Chicago Sings the Union

12/15/2020 nlc

By Dr. Christian McWhirter

Music was central to how most Americans experienced the Civil War. In an age before mass media and recorded sound, people performed songs together in their homes and public spaces. While these songs entertained performers and audiences, they were also powerful tools for conveying ideas.

The Civil War provided the most fertile ground yet for the emerging music industry to cash in on the public appetite for new songs but also to craft songs that expressed how people thought and felt about the conflict raging around them.

An emerging class of songwriters and publishers fueled the mid-19th-century American music industry and its primary musical commodity: sheet music. Typically consisting of 4-8 pages, each piece of sheet music provided the consumer with the notation and lyrics for a song, often featuring striking covers to draw the eye. Cheap — maybe less than a dollar — these small publications became part of each middle-class household’s repertoire, sometimes bound together by the owner with other favorites. Stores popped up throughout the nation to serve this industry, sometimes producing and selling songs of their own alongside musical instruments and even lessons.

 A colorful example of a Root & Cady song sheet

Perhaps no music store and publisher enjoyed a greater rise during the Civil War than Chicago’s Root & Cady. Formed in 1858 mostly to furnish instruments and sheet music, Root & Cady sprang into action once the war broke out. This was partly due to the involvement of George Frederick Root, a music educator and songwriter who believed in the power of popular music and encouraged its spread. He adopted a strategy of writing songs the dealt directly with current events — even specific events just after they happened. He put this plan into action immediately, with his April 1861 Fort Sumter piece, “The First Gun is Fired! May God Protect the Right!”

As he later recorded in his memoir: “When anything happened that could be voiced in a song, or when the heart of the Nation was moved by particular circumstances or conditions caused by the war, I wrote what I thought would then express the emotions of the soldiers or the people.”

Christian McWhirter is the Lincoln Historian at the ALPLM.

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