Newberry Library and Civil War Music

Newberry Library is another one of those  classic Chicago places. It’s an independent library that has an amazing collection, which includes the famous Mayan text, the Popal Vuh, the Mike Royko letter collection, and wondrous maps. They are also known for their genealogical collection. You can’t take any books home but you can get a free library card and make use of their collections on site. The only time I’ve ever really made use of their collection upstairs was to borrow a book about vaudeville. I remember reading about various vaudeville acts involving animals; notably, there was one act who used lots of cats. Talk about herding cats.

The library has excellent programming. The Newberry library has a huge book sale in July, with an impressive assortment of books from murder mysteries, history books, children’s books and even records.  Most things are  reasonably priced, In conjunction with the sale, there is the famous Bughouse Debates in the square across the street on the Saturday. Bughouse Square was famous for people giving speeches on soap boxes back in the early 20th century (and possibly later?). This Newberry event commemorates the freedom of speech so people of all different beliefs talk about a variety of subjects, from the deficit to food truck regulation. It’s a wonderful time. We’ve participated in them for the past few years as historical characters and moderators. It’s a highlight to the summer.

There is a few rooms for a special exhibits, which are just wonderful. Several years ago, it was illuminated manuscripts which are a personal favorite. Right now, there is an exhibit called “Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North.” I only had a chance to briefly wander through it but it looks fantastic. It starts with some sheet music that was created just after the battle or engagement at Fort Sumter. There are fascinating caricatures that show attitudes about the war, race, and much  more. I hope to have a chance to go back and spend some more time.

In addition to these exhibits, there are splendid programming. In conjunction with the Civil War exhibition, there was a lecture and performance on civil war music on Saturday. It was well worth attending. Historian Christian McWhirter talked about his research in his book Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War. He talked about one incredible aspect of American exceptionalism: instruments were affordable to the middle classes. In Europe, only the real wealthy could afford things like pianos and sheet music. Here, people could have instruments and it really changed the fabric of the music scene.

Group singing was also a much more important and regular feature in life.  Mr. McWhirter explained that the songs that did the best were the ones that were easy to remember, and had more flexible lyrics. The famous “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was not very popular during the war because it isn’t easy to sing. It gained popularity afterwards. I think the historian said about 5000 songs were published in the North while only 1000 or so were published in the South. But this was professional songwriters, so the numbers of amateur songwriters is probably much higher. Plus the South had a shortage on paper which may explain the differential. Some songs were very racists, making fun of African-Americans or the accents of Europeans like the Irish and Germans.

To accompany the talk, there were three singers, a man and two women, and a pianist. They sang some old favorites, like the “Battle Cry of Freedom,” and new favorites like “We’ll Go Down Ourselves,” which is a song written in the perspective of Northern Women who are so loyal they want to fight themselves. (While the event was a one time event, the performers did record songs that you can hear in the exhibition). The event ended with everyone, including the audience, singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was spectacular.

If you haven’t been, go check out the Newberry. And consider making use of its collection. It’s such a Chicago gem.



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