Historic tunes mark the work of Bobby Horton
Since 1985, Bobby has performed “Songs and Stories from the Civil War” from coast to coast, using period instruments while exploring the stories of both sides in the conflict. He has been deemed “the premier artist of Civil War music.”
In addition to solo (and duo with his friend Bill Bugg) performances, Bobby has toured long and far with the musical comedy group “Three On A String.” More on his works may be found at bobbyhorton.com.
Bobby’s musical influences were many and varied — with one limitation. He never heard his father play the trumpet “because he lost his bottom front teeth sometime during World War II.”
But his father enjoyed big band music, so Bobby grew up hearing the likes of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong. His father also loved Alabama’s own Hank Williams.
Bobby said his mother preferred classical music and his maternal grandfather, John Camp, played banjo and listened to old-time string music, Southern gospel and Sacred Harp.
His paternal grandmother, Leta Horton, who loved classical music and played piano, would often play the organ at a Methodist church in Birmingham.
“Then the Beatles came to America when I was 11 or 12, and I discovered Otis Redding in high school,” Bobby recalled. “Music has always been an important part of my life.”
So his musical roots run deep.
“I can’t remember when I began to mess around with trumpet and banjo, but I was fairly young,” he said. “In my mind, you played baseball, football, basketball and music; that was considered normal when and where I grew up in the western part of Birmingham.”
Many of the male influences in Bobby’s life — relatives, Sunday school teachers, coaches, band director — were World War II veterans whom he “learned to fear, revere and love.”
“So history became real to me early on,” he said. “… Through their stories I knew they made history when they were young men.”
His first connection between music and history was quite personal for Bobby — growing out of his father’s own story.
“My dad found himself in North Africa in 1943, not really knowing where he was,” he said. “He was homesick and sad” — fearing he would never go home again.
However, his father’s best Army buddy found a “busted radio” that with a little tinkering came to life and was tuned to the BBC.
“Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’ was playing and my dad had an emotional turnaround,” said Bobby. “That incident literally changed everything for him.”
As a boy in the ’60s, Bobby was intrigued by the U.S. commemoration of the centennial of the American Civil War.
“There were many articles and TV programs about the war that fascinated me,” he said.
So his interest broadened to an earlier conflict in American history than the stories of those he knew personally.
“I instinctively understood that history is made by common folks,” he said.
Digging into Civil War history, he came across a photograph of a young soldier from Georgia who seemed to be looking directly at him. The young man reminded Bobby of one of his school buddies.
The young soldier, Bobby learned, was killed in the Battle of Malvern Hill in 1862. Bobby recalled being “deeply moved.”
Producing and performing music for the film series by Ken Burns began with an introduction in 1991.
Burns was discussing his Civil War project with the editor of American Heritage Magazine who told him: “There’s a fellow in Alabama you need to listen to.”
Soon Bobby received a call from Ken’s brother about using some of Bobby’s music in the series.
“I have been working for Ken ever since,” said Bobby, gratefully.
Bobby said Ken’s team at Florentine Films now feels like family to him.
“Ken is such a joy to work for,” said Bobby. “He is a wonderful fellow who does business on a handshake. He and all the folks I deal with are incredibly talented, and very smart.”
Bobby said that Ken takes an unusual approach in film production by laying down the music track first and building the scenes on top of it.
“This adds a layer of emotion that you feel but may or may not consciously notice,” said Bobby. “Most films come to you ‘locked,’ so you lay down the tracks to fit what is there.”
With a long list of completed projects, Bobby said he is in conversation now about the next one.
Whether in his own family or the various persons he admires from history, Bobby said there is a common trait of a firm faith.
“They were very strong people who were all tested in their lives,” he said. “Their faith was consistent throughout, and it truly is at the core of who they were and are.”
Faith is often highly present in the countless songs and stories that Bobby has preserved from American history. In fact it is often faith expressed through music, he noted, that has sustained people through troubling times.
And in a uniquely talented way, Bobby Horton is passing along those stories and songs from generation to generation. NFJ
Story by John D. Pierce, Photos by Bruce Gourley