When I started writing my new historical novel GALLOWAY’S GAMBLE, I wanted to weave music into the
story. Music has been a natural part of human existence ever since some cave person first figured out how to whistle a bird tune. It has the magical power to instantly conjure a place and time in our memories, and I thought including specific songs in the book would help readers slip into the life and times of the story’s characters.
Before radio, TV, movies, and mechanical means of recording and playing music, people had to provide their own entertainment, which they did in home parlors, churches and meeting houses, saloons and concert halls, even around campfires.
Familiar mid-19th-century songs ranged from Negro spirituals to church hymns, to popular tunes by composers like Stephen Foster, whose songs we still know over 150 years later. Many songs were sold as inexpensive sheet music, to be sung by human voices, and played on instruments from pianos to harmonicas – in a real sense, one of the first mass media.
Since the novel is written as Jamey Galloway’s memoir, I did some research and chose 7 songs he might have known, each with its own place in the story and personal meaning to the characters. Since the book couldn’t include an actual CD, here’s a quick rundown with links so you can listen before or while reading the story, if you like.
Camptown Races was first published in 1850, written (like many Foster songs) for minstrel shows – white performers in buffoonish blackface – so the original lyrics are racist by modern
standards. Over time, songs like this transcended their origins, and evolved into beloved folk tunes. Pete Seeger's traditional arrangement lets us imagine we’re in a 19th century saloon: Listen here
Dixie was actually written in New York City on a dreary March day in 1859 by Daniel Decatur Emmett, for the singing group Bryant’s Minstrels. Longing for warmer weather, Emmett came up with the line, “I wish I was in Dixie.” Dixie was popular in northern
minstrel shows before southerners adopted it as their unofficial Confederate anthem. Try folksinger Tom Roush’s straightforward interpretation: Listen here
Yellow Rose of Texas may have originated as a love song during the 1836 Texas war for independence from Mexico, but went unpublished until around 1858. It became popular among Texas Confederates, and folksinger John McCutcheon’s lively arrangement helps us imagine this tune being played as Texans marched off to war: Listen here
Oh! Susanna was published in 1848, another Stephen Foster song written for minstrel shows, with racist original lyrics. As with other
Foster songs, this one endured and the lyrics transformed over time into Americana. The version so many of us learned as kids is really a love song – nicely captured in a bittersweet arrangement by musician Nathan Edwards: Listen here
Long Time Traveller, a traditional hymn dating to 1856 or earlier, was resurrected by the Canadian folk trio The Wailin’ Jennys on their 2006 album Firecracker. Their harmonies are so mesmerizing that listeners may not realize it’s a funeral song – and thus fitting as a graveside tribute to a fallen comrade: Listen here
Barbara Allen, a traditional 17th century Scottish ballad, would’ve been familiar in 19th century America. Though there are countless variations, try this spare version from Joan Baez – Listen here – or Art Garfunkel’s lush, heartbreaking interpretation from his Angel Clare album (1973): Listen here
Down to the River to Pray is a spiritual that may have been used to convey direction to slaves trying to escape to the North via the Underground Railroad. Though recorded numerous times, nothing beats the crystalline perfection of Alison Krauss’s soundtrack recording for the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000): Listen here
I wanted to print the lyrics to Down to the River in the novel; but for legal reasons, I’d have had to use the earliest-known published version. That turned out to be from the book Slave Songs of the United States, compiled in 1867 by Northern abolitionists – unfortunately, with lyrics in appalling slave dialect. Not only would that have been demeaning to the character who sings it (a former slave), but it’s ludicrous to think slaves actually spoke that way. So, sadly, no printed lyrics.
Other than that, let the music take you back in time . . .