Battle Hymns of the Civil War `Johnny Whistletrigger' Is about War in the West

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YEARS after the fact, the history and folklore of the Civil War west of the Mississippi remains somewhat obscure - at least when compared to the hundreds of thousands of words that have been written about the war in the East.

Now, Bob Dyer, a historian, folklorist and folk singer from Boonville, Mo., and the husband-and-wife folk duo of Cathy Barton and Dave Para, also from Boonville, have shed some new and interesting light on the war's western theater with an album called "Johnny Whistletrigger: Civil War Songs From the Western Border."

One reason the Civil War in the West lacks the extensive documentation of the war in the East, Dyer said, is that the lines of conflict in the West - especially in Missouri - often lacked a hard and fast definition.

"It was a messier war west of the Mississippi," he said. "After the first year of the war, and really for the next two or three years, most of the fighting out here was guerrilla fighting. It wasn't the big formal battles that you had east of the Mississippi. There were a few, of course, but not nearly as many.

"They often talk about the Civil War as being a war of brother against brother, and that turns out to be much truer out here, west of the Mississippi, than it is east of the river.

"In Missouri, you had such an amazing split. It wasn't really one part of the state against another part of the state. In practically every community, you'd have Union supporters and Southern supporters."

"Johnny Whistletrigger" takes its title from a song that Dyer wrote himself, a comic yarn based on the misadventures of an actual soldier who returned home to Boonville and became a town character, spinning tales of the war. Barton and Para also contributed some original numbers to this collection of songs, dance tunes and recitations.

All three agreed from the first, however, that songs and tunes that could be traced to the actual era of the Civil War would be of the most interest. So the album quickly became a research project.

"The problem you run into with songs from the Civil War period, especially the more obscure ones, is that you often find words, but you don't find tunes," Dyer said. …