Songs & Stories of the Civil WarHorton brings the 1800s to life through music

Published 1:00 am Sunday, May 6, 2012

Bobby Horton’s been inspired and moved by history since he was a kid listening to the World War II stories told, seemingly, by every man he knew, from his father to his baseball coach.

“I realized as a young boy that history is just the stories of people like my daddy,” said Horton, reached last week by phone at his suburban Birmingham home.

The musician and historian will be in Vicksburg Tuesday to give a concert, “Songs and Stories of the Civil War,” at the Southern Cultural Heritage Center from 7 to 10 p.m. The event is co-sponsored by the Vicksburg National Military Park. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged.

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“You do not have to be a student of the Civil War to enjoy this concert,” VNMP superintendent Michael Madell said. “Anyone who appreciates great music, inspired storytelling and amazing entertainment will have a good time.”

Opening for Horton will be Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes and Matt Hempsey, ranger-musicians at the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, along with fiddler Gina Forsyth and bassist Jen Mauer, performing “Songs of the Mississippi Delta.”

Horton, 61, who has performed in Vicksburg many times since the mid-1980s, said the city is one of his favorites.

“I like to say I have a soft spot in my head for Vicksburg,” he joked.

Regarded as one of the country’s leading authorities on the music of the 1800s, Horton has contributed to the soundtracks of 13 of Ken Burns’ documentaries, including “The Civil War” and “Baseball,” two films for the A&E network and 16 films for the National Park Service.

His online bio notes that he was born and raised in Birmingham listening not just to the stories but also the music of his trumpet-playing father and banjo-playing grandfather. He performs on a number of different instruments, composes, produces and has exhaustively studied American music history.

“His series of recordings of authentic period music has been acclaimed by historical organizations and publications throughout America and Europe,” his biography reads.

Horton said he was researching period music in the mid-1980s for a film set in 1863 Indiana when he began to uncover thousands of songs of the common people, some written in war and others from the stuff of daily life. He noted the difference between the sheet music published for “mom and pop” to play at home in their parlors and that written later, after the invention of the phonograph, for recording artists.

“I hold up the common soldier, the individual,” he said.

Horton is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and is a former member in good standing of the Sons of Union Veterans, too, his membership lapsing for lack of opportunities to attend meetings and pay his dues, he said.

One of his grandmothers came from Oneonta, N.Y., he said, and his Civil War songs — from an elegiac rendering of “Dixie” on Classical guitar to the bitterly angry “Good Ol’ Rebel,” from the proud “New York Volunteer” to the spirited “Army of the Free” — tell both sides of the story.

“I’m trying to do this in an unbiased fashion,” he said. “I don’t judge these people. Mainly I want people walking away appreciating them — and also supporting sites like the Vicksburg battlefield, Shiloh, Gettysburg, the places that keep their memories alive. They were amazing people. I hope we never know the kind of suffering they endured.”