Tom Eblen: Kentuckians play in ensemble that performs in 'Lincoln'

teblen@herald-leader.comDecember 15, 2012 

Steven Spielberg's new movie, Lincoln, features several notable Kentuckians of the past, from the 16th president and his Lexington-born wife to a long-forgotten congressman from Owensboro.

When I wrote about them last month, I didn't know that four modern Kentuckians also appear in the acclaimed movie. They provide an authentic taste of Civil War music on period brass instruments.

About 15 minutes into the film, President Abraham Lincoln, portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, is shown at a flag-raising ceremony. A 12-piece military band wearing red uniforms plays as the crowd sings, "We are coming, Father Abraham," a popular patriotic song of the day.

The scene was filmed in Petersburg, Va., in December 2011. But it wasn't until the movie was released this fall that members of the band, President Lincoln's Own, were allowed to reveal their participation.

The Kentucky musicians are Wayne Collier, a Lexington lawyer with Kinkead & Stilz; Reese Land, associate professor of music at Campbellsville University; Michael Tunnell, a University of Louisville music professor; and Don Johnson, a musician and antique instrument collector from Lexington who now lives in Lebanon.

The band played with Spielberg when he spoke Nov. 19 in Gettysburg, Pa., at ceremonies marking the 149th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

"It was one of those who-you-know situations," said Collier, explaining how a real estate lawyer and amateur trumpeter found his way into a Spielberg movie touted as an Academy Award favorite.

The Civil War band grew out of Kentucky Baroque Trumpets, an award-winning group that Johnson, Collier and two others formed in 2005.

Collier has been playing trumpet since he was 10 and earned a music theory degree from the University of Kentucky before going to law school. The Tates Creek High School graduate got to know Johnson, who went to Henry Clay, when they played together in a youth orchestra in the early 1970s.

To film the scene in Lincoln, band members drove to Petersburg, Va., one weekend last December. They found tons of dirt spread on the streets in a neighborhood of antebellum buildings "at great expense, I'm sure," Collier said.

Band members had been told not to shave or cut their hair for a month before filming so makeup and hair stylists could make them look authentic to the period.

They were then photographed so the makeup and styling could be quickly recreated before filming on Monday morning.

Band members practiced their music on original Civil War-era horns, which are pitched higher and are more difficult to play than modern instruments. Collier said he had it easier than some because he played a horn from his own collection: an 1861 nickel-silver D.C. Hall E-flat alto with rotary valves.

After makeup, costuming and rehearsal, band members attended a cast party and met actress Sally Field, who had visited Lexington last year to prepare for her role as Mary Todd Lincoln.

Filming the flag-raising scene took three hours. Freezing temperatures made it difficult to play the antique brass horns. But Spielberg liked the band's performance so much that he made the unusual decision to use the live performance rather than redub the music with a studio recording.

In the movie, the band members are seen and heard for only a few seconds — and they were left out of the credits, which was a disappointment.

Collier said his legal background helped him appreciate the dialogue-heavy movie, which focuses on Lincoln's legal thinking and political arm-twisting in 1864-65 to enact the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery. Lincoln thought the amendment was legally essential to expand and make permanent his 1862 Emancipation Proclamation.

A key figure in the movie is U.S. Rep. George Helm Yeaman, a lawyer and judge from Owensboro whom Lincoln cajoles into becoming a key swing vote for the amendment.

After seeing the movie, Collier found copies of two Yeaman speeches. One was given in 1862 on the floor of the House, criticizing the legal weaknesses in the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln was trying to fix two years later. The other speech was given in 1899, when Yeaman taught constitutional law at Columbia University in New York and was reflecting on the amendment.

"He was a lot brighter than he came across in the film," Collier said of Yeaman.

"Compared to him, our role in the movie was minuscule. But it was a phenomenal experience."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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