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Campus, community enjoy Civil War songs, stories

By Laura Traister
On April 16, 2014

  • Trish Gibson

Bobby Horton, a native of Birmingham, Ala., was exposed to both music and history from a young age. As a child, he watched in awe as family members played instruments. Most of the older men he knew were World War II veterans, and Horton came to deeply revere them and the war stories they told. When our country celebrated the centennial of the Civil War, Horton was just 9 years old, but the event profoundly impressed the budding musician. 

Now, many years later, Horton has been making his living by composing, arranging and performing music for films, such as Ken Burns' "The Civil War." He has since worked with Burns on several more films and also contributes music to films for The National Park Service and A&E. His work has culminated in 14 albums of authentic Civil War music, all performed solo and recorded in his home studio. 

Horton spent time in Johnson City earlier this week performing and sharing his knowledge and talents with the community. 

On Monday and Tuesday evening, he took the stage of the Bud Frank Theatre to perform a program titled "Songs and Stories of the Civil War," sponsored by the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts.

He also shared his talents at programs at the Johnson City Memorial Park Community Center and on campus. The on-campus sessions were specifically directed toward students in the Radio, Television and Film program, the history department, and in the Old Time Music master class. 

The two evening shows of "Songs and Stories of the Civil War" were open to the public. The audience included a few Civil War re-enactors dressed in period clothing. 

Several instruments waited onstage for Horton until he took the stage and started off the show with a banjo tune. He was incredibly animated throughout the show, jumping from story to song seamlessly. The audience even joined him in singing a few of the tunes that have remained familiar to Southerners over the decades, such as "Goober Peas."

He traced the course of the war from the beginning when patriotic jingles encouraged young men to enlist in the army until the end when weary soldiers composed mournful ballads after losing thousands of comrades in battle. While each side's stories and tunes were unique, they shared common themes of loss and homesickness. 

Horton's enthusiasm was compelling as he shared his fascination with the common person's experience during the Civil War. He was careful not to romanticize the period, though. His shared some sidesplitting anecdotes, but did not hesitate to describe the brutality of the war and to remind the audience that it was a terrible time for our country and its people. "I'm so thankful I'm just reading about it," he said. 

The millions of young men in the Union and Confederate armies survived the mental and emotional anguish of the war - homesickness, boredom, terror and shock - through faith and music. In times of such upheaval, "Music is the only outlet for the common man," said Horton. 

Horton expressed his gratitude to these people as well as his admiration and empathy. "You realize they were real people, and they were good people." Later he explained that his music is a way to "pay tribute to these people." 

Music is also a channel through which wisdom can be transferred to younger generations. Horton shared his feelings of excitement about upcoming interactions with students: "I love the enthusiasm ... they're great kids. I love being around kids. I love talking to kids, I love playing for kids. I love to just be with them ... if I can just keep them from making some of the same mistakes I made, I'd be more than happy to do that."

Especially for the musicians his hope was to share his experience about making a living from playing music. "I've been in a group and we do a lot of that kind of stuff and have been for ... years and we're making a living with it, you know. So I really want to share with them just thoughts I have on that where they could, you know, where they could take it to another level if they want to do that." 

"I'm really excited because it inspires me to be around kids that have the zip and excitement and all that," he added.

At the "Civil War Music and History" outreach session at the Reece Museum on Tuesday morning, Horton played to a small audience. The setting was intimate and informal, and he greeted each person personally and welcomed questions and suggestions with tireless enthusiasm.  

Karl Zerfas, a freshman majoring in Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies, attended this history session because he was unable to attend other performances. 

He said that Horton "was just as interested in the folks in the audience as he was his own performance. His stories and music were fantastic and struck chords with many emotions throughout the show."

"I think that he had a great impact on his audience at ETSU, and for musicians he might have shined a light on area of solo performance that some might not have ever thought about, combining his passion for history and music into one act."

Horton seemed to enjoy his visit as much as his audiences did. 

Of Johnson City, he simply said, "I love it here ... it's a beautiful country and people couldn't be more friendly and welcoming." 

Listen to some of Horton's stories and songs for yourself at

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