Emancipation celebration brings Civil War music to present-day ears

Natalie Schermer

Jan. 7, students gathered in Harper Hall for a celebration honoring the 150th anniversary of the institution of the Emancipation Proclamation. The convocation consisted of a concert featuring various pieces from the Civil War era, as well as later compositions inspired by or related to the time period.

Preceding the concert was a lecture from Associate Professor of English Faith Barrett, who recently published a book on Civil War poetry. Her lecture opened the eyes of the audience to the importance of songs and verse to the emancipation movement and put the following performance into greater perspective.

The first piece performed by the vocalists was “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” accompanied by Frank C. Shattuck Professor of Music and Teacher of Voice  Kenneth Bozeman on piano. In her talk, Professor Barrett highlighted this song specifically as one of the most influential of the emancipation age.

Its tune had been around for years, but until Julia Ward Howe wrote her new lyrics and christened it “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” it had never quite managed to catch on.

But something about these lyrics struck a chord in the hearts of Civil War listeners. The fervor and emotion of the lyrics affected those high and low; it was sung in the fields and printed in The Atlantic.Striking the perfect balance between well-written and utterly catchy, the “Battle Hymn” quickly became the signature song of the war. After learning about the background behind “Battle Hymn” and its importance, the following performance was more emotional and weightier than it would have been if performed with no introduction.

After “Battle Hymn,” Brienne Colston ’15 gave an emotionally-charged performance of “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child,” a traditional African-American spiritual. Her voice conveyed the breadth of pain and suffering of slavery and reminded all of the audience what they were celebrating.

After a brief introduction from Lecturer in Music Erica Scheinberg came two songs written by white songwriters popular during the Civil War era, “New Emancipation Song” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” Performed by Cayla Morton ’15 and Paris Brown ’08, their lyrics displayed another aspect of support for the Emancipation movement that hadn’t been previously explored in this convocation.

The program finished with a few pieces written in later years but in the Civil War tradition and legacy. “Ride on King Jesus,” performed by Brown, was one of these. Brown gave the piece her all; the up-beat tune raised the audience’s spirits and prepared everybody watching for Brown’s stunning high-note finish.

Concluding the concert was Tyler Kundinger ’14 singing “Grief” and pianist Leonard Hayes ’11 with a selection from George Walker’s “Piano Sonata No. 2.” The diverse piece was a fitting end to a night of emotional highs and lows that managed to bring the spirit of the Civil War music to present-day Appleton.