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LA Times Feature by Chris Pasles

Email: greats@aol.com

 

The following article appeared in the Los Angeles, Friday, September 11, 1998 in the Orange County Edition Calendar Section, Page: F-1
 
 
Sounds of Battle;
Music: Civil War bands could hold the soldiers together, says one reenactor, and 'stiffen the spine of the most cowardly.
 
By: CHRIS PASLES
TIMES STAFF WRITER
 
The Civil War may seem like ancient history to many people. But for others, hearing a little of the period music can evoke the era with astonishing clarity: its pain and struggle, its social, political and human convulsions, the bitter, problematic triumphs.
 
The Band of the California Battalion plays such authentic Civil War music, most often along with the increasingly popular groups that reenact battles. They will perform Saturday afternoon at Central Park in Huntington Beach. (A period dance concert will follow.)
 
"We go out in the fields to play, not just stay in the concert hall," band founder Sheldon Gordon said. "At the height of a battle, they would strike up the band. There are lots of diary accounts of this.
"If you had a great band, the [fighting] units held together, even under fire. The [music] would stiffen the spine of the most cowardly soldier."
 
Gordon, 44, initially knew little about the music. He was tipped off to it, ironically, by a German brass ensemble, whose music he praised.
 
"They responded by saying how much they enjoyed 19th century American band music," Gordon said. "I had never played any 19th century American band music. So I started doing some research. As I started learning more about it, I decided, 'Wouldn't it be great if we had a group that did that kind of music?' "
 
Six years ago, Gordon started a summer Civil War music class with Gary Thomas Scott, a band instructor at Long Beach City College, and, incidentally, a descendant of Gen. Winfield Scott (1786-1866).
 
"When we started, it was just to learn about brass music we weren't familiar with," said Scott, 47. "That's when it struck us: This is a marvelous piece of American history and heritage that's been lost. Only through a group of people like us could we resurrect it.
 
"So after the class was over, people wanted to keep going."
 
Enter Steven Bartel, a Hollywood graphic designer who joined the band a few years later.
 
"I had come out to be an extra in the movie 'Gettysburg,' done by the Turner network," said Bartel, 45. "I had discovered I had an ancestor [Alonzo Hayden] who had been in the 1st Minnesota Volunteers, which was completely decimated and slaughtered at the Battle of Gettysburg.
 
"The Civil War reenactment community adopted me. They put a musket in my hand, taught me the drill, treated me like a new recruit. It was fascinating. I got sucked in. I went on a kind of time travel."
 
Gordon, Scott and the rest of the band members began acquiring period instruments and uniforms and all the paraphernalia that go with them.
 
"We all had the idea that the instruments were pretty crude, that the musicians were really not very competent and that many of the arrangements were pretty simple," said Scott, the band's conductor. "We found out that . . . [was] completely false.
 
"Many of the musicians were immigrants, primarily from Europe, . . . [and] conservatory-trained. . . . Most of the instruments also came from Europe, where instrument-making was more advanced. The instruments were quite extraordinary."
 
From studying the music of the period, they've concluded that the musicians were talented composers and arrangers too. "Some of these arrangements really require virtuoso playing," Scott said.
 
Military bands in those days played for social events, parades, reviews, but also in battle. They did, however, perform other duties.
 
"Most were expected to be medical corpsmen [as well]," Gordon said. "Musicians were not armed, at least not in the Federal Army. . . . They were expected to assist on the battlefield . . . and render medical assistance.
 
"After dark, they would entertain. It was incredible work. They were up at 4 or 5 in the morning, and among the last to go to bed at night. The demands on the musicians were quite extraordinary. They virtually had to play any style of music in any given circumstances at the drop of a hat."
 
Over the last several years, the Band of the California Battalion has built a following among local Civil War reenactment societies. Such societies abound in the Eastern United States.
 
"Civil War reenacting is in its infancy on the West Coast," Gordon said. "California wasn't real prominent in the Civil War. But if you go to the East Coast, it's enormous. At Gettysburg, there were 40,000 reenactors this year.
 
Reenactors take their efforts seriously, regarding themselves as "living historians" who pride themselves on making a convincing impression, Bartel said.
 
"Hard-core reenactors do things like starve themselves to keep to the proper weight, or let their shoes fall apart if they march 20 miles. They won't take out of their knapsack any shiny apple because apples didn't look like that in 1863," Bartel said.
 
"They consider people who come out with inadequate knowledge and inauthentic equipment to be 'farbs'--which maybe stands for 'Far be it from me to criticize your impression, but your ideas are not period.' "
 
However, famed Civil War reenactor and author Tony Horwitz has suggested that "farb" is an anagram of "barf."
 
Whichever is true, Bartel said he has "a pretty good impression now."
 
The band personnel has remained fairly stable over the years, but none of the members is a full-time musician. Gordon is a digital analyst. One man is a surveyor, another is a sales representative.
 
"We've got a systems engineer. One guy works for the Salvation Army. One guy's a teacher. Another is a radio tower technician," Gordon said. "We do it for the love of history, and it's a wonderful tool for developing our own individual musicianship."
 
* The Band of the California Battalion will play following a 4 p.m. battle reenactment Saturday at Huntington Central Park, Golden West Street and Talbert Avenue, Huntington Beach. There will also be battle reenactments at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. (Times are approximate.) Park admission is free. (714) 962-5777.
 
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