“By the flow of the inland river,
Whence the fleets of iron have fled,
Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver,
Asleep are the ranks of the dead:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment day;
Under the one, the Blue,
Under the other, the Gray.
No more shall the war cry sever,
Or the winding rivers be red;
They banish our anger forever
When they laurel the graves of our dead!
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment day;
Love and tears for the Blue,
Tears and love for the Gray.”
First and last stanzas of “The Blue and the Gray,”
by Francis Miles Finch (1827-1907)
On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War’s final knell, a powerful remembrance will take place in Columbus. The Columbus Choral Society, together with visiting singers from Tennessee, Florida and the Golden Triangle area, and the Starkville/MSU Symphony Orchestra, presents “Chronicles of Blue and Gray” March 28. The music has a compelling connection to Columbus. Composer John Purifoy’s poignant work is, in part, a musical setting of Francis Miles Finch’s poem “The Blue and the Gray.”
On April 25, 1866, ladies in Columbus gathered to place flowers on the graves of not only Confederate but also Union soldiers at what is now Friendship Cemetery. The act of treating the dead as equals, despite the lingering rancor of war, made national headlines. On reading of it in the New York Tribune, Finch, a lawyer in Ithaca, New York, was inspired to write his poem. The decorating of graves in Columbus is often cited as an origin of Decoration Day, later renamed Memorial Day.
A native of Canada, Columbus Choral Society director Alisa Toy wasn’t aware of the local significance when she discovered Purifoy’s work while searching for a keystone piece for the Columbus-based group. The first time she brought it to rehearsal the emotional response from chorus members let her know it was a meaningful choice.
“It is moving, powerful and beautiful — and the messages contained in it are still so pertinent today,” said Toy. “It was absolutely our signature piece in every way, shape and form.”
But Toy’s choosing that particular music before she was even aware of the specific link is only the first in a string of improbable occurrences. It includes Purifoy discovering the Choral Society through a YouTube video of its singers performing an excerpt. Which led to an invitation to perform “Chronicles of Blue and Gray” with others at Carnegie Hall this past June and meeting the composer. Which led to Saturday’s concert, which will bring Purifoy himself full circle, one might say, to the place that helped inspire his work from afar — to the hospital town that nursed soldiers from both sides after the bloody Battle of Shiloh, to the gravesites decorated almost 150 years ago, and to the home, Twelve Gables, where four ladies first met to plan it, unknowingly inspiring a poem.
“I can only imagine what it will feel like,” Purifoy said by phone from his Tennessee home. “To be there will be very spiritual to me.”
A mass choir of at least 130 singers and a 35-piece orchestra will bring the hour-long composition to Whitfield Hall’s Rent Auditorium on the Mississippi University for Women campus Saturday at 8 p.m. The performance includes audio and visual displays relating to the era. The one-time event will usher in Columbus’ 75th anniversary of its Spring Pilgrimage of antebellum homes and sites. There is no charge to attend, but tickets are required to ensure seating. Get them at the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Tennessee Williams Home or the Columbus Arts Council. They are going fast.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime event,” said Toy, of the presentation sponsored in part by the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau; the Leslie Farrell Threadgill Lecture and Artist Series, an endowment held by the MUW Foundation;the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation; and the Lowndes County CREATE Foundation.
A place in history
Purifoy’s work was commissioned by the Knoxville Choral Society to honor its conductor and artistic director, Dr. Eric Thorson. The Tennessee ensemble gave the world premiere performance of the piece in November 2012.
“Chronicles of Blue and Gray” weaves American folk songs, spirituals and rallying and battle cries with tunes and lyrics from the Civil War period. Texts from Lincoln’s inaugurals, the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, secession proclamations, soldiers’ letters and Finch’s poem are set to musical choral statements.
“I lived with the poem and these texts for a long time,” explained Purifoy, who composed the piece over a two year-period. “I wept many tears as I wrote it.”
Finch’s poem became integral from the beginning. “I was drawn to that poem very early,” the composer said.
For Columbus history teacher and choral society member Deb Shelton, the impact of Purifoy’s entire piece is strong.
“The mixing of the music and the history for me is almost impossible to put into words. I’ve taught this my whole life, trying to help my students to think about this and understand it and what it meant. This brings it home, makes it more real,” she said of the music that takes listeners from the secession to the healing. “This is an inspired event.”
By rough count, more than 1,000 headstones in Friendship Cemetery mark the final resting places of Civil War soldiers. The Union dead were long ago relocated to burial sites nearer their homes. Most of the simple white marble stones are marked “Unknown Confederate Soldier.” But some carry names — Elias S. Kincheloe, 2 Miss Inf … S.A. Blakley, Co K, 19 Ala Inf … O.C. Trayler, Co C, 11 Texas Inf … Mrs. Canant, Vol Nurse.
The names and markers, and thousands more like them throughout the country, are at the heart of “Chronicles of Blue and Gray.” Saturday’s concert commemorates the sesquicentennial of the end of a terrible war and honors the brave ladies in a small Mississippi town who decorated the graves of those who gave their lives from both armies.
“The evening,” Toy said, “promises to be full of beauty and emotion.”
“Chronicles of Blue and Gray”
WHO: Columbus Choral Society, with area choirs and visiting singers, and Starkville/MSU Symphony Orchestra
WHAT: Musical concert
WHEN: Saturday, March 28, 8 p.m.
WHERE: Mississippi University for Women’s Rent Auditorium, Columbus
TICKETS: Free to attend, but tickets are required to ensure seating. Get them at the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau, 117 Third St. S.; the Tennessee Williams Home Welcome Center, 300 Main St.; or Columbus Arts Council, 501 Main St.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.