Q&A: Civil War Musician Conny Ottway

What makes you a Civil War musician?

I’ve studied the music in a huge way to prepare, and know the history of all the pieces. Being able to play a lyrical instrument—the violin—I can pull the emotion out of the piece, and I love it. Those songs, a lot of them were silly, but a lot were so sad. If I were playing them on the clarinet, I don’t think they would sound as emotional.

You teach Civil War music, too?

I incorporate it. I teach every style—bluegrass, Celtic, a lot of Scottish music. A lot of Scottish and Irish music went along well with the Civil War, so there’s a lot of crossover.

How’d you get hooked on Civil War music?

By being asked to perform it. I earned a bachelor of music performance in violin from Murray State in Murray, Ky. and had a student there whose mother worked at Fort Donelson, a big Civil War fort. She asked for some performances, and I did those for a few years—big events. I do have some Civil War family members myself, and it became really important to me to keep the music alive.

You perform music from both sides; what’s your favorite Yankee tune?

It’s actually a slave song. I love “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” it’s about the underground railroad. The Drifters did that years ago, too. Talk about mournful.

How about for the Confederates?

“Lorena” is really beautiful. This is kind of silly, but I love that song “Blue Tail Fly” even more than “Lorena,” with the “Jimmy crack corn.”

Is “Lorena” sad?

Sort of, because they were going to be true to the end, but right after the war she marries someone else. They wouldn’t let soldiers sing the sad songs, because they’d start getting homesick and going AWOL. They forbid them to sing “Home Sweet Home.”