Songs of the Civil War: A Moving Performance at the Studio Museum

by Corinna Kirsch on June 11, 2014 · 1 comment Reviews


A year after the close of the American Civil War, America’s first homegrown musical, “The Black Crook,” premiered in New York. That timing probably has a lot to do with why the Broadway-style musical has come to be seen as American as apple pie. But it also now begs the question: Why aren’t there more singing Lincolns? For that, there’s Courtesy the Artists to fill the void. Made up of Malik Gaines and Alexandro Segade from the performance group My Barbarian, Courtesy the Artists channeled the same type of zany, yet critical theatrics the group’s known for.

Last Saturday afternoon, Courtesy the Artists organized the two-hour-long event “Songs of the Civil War,” held in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s outdoor courtyard. Time flew by as the event was broken up into short, 10-minute-long performances by a cast of artists, musicians, dancers: An “actor” (curator Thomas J. Lax) dressed as Abe Lincoln read from a letter about a gift of elephants from the King of Siam; three members of the New York Regiment Colored Troops Reenactors brought out their guns to perform a military drill; and Gaines and Segade sung plenty of Civil War-era songs while inviting the audience to sing along.

Segade warned us ahead of time “not to get too comfortable” in one place. There were a few dozen chairs along the concrete walls, but barely anyone used them; nearly every act involved changing places, whether it was the performers dancing up-and-down the length or the courtyard, or audience members joining in on a circular march.

The afternoon began with some show tunes: Segade belting out wartime ditties while Gaines played an electric keyboard. What the performance lacked in historical authenticity, they made up for with campiness—how else to describe two men wearing leather pants and shorts while singing their hearts out in a style friendly to The Voice? Contrast this upbeat mood of these karaoke pros with the tenor of the song lyrics. Their third number, “Tenting Tonight,” was downright morbid:

We’ve been fighting today on the old campground

Many are lying near.

Some are dead. Some are dying.

Many are in tears.

We don’t have war songs today, at least not in the 19th century sense of soldiers caroling together on their way to battle. And with “Songs of the Civil War,” we didn’t hear just the songs of the Union and Confederacy, but of the Cherokee Nation as well. Writer and sound artist Latasha Diggs contributed a history lesson on the fate of the Cherokees who initially supported the South—”the lesser of two evils,” as Diggs pointed out. It just so happened, we learned, that “Amazing Grace” was sung so often during the Trail of Tears that it was once considered the Cherokee National Anthem. Diggs ended with an audience-wide sing-a-long of “Amazing Grace” in the Cherokee language.

Acts in this historical revue rotated on-and-off between downright heartbreaking history lessons—like Diggs’s—to odd performance collages of past and present. One performer, the self-identified “queer trans-masculine”niv Acosta, ended his melancholy Civil War ballad by ripping off his jacket, twerking, and asking an audience member for a piggyback ride. Matana Roberts, the dreadlocked saxophone soloist of a melancholy, jazzy version of “Dixie,” wore a confederate flag draped across her chest. If you were looking for a sanitized history lesson, you wouldn’t find it here.

To close the evening, Courtesy the Artists divided the audience up in four groups, each to sing a separate song out loud, “John Brown’s Body” and “Marching Song of the First Arkansas” among them. The cacophony was evident until the close, when all the songs reached a common refrain with “Glory, glory, hallelujah…as we go marching on.”

{ 1 comment }

Carmen H June 12, 2014 at 10:01 am

Such an amazing performance/experience! Matana Roberts’ part was especially moving (to me). One thing, Abe Lincoln wasn’t played by an actor– that was Thomas J. Lax, curator of the show associated with the performance: When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South! Hope you got a chance to go inside and check out the exhibition itself, it paralleled the performances beautifully :

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