Tunes and 'Toons from the Hardtacks
The Civil War era never sounded so good
From left, Marek Bennett and Woody Pringle of The Hardtacks
Hardtack, for those unfamiliar with the term, was a battlefield staple of the Civil War. Basically just flour mixed with water and some salt, it was better than nothing as a source of energy for soldiers on the move — kind of like today’s MREs without any of the flavor, vitamins and variety. But when Marek Bennett’s group The Hardtacks perform authentic music from the era of the Civil War, you realize that what the battlefield cuisine lacked was made up for in the esprit de corps around the campfire. Songs from the war and the Antebellum era were colorful, dense with meaning and rich with life.
Bennett formed The Hardtacks in 2012 to perform folk music of the war years and Antebellum era for the NH Humanities’ “Humanities to Go” programs. They’ve since played at libraries, historical societies, schools, encampments and other events. From a focus on Appalachian banjo and fiddle music (both songs and tunes), their repertoire has expanded to include parlor songs, rally cries, spirituals, hymns, bawdy parodies and more. Their programs take inspiration from the participatory culture of the Lyceum movement and 19th-century folk traditions and provide immersive explorations of history as a sung, spoken and lived experience.
But such immersion didn’t tax Bennett’s fascination with that pivotal period of American history. As an accomplished cartoonist and writer, he has adapted a diary that he says “tumbled into my hands from a dusty archive box at the Henniker Historical Society.” Local historians said they had never read it. Bennett did and was so captivated by the wry and detailed description of the war by a man named Freeman Colby that he brought it to life with his pen and a cartoon style that is deceptively simple (see the review below). The illustrations convey fascinating details of life during American’s greatest conflict, in all its common frustrations and pleasures, as witnessed by a fellow resident of the town of Henniker (Bennett’s hometown), so long ago.
Music from the pre-electronic era lacked some of the subtlety of what we now enjoy in popular tunes. It had to. Without amplification, the emphasis was on a percussive sound, like that provided by a banjo or fiddle, to carry above the clatter of a crowd having fun or dancing on wooden floorboards. Similarly, the lyrics were punchy and evocative and written to be memorable, so that a song heard at a rally or minstrel show might “go viral” (in the Antebellum sense) and stick in the minds and hearts of listeners to be replayed again and again. This album of songs from The Hardtacks, packed with banjos, rhythm bones and bravado, will certainly stay with the receptive heart of any listener today. Once heard, they will return to mind (and ear) again and again.
Freeman Colby, farmboy and teacher, observed as the war began to consume the world he knew, and then he enlisted in the Union Army. This cartoon rendering of his Civil War diaries brings to life the experience of a young man facing drudgery, boredom and the constant fear of death from battle or disease. It’s a remarkable feat of historical storytelling, performed by one man who was there and another who can both draw and draw upon the past.