Music of the Civil War (sort of…okay, not quite…)

Back in my college days in the 1970s I was a big fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and one of their catch-phrases was “…and now for something completely different.” So here goes, borrowing from those words:

While writing Parts I and II of my novel Gettysburg, 1913: A Novel of the Great Reunion, I would often set the right atmosphere by listening to two different pieces of Civil War-related music while out walking and gathering my thoughts about the plot and characters. Or while flying and proof-reading the manuscript, I would often play one or both of these over and over, trying to set the right atmosphere for my writing. And working on the concluding Part III, I’m still doing the same thing.

I wrote “Civil War-related” in the above paragraph because neither of my two “musical muses” is in fact a genuine Civil War piece of music from that era…but both capture the spirit of the war itself along with its participants and bystanders so well that I can’t help but time-travel in my mind when listening to either…which does a wonderful job of setting the right mood and atmosphere for writing about the Great Reunion and the Civil War veterans who participated.

The first is The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, the 1960s song by The Band. Respecting copyrights and intellectual property I won’t reproduce any of the words of the song here but if you’re familiar with the song, the sad lament about the last days of the war and the fall of the South signifies – for me at least – the levels from which the Confederate veterans who came to Gettysburg 48 years later rose to the point where they could meet in peace and reconciliation with their former enemies.

The other is the instrumental piece Ashokan Farewell which was written in the early 1980s – correct, 1980s, not 1880s – and which found fame in Ken Burns’ PBS series on the Civil War. The melody is so reminiscent of music from the Civil War that many viewers of Mr. Burns’ series mistakenly believed at the time that the piece was genuinely from that period rather than a modern composition in the spirit of music from more than a century earlier.

So with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg coming up (as well as, of course, the 100th anniversary of the Great Reunion) – and nearly two more years of sesquicentennial commemorations to follow – if you feel like immersing yourself in the atmosphere of the Civil War, you might want to take a listen to either The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down or Ashokan Farewell and take a little trip back in time.

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