Blast From the Past

November 30, 2008
War and peace: Penny Jensen, Caryl Thomason Price, Michael Hirata, and Lewis Moore, from left, sang songs from the Civil War era in the tranquil environs of the Rare Book Room.

War and peace: Penny Jensen, Caryl Thomason Price, Michael Hirata, and Lewis Moore, from left, sang songs from the Civil War era in the tranquil environs of the Rare Book Room. Jared Lazarus

A bugle call resounded through the lobby of Perkins Library. Nearby, in the Rare Book Room, a full audience had assembled. As more people arrived, taking up spots between exhibition cases and in corners, the bugler, Don Eagle, marched in.

Dressed as a Confederate officer, Eagle, a lecturer in Duke's music department, joined five other musicians at the front of the room, and they began a rousing performance of "Bonnie Blue Flag," a song celebrating the Southern states' entry into the Confederacy. Then Eagle took center stage. Accompanying soloist Caryl Thomason Price, he played the title role in "The Captain With His Whiskers," a humorous Civil War song about a woman who falls for an especially hirsute officer. The song drew plenty of laughs and a hearty round of applause.

The fall performance was the first concert of the 2008-09 Rare Music series, a cooperative effort between the Duke University Musical Instrument Collection (DUMIC) and Duke's library, now in its third year. The series features performances on antique and rare instruments from DUMIC in the intimate and elegant Mary Duke Biddle Room of the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.

For this concert, "Sounds of the U.S. Civil War," DUMIC curator Brenda Neece, who co-founded the series with library communications director Ilene Nelson, drew on the resources of the special collections library. Early in the semester, the library hosted an exhibit of Civil War sheet music and broadside verse; with the help of a team of archivists and musicians, Neece endeavored to showcase these songs along with several period instruments from Duke's collection.

More than 500 instruments in DUMIC's holdings belong to the G. Norman and Ruth G. Eddy Collection, the terms of which stipulate that certain instruments, called "currency instruments," must be played regularly. Neece, who is responsible for striking a balance between preservation and public use, is happy to advance the collection's educational mission. "I want the public to hear what [antique instruments] sound like," she says.

In addition to Eagle's keyed bugle, which he used to demonstrate military calls and other sounds, the performance showcased an 1832 Chickering piano. Slightly smaller than today's baby grand, the Chickering produces the kind of jaunty, playful sound often associated with a vaudeville act. It was one of the first American-made pianos to feature a partial iron frame—in this case, beautifully formed into the shape of a wagon wheel—and would have been widely available to upper-class families throughout the antebellum nation.

At the end of the concert, senior Michael Hirata, the lone student performer, sang a duet with Duke music professor Penny Jensen called "Tell Me of My Darling Boy." The song was full of the uncertainty, loss, and lament experienced by so many at the time. Its gravity was followed by silence, and then the somber bugle call of "Taps," flowing out from deep inside the library halls.