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Civil War events feature minstrel song revival

Sunday - 9/2/2012, 5:03pm  ET

By DAVID DISHNEAU
Associated Press

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) - With their slouch hats, whiskers and time-worn instruments, members of the 2nd South Carolina String Band look and sound like a Civil War camp band. And while they play "Oh! Susannah" and other familiar fare, they don't shy from other historical songs with inescapably racist overtones that may offend some modern listeners.

The aim of these musical re-enactors is to accurately recreate music that soldiers from both the North and South enjoyed around battlefield campfires at Gettysburg, Antietam and Bull Run. Along with "Buffalo Gals" and "Dixie," they perform lesser-known songs in the exaggerated dialect of blackface minstrels from that tumultuous era when slavery was breaking apart.

"A-way down in de Kentuck' break, a darky lived, dey call him Jake," Fred Ewers sings on "I'm Gwine Ober de Mountain," by "Dixie" composer Daniel Emmett.

"Angeline the Baker," a Stephen Foster song in the band's repertoire, begins, "Way down on de old plantation, dah's where I was born." It's the story of a slave who was "so happy all de day" until his beloved Angeline disappears.

The camp bands don't perform in blackface and typically shun the most offensive words and lyrics with cruel or violent imagery. Still, it's a tricky business presenting such racially jarring songs.

Historically accurate? Certainly. The music comes from the minstrel shows that were the nation's most popular form of entertainment in the mid-1800s. Usually featuring white performers with blackened faces, the shows included songs and skits that often lampooned black people and portrayed slaves as happy and care-free.

The minstrel shows produced some of America's most beloved songs and contributed mightily to jazz, bluegrass, country and folk music. Blackface minstrels also helped popularize the banjo, an instrument with African roots.

Some scholars and musicians question whether a Civil War re-enactment is the best place to hear such songs performed. Some of these critics play similar material at banjo workshops and scholarly gatherings designed for discussion that they hope can help heal the wounds of American slavery.

The 2nd South Carolina String Band seeks to present the music as true as possible to what was played in the camps.

"We are performing, not lecturing," said banjoist Joe Ewers, Fred's brother and the band's chief spokesman.

His role models include Joseph Ayers, a Buckingham, Va., banjo historian who began researching and recording minstrel songs in 1985. Ayers favors broad public exposure to the music.

"We need to talk about our history openly and honestly, and the sooner we can do that the better," he said.

But some say more sensitivity is needed. Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a black string band inspired by early African-American music, cringes at hearing exacting renditions of songs from a time when many blacks had no voice because they were either enslaved or struggling to survive.

"There is a part of me that absolutely squirms in my chair when I hear that music being done so earnestly," Giddens said.

She said she worries about camp band audiences focusing on derogatory lyrics instead of appreciating that minstrelsy borrowed instruments, playing techniques and perhaps even melodies from black musicians.

The Chocolate Drops have tried to bridge that gap by recording an instrumental version of "Dixie." In concert, they play two other wordless minstrel tunes, "Corn Shucking Jig" and "Camptown Hornpipe," preceded by a five-minute talk about banjo history and minstrelsy.

The 2nd South Carolina band _ with members from Connecticut, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia _ plays "Dixie," too; twice, in fact, at their June appearance in Hagerstown to help publicize the Sept. 17 anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. Historians say the song was widely popular before the war; Abraham Lincoln once called it "one of the best tunes I have ever heard."

Ewers, of Ashuelot, N.H., said there's no better setting for the music than a Civil War scenario. The band's outfits, instruments and musical selections _ including the occasional jarring lyric _ are meant to faithfully represent a group of musically inclined Confederate soldiers or a traveling minstrel troupe.

"When we perform for the public, we try to bring what we think is the way the soldiers themselves would have presented the music," Ewers said.

Still, the band alters or avoids songs that originally contained the N-word. And they preface songs they consider sensitive with a disclaimer.

"We explain that we are trying only to provide a glimpse into mid-19th century life and that the material we are presenting should in no way be considered representative of our own personal views or beliefs," Ewers said. "We then point out that the U.S. Constitution absolutely guarantees the right of free speech but offers no protection against being offended. Everyone has the right to walk away if what they are hearing makes them uncomfortable."

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