Johnson City (April 14, 2014) ̶ The songs of the ages still ring in Bobby Horton’s ears. Like the painstaking scribes of old, he translates what now seems like a foreign language into messages and music – oft-buried treasures – still relevant today.
“I just got sucked in really, really young to the history and you know that history is just people’s stories,” Horton says. “You know, for every person that participates in the Depression, or the Dust Bowl or a war, it’s a story. And every story is just as valid as the last one because that’s experience and that’s history.”
Cached away in his recording studio in his home in Birmingham, Ala., composer, multi-instrumentalist and music historian Horton distills memories and stories of days gone by into music still full of life, vitality and lessons. He has composed, arranged and performed music for 17 of Ken Burns’ PBS films and series, starting with Burns’ The Civil War, in addition to films for The National Park Service and A&E, among many projects. Horton’s drive to share the songs he discovers in long-untouched archives and resurrects on period instruments plays out on stages around the country, as well.
On Monday and Tuesday, April 14 and 15, the troubadour will tell and sing the “Songs and Stories of the Civil War” – both sides – at ETSU’s Bud Frank Theatre in the lower level of Gilbreath Hall, starting at 7:30 each evening, sponsored by Mary B. Martin School of the Arts.
“The bottom line is I love it. I love the story,” he says. “I love to tell their stories and present their tunes. I’m not original with any of this stuff. But you know, just the things that, the things I find fascinating or interesting or some people are fascinating to me … I like to share it with others.”
A native of Birmingham, Horton’s lifelong passion for music and history began early. His father played trumpet and his grandfather, banjo, and his exposure to music spanned big band and jazz to gospel, sacred harp and “hillbilly” music. Also in those formative years, Horton listened to the stories of his family’s World War II veterans, and his love of history became deeply rooted.
Asked to produce a score for a feature film set in 1863 in Southern Indiana, Horton, in his research, uncovered a trove of thousands of tunes from that period. Combining his passion for music and Civil War history, he began recording what has now become 14 volumes of authentic Civil War tunes in his home studio – playing all of the period era instruments and singing all the parts himself. This series is sold around the world and has led to a career in film scoring and a live presentation of these songs with the stories that accompany them.
The Civil War tunes and tales – some familiar and some resurrected from deep repositories – will start with the patriotic early emotions of the people of the period and progress chronologically to the pathos of the conflict’s latter years, with humor intertwined. “It will make them think and maybe see things a little differently and at least appreciate the things that were handed down to us,” he says. “ It’s going to become apparent that these folks are some of my heroes. I’m thankful for them and I feel empathy for them. I tell you what, this stuff is going to take people away from today.”
Horton’s expertise in history and music surrounding the War Between the States also brought him together with now-ETSU theatre professor Bobby Funk, who was teaching at University of Alabama-Birmingham and honinghis one-man play Co. Aytch: Memoirs of a Confederate Soldier. “I found out about his tapes and CDs, Homespun Songs of the CSA,” Funk says. “I wanted to know if I could use it and discovered that he was also in Birmingham, and he said, ‘Come to my house.’ And I went to his house and he gave me more music than I would ever need with full permission to use it. He is just a good-hearted guy, a great lover of history and a great musician.”
In his studio and on the stage, Horton is his what he calls “the band,” playing “most strings, most brass, some keyboard, percussion, Irish pipes, whistles.”
“It will be nice to have an artist who will give us insight into a historical period that has a lot of interest in the community,” says Mary B. Martin School of the Arts Director Anita DeAngelis. “We have so many active historical and re-enactment groups in the area. Bobby is sure to appeal to them. He has studied the music of the 19th century, both North and South and is known for his accuracy in his study of the music and his collection of the lyrics. He also performs in costumes and on period instruments. This should be a real treat and education for all of us.”
While at ETSU, Horton will also share his expertise with Radio/TV/Film, history and bluegrass students, as well as a group at the Johnson City Memorial Park Community Center.
Horton is widely recognized as one of the country’s leading authorities on music from the Civil War period, and that notoriety led documentary legend Burns to Horton, and Burns’ PBS series The Civil War began “a wonderful association,” Horton says.
The admiration is mutual. “I don't believe I've met anyone,” Burns has said, “quite like Bobby in the ability to understand the soul of American music.”
For more on Horton, visit his website, bobbyhorton.com.
Tickets are $15 general admission, $10 senior 60-plus and $5 for students of all ages. Purchase tickets online at www.etsu.edu/martin.
For information about the ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts or the Horton events, call 423-439-TKTS (8587) or visit www.etsu.edu/martin. “Like” ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts on Facebook and follow it on Twitter and Instagram @ArtsAtETSU.