Civil War Songbook, 104 pages, softcover, $15.95, and Civil War Songs, three compact discs, $26.95, both by Keith and Rusty McNeil, WEM Records, Riverside, Colorado, 909-780-2322.
Two thousand songs were written and sold as sheet music during the first year of the Civil War alone. Civilians purchased the sheets for about 10 cents each; soldiers in the field received them for free. In parlors and around campfires North and South, anyone who dabbled on an instrument and could hold a tune met the requirements for bringing the static musical notation and lyrics to life.
Keith and Rusty McNeil have performed and recorded more than 50 of the most popular songs of the Civil War era on their collection Civil War Songs. Here, Keith sings and plays banjo, guitar, clarinet, harmonica, and other instruments, while Rusty sticks to strumming the steel-string and singing in a traditional-folk-song voice. The vocal selections include sentimental songs–such as “Lorena” and “Aura Lea”–which civilians preferred, and marching, protest, and humorous songs–such as “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Treasury Rats,” and “Army Bugs”–which the soldiers preferred.
Narration between songs offers a hint of the war’s history, just enough to create some context for the music. A booklet provides some additional information, though publication dates, even rough estimates of those dates, are not included.
The McNeils’ recordings make an enjoyable, informative introduction to Civil War song. For musicians interested in making their own Civil War music, the McNeils have released Civil War Songbook. Along with brief historical commentary, the book includes the sheet music and lyrics for the songs on the compact-disc collection.