Entertaining History: The 2nd South Carolina String Band

Entertaining History-title and subtitleChris Mackowski [1]

Joe Ewers stands on the stage and plucks one of the strings on his five-string banjo. His slouch hat sits at a rakish angle, and a pair of blue tassels, so faded that they look gray, dangle over the broad brim.

He plucks, twists a knob to get the instrument in tune, then plucks again.

To the side of the stage, two other members of the 2nd South Carolina String Band stand in front of a 34-star American flag and chat with a pair of reenactors who’ve come for the concert. They pause the conversation so someone can grab a snapshot—Confederates in front of Old Glory—then pick up where they left off.

It’s the spring of 2008. The concert hall, an American Legion hall on East Middle Street in Gettysburg, fills to capacity. Women with long hoop skirts swoosh down the side aisles. On the stage, Ewers tunes his second banjo, emblazoned with a South Carolina palmetto tree, to the accompaniment of the hall’s eager chatter and the click of hard-soled boots on laminate floor. “It’s an ancient Chinese melody,” Ewers’s brother Fred, one of the band’s two fiddle players and the on-stage maestro, will later explain to the audience. “He’ll play this melody several times this evening. It’s called ‘Too Ning.’”

Fred has much fun with the audience at his brother’s expense. “What’s the difference between a banjo and a trampoline?” he asks. “You take off your shoes before you jump on a trampoline.”

The 2nd South Carolina String Band, one of the oldest and best-known groups of Civil War musicians, has assembled here in a town where the Ewers brothers once both lived, to celebrate their twentieth season of reenacting. The band is commemorating the anniversary by putting on a pair of concerts that will be used as the basis for a live CD.

“We play this music a lot differently now than we played it back in the day, when we first got started,” Joe Ewers explains later. “At reenactments, we’d be out burning powder during the day and then playing around the campfire, having a good time during the night. That’s how it all got started.”

Because of that informality, the band members didn’t initially take their roles as musical interpreters seriously. “We were playing modern instruments and, basically, grade-school arrangements,” Ewers says. “As we matured in the hobby and matured in our music, that began to change.”

Vocalist and guitarist David Goss likened it to the experience of the actual soldiers. “We were a pick-up group just like the camp bands were,” says Goss, who works as a college history professor when he’s not making music. “Everyone just brought the instrument that he owned.”

Over time, the crowds around the campfire grew, and by the early nineties, the band started getting invitations to play events. “That’s when we started taking it more seriously,” Goss says. “We knew the watchdogs and the thread-counters would be paying closer attention, so we started holding ourselves to the same higher standard we held ourselves to with our military, our physical impressions. We held our music to that, too.”

Band members began to make the switch to period instruments and wear attire more appropriate for musicians. The advent of the internet also made it easier for the band to research their songs, so they began to play arrangements more authentic to the nineteenth century.

“We’ve tried to constantly improve our instruments, our instrumentation, our arrangements, our knowledge of the background stories of these songs,” Goss said. “We want to be true to our music.”

*     *     *

Sometimes, remaining true to the music can be harder than people suspect.

“Some of that music can get pretty dangerous,” Ewers says. “The minstrel music, from traveling minstrel shows, that was the pop music of the Antebellum era. It had simple, catchy melodies, and some of the lyrics were funny. But the basis of a lot of that music was making fun of the differences between people, between whites and blacks.”

For that reason, Goss says, the band remains about ninety-percent true to the songs in their catalogue. “Some bands stay one-hundred-percent true to those kinds of lyrics, but that really narrows the kinds of audiences you can play to,” he says. “Our feeling is that if a song is overtly offensive, then what’s the point? People stop listening and can’t enjoy the music.”

And that, says Goss, is the whole point of the music from the era. He cites Stephen Foster as an example. Foster, the author of such standards as “Camptown Ladies,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Hard Times Come Again No More,” produced pop music to make a profit, which meant he had to write music that appealed to broad audiences. “Some of the music from the time period tends to be formulaic,” Goss says. “It’s like the do-wop music of the 1950’s. It’s simple but entertaining.”

Still, the band does get occasional complaints about content. “We’re not making any political statements,” Goss says. “We’re just playing the music as it was played back then. They took their politics, their attitudes about race, and they expressed themselves through their songs. But the mentality of the songwriters does not reflect our mentality.”

Goss admits, though, that he has to put himself in the place of the songwriters and the singers. “Their songs are reflective of a certain mindset. I have to ask myself, ‘Why would they do what they did’ and put myself in their place,” Goss says. “It’s a form of acting, really.”

Adopting the persona of, say, Old Dan Tucker allows the band to interpret the song in a true-to-period way. “He’s a character well known to me,” Goss grins. “But he is just a character.”

Most audiences understand the difference between the music and musicians. At a 2006 Bucktails reenactment in northcentral Pennsylvania, the band finished its set with “Southern Soldier,” roaring out the lines “I’ll march away to the firing line/And kill that Yankee soldier!” The blue-coated crowd roared back with cheers and applause, ignoring the song’s sentiment and appreciating its full-bore energy and the band’s musicianship. At the song’s conclusion, the Bucktails jumped to their feet for a standing ovation.

But, as Ewers points out, “the wounds are still tender” for some people, even generations later. That made it tough for the band, in its early years, to sell records in some places.

“Our first two albums were a kind of Civil War Top 30 favorite parlor songs, the basic catalogue that most Americans are more or less familiar with,” Ewers says, noting that the mix included popular songs from the North and the South. “On the second album, we included ‘Marching Thro’ Georgia’ and ‘Lincoln and Liberty, Too,’ a pair of songs with catchy melodies that dealt with subjects quite incendiary to Southrons: Sherman’s March to the Sea and Abraham Lincoln. We were told by several of our vendors that they could not sell that album at many of their best venues in the South—or worse, they wouldn’t even offer it.”

The band compensated by compiling selected songs from those albums onto a best-of CD, Hard Times, one of four studio albums the band has available. The concert album recorded in Gettysburg recaptured—and reinterpreted—some of that older material. “The idea is to revisit our older material that we played back when we were farby,” Ewers says, using a reenactors’ term—“farb”—that refers to inauthentic hobbyists. “That early material is just great stuff, but now we play it much differently, and much better.”

Aside from their CDs, the band has also contributed music to a pair of Ken Burns documentaries, they’ve performed in the movie Gods & Generals, and they still hit the road every season to play at seven or eight events. During the Sesquicentennial with so many commemorative events and celebrations going on, the band only got busier—and things didn’t let up afterwards. “The band is having a rather more successful season than last year—an 1865 series year, and as you well know, there wasn’t much to ‘celebrate’ from that year,” he chuckles, his inner Southerner showing. He rattles off a list: an encore to an gig in Danville, Virginia, in April . . . a dance in Martinsburg, West Virginia, “where Ol’ Jack trashed the rail facilities and made off with the rolling stock and engines” . . . the Gettysburg anniversary (“best weather there EVER, and I lived there for 14 years!”) . . . Cedar Creek for the 155th Manassas event. “All in all, a much better year than last,” he says, admitting that last year had nonetheless been good.[2]

“The best part is that there are no prima donnas,” Ewers says of his bandmates. “Everyone brings something to the party. We do what we do for love.”

*     *     *

The cow jawbone never goes out of tune. Bob Beeman plays it by running a thin stick, as dainty as an orchestra conductor’s baton, across the teeth like a washboard. Then the stick plinks its way back over several individual teeth, maybe three of them, maybe four, depending on the rhythm of a particular song. On other songs, Beeman may shake a tambourine, which rattles like an eastern diamondback, or he may play two sets of rib bones that he can clack together between his fingers, his wrists bobbing through the air like a boxer trying to stay loose before striking.

Like Goss and the Ewers brothers, Beeman is one of the band’s original five musicians. John Frayler, the band’s drummer, retired back in 2000. The band eventually recruited banjo payer Tom DiGiuseppe, fiddler Mike Paul, and fife players Greg Hernandez and Joe Whitney. Another fife player, Marty Groody, also did a stint with the band, leaving in 2000 when he moved to Florida.

“All those instruments may sound more like the 2nd South Carolina Orchestra than just a band,” Goss admits. “It’s unlikely any company had a guitarist, two fiddle players, two fife players, and a couple banjos. A guitar was very rare. Maybe a fiddle, maybe a banjo, probably a fife and a drum because they were marching so much. But when the army was in camp, especially in winter encampments, a musical group like this would’ve been possible.”

Music was very much a part of a soldier’s life, Goss explains. Some regiments performed minstrel shows. Others performed light operas. Navy men on the ships of the Charleston blockade had bands. Even in P.O.W. camps, there are accounts of soldiers putting on performances.

DiGiuseppe, the 2nd South Carolina’s historical researcher, said music broke the tedium that plagued most soldiers. “It forged bonds between them and reminded them of home and why they’re fighting,” he says. “Most of those songs that they would sing—pre-war songs that would remind them of home—were parlor songs. But what’s ironic is that folks at home were singing the newer, patriotic songs, which makes sense if you think about it: ‘I want to be with Johnny. He’s in the field. I’ll sing these songs that help evoke that.’”

Modern fans of Civil War music commonly but mistakenly assume that those patriotic songs, so popular in their day, made up the standard musical fare around the campfire. “You rate popularity by sheet music sales,” DiGiuseppe says. “Sheet music is published for piano. Well, I haven’t ever seen a piano in the field.”

However, soldiers did commonly bring well-known songs from home and adapt them to their own experiences. “Listen to the mocking bird” became “Listen to the minie ball” and “Listen to the parrot shell” in a version called “The Siege of Vicksburg.” Or, instead of singing, “Hard times come again no more,” soldiers tired of the usual army fare of hardtack sang, “Hard crackers come again no more.”

The best-known example might be “Dixie,” DiGiuseppe says. Dan Emmett, a native of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, and living in New York City, wrote the song in 1850s for a minstrel show. “That song is about a black man talking about his mistress who married a gigolo,” DiGiuesppe says. “It has nothing to do with the war—except it has that chorus.”

Soon, Southern soldiers began creating their own pro-Confederacy verses to match that chorus. Confusing matters even further, several published versions of the song appeared that contested Emmett’s authorship. Emmett, meanwhile, concerned that the Confederacy had co-opted his song, volunteered to write the fife and drum manual for the Union Army.

For the concert crowd in Gettysburg, Mike Paul starts “Dixie” as an elegy with long, slow pulls of his bow across his fiddle. About a third of the concert audience rises to its feet. Men remove their hats. As the rest of the 2nd South Carolinians join in, the song picks up steam and pep, and by the time Goss sings the first chorus, the band is busting through the song with a roomful of backup vocalists singing along.

It would come as a surprise to some of the audience to learn that Company I of the 2nd South Carolina infantry originally formed in Salem, Massachusetts—a place where, as Ewers says, “It ain’t easy being Confederate.” The rifle company reenacted together for twelve years before disbanding. The musicians, though, have carried on the name and traditions of the unit that originally brought them together and gave them a home, even though the band members are now “spread out from Massachusetts to Manassas,” Ewers says.

“We’ve had people ask us, ‘You boys from South Carolina?’” Goss says. “You can see their smiles sink when we tell them no. ‘Well,’ they’ll say, ‘you gave it a try.’”

*     *     *

The morning after the concert, the band gathers in a second-floor photography studio off Steinwehr Avenue. Fred Ewers, who has momentarily traded his fiddle for a nineteenth-century tripod camera, has taken the band’s picture for the album cover. He washes photographic chemicals over the tin plate, and a reverse image of the band ghosts into view. “Nice contrast,” someone says as the image gets more distinct.

“That’s why I like to use tin,” Fred says. He rinses off the plate and dabs the picture with a cotton swab. The chemicals have stained his fingertips black.

On three tries now, they’ve held still for fifteen seconds while Fred has atttempted to capture them on tin. Indeed, the third time proves to be the charm. It’s a wrap.

Joe Whitney begins to take down the hand-made, wall-sized Stars and Bars he’d hung as a backdrop from one of the ceiling’s exposed wooden beams. Mike Paul packs his fiddle away. Bob Beeman clicks and clatters his bones before tucking them into a pocket.

DiGiuseppe and Goss have a long day’s drive back to northern Massachusetts still in front of them. Meanwhile, Greg Hernandez and his wife, Denise, will head in the opposite direction, toward New Market, Virginia, and their home on the edge of the battlefield there. Since then, Joe Ewers and his wife have moved to New Hampshire.

“It’s such an undertaking to get everyone together,” Ewers admits, striking an almost valedictory tone. “It’s gotten harder and harder as everyone’s aged and our schedules have gotten more complicated. But we’ve had a long run, and we can continue to play it out. This is an evergreen product. Every year, new young people who are interested in the Civil War, who learn about it their studies at school, will discover this music.”

But it’s Hernandez, who always looks like he can barely contain a smile, who stops on his way out the door to have the last word. “You have to enjoy what you do. You have to have fun with it,” he says. “We do this because it’s a lot of fun.”

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[1] A version of this article appeared in the August 2008 issue of Civil War Historian. Interviews were conducted in person on March 8 and 9, 2008.

[2] Interview, 16 July 2016.

Visit the 2nd South Carolina String Band online at civilwarband.com.