Friday, July 26, 2013

Tuning In

As history lessons go, it's hard to beat one in music history.

The Virginia Historical society's new exhibit, "Revolutions: Songs of Social Change 1860-65 and 1960-65" sounded right up my alley.

It turned out to be stellar.

With a focus on the Civil War and Civil Rights eras, the show explained how strong the relationship was between the music of the two periods.

Let's just say I have a whole new list of things I did not know before.

Like how the Byrds took a traditional folk song called "He Was a Friend of Mine" as the basis of "Turn! Turn! Turn!" which they wrote to lament JFK's assassination.

I had not know it had anything to do with that tragedy.

Or how there was a Civil War-era group called the Christy Minstrels.

Sure, I'd heard of the New Christy Mintrels of the '60s, but it hadn't occurred to me there were old ones first.


How Dylan used a Civil War-era song called "No More Auction Block" as the melody for his seminal song, "Blowin' in the Wind."

There were audio versions of him singing both so the proof was right there.

Or how Odetta was considered the "queen of American folk music."

While I was making my way around the gallery, looking at song lyrics, vintage photographs and album covers, two groups came in.

One was an older man and woman and he was bringing her to see a large photograph of the Hampton choir.

"Oh, my alma mater!" she squealed in delight, wondering to him how she might get a copy of the picture, which she couldn't take her eyes off of.

The other group was a Dad and two boys, maybe early teens.

As they walked by a large picture of President and Mrs. Kennedy in the Dallas motorcade taken moments before shots rang out, the kid had no idea who the woman pictured was.

"That's Jackie Kennedy," Dad clarified patiently. "She was the First Lady."


When the boys got around to the picture of Peter, Paul and Mary, there was a frame with a 45 of their hit, "Cruel War" on the wall under it.

The kid clearly didn't see the glass on the frame, reaching in to grab the record and almost knocking the frame off the wall.

They completely bypassed Pete Seeger's banjo head, the one he played on for 40 years.

Hoping to suck them in, I hovered looking at an old banjo, dated 1840-60, made by William Boucher in Baltimore.

It's apparently one of only 40 Boucher banjos known to still exist and it was a beautifully crafted instrument.

Eventually my prolonged interest had the desired effect and they joined me to look at it.

Finally one conceded to the other, "It's kinda cool," before scampering off to the next gallery.

Maybe there is hope for the future, after all.

Music history will always be cool, kid, because you get to listen to music to learn.

Trust me on this.

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