Hill professor makes fine music for Civil War project

Local Life May 19, 2011 0 Comments

Hill professor makes fine music for Civil War project

by Lou Mancinelli

Before Abraham Lincoln was given permission by Congress in 1862 to bypass state laws and recruit African American soldiers to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War, the Massachusetts governor promoted the formation of black regiments. To that effect, a number of recruiters visited Philadelphia and returned to Boston “quietly, overnight to avoid attention” with enough black soldiers to fill Company B for the 54th Massachusetts, as dramatized by the 1989 film, “Glory.”

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, this new two-disc music CD of Civil War-era songs was compiled by 15-year Chestnut Hill resident and Drexel University associate history professor Kathryn Steen.

That token of local trivia and a few others you may want to dish out to impress your dinner friends comes via the informative insert included with “Drexel University Presents: The Civil War As it Came to Philadelphia.”

The new two-disc music CD was compiled by 15-year Chestnut Hill resident and Drexel University associate history professor Kathryn Steen, and serves to tell a story about Philadelphia’s involvement in the war.

Produced in conjunction with students and faculty from Drexel’s music industry program and its Department of History and Politics, it was released this spring to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Steen wanted to get the school involved in similar efforts like those led by historical institutions, like the Pennsylvania Heritage Society and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s “Pennsylvania Civil War 150,” to spread information about the war. Her vision was to utilize resources only available at Drexel.

Since Drexel’s music industry program is “fairly unique” to the university, Steen thought music would be the appropriate medium for information about the war. In June, 2009, she contacted Jim Klein, head of the music industry department, “half-thinking he might laugh.”

But Klein was interested. He in turn organized students to perform and record the disc’s 14 songs. Each song is done twice. Disc one features renditions of classics like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” performed by the school’s choral group the way they might have sounded in the 1860s. It includes songs associated with both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, like “Children of the Battlefield.” Yet the unique aspect of this collection comes on disc two, where the musicians took the traditional songs from the first disk and created their own 21st-century interpretations of the songs.

Guitarist Paul Lingerman, a friend of Drexel student David Balcher, thought a rock-influenced version of “Hell on the Wabash” with a powerful sounding guitar would be a fitting way to dress the song in 21st-century garb. The version he and Balcher eventually recorded stemmed from the song’s original flute melody.

According to what Steen has learned from research, “Hell on the Wabash” is an older name of the song “Hell on the Rappahannock,” said by one solider to have “enough music in it to make a man who was just about dead brace up, throw his chest out and take [a] step as if he had received a new lease on life.”

For Steen, who normally focuses on the history of technology, business and comparative industrialization, the project was also a learning process. She said the collection’s song selection was driven by history since Philadelphia was home to several music publishers 150 years ago. The song “Battle of Gettysburg,” by James Cox Beckel, e.g., was published in 1863 by Philadelphia’s Winner & Co.

“I wanted to be able to tell the story about Philadelphia in the Civil War,” Steen said. “Part of that was figuring out what story we wanted to tell.” The story she tells from research gathered with the help of Drexel student Hannah Bennett hinges on her belief that Philadelphia’s location determined its role in the Civil War. The city is close to the South and was a hub of railroad transportation as well as the manufacturing capital of the U.S. at the time.

During the war, its numerous textile and other factories made uniforms, guns, swords and other items to support the war effort. The city was known for manufacturing drugs. A number of its old train stations and hotels served as brief hospitals for the wounded soldiers. In the weeks after Gettysburg, for example, 10,000 wounded soldiers arrived in Philadelphia.

The “Satterlee Polka,” is a song written by the bandmaster at Satterlee Hospital, a West Philly site with more than 4,000 beds. “A lot of the legacy of the Civil War is music,” said Steen. “I think music is a good vehicle to tell history.”

“Drexel University Presents The Civil War As it Came to Philadelphia,” is available at Hideaway Music, 8612 Germantown Ave. (215-248-4434); the Drexel U, Bookstore, 33rd and Chestnut Streets, MacAlister Building (215-895-2860), and online through Amazon.com. For information about “Pennsylvania Civil War 150,” visit www.PACivilWar.com.

Ed. note: Kathryn Steen requested that her photo not appear with this article and that we not mention her age or when she graduated from college. Also, last week I listened to each of the 24 songs at least twice and found most of them thoroughly enjoyable. I particularly liked the 1860s’ version of “Battle of Gettysburg,” some of which is even reminiscent of a Mozart piano sonata.

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