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Desert Dancer Origins: Listen to the Mocking Bird (21) RE: Origins: Listen to the Mocking Bird 06 Nov 13

'Listen to the Mockingbird'

By Ted Widmer
The New York Times (Disunion series)
November 5, 2013

The tune, so recognizable, was composed by an African-American street musician named Richard Milburn in 1855, about whom too little is known. The words were written by "Alice Hawthorne," the nom de plume of a lyricist whose real name was Septimus Winner. (Why would anyone refuse to use such a name?)

The result of their collaboration was "Listen to the Mockingbird," an enormous hit of the 19th century – one historian claims it sold 20 million copies of the sheet music – and an endlessly mutable song, judging from the number of versions it has inspired.

The mournful lyrics, about a mockingbird singing on a lover's grave, spoke eloquently to Americans in an era when death darkened so many doorsteps. Abraham Lincoln found the song "as sincere as the laughter of a little girl at play." His enemies also liked it. Indeed, the song's lyricist was one of them – in 1864, Winner wrote a controversial song, "Give Us Back Our Old Commander," that urged Americans to vote for Lincoln's rival for the presidency, George McClellan. It was popular down South, too: in 1863, as the inhabitants of Vicksburg were enduring a grim siege, they made light of their situation by changing the lyrics to "Listen to the Miniι Balls."

Since then, the song has repeatedly found new life, often with birds chirping in the background, as our relentlessly upbeat culture tries to make the song happier than it is. On occasion, the song has been twisted into something like slapstick – but in its original version, the laughter is bitter indeed.

Consider a few examples, presented through the endless bounty of YouTube.

It was recorded onto an Edison cylinder circa 1912, featuring a xylophone.

Nine years later, another version, with birds.

In the 1930s, the classic version most of us know – as one of several versions of the opening credits for "The Three Stooges."

Then, Louis Armstrong gave it a try in 1952.

In 1960, as the Civil War centennial was beginning, it was covered by none other than Fred Flintstone, who had improbably become a master of scat-singing.

More recently, a version was recorded by everybody's favorite purple dinosaur, Barney.

On Nov. 5 a lilting, lovely new version becomes available, sung by Stuart Freeman and Dolly Parton, as part of an important new collection of Civil War music. "Divided and United," [link to Mudcat thread] compiled by Randall Poster, presents 32 songs in all of their glory (this video has background interviews with the musicians).

The link to the conflict is clear – the lyrics still speak eloquently of war-torn love, of military misadventure and mostly of loss. But each generation interprets the music anew, and it is a welcome gift to have this and other fresh performances for the 150th anniversary. Some will recognize in another recording on the album, "Aura Lee," the tune that Elvis Presley co-adapted for "Love Me Tender." (In the 1956 film of that name, Presley plays a younger brother of a Confederate soldier.)

To have access to the songs on this soundtrack, as Americans of the 19th century did, gives a fuller appreciation of the war. "I don't believe we can have an army without music," Robert E. Lee remarked after hearing a brass band perform in 1864. Music could be heard everywhere the war was fought. Marching bands accompanied the armies into battle, and played a pivotal role, keeping morale high and dictating the pace of the march. African-Americans conveyed information about the Underground Railroad through songs with private meanings ("Follow the Drinking Gourd" was about the Big Dipper, pointing north).

Americans North and South followed the war through an endless barrage of newly composed music about the war's personalities, and a few songs became timeless. The composer Louis Gottschalk wrote that Southern women liked to make their children sing "Dixie" or "My Maryland," "for the purpose of drawing on themselves the prosecution of the government." After New Orleans, the center of the Southern music industry, was taken in 1862, the Confederacy lost much of its ability to publish sheet music, which played a role in declining morale from that moment forward.

When the war was over, music found new use, as an instrument of reconciliation. Lincoln grasped this, as his famous fondness for "Dixie" made clear. Music can still be divisive between the North and the South – it was not too many years ago that Lynyrd Skynyrd's anthem, "Sweet Home Alabama," was penned as a riposte to Neil Young's "Southern Man." But mostly, good music just helps bring people together, as our endlessly adaptive culture works out a democracy of its own.

Sources: Steven H. Cornelius, "Music of the Civil War Era"; Christian McWhirter, "Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War"; Stephen Currie, "Music in the Civil War."

Ted Widmer is assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University. He edited, with Clay Risen and George Kalogerakis, a forthcoming volume of selections from the Disunion series, to be published this month.

Visit the link to see a sheet music cover for the song.

~ Becky in Long Beach

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