October 25, 2012

No army without music

'Connecticut Peddler' explores Civil War-era songs of New York state


---- — PLATTSBURGH — Stan Ransom, “the Connecticut Peddler,” seized a sesquicentennial opportunity to cover “Civil War Songs of New York State” on his latest CD.

A CD-release party will be held from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Corner-Stone Bookshop in Plattsburgh.

In his previous musical forays, Ransom focused on the Empire State in one way or another.

“I’m very much interested in New York state history,” Ransom said. “I’m working on a Revolutionary War CD right now. I’ve done the Battle of Plattsburgh.”

Between the start of the Civil War in 1861 and its conclusion in 1865, more than 10,000 songs were composed. He narrowed his focus to compositions with New York state, Connecticut and Long Island links. He found a half-dozen songs in the Marjorie Lansing Porter Collection at SUNY Plattsburgh.

“I did several by a person Marjorie Lansing Porter had taped back in 1950 just before she died. They called him Yankee John Galusha (1859 to 1950). Several of the songs he had gotten from his brother, Stillman (Galusha), an older brother who was in the Civil War, and eventually died of wounds toward the end of the war.”

“The Red, White and Red” was a song Stillman learned from a Confederate soldier.

“In the lulls of the fighting, they swapped songs back and forth, according to various sources,” Ransom said. “They all considered themselves home boys. There were a lot of relationships back and forth, different brothers taking different sides. It was not like you were fighting someone from the outside in a foreign country. It was your country. You knew a lot of people who were on the other side, but you still have to fight.”

“The Red, White and Red” referenced the colors of the earliest flag of the Confederate States.

“The Iron Merrimac” was a song heard by Judge Leonard Hand in the 1890s. Ransom found this song about the USS Merrimack, renamed the CSS Virginia, a steam-powered, ironclad warship.

“Judge Hand was an esteemed judge in Elizabethtown. The Hand House there was his. He sang a lot of folk songs himself. A lot of his songs are down in the Library of Congress,” Ransom said.

Ransom has familial connections to the Civil War era. His great-grandfather John Haight worked on the boilers of the USS Monitor, the Union’s first ironclad warship.

“My grandmother Mary Elizabeth Haight was born in 1858 in Bay Shore, Long Island. When she was a little girl (age 7), her father, a merchant on 40th Street in New York City, lifted her up on his shoulders ... She saw Lincoln’s funeral procession go down Fifth Avenue. She died in 1944,” Ransom said.

The 23-track disc includes an anti-war song, “A Good Time Coming, Boys.” The lyrics were written by Charles McKay, an English poet. The music was composed by Stephen Foster and came out in 1846.

The CD contains a variety of battle songs, songs of home, love songs and reels.

“Lilly Dale” was a parlor song about the ravages of tuberculosis, which claimed 1 in 5 lives at the time.

Hymns included are “Battle Hymn of Republic,” “Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.”

The second hymn, John Brown’s favorite, was sung at his funeral Dec. 2, 1859, in North Elba. The Rev. Joshua Young of Burlington, Vt., who rode on horseback, was an admirer of Brown and an associate of the Robinson family, Quakers and abolitionists who ran an underground-railroad station at Rokeby Manor, their home in Ferrisburgh, Vt.

“They were so pleased to see him,” Ransom said. “He (Young) was the only minister that had attended John Brown’s funeral. He preached a sermon for John Brown.”

Vermont singer-songwriter Peter Sutherland wrote “Crown of Righteousness” to honor Young’s presence at Brown’s funeral. Sutherland performs the song on Ransom’s album.

“‘Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow’ was the favorite hymn of John Brown. One of his neighbors in Lake Placid said they all sang that at the funeral.”

What Ransom took away from this musical journey was the prominence of musicians in the Civil War. Each regiment had a drummer and bugler.

“These were noncombatants. They had no weapons,” he said.

The musicians telegraphed officers’ orders by bugle calls: charge, retreat, go to sleep.

“They had a fife drummer as well as a bugler. If you get all the brigades together, you could have 24 musicians. These musicians were also the medics. They accompanied the troops into battle. They had stretchers to carry them to the hospital. They helped the surgeons,” Ransom said.

Soldiers had very little to keep them occupied at night except music.

“They would sing the old songs, hymns, the songs of home,” Ransom said. “This made them feel really homesick, but it was a way they could entertain themselves with the help of the musicians.”

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IF YOU GO WHAT: CD Release Party for "Civil War Songs of New York State," with songs from the Marjorie Lansing Porter Collection by Stan Ransom. WHEN: Noon to 4 p.m Saturday. WHERE: Corner-Stone Bookshop, 110 Margaret St., Plattsburgh. ADMISSION: Free.