spawned too many versions to count.

At the same time, music was still shared in traditional ways, and African-American spirituals and American folk songs remained popular. But, partly due to its much greater industrialization, the music publishing industry in the North was much more robust than its counterpart in the South. And once the war began, music publishers in Dixie faced even greater challenges such as extreme shortages of paper and spendable currency.