Just Before the Battle, Mother

George F. Root, 1862

Who is singing this song? In what situation is it supposed to be set? What kind of image do you have of the soldier singing this song? What is he doing? What is he feeling?

Songs of the nineteenth century tend to be more sentimental than modern songs. Do you think this song is overly sentimental or is it "on target" with how a soldier might feel waiting for the first shot to be fired in battle? Why?

How do you think soldiers dealt with the extreme fear they faced in battle?

What do you think his mother might be thinking back at home? From the information in the song, do you think she encouraged him to volunteer?

If this soldier made it home safely, how would you greet him? If he never made it home, how would you honor his memory?

How did the federal government pay tribute to the men who served? (Explain briefly the pension system that the government instituted after the Civil War.) Also explain how Black service and military achievements were often cited by Republican lawmakers and their supporters for giving full rights and citizenship to freed men. What, if anything, do you think the government owed (or still owes) people who served in the armed forces? What would be suitable compensation for service in the Civil War?


"Just Before the Battle, Mother" performed by Tom Glazer on A Treasury of Civil War Songs. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

Tom Glazer (1914–2003) was an American folk singer and songwriter known primarily as a composer of ballads. His greatest commercial success came with his original 1963 recording of the song parody "On Top of Spaghetti" to the tune of "On Top of Old Smoky."

View the lyrics or "Just Before the Battle, Mother."

View the published score.

George F. Root

Portrait of George F. Root from Bygone Days in Chicago. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1910.

In the nineteenth century, thousands of parlor songs, or ballads, were published for amateur singers and piano accompaniment. Musically, they featured tuneful melodies, simple harmonies and rhythms, and sentimental lyrics. George F. Root (1820–95) worked for some time with the well-known hymnist and educator Lowell Mason and composed several hymns as well as parlor songs. His parlor songs were initially based on common themes (nostalgic evocations of home, death of young maidens, etc.), but as the Civil War progressed Root began turning his talents to the Union cause.

The influence of the hymn can be seen in the simplicity of the melodic line and the short phrases of this song.

 

Write a tribute to a returning Civil War veteran. Have half the class write, design, or perform a tribute to a surviving soldier; half create a memorial to a soldier returning for burial. This song was popular with both sides, so you may choose to honor either a Union or Confederate soldier.