Judith Avers works with John Burt to bring the tales of Civil War women to life | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Judith Avers works with John Burt to bring the tales of Civil War women to life

"For every woman we wrote about, pages of other women inspired us."

Bringing history to life: Judith Avers
Bringing history to life: Judith Avers

Judith Avers is best known around these parts as a singer-songwriter, but for the show she performs Sat., Nov. 9, at St. Andrew Lutheran Church, she's putting on another hat as well: that of Civil War historian.

"Our show focuses on people and events that don't get a lot of attention in Civil War history," she explains. "Namely, women in both conventional and unconventional roles."

At the Nov. 9 show, Avers and historian/storyteller John Burt will present a unique historical exposé, giving voice to Civil-War-era women through story and song. (Avers will be accompanied by cellist Gordon Kirkwood and guitarist Daniel Marcus.) Burt and Avers will present a broad spectrum of women's experiences during the tumultuous years of the early 1860s — women as spies, socialites and even soldiers. The subject matter is gleaned from letters and journals of those who lived those experiences and while the characters may be underrepresented in history class, according to Avers, there was actually much to draw from.

"For every one woman or female group we wrote about, there were pages of other women who also inspired us," she says. "So [many] of the historical works out there focus solely on the men and their positions and roles in the Civil War. [But] there were mountains of women contributing in some way or another."

One such story focuses on Charlotte Forten Grimke, born in Philadelphia in 1837, the daughter of free-born African Americans. She would go on to teach escaped slaves in Port Royal, S.C., under the protection of the Union army. Her diary shows her fondness for one particular Union colonel, only later to reveal her heartbreak at the news of his death: "July 20-Monday-St Helena Island, South Carolina — Tonight comes news, oh so sad, so heart sickening. It is too terrible, too terrible to write. We can only hope it may not all be true. That our noble, beautiful young Colonel Shaw is killed and the regiment cut to pieces. Thank Heavens! They fought bravely ... I can write no more tonight."

The captivating nature of such an overlooked narrative is what ultimately connected the two performers and writers, says Avers. "John Burt and I met at a concert where I was previewing my latest album, God Bless the Brooders. John was deeply immersed in his Civil War blog and he had been kicking around the idea of a show featuring lesser-known stories of the Civil War. A few days later, we had coffee together and the show began to take form."

For Avers and Burt, the past seems much more than just a study of outcomes in a set of circumstances. Instead, it is pliable, tangible and close. While the value of history is difficult to measure in a culture constantly seeking quantifiable results, Avers and Burt seek to bring the humanity of the past back into focus. "Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said, 'A page of history is worth a volume of logic,'" says Avers. "John Burt loves that quote, and so do I. There is much to be learned from the past. We believe that if women and men consider these stories, they are bound to be inspired. And, ideally, these Civil War women and their words and lives can change the way we look at our his/herstory."

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