Josephine Cameron '98 sat center stage in Kanbar Auditorium strumming her guitar and letting her melodic voice soar sweetly around the room on Tuesday. She sang "Tenting on the Old Campground," the first piece in a program of Civil War-era songs that offer insight into the popular culture of the era. The song, a song of peace sung by war-weary soldiers, Union and Confederate alike, was truncated mid-verse by the piercing shriek of the fire alarm. The audience, slow to react, could hardly conceal their disappointment as Josie's voice still echoed in the rafters.
Fifteen minutes later, the audience members, in good spirits, were back in their seats full of anticipation. Making up a significant portion of the reinstated crowd was Professor Patrick Rael's Civil War Era history class. Rael staged the performance to give both his students and the community a unique opportunity.
"We staged the concert to let students have an experience of Civil War-era music that would be impossible to achieve through a recording," Rael said. "Having seen Josie perform before, and knowing she was a member of our community, I thought it a crime not to take advantage of her presence."
Also in attendance was the entirety of the fifth grade class of Longfellow Elementary School, soon to begin their unit on the Civil War. Some were eagerly leaning over the balconies of the hall throughout the performance, and they delighted, along with the rest of the crowd, in the audience participation elements of the program.
Cameron '98 is a local American roots musician and historian of 19th-century American music. Having produced four CDs, she has garnered national attention with awards such as the title of FOSTEX Artist of the Month, two Garageband awards, and a healthy following on iTunes.
Her comprehensive knowledge of the history of the American songs she sings makes her performances a unique experience. The programs issued at the performance included song lyrics and pictures frequently referred to by Cameron, and showed the history and the significance of the pieces she played.
Cameron focused on how the pieces included in the performance played a role in "explaining and pushing forward agendas," as she said, of various groups living during the Civil War. She demonstrated how the songs would have been sung based on their contextual function—whether to promote pride and patriotism, alleviate fear, or develop African American characters whose personalities had previously been distorted by Minstrelsy.
Hearing the songs played in an emotional context lent new meaning to well-known classics such as "Oh, Susannah" (more of a tragic love ballad than the upbeat diddy we often hear.) In addition, the historical practice of "parlor music," or music experienced through group interaction, came alive as Cameron engaged the audience in songs such as "Swing Low Sweet Chariot."
According to Rael, fascinating historical connections, as well as Cameron's vocal and instrumental talent, enabled the performance to be everything he had hoped for.
"Josie was able to illustrate through the development of these songs and their place in the canon of American song," Rael said. "Josie is simply a great performer with a marvelous voice, and so the concert was a simple treat."
The show was a rare resource for both Rael's history class and community members, and judging from the awed silence in the uppermost galleries, Longfellow's fifth graders would agree.