Songs of the Civil War and the stories behind them

Some aficionados of history read or write about the past. Others visit historical sites to learn about times gone by. Diane Taraz takes a more lighthearted approach to her exploration of US history. She sings about it.

But she doesn’t only sing about it. She also follows a passion to learn the stories and inside meanings behind the folk songs she regularly features as director of the Lexington Historical Society’s Colonial Singers. She also sings with Vox Lucens, a Renaissance choir, and has recorded numerous CDs of her historical songs.

At 7 p.m. Friday, Taraz once again focuses on the songs from a specific segment of history as she performs “Home Sweet Home: A Civil War Sampler” at the Arlington Senior Center, 27 Maple St.


“I’ve been interested in folk songs ever since high school, when I came across a collection by Cecil J. Sharp,” Taraz said. “He was a 19th-century academic who wandered around collecting folk songs. I loved the melodies but had trouble understanding the meanings of the songs. They all start in the middle of the action and expect the listener to know the context. That was what motivated me to become a researcher of folk songs as well as a singer of them.

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“Over time, I’ve come to see these songs as little time capsules, little chunks of thoughts and actions carried over from hundreds of years ago.”

As Taraz likes to point out, written history tends to document the stories of leaders, victors, and, for the most part, men. And if you tour a historical mansion, you are likely to learn mostly about the lord and lady of the house. Taraz, on the other hand, always finds herself wondering about how the servants and everyday people of the time lived. And she believes songs from the era hold the key to understanding those lives.

Almost a decade ago, she began working with a historian who studied images of women in song. He enjoyed the research but didn’t like to sing, and needed a professional collaborator who did. That introduced her to the music from the days of the American Revolution, which led eventually to her role with the Lexington Historical Society’s choral group. Only about a year ago did she turn her attention to the music of the mid-1800s.

“Music was everywhere during the Civil War, enjoyed by everyone from the lowliest field hand to President Lincoln,” Taraz said. “Fascinating and unexpected stories lie behind these familiar songs.” Her Civil War program includes well-known tunes such as “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but also some that are less well known — as are the historical details underlying them.


For example, she sings “By the Hush, or Paddy’s Lament,” which tells the often overlooked story of Irish immigrants who arrived on American shores only to be immediately sent off to fight in the Civil War.

“It’s a very bitter song, a lament,” Taraz said. “Usually songs about immigrants are around the theme of ‘Come join me here; the streets are paved with gold.’ This tells a very different story.”

Other songs from the era conceal unhappy themes behind what she calls “bouncy tunes. ‘Goober Peas’ is a fun, happy song about starving to death and having nothing to eat but peanuts. ‘Blue Tail Fly’ is about a bored slave charged with keeping flies off his master’s pony.”

Next up for Taraz is a program of Victorian Christmas songs. Again, she said, she has discovered little-known tales from these familiar songs. “ ‘Jingle Bells’ was written in Medford and was originally a Thanksgiving song,” she said. “ ‘Silent Night’ was previously played at a very different tempo as an Austrian drinking song.”

Tickets to “Home Sweet Home: A Civil War Sampler” are $15, or $12 for seniors and students, and can be purchased at the door or by calling 781-643-1586.


REMBERT EVENT TONIGHT: On the heels of the 50th anniversary of the civil-rights movement’s March on Washington, the Arlington Center for the Arts and Arlington International Film Festival are screening a documentary and hosting related events focusing on folk artist Winfred Rembert at 7 p.m. Thursday.

The 66-year-old self-taught artist, whose brightly dyed leather carvings depict the daily lives of African Americans in the segregated South, will be taking part in a question-and-answer session after the screening of “All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert’’ at the arts center, 41 Foster St. in Arlington.

There will also be an exhibition and sale of Rembert’s artwork as part of the evening. Tickets are $15, or $10 for students and seniors, and are available online at www.acarts.org.

QUIXOTIC DISPLAY: The New Art Center in Newton hosts an opening reception for “A Gallant Madman,” an exhibition of paintings by Michael B. Wilson that explore Miguel de Cervantes’ iconic “Don Quixote” in relation to the Cubist language of Picasso, Friday from 6 to 8:30 p.m.

Wilson, a Waltham-based artist who has taught painting and drawing at the New Art Center since 2009, began his Quixote-inspired work last year as a Kickstarter campaign titled “91 Paintings in 91 Days.” Wilson surpassed his goal and produced more than 108 paintings and drawings.

The show continues through Oct. 14 at the art center, at 61 Washington Park in the city’s Newtonville section. For more information, call 617-964-3424 or go to www.newartcenter.org.

Send ideas to nancyswest@ gmail.com.