Civil War Music CD Is Family Affair

By Dobish, Joseph | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 10, 1996 | Go to article overview

Civil War Music CD Is Family Affair


Dobish, Joseph, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The music of the Civil War has allowed tenor Robert Trentham to redefine the condition of the American extended family. "It is neither dead nor lost," he says. "It has merely been misplaced."

Two years of work have led Trentham to his own extended family. His tools were his passion for music and for Civil War history. The New York-based performer developed a working relationship with his kinfolk from at least 15 states - very much like the cooperative barn-raising and crop-gathering of a century and a half ago. The Trentham family contributed photographs, letters, news articles and memorabilia, and the result is a collection of representative Civil War songs presented on a CD entitled "Epitaph."

The Civil War Trust in Washington recently chose selections from this recording to be incorporated in its interactive multimedia computer exhibit, "The Civil War Discovery System." This exhibit is being introduced at Gettysburg, Antietam and Prairie Grove, Ark., this summer.

After this introduction, the Civil War Trust plans to make the system available to other national and state parks, historic sites, museums and schools throughout the country.

The CD is dedicated to the 30 of Mr. Trentham's ancestors who fought on both sides of the conflict. One of them - a first cousin three generations removed - was Pvt. Robert Trentham of the Missouri Home Guards.

The production company created for this project is named Spring River Music after the Arkansas area patrolled by Mr. Trentham's grandfather's cavalry unit.

In addition to collating his family's contribution - a fourth cousin helped him write the text for the song notes for the CD's booklet - he spent hours of research in various institutions. The National Archives, the New York Public Library, the Music Library at Lincoln Center and the American Music Center are among the places he haunted for information. Visits to historic sites in several states - Ford's Theatre, Fort Sumter and Wilson's Creek Battlefield, among them - were also necessary.

A tenor who has performed with the Santa Fe Opera, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Light Opera Works of Chicago and the Kennedy Center, among others, Mr. Trentham once took a couple of days off from an operatic tour to drive through the North Carolina mountains to visit a relative he had known only through telephone conversations.

She was Bonnie Trentham Ruszowski of Maryville, Tenn., and she had been doing extensive family research of her own. She had purchased a list of names of relatives and called Mr. Trentham's father in California, who had passed his son's name on to her. The singer's perfectionism is apparent in the finished product. He has used his knowledge of music and its history to present the songs, all of which he sings on the CD in the manner they would have been sung at the time.

Modern folk singers would apply their interpretation, laden with accents and mournful tones. But Mr. Trentham knew that the songs of that time would have been presented in a serious voice relying upon word-formed images to convey the meaning. He is steadfastly loyal to that presentation on the CD.

The songs themselves portray the feelings of both sides of the Civil War. "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh," for example, depicts the boys in both armies, sometimes as young as 9 years old, and the sacrifices they made. Many of the songs were written during the war and were presented as "parlor songs."

Mr. Trentham's research revealed that the Civil War was one of American music's most prolific times.

"Within three days of the Battle of Fort Sumter," he points out, "there was a song written and circulating about the battle." Other songs in "Epitaph" are poems written at the time and put to music during the 20th Century. Walt Whitman and Herman Melville are among the poets represented; Kurt Weill, the author of The Three-Penny Opera, is among the later composers. …

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