Teaching with Confederate Music

Today’s guest post is by Billy Coleman, a postdoctoral fellow in the history department at the University of British Columbia. His article, “Confederate Music and the Politics of Treason and Disloyalty in the American Civil War,” appears in the February 2020 issue of the Journal.

The first Confederate song I played in a classroom was “Goober Peas.” I was teaching a course on Civil War America, and I knew Confederate soldiers had sung the song to complain about their lack of provisions, to avoid boredom, and to distract themselves from the horrors of the battlefield. But given the gravity of their situation, I also knew the song’s peppy jingle-like melody can sound oddly out of place to twenty-first-century ears. So, I doubled down by playing not just any version of “Goober Peas” but a self-consciously old-timey one, performed long after the war was over, by Burl Ives and Johnny Cash.

The gambit worked well enough. Students chuckled along to the tune and thought it was pleasantly surreal to find themselves at university watching Johnny Cash sing merrily about peas. A win for student satisfaction, perhaps, but as a historian of early U.S. music and politics, I knew I had sold myself short. Playing “Goober Peas” in this way had done little to help students understand the experiences and motivations of Confederate soldiers. If anything, I had probably succeeded in making these historical experiences seem even less relatable, not more.

Music is often used in the history classroom to try to make the past more accessible, relevant, or interesting. But these goals—laudable as they are—can also limit the potential of musical sources to the reflection of a past we already know, or that could just as easily have been accessed via other means. Are there more substantive ways of incorporating Civil War–era music into a history classroom? Definitely.

As historians we are trained to place evidence in context, and we try to persuade students to account for why, when, and how a source was created in order to interpret its significance. However, if students hear a Confederate tune like “Goober Peas” and cannot immediately tell how the song was used and interpreted by different people in different situations, the upshot is that most are quick to recognize that a song (like any other primary source) can be interpreted differently from one person to another. And most are also quick to understand that a song by itself (again, like other primary sources) is unlikely to answer all the questions we may wish to ask of it. Conveying these insights, I’d argue, is no small thing.

To build on this connection, a variety of other materials can be introduced at this stage that collectively speak to a range of ways that Civil War Americans debated the effects and purpose of Confederate songs. Potentially, these can be sourced from the evidence, episodes, and debates described in my recent JSH article. And these additional sources could take the form of newspaper articles, military records, diaries, letters, music periodicals, or even sheet music covers. As more evidence is brought in, a more detailed and complex picture emerges, and students can gradually appreciate—in real time—how and why historians weave imperfect sources into viable conclusions.

The substance of my JSH article may or may not influence the outcome of the exercise. I used a collection of sixty legal incidents involving Confederate music in border towns and Union-occupied areas to ask why Confederates thought singing Confederate songs was a good idea (even when doing so invited arrest) and to ask how and why the Union military reacted to Confederates who sung, sold, or published Confederate music in places under Union control. In response, I landed on an argument about how Civil War Americans experienced the breakdown of public and private boundaries, the politics of patriotism and loyalty, and the roots of the ongoing cultural power of the Confederacy and its symbols. Students may settle on something altogether different. And that is great! Because, for me at least, the real potential of teaching history with and through music is its ability to help students see that making original arguments about a complicated past is a skill that already lies within their reach.

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