Last week I listened to the local string band, Un-Reconstructed, on Youtube.com. I wanted to understand more about 1800s music of the South, which the band strives to re-create. The sound is raw, informal, and authentic enough to have won an Emmy in 2008. Jacksonville residents, Chris and Heather Dempsey, whom I interviewed last week about their Civil War-era estate, Fidders Green, are members of the band.
The band is named Un-Reconstructed because it performs music of the South before Reconstruction. Therefore, the music is “un-reconstructed.”
The story of the band’s beginning includes the story of how the Dempseys eventually married.
“We met when her uncle invited me to come to her church and play the fiddle,” said Chris, who had already been in the band a few years.
Heather sang that day and impressed Chris so much that he pre-empted the uncle’s intention to eventually play matchmaker. Chris called Heather at once and started a two-year relationship that led to their marriage in 2002.
Un-Reconstructed has four other members, Susie Stephenson, David Edwards, Doug Jennings, and Jacob Moody. In fact, the band has been in existence since around 1994. Nowadays, with a five-year-old and an infant at home, Heather performs only when the band is playing locally.
The band plays such songs as “Shenandoah,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Old Susanna,” and “Dixie.” Band members dress in period clothing and tell listeners brief histories of the music. Chris plays a fiddle, and others play a dulcimer, upright bass fiddle, harmonica, banjo, tambourine, and guitar. In addition, sometimes one member plays actual bones from a steer, an instrument from the 1800s. A player wraps the fingers around the bones and produces a rhythmic, percussion-type sound.
Un-Reconstructed is one of the few bands that plays the Victorian music that was popular among the elite of the 1800s. The formal dances gave young people a chance to socialize in a guarded setting overseen by their protective parents. Also, the band plays Southern patriotic and gospel music. There was one particular year when the demand for its performances for events throughout the United States almost exhausted the band members.
“We performed forty-two weekends in one year,” said Chris. Afterward, the members decided to be more selective. Now the band plays for schools, museums, Victorian and debutante balls, and national parks.
Their winning an Emmy was a surprise. Documentary producers Richard Lifshey and James Bridges heard Un-Reconstructed perform at an event in Atlanta and offered to use their music in “The Last Ditch,” a movie about the last battle of the Civil War which took place in Columbus, Ga. The band members had been complimented by similar offers in the past and didn’t think too much about it. Then they received a call that their music had received a nomination from officials of the Emmy Southeastern District. After being selected from a field of more than 50 bands, they captured first place and were treated to a trip, a limousine ride, and a walk on the famous red carpet.
“It just kind of happened,” said Chris.
The secret to their success, he said, is that the band members are such good friends. One of them, Susie, is Chris’s cousin.
Chris is teaching daughter Ada to play the fiddle. She is begging to perform at the band’s next event. Likely, it won’t be long until tiny Ruby will also want to learn to play and perform. The future of the band is looking pretty good.
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