Monday, November 25, 2013

The Messages In The Music

As I shared with you in my first blog, I graduated college with a degree in writing and a minor in music. One of the most interesting classes of my college career was called “Music of the Wars” and detailed the evolution of music through periods of war around the world. We studied both classical and popular styles—how they came about and how they impacted the culture of that day. I’ve forgotten much more about the music we studied than I recall, but one portion of the class has stuck with me in the intervening years. The Civil War era music, and more precisely, the hidden messages conveyed in music of that era.

One such musical genre thought to carry hidden messages was the Spiritual, created and sung by the African-American slaves. Slave owners often forced their slaves to convert to Christianity and forbade them from speaking or singing in their native tongues. Plantation owners also took all musical instruments away. This didn’t stop the oppressed people from singing. Quite the contrary, they sang without musical instruments, or a capella, and made up songs about the God of the Bible and the characters within His Book, as well as their own struggles and hardships. Songs we now think of as folk favorites, such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were some of the popular Spirituals of this era. (Click the song’s title to hear a recording of the Fisk Jubilee Singers of 1909 sing the song). Common themes of chariots or trains were used in these songs to indicate the Underground Railroad, and the words “promised land” were replacements for a land where the slaves could live free lives. Some of the songs were thought to speak of specific “stations” on the Railroad, and songs like “Wade In the Water” gave clues how to throw bloodhounds off their trails if they were followed.

Can you guess the reason behind the slave owners banning musical instruments? They weren’t just being cruel. Plantation owners were concerned that the loud rhythms of the drums might carry coded messages able to reach slaves on neighboring plantations for miles around. They worried that the drum beats might signal a call to revolt or escape, so they banned the instruments completely.

Music was also used to convey messages on smoky Civil War battlefields. I’m sure you can imagine how quickly your line of sight would be obscured when surrounded by gunfire and cannons. The officers had to develop a way to convey instructions across the distances in such circumstances. Originally, they thought to employ drums, fifes, and bugles to express their wishes. But the booming of gun and cannon fire drowned out the drums and the high-pitched fifes. However, the bugle’s notes carried over the concussions of gunfire and cannons and got the message out to the troops. Officers were taught what the various calls meant, and even how to play them, so they could convey directions across long, smoky distances.

Each company in the Civil War included a brigade of buglers, led by a chief bugler. The chief’s job was to act as the general’s mouthpiece, sounding the calls for roll call, inspections, marching, drills, guard-mounting, and most other company-wide activities. The chiefs of the bugle brigades benefited from various privileges, including better quality rations in larger quantities, they weren’t required to carry their belongings during marches, and they didn’t have to chop or haul their own firewood. They were required only to bugle and oversee the buglers under them. The job of the company buglers were more varied. They carried weapons and were expected to fight when needed. They also served as messengers, surgical assistants, or on the ambulance crews. In addition, they would feed and water horses, chop and haul fire wood, and take turns at guard duty. Each bugler would be required to memorize each of nearly 50 distinctive calls, half for general instructions, and half used during skirmishes.

So music during the Civil War era was far more than just a way to pass the time. It was a hidden or secret means of communication. Interesting, right? Were you aware of any of these facts? Are you aware of any other eras/genres of music that have similar hidden messages?

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won the 2012 CWOW Phoenix Rattler, 2012 ACFW First Impressions, and 2013 FCWC contests, all in the historical category. She is also the winner of the 2013 Central Florida ACFW chapter's "Prompt Response" contest. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite--full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and four fur children.

6 comments:

  1. How fascinating to learn that music was used to carry secret messages during the Civil War era! Thank you so much for sharing!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Britney. I'm glad you enjoyed the information.

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  2. I think music of any era is quite reflective of the society, their values, and way of life--from the instruments used to the lyrics actually sung. My inner geek wants me to go bury myself in research based off this concept now, but the work day is far from over. Great thoughts!

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    1. Like I said, Crystal, I forgot far more of the class than I remember, but I do recall some other eras having similar hidden messages and meanings. I so wish I'd paid more attention. It's a fun topic to me.

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  3. What an intriguing and interesting post! In writing my Civil War novel set in Texas, His Steadfast Love, I learned music was important to the troops, but I didn't delve into it as much as you did. Thanks for all the good research and for bringing it to the blog.

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    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Golden. Thanks for reading.

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