When you think of America’s so-called “Civil War”, rock music may not be one of the first things that come to mind. However, as one of the most deadly wars in American history, with Missouri being the 3rd bloodiest of all the states (in terms of war-related deaths and human rights atrocities), the War Between the States continues to resonate powerfully today. But how does one help educate about this important and crucial time in a way that connects with a modern audience? And more importantly, how can music be possibly used to address some of the misunderstandings and historical distortions that have occurred regarding this period of American history?
“History doesn’t have it quite right. Bleeding Kansas, which began in 1854 was really the beginning of the Civil War,” says Chris Edwards, a recognized Missouri historian, musician and author who is ready to change hearts and minds through the power of rock and roll. “In my mind the first battle took place not in Bull Run, but in Osawatomie, Kansas with John Brown. The whole genesis started on the Missouri-Kansas border.”
This potentially controversial statement comes from a guy who was born in Kansas, and would later grow up in Columbia, Missouri, where his father was a University of Missouri professor. Later, Edwards would go on to study music at Columbia College, and play in a rock band for nearly 20 years. In 2000, Edwards wrote, recorded, and released a CD entitled, Blood on the Border, a musical story about Quantrill’s pro-Confederate guerrilla soldiers as told through narration and music. In 2007, he received his Master’s Degree in history from MU, with a focus on the Border War between Missouri and Kansas. And in 2008, Edwards wrote and performed a production on the actual Centralia battlefield about the Missouri guerrilla “Bloody” Bill Anderson.” The show, entitled, Bloody Bill Rides was subsequently performed in Boonville, Missouri (Thespian Hall) and Columbia, Missouri (Missouri Theater). More recently, Chris has written and published a book about Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence Kansas entitled: “Quantrill’s Revenge: A Comprehensive Tour Book of Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence, Kansas.”
More than a few wondered if Chris could really pull off a show that combined rock and folk music with the complexities of the Missouri-Kansas War. But as Jim Robertson, Managing Editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune notes, “Chris Edwards’ Bloody Bill Rides absolutely rocks the Civil War.” Meanwhile, Dr. Ann Mehr of Columbia Public Schools states that, “Watching the performance, Bloody Bill Rides, I found myself enthralled with the complex Civil War history in Missouri. History came alive with photos from the time, footage of reenactments, songs of and about the Civil War, specifically as it relates to Missouri. Chris Edwards is a thoughtful educator, Civil War history buff and a talented musician. He has braided these lifetime passions into a moving and informative performance sure to pique the interest of all who see it.” Mike Martin of the Columbia Heart Beat also wrote in his 2013 review of the Bloody Bill Rides Show that, “The brainchild of Chris Edwards, the packed-house performance revealed, with some surprising subtlety, that the Civil War wasn’t just about slavery. It was also about anti-big government sentiment, and the nagging fear that soldiers from wherever might imprison or kill your women, your children, your grandparents, your kinfolk just as the greatest freedom in history — the nation’s westward expansion — was in full flower.”
“As music relates to this history of warfare on the border, my Bloody Bill Rides show was the apex,” Chris noted. “I wrote the music and wrote the script. Three shows, one in Centralia, one in Boonville and one in Columbia. All were well attended and had great reviews. I’m ready for the next one if the opportunity presents it! But I’m also really proud of the book Quantrill’s Revenge that Dick Titterington and I put together too, as it gives a rare glimpse into many historic locations around our community. I just want to keep recording music and writing books.”
“Of course, music and writing are my two passions,” Chris replied when asked why he has chosen to embark on a journey of researching, writing and creating music about warfare between Missouri and Kansas. “And when I was younger, I was told Missouri was a neutral state. I really had no idea of the history of Missouri, or that there was extensive fighting during the war until my mom gave me a book on Jesse James. I was absolutely befuddled when I learned there was so much happened here. Plus, just the fact that I think it all started here. It really is important to our understanding of who we are as a people. As I’ve studied history, and in my college graduate courses in history, I’ve become much more sensitive how biased history can be. History isn’t always pleasant. But our history has been sanitized to feel good. It’s not that we all shouldn’t proud of our difficult struggles throughout the past 200 plus years. But we also shouldn’t be afraid of the truth.”
Still, a lot of people still wonder how the people or their conflicts from 150 years ago can possibly have any relevance in today’s world. “Look at what’s going on,” Edwards notes. “Statues are going down. They’re erasing history…I guess in the hopes that it just gets forgotten, and then maybe you can make up whatever you want. There’s a cultural schism in this country today, and it concerns me. When you look at history though, the north and south never got along. But these days, it does seem like people are trying to eradicate Southern culture in regards to family values, chivalry and a sense of community. Still, if there was a forum where different kinds of people can get together in a safe place to say whatever is on your mind – I think we could resolve a lot of issues if we could just talk about it. But we can’t seem to talk about it, because whenever you say Confederacy, you’re automatically a homophobe or a racist, and a lot of people just don’t want that label. But give them a chance. I was in New Orleans back in 2004 at the SCV National Convention, and there was at least three African American couples who attended that convention because their ancestors were Confederate veterans.”
A good example of this kind of positive discussion and understanding between different people is in the relationship that Chris Edwards shares with his wife Cherri. “We’re basically a house divided,” Cherri said with a smile after Chris explained his desire to bring together people through his creative works. “My ancestors were mostly Union in the Enrolled Missouri Militia, which was the local Missouri Union militia around Grundy County and Chillicothe. And when we got together, my interest wasn’t even close to his. One of our first debates was over Bloody Bill Anderson, and all I saw was senseless brutality. But when we talked deeper about it, you began to see that it’s almost like PTSD. Not that it doesn’t make what he did any different, but it gives me a different understanding.”
“I’ve been working with three area organizations: Freedom’s Frontier, the Quantrill Society and the Douglas County Historical Society,” Chris explained. “These three entities are wanting to meet in August of 2019 for a Guerrilla War symposium. The story includes both sides, and both sides should be respected. Some of that animosity still exists, and we’re hoping this symposium gives an opportunity to talk about it, to listen and to increase understanding of this important historical event that shaped our country. You could almost say that this is basically like Quantrill coming to Lawrence again. We just need to respect those stories. You don’t have to agree with it. You may not like it, but you gotta respect it if we want to come together. It was both sides that did bad things. Because in our so-called ‘Civil War’, it really was war to the knife, knife to the hilt.”
To find out more about Chris Edwards, including where to purchase his excellent day-trip book Quantrill’s Revenge, as well as Missouri and Kansas historic photos, music (including many of his hit Southern Rock and folk songs), music videos, blog and more, check out edwardsproductionsllc.com.