While unearthing music popular during the Civil War, Bobby Horton discovered a new window on history based on ordinary citizens’ perspectives.
Bobby Horton is a man on a mission; but you’d never know it from his outgoing, affable, and often-humorous demeanor. In fact, the course of his life was determined early on, growing up surrounded by family musicians and a living sense of history inherited from numerous family members who had served and fought in World War II. These influences took a few decades to coalesce into what has now become Horton’s life’s work and passion, creating a resume truly impressive in its breadth and scope: close to twenty homemade albums of Civil War songs and other music from early American history; consulting and contributing roles in more than a dozen prize-winning PBS series produced by esteemed documentarian Ken Burns; and more than thirty soundtracks commissioned by the National Park Service for visitor-center introductory films.
He’s done all this while maintaining membership in a musical comedy trio dubbed Three on a String, which he helped found while in college more than forty years ago and which, at the height of its popularity, played an average of 250 gigs a year. At the same time, married for four decades to his college sweetheart, he’s helped raised what are now two grown children. And on none of these several fronts has he retired—he’s still producing homemade albums, working with both Ken Burns and the National Park Service, appearing on a regular basis with Three on a String, and remains a happy family man and an active resident in his community.
The Birmingham, Alabama native fondly recalled a childhood in which his trumpet-playing father and banjo-playing grandfather played a major role in his life, so much so that he doesn’t recall learning to play music, but said he just seemed to know how to play any instrument he was interested in. Today he is proficient on banjo, resonator guitar, violin, and trumpet, among others contained in his collection of fifty instruments, many of them—like the 1857 guitar on which he occasionally performs—much-sought-after collectors’ items. Playing music came so naturally to him as a child, Horton said, that he began playing studio gigs at fourteen without thinking this was especially remarkable.
By the same token, he said he can’t recall a time when he wasn’t interested in history, soaking up World War II stories from relatives and being especially impressed as a child by the centennial commemoration of the War Between the States, which ignited in him an abiding, amateur historian’s interest in the study of Civil War history.
While he was able to make the connection between war and music from an early age, based partly on his father’s recollection of the rousing effect war-weary troops experienced listening to The Glenn Miller Band’s famous swing era version of “In the Mood,” it wasn’t until a friend asked him to provide music for an historically based feature film that Horton took his first step on a path that would become the overriding obsession of his life. Assuming he was already capable of providing instrumental music to suit the mood of scenes in the movie, he began to think about including music to which ordinary people of that time were most likely listening—the real-life soundtrack underlying the unfolding of real-life events.
But how could he find out what songs were actually popular then; and, since this time period preceded the era of recorded sound, where could he find the music for those songs? Doing what came naturally, Horton visited the Birmingham library and unexpectedly discovered gold in what locals simply call The Southern History Room, an archive that contains the more formally titled Tutwiler Collection of Southern History and Literature.
It was there Horton stumbled upon what he calls “a treasure trove, a Garden of Eden for Civil War historians.” In one day, Horton said, he located the published sheet music for “several hundred tunes.” He also discovered a previously overlooked resource for American music historians. Beginning in the 1880s, Horton learned, Civil War veterans began holding large-scale reunions, many of which were thoroughly documented, including printed schedules for the events listing Civil War songs to be sung.
This discovery had two immediate effects. On the one hand, it gave Horton a method for determining which songs associated with the Civil War were most popular. And on the other hand, Horton was struck by an insight that compels him to this day. “I came to realize,” he explained, “that prior to Mr. Edison’s invention of a sound recording machine, everybody sang. It wasn’t a spectator sport. And these songs meant something. In times before Civil War, before people generally learned to read and write, songs had been one of the primary means of recording history, a way for one generation to pass on to the next its values, who it considered to be heroes, what really mattered to that culture.”
It wasn’t long after his “moment of enlightenment” in Birmingham Library’s Southern History Room that Horton began constructing a recording studio in his home and making a series of CDs that documented the most popular of the more than four thousand songs published during the Civil War. In working closely with the selection and performance of each tune, Horton got to know this musical period intimately and acquired an understanding of music and its role in human culture that continues to inspire him.
“When you read about the Civil War,” he said, “and you begin to marvel at the dedication and sacrifices everyone made to sustain the war effort, you want to get know some of these historical figures as real people. And one of the most honest ways of getting to know them, I believe, is through the music that meant the most to them. By listening to the popular music of the day, you can document the progress of the war and, at the same time, acquire a better understanding of how it affected the ordinary citizen, both in uniform and on the home front. Bringing the popular music of the Civil War period back to life is an essential way of celebrating and honoring the ordinary, everyday people who were the real heroes of that bitter and destructive time.”
Thus began a bountiful and colorful career devoted to reclaiming the popular music of America’s past as a means of reminding today’s listeners of the importance of ordinary citizens in a democratic nation.
Details. Details. Details.
“Songs and Stories of the Civil War”
Bobby Horton will be performing authentic period music and inspired storytelling as part of the Civil War Sesquicentennial on Thursday, October 3 at the Capitol Park Museum, 660 North Fourth Street in Baton Rouge. Starting at 6 pm, the program is free and open to the public. (225) 342-5428.
A ten-minute video in which Horton describes his extensive musical career. http://vimeo.com/35356721
Bobby Horton plays the popular melancholic version of “Dixie.” http://vimeo.com/originalmachine/bobby-hortons-dixie