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 re-create 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.
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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.”
Hagerstown resident Mike Reed said he enjoyed the band’s performance and wasn’t bothered by the blackface dialect.
“I think it’s because it was put to me as period music,” he said. “It’s like reading one of the original Mark Twain books where they use the N-word. I read that as being in the context of that period.”
The 2nd South Carolina is the best-known of dozens of camp bands that have formed in the 25 years since the last major Civil War anniversary. The phenomenon mainly reflects increased access to the internet, enabling musicians and scholars to research and share sheet music, concert programs, soldiers’ diaries and details of period instrument construction.
Accuracy matters to serious re-enactors, from the number of buttons on their uniforms to way in which songs are sung. The 2nd South Carolina band “lets you hear the real sound of a time and place,” according to Civil War Times Illustrated.
The rise of the camp bands coincides with a National Park Service effort to present all aspects of the Civil War, especially African-Americans’ views, during its sesquicentennial events. Such nuances were largely ignored during the war’s 100th anniversary in the early 1960s, before the black civil rights movement peaked.
Dave Culgan, leader of the Camptown Shakers, a West Grove, Pa.-based Union camp band, said he avoids material neither he nor his audiences would enjoy. Despite what he called the “toxic words” of some songs, “there is much great music within that is very worth getting out,” Culgan wrote in an email.
The 2nd South Carolina band is sometimes asked to avoid certain songs, Ewers said. He recalled an academic gathering of about 300 Civil War researchers, some of whom were black. The organizer said they could not play “Kingdom Coming,” an 1862 minstrel song about former slaves rejoicing in their master’s defeat, because it includes the word “darky.”
They complied, but not happily.
“These songs are part of African-American history as well as ours. History is history,” Ewers said.
Banjo historian Robert Winans, a retired Gettysburg College English professor, produced and played on the 1985 album, “The Early Minstrel Show,” regarded as the first scholarly effort to recreate the sound of a pre-war, blackface minstrel group. Winans said the 2nd South Carolina plays songs he wouldn’t perform publicly but that he’s pleased they’re helping broaden Americans’ exposure to the music.
“They’re very good, they’re a very fine group as musicians,” Winans said. “But I would be much happier if they would do a little bit more to provide context and raise the questions that certainly are inherent in the material.”
Banjo historian Greg Adams of Germantown, Md., said camp bands should help their audiences understand how blackface minstrelsy helped move an instrument with African roots into the mainstream of popular music.
“If we’re going to play music from the Civil War era, we also need to understand the historical context in which that music was being used,” Adams said. “That requires explanation — and that is not something that happens frequently enough in terms of how people are presenting the music.”