Bob Welch Bringing Stories and Song About The Civil War To Audiences At The Lake

Monday, December 1, 2014

Bob Welch Bringing Stories and Song about the Civil War to Audiences at the Lake

As a boy growing up on a farm outside Kansas City, Bob Welch found his avocation while plowing a vegetable patch. He unearthed an old tintype showing a Civil War era soldier, his musket held high under his chin so that the camera could capture it. The soldier’s expression was as somber as anyone might expect. After all, that soldier was posing for the portrait that could outlive him; he was going off to war. In addition, smiles were rare during that era, in part because pride and vanity were thought to be sinful. Bob Welch also reminded me that people then had bad teeth and often hid them behind stern, sober expressions.
Bob Welch in the Union uniform, playing a reproduction of the 19th
century Boucher banjo.
On that same day, Welch unearthed a penny minted in 1863, the crucial year and turning point in the Civil War. It and the tintype transformed a boy. Civil War history replaced the boy's love for baseball. In fact, posters of Abraham Lincoln and General Lee replaced baseball icons on the walls of his room. 
This day in the garden was 1960 or 1961, years that coincided with Centennial Civil War celebrations so the boy had easy access to information through magazines, many featuring 19th century icons on the covers. To Welch, it seemed as if the nation was as interested as he, but the news of the Civil War faded while Welch’s interest did not. He is still learning and teaching about that war even after a thirty-five year career as an on-air radio broadcaster, salesman, and production manager.
In fact, in November 2014, just a month after moving back to Missouri to live here full-time, Welch appeared at the Camden County Library in Camdenton wearing authentic reproductions of Civil War uniforms, purchased from modern-day sutlers. He sang original music inspired by 19th century stories and songs as well as Civil War era songs while playing a banjo made to order in mid-19th century style. When not playing the banjo, Welch uses a reproduction of a Parlor guitar, so called because it was played by the ladies of the home while entertaining family and guests.

Welch's performance at Camdenton's library has led to two more. The first is at the New Life Church of the Nazarene on December 5 after a regular monthly luncheon held there. The second is on January 9, 2015 at the Unity Lake of the Ozarks. Other 2015 performance dates are available on Welch’s web page for those who want to see this man share his talents and stories.
Welch in the Confederate uniform, playing an
authentic-looking reproduction of a Parlor guitar.
Welch would like to perform as often as possible. In fact, during his radio work in and around Dubuque, Iowa, he enjoyed a nine-year sponsorship from American Trust. With the bank’s support, Welch visited schools to spark an interest in the nation’s shared past through songs and stories. Welch hopes to inspire a boy or girl to read and learn as he has and to then one day inspire another generation.
Beltone sponsored his visits to nursing homes and assisted living centers.  The Iowa Arts Council also helped spread the knowledge that Welch has acquired and transformed through music.
One poignant PBS program, Love and Valor, based upon the book and screenplay by Charles Larimer, lists Bob Welch as one of two musicians. Welch shares the credit with Larimer himself. The haunting theme song is an original Welch composition and seven years after writing and performing it for the film, Welch received his first royalty check.
Another of Welch’s original compositions, “The Ballad of Jenny Wade,” was inspired by the death of Jenny Wade, a civilian casualty on July 3, 1863 in Gettysburg. A press release about the song sent to an upcoming Civil War re-enactment generated an invitation for Welch to bring his knowledge and talent to the event. He’s been a guest at many such events since.
Welch’s performance includes 12 to 15 set pieces. “Old Dan Tucker,” “Dixie,” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” are songs from the period, of course, but Welch’s set includes his own music, written to sound like music enjoyed in the 19th century. “The Ballad of Jenny Wade” or “Will You Give Us Our Whiskey?” are good examples, the latter inspired by an actual request from the troops when told to take a bridge during the Battle at Antietam.
The tone of the banjo is also as authentic as a 21st century instrument can be.  Handmade by a native of Washington state, Eric Proust, using calf or sheep skin, the banjo is modeled after a Boucher banjo and features as few modern elements as reasonable. Contemporary nylon strings simulate the sounds that gut would have produced, however.
Welch is well-read on the Civil War. He and Al are great admirers of Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography celebrating Lincoln’s genius. Both men are also fans of Ken Burns’documentary, based upon Shelby Foote’s words about the Civil War. Expect to hear excerpted scholarship told as fireside stories and set to music when you have the chance to see Bob Welch bring the past to life for our delight and instruction.

Words by Connye Griffin
Images by Al Griffin

Connye and Al Griffin