The Civil War came to town on Saturday night. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga hosted a performance of In Thinking of America: Songs of the Civil War as part of the annual Patten Performances series. The show features Robert Trentham, who put the production together after several years ago studying his own family’s involvement in the War Between the States, the Lincoln-Davis Debate, the Grand Domestic Dispute, or however you choose to refer to our unfortunate imbroglio of the mid-19th century.
Billed as a “musical entertainment of secession and reunion,” the show was true to its word, as it followed the onslaught and progression of the war through writings and songs of the period, some of which are very well known, such as “Dixie,” “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and a particular crowd favorite “Goober Peas.” It has been argued that it took the Civil War to turn us into one nation and not a make-shift consortium of contentious states. It could also be said that the war was able to give us the makings of our own genre of popular songs. Other than hymns and “Yankee Doodle,” can you think of any that came earlier?
The performance took place poignantly enough on the 140th anniversary of the Battles of Chattanooga. We sometimes forget that there was a time when Chattanooga was quite the hot spot, as Union and Confederate armies fought repeatedly over our surrounding soil. I guess someone thought it was important enough to do just that. It’s something to keep in mind when visiting other neighboring cities that were considered to be of less strategic value.
In his chronological musical journey from 1861 to 1865, Mr. Trentham employed period costumes, a period flavored warm-up group called Saxton’s Cornet Band, and even a mannered period acting style. These were the days before Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov brought us into the realm of psychological realism, and a mild touch of ham with all the trimmings was still considered de riguere. Remember, John Wilkes Booth quoted Latin (“Sic semper tyrannis”) upon shooting Lincoln and making a theatrical leap to the stage floor of Ford’s Theatre. Modern-day assassins aren’t nearly so dramatic or eloquent.
Trentham incorporated period photographs and images shown on a rear-projection screen to highlight each song or passage. It was interesting at one point to see the image of the half-built Capitol dome in Washington, D.C. – perhaps the clearest symbol of the state of our national unity – in the condition it remained for the entirety of the war. It took the war to finish the job in more ways than one. The phrase used in the show was that the war enabled us to “condense a nationality.”
As with most wars, there was a great deal of excitement at its beginning and a headiness over the early Confederate victories, but it all grew progressively darker as the war lingered on longer than anyone thought it would, and soldiers were separated from loved ones that many never saw again. There was a particularly tough song about the Battle of Shiloh (a Hebrew word meaning “place of peace”) that reflected the toughness of the hard-fought Union victories that eventually led to the war’s end.
Kudos go to Saxton’s Cornet band who played a rendition of “The Anvil Chorus” complete with anvil and Trentham’s accompanist Linda Jones, who gave a strong piano backdrop to the proceedings. Also, UTC must have gotten a food grant because they served refreshments at intermission, something that has been noticeably absent before. One observation I would like to pass along to the Chattanooga public is that lots of people missed the opportunity to bring their children to see the show, which would have been an interesting way to connect some of the dots with regards to understanding what is still this area’s most significant historical event. My daughter Mary Bartlett is in the fifth grade, and in our pre-show discussion of the Civil War, she informed me that George Washington had been one of the generals involved. We straightened that small misimpression out in a hurry, but it turned out Mary was familiar with several of the songs in the show, although she had no idea of their context. Now she does. All in all, it was a gentle way to investigate and understand a rather un-gentle event.
Next up in the Patten Performances will be the Alvin Ailey II Dance Ensemble on January 11, followed by the Aquila Theatre Company on January 24. Call 425-4269 for reservations, or visit www.utc.edu/finearts.