Bands usually hit it big with music that is new and different. But Don Johnson's band is making a national splash by performing pieces that are old and authentic.
Johnson, who grew up in Lexington and now lives in Marion County, is the artistic director of President Lincoln's Own Band, a uniformed military-style ensemble that plays Civil War-era music on original period instruments.
Since appearing in Steven Spielberg's acclaimed 2012 movie, Lincoln, the band has been a sought-after soundtrack for many events marking the Civil War's sesquicentennial.
The band's latest big gig is Nov. 19 at Dedication Day in Gettysburg, Pa., which will mark the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The band also played at Dedication Day last year, when Spielberg and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke.
The band also appeared in Killing Lincoln, a National Geographic film about the president's assassination. It played at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History for two days during President Obama's inaugural festivities in January and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in June.
At Gettysburg next week, the band will be sharing the stage with the U.S. Marine Band, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and historian James McPherson.
Johnson is still fine-tuning the band's 30-minute concert lineup, but knows he will begin with My Old Kentucky Home, in honor of Lincoln's birth state, and end with Yankee Doodle. Other likely tunes are Rally Round the Flag, Hail Columbia and We Are Coming, Father Abraham, which the band played in Spielberg's movie. Johnson also said he will play "taps" at the ceremony.
"The sound of Civil War instruments was quite different from what you hear today," Johnson said, explaining the appeal of his band's authentic style. "It was a lot darker and more velvety and like a voice."
Also among the group's Kentucky members playing at Gettysburg will be Joseph Van Fleet, a trumpet professor at Eastern Kentucky University. For more information about the group, go to Facebook.com/PresidentLincolnsOwnBand.
Lexington history book
Historic Lexington: Heart of the Bluegrass is a new illustrated history book published by the Lexington History Museum.
The book includes a 64-page history narrative written by Lexington lawyer Foster Ockerman Jr., followed by articles about 20 local companies and institutions whose sponsorship paid for the publication. All proceeds from the book, which sells for $50, will benefit the museum.
"What I wanted to write was a popular history," Ockerman said of the one-chapter, chronological overview illustrated with historic and modern images. About 100 books were sold by pre-order, and 400 more are available.
Ockerman will be signing the book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Central Library, 140 E. Main St., and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.
The Lexington History Museum has been reinventing itself since its home, the old Fayette County Courthouse, was closed in July 2012 because of lead paint hazards. The organization has opened several small "pocket museums" around downtown and plans more there and in Chevy Chase. Also, the museum is rebuilding its website to be more of a local history database.
Tough act to follow
Ronald Eller, a University of Kentucky history professor and outstanding writer who has focused on Appalachia, was honored last Friday as he donated his papers to UK Special Collections in preparation for his retirement at the end of the year.
Eller came to UK in 1985, succeeding Harry Caudill, the Eastern Kentucky lawyer whose 1962 book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, focused national attention on the exploitation of Appalachia. Eller picked up where Caudill left off, analyzing the forces that have shaped Appalachia's evolution.
Eller's 1982 book, Miners, Mill hands and Mountaineers: The Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A 2008 book, Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, is the best book I know of about the region's modern history.
No word yet on the Appalachian scholar UK will hire to succeed Eller in the history department, but he or she had better be good. We cannot really understand modern Kentucky without understanding Appalachian history.