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Revolutions: Songs of Social Change, 1860-65 and 1960-65


Revolutions AdWhat I enjoy most about curating exhibitions is the opportunity to delve into diverse subjects and learn something new. I have had fun creating the Revolutions exhibition with co-curator Andy Talkov and exhibit designer Drew Gladwell. We began the process by surveying the Virginia Historical Society’s sheet music collection. The beautiful illustrations, the variety of songs, and the sheer size of the collection gave us a lot to ponder. We grappled with how to make this exhibition relevant to our visitors. It took a while, but we decided to compare the music of the Civil War of the 1860s and the civil rights movement of the 1960s because both eras were seminal moments not only in American history but also here in Virginia.

Dixie's Land

I found it interesting to learn of Dixie’s origins. What began as a sentimental song took quite a different meaning when heard in the 1960s South. (Sheet Music: Dixie’s Land, c. 1859, by Daniel Decatur Emmett, Virginia Historical Society, Mss2 Em 645 a1)

I was surprised to learn that one of my favorite songs, “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” had roots in the nineteenth century. We sang this song in church during the civil rights movement and it encouraged us to persevere. Likewise, I was surprised to learn that Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” originated from the song “Many Thousands Gone.”

SNCC Political Button, c. 1963

The student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (pronounced “snick”) was composed of college students who were determined to make a difference. After the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, student activists, along with Ella Bbaker, held their first organizational meeting at Shaw University where I later attended for one year. (SNCC Political Button, c. 1963, Virginia Historical Society, 2002.148.7)

Two audio stations in the exhibition give visitors a chance to hear excerpts from some of the featured songs and to discern the meanings associated with each rendition.

We hope visitors will come away with not only a better understanding of the music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but also a deeper sense of the challenges faced by people who were living with war and loss as well as civil unrest and hope. The creative spirit of writers and musicians survived across time. Their music still gives us something to think about in our daily lives as we continue to face some of the same issues as those who are separated from us by 150 or 50 years.

Revolutions: Songs of Social Change, 1860–65 and 1960–65, was made possible with funding from the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission. It is one of several commemorative events sponsored during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. Please come by and visit the Virginia Historical Society before the exhibition closes on January 5, 2014. We are open every day (Monday–Saturday 10–5 and Sunday 1–5) and we are free!

Dr. Lauranett Lee is the curator of African American History at the Virginia Historical Society.

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