Review: George F. Root: Civil War Songwriter
Polly H. Carder. George F. Root: Civil War Songwriter. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2008. 239 pp. ISBN 9780886433742.
In a very engaging text, Polly Carder begins by setting the scene of 1862, with the Union losing the Civil War, and the experience of Tad Lincoln at the theater in March of 1864.1 As a chorus onstage sang “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” they were joined by the president’s son. The author points out the moral significance of the song “The Battle Cry of Freedom” at a time when the Union was not doing well.
The first chapter describes the family into which George Frederick Root was born, and his childhood environment. Born in Sheffield, Massachusetts on August 30, 1820, he was sensitive to music at a very early age. While most children would fall asleep as their mothers sang lullabies, George Root was wide eyed. Carder traces much of the family lineage, maternal and paternal. Although his mother wanted to name him Frederick Handel Root, after the great composer, the father, Frederick Ferdinand Root, thought one Frederick in the family would be enough. Young George was surrounded at the rural Willow Farm by several musicians.
The author chronicles his early career, noting that young George played the flute and considered a position in a theater orchestra; at the time, this was not the most reputable job. In late 1838, Root went to Boston to housesit for A.N. Johnson of Harmony Hall. He auditioned for a position at the school, but was advised to learn to play the piano, something that has endured to the present in American music education. Root practiced hymns on the piano, as suggested from Johnson’s published method (not cited in the text). These tunes would influence him greatly, but Root had to wait to learn piano until he was eighteen because owning a piano in rural America was rare, the piano being more prevalent in an urban environment.
Root later took voice lessons from Lowell Mason, and sang in his choirs. In Boston, Root was exposed to much fine music, artists such as Ole Bull, and the Boston Handel and Haydn Society. Henry Russell also exerted influence, traceable from his Civil War songs, descriptive songs about the world around him, becoming American popular music. Root later became an apprentice, then partner to Johnson, performing as organist at two major churches, and directing their choirs. One of these was the significant Park Street Church in Boston.
Carder relates many details from Root’s autobiography (The Story of a Musical Life: An Autobiography, 1891). His shoes became muddy as he walked in what became Madison Square. He had a diverse clientele of young women from wealthy families, young men studying theology, resident students at the New York State Institution for the Blind (where he met Fanny Crosby, who became one of his lyricists).
Root’s first piece of sheet music, “See the Sky is Darkling” (1845), depicts an alcoholic revel and its consequences. A later song, “Clear Cold Water” (1852) appeared in the May 1, 1852, issue of The New York Musical Review and Choral Advocate. The August 1 issue included his “The Noble Law of Maine,” referring to Maine’s 1851 law prohibiting manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages.
At the New York Institution for the Blind he conducted a 60 voice choir. During his lifetime, Root would write and compile over 70 books, beginning with The Young Ladies’ Choir Book (1846). Even though his career as a church musician was successful, Root desired higher cultural recognition. Quartet Root, with his wife Mary Olive, sister Cynthia, and brother Towner, joining George, was a well balanced vocal ensemble. Former student Henry T. Lincoln joined in the quintets. He especially liked the recent part songs of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), and madrigals and glees from earlier periods. Theodore Eisfeld, conductor of the New York Philharmonic society heard them, and invited them to perform at a concert. After the first song the orchestral musicians joined the applause—what Root called passing “the highest musical tribunal” (29). Not only religious, Root lectured on opera excerpts in September, 1850, in Livingston County, New York. His songs were published in The Choral Advocate and Singing Class Journal. Root was a contributing editor as well; at the time people wrote letters to the editor that expressed their musical opinions.
When Root went to Paris in 1851 for study and exposure to culture, the Mercer Street Church, held a farewell concert. Fanny Crosby also wrote a farewell song for Root. In Paris, on July 4, 1851, Root sang some American patriotic tunes, and then “The Marseillaise”—banned in France. The next month he returned to New York to collaborate with Fanny Crosby on The Flower Queen, a cantata—the word cantata was used to differentiate the harmless stage production from the opera or music hall. The Flower Queen was produced 500 times.
Root’s song “Pictures of Memory” was more of an art song, printed in its entirety on pages 40-47. Melodic intervals are advanced, but Root used it to quell criticism of his popular music. And the popular music sold better. Besides this, Root knew the European masters had composed high quality art songs. He also admired Stephen Foster’s songs “because they spoke so directly to the people” (48).
True to the subtitle, Civil War Songwriter, two full chapters describe Root’s compositions for the Union during that war, “Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!,” “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” and “Just before the Battle, Mother.” The author also describes how music was used as military propaganda or in the newspapers during the Civil War. Not only did “The Battle Cry of Freedom” serve as the masthead for the Chicago Tribune’s announcement that Lincoln had been re-elected President, the song found its way into the Confederate prisons of Libby and Andersonville.
Carder reveals several aspects of life in nineteenth century America, including religion, current events, and the Civil War: Root was instrumental in getting music classes into the public schools, something unheard of until the late 1830s. Religion shaped Root’s music, both sacred and secular. Attending opera or theater productions conflicted with religious and moral beliefs of the time, so Root, like others, developed the cantata as a dramatic musical piece that was moral. Carder also defines the classical and popular music of the period by showing how newspapers and magazines classified their advertisements as “Music for the Drawing Room” and “Music for the People.”
Following the Civil War, Root turned his attention to the “next greatest evil,” composing The Musical Fountain (1866) in support of temperance. Current events shaped Root’s music as well–a Grant Songster (1868) supported Ulysses S. Grant for president; “The Pacific Railroad” (1869) commemorated the golden spike that completed the transcontinental railroad. Carder presents details of the great Chicago fire (1871), which consumed the Root & Cady store; they lost all sheet music, but their plates and copyrights survived.
Attitudes of the times also influenced music, particularly the issues of death, mother, and temperance. “People sang unselfconsciously about death” (40). Lyrics were grieving, but many melodies were lively and in major keys, including Root’s “Hazel Dell,” as were songs by Septimus Winner, Stephen Foster, and H.S. Thompson. As Carder chronicles Root’s journeys throughout America and the attitudes, political and artistic, that he encountered, she describes his professional relationships with composers Lowell Mason and William Bradbury, publishers Chauncey Marvin Cady and Nathan Richardson, and to a lesser extent, Henry Clay Work, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Dwight L. Moody.
The book is very readable, and written in a historical and biographical style. Carder presents a detailed, yet interesting biography of Root. The book contains images of sheet music covers, and some notated music, but is not analytical in the harmonic sense, so it remains accessible to non-musical historians.
Carder’s dissertation was a similar title (Carder, Polly. George Frederick Root: Pioneer Music Educator: His Contributions to Mass Instruction in Music. Diss. University of Maryland, 1971).↩