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August 22, 2017

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US Civil War events feature minstrel song revival

HAGERSTOWN, Maryland--With their slouch hats, whiskers and time-worn instruments, members of the 2nd South Carolina String Band look and sound like a Civil War camp band. And while they play "Oh! Susannah" and other familiar fare, they don't shy from other historical songs with inescapably racist overtones that may offend some modern listeners.

The aim of these musical re-enactors is to accurately recreate music that soldiers from both the North and South enjoyed around battlefield campfires at Gettysburg, Antietam and Bull Run. Along with "Buffalo Gals" and "Dixie," they perform lesser-known songs in the exaggerated dialect of blackface minstrels from that tumultuous era when slavery was breaking apart.

"A-way down in de Kentuck' break, a darky lived, dey call him Jake," Fred Ewers sings on "I'm Gwine Ober de Mountain," by "Dixie" composer Daniel Emmett.

"Angeline the Baker," a Stephen Foster song in the band's repertoire, begins, "Way down on de old plantation, dah's where I was born." It's the story of a slave who was "so happy all de day" until his beloved Angeline disappears.

The camp bands don't perform in blackface and typically shun the most offensive words and lyrics with cruel or violent imagery. Still, it's a tricky business presenting such racially jarring songs.

Historically accurate? Certainly. The music comes from the minstrel shows that were the nation's most popular form of entertainment in the mid-1800s. Usually featuring white performers with blackened faces, the shows included songs and skits that often lampooned black people and portrayed slaves as happy and care-free.

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