On roads paved with words and notes, Woodville’s John Tole entices his listeners to travel into the past — particularly into our country’s past. “Music provides a nice vehicle for showing how people felt at various stages in our history,” says Tole.
More often than not, Tole lingers in his journey in the mid-1800s, when values and ways of life clashed to rip the nation apart. Families, communities and states wrangled about the morality of one person owning another, and the realms of authority appropriate for the national and state governments.
“The people who lived in that [Civil War] era had to come face-to-face with all the problems that had been ignored in the country,” Tole says. “However they felt about it, they were forced to deal with it.”
If your forebears lived in the U.S. at that time, it’s likely that they fought in the war, or, that they were directly impacted by it, Tole explains. He is the great-great-grandson of a Union naval officer hailing from New York, and of an infantryman in the Stonewall (Jackson) Brigade. Tole is almost certain that this ancestor from the Shenandoah Valley marched two miles from his Woodville home.
Through the influences of two teachers — one in high school and another in college, Tole became intrigued by history. He renewed his interest in the 1980s, after leaving his career as an engineering research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and relocating to Rappahannock County. Tole applied his research skills to exploring how the Civil War played out in this region.
“People today will hardly go across the street to say hello without you paying them. People of that era marched hundreds of miles barefoot,” Tole says. “We’re so soft today, and so unprepared for catastrophes of any magnitude.”
As a lifelong musician, he also began to delve into, and play the music, of that period. He became aware that there were thousands of songs.
“The words are expressions of how people felt at that time,” says Tole. He started to share his discoveries.
“A lot of people don’t care much about history anymore, if they ever did,” Tole says. Understanding history is important. “How we got to where we are is directly related to where we came from,” he adds.
After performing for The Fauquier County Civil War Roundtable, members suggested that he team up with Mrs. Robert Howard, an experienced singer who, in keeping with the social conventions of Civil War period, uses her husband’s name. Together, Tole and Howard formed Evergreen Shade.
Howard quickly observed Tole’s dedication to researching the music, lyrics and background of tunes. In fact, she describes him as a perfectionist. Over time, their repertoire has expanded to about 200 songs.
“He was a teacher for me,” Howard says of Tole, who had more knowledge of Civil War-era music, and had been performing solo and with others. Even after many years, she views Tole as the primary contributor in their partnership.
Evergreen Shade debuted in 2003, and progressed to perform at museums, Civil War battlefields and historical societies in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Their venues include the National Archives, Mount Vernon, and the Museum of the Confederacy. Playing at Stratford Hall for the 200th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s birth ranks as Tole’s most memorable performance.
Evergreen Shade also played twice in programs sponsored by the Brandy Station Foundation. They drew the largest audiences of all the programs, says organizer Gary Wilson.
Tole and Howard wear period costumes, and view themselves as musical historians, not re-enactors. They use nontraditional arrangements and instruments. Tole says, “I don’t have any instrument that’s 150 years old.”
Tole plays banjo as well as steel and nylon six- and 12-string guitars for the 20 to 30 performances Evergreen Shade does in a year.
“Purists have written essays saying this is absolute heresy,” Tole says, chuckling. Often, the duo hands percussion instruments to children in the audience, and sometimes, they also invite adults to accompany them.
While Tole has composed several memorial pieces for relatives, his first in-depth endeavor involved writing music for “Oh Captain, My Captain,” a poem that Walt Whitman penned about Lincoln after his assassination. If time and energy permitted, he would like to write more. “It’s like many things in life,” says Tole, chuckling. “It’s a nice idea, and we’ll put it over here, and maybe someday we’ll get to it.”
Tole prepares programs for each show and includes abstracts describing the songs’ history. An example is “Lorena,” created by a man spurned by his ladylove. But her name was not Lorena; as a Southern gentleman, he protected her privacy. “Lorena” is probably the most popular ballad of the Civil War, Tole says.
Evergreen Shade received an invitation to play at the grand opening of the Willis House, where Abraham Lincoln stayed in Gettysburg after the battle ended, to speak to a torn nation. They compiled a program of songs that would have been known to Lincoln, or of his time, including the ballad, “Annie Laurie.”
“Lincoln was quite a sentimental character,” Tole says. In the program distributed to the audience, Tole and Howard wrote how Lincoln’s friends watched his eyes fill with tears when he heard “Annie Laurie” sung. It was written by a man in love.
Tole learned that Lincoln was in a mournful mood when, a year before Gettysburg, he traveled to the Maryland battlefield of Antietam. He asked a musician friend to cheer him by playing songs.
Lincoln’s opponents used the incident against him during his 1864 campaign for reelection, claiming that the President showed a lack of regard for the men who perished in the fighting. “It’s quite interesting how things that seem rather innocuous get distorted for other purposes,” Tole says, laughing. “Does this sound familiar?”
“Some of the music spans a huge portion of history,” Tole says. One of Evergreen Shade’s favorite tunes is “Flowers of the Forest.” It tells how the Scots fought a huge battle with England in 1513 to gain their independence. In one day, a generation of young men from the Scottish upper class died.
Tole discovered the tune while researching songs popular in World War I. One rarely hears the lyrics today, because the tune is almost always played on bagpipes. Pipers treat the song with reverence, and only play it for memorials.
“The point is that here’s a song that has had the same meaning now that it’s had for hundreds and hundreds of years,” Tole says. The lyrics speak about “the futility and waste of war. How true is that now? That never changes.”
Another song in their repertoire, “The Vacant Chair,” tells how a family always leaves a vacant chair, to honor a member serving in the military. One day, Evergreen Shade sang the tune to a Culpeper audience. Howard remembers watching a woman sob while she sang. Afterward, the woman explained that she was grieving the death of her son in a war.
“In my mind, everyone has a vacant chair,” Howard says. Everyone has lost a family member, or has a loved one wearing a uniform. Such songs illustrate “the sheer dedication and sacrifices beyond comprehension” — revealed to Tole in his trip back in time.
“It’s worth remembering,” says Tole.