“Lorena,” a jilted pastor’s lament, moved hearts in the Civil War

Music captivated our nation long before Miley Cyrus or Justin Timberlake dominated contemporary media. During the American Civil War, bugles, fifes and drums were used to issue marching orders or boost morale. Singing was encouraged as a way to release tensions.

At one point, the most popular song of the day, “Lorena,” helped lessen the tension between opposing sides. The song began as a poem by the Rev. Henry Webster, a Presbyterian minister in Zanesville, Ohio. His sweetheart, choir member Ella Blocksom, jilted him. The brokenhearted pastor met composer Joseph Webster and turned his poem into lyrics, changing his lady’s name from Ella to Bertha. When the composer requested a three-syllable name, he changed it again. The ballad about lost love, published in 1858 by Higgens Bros. of Chicago, became such a hit that Confederate soldiers wrote a second set of lyrics, “Paul Vane, or Lorena’s Reply.”

The language of the song may sound archaic today—especially lines like this one that moved soldiers nursing their wounds on battlefields far from home: “Our heads will soon lie low, Lorena—Life’s tide is ebbing out so fast.

To this day, the song summons strong emotions. The melody has been used in movies from The Searchers in 1956 to Cowboys & Aliens in 2011. The opening lyrics still capture that longing for spring and new life that so many who live in northern states feel, when looking out the window in late February:

Oh, the years creep slowly by, Lorena,
The snow is on the ground again.
The sun’s low down the sky, Lorena,
The frost gleams where the flow’rs have been.
But the heart beats on as warmly now,
As when the summer days were nigh.

“Lorena” made soldiers who sang it so homesick that it diminished their will to fight and encouraged desertions.  It became the only song officially banned from many Confederate campfires. One Southern officer blamed the South’s defeat on the mournful ballad.

Our friend Bob Milne—the famous ragtime pianist—added another insight:  One night “Lorena” was sung at nearby opposing campfires. The day after, soldiers who had sung to each other the night before refused to fight each other.

A music historian from Lapeer, MI, Milne is considered the world’s the finest ragtime piano player. He performs around the globe and a few years ago spent three days at the Library of Congress, where he was filmed in an effort to help preserve this part of our musical heritage.

Milne told the story about “Lorena” to a spell-bound class he recently taught through Pierian Spring Academy in Sarasota. Sitting in that class, I looked around at a room filled with joyful faces. I’m impressed by Bob’s talent for playing by ear whatever tune comes to mind—and by the power of music to move peoples’ hearts.

As to the significance of music to the military, no less an authority than Gen. Robert E. Lee said, “I don’t believe we can have an army without music.”

(Does this Godsigns story strike a chord?  Please send me yours.)

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