Forget The ‘Yee-haw’
Capturing The Real, True, Accurate, Historical Rebel Yell
By Scott C. Boyd
(April 2009 Civil War News)
RICHMOND, Va. — Reenactors and Sons of Confederate Veterans members have done the Rebel Yell for years at Civil War battle reenactments and related events. “There’s only one problem: they’ve been doing it wrong,” according to Museum of the Confederacy Executive Director S. Waite Rawls III.
Rawls seeks to remedy the situation with “The Rebel Yell Lives!” the museum’s recently produced audio CD. He says it reveals the true sound of the famous Southern battle cry.
Many written accounts attest that this remarkable sound would provoke fear in Union troops as they faced a Confederate assault and stir the hearts of the Men in Gray as they summoned their martial spirit in battle.
The authentic sound of the Rebel Yell did not perish with the death of the last Confederate soldier in the 1950s. Radio station WBT in Charlotte, N.C., recorded the yell in 1935. Thomas N. Alexander, 90, a former private with the 37th North Carolina Troops sat down with the station’s general manager to discuss the yell and later gave his version, which was recorded.
Alexander’s grandson, J.B. Joye of Belmont, N.C., gave the recording to a reenactment unit to post online. It can be found at the 26th North Carolina Regiment’s Web site: www.26nc.org/History/Rebel-Yell/rebel-yell.html. Several other sites offer the recording as well.
At a 2004 Civil War Preservation Trust meeting in Wilmington, N.C., Rawls met a reenactor with the 26th North Carolina who played a copy of the 1935 recording for him and started his interest in researching the yell.
Two things held Rawls back from the project to produce an audio CD about the Rebel Yell, however. The first concerned how the yell was heard in a battle.
“It struck me that one guy doing it alone is not what people heard in a battle. They heard hundreds or thousands doing it, and what would that sound like?”
He overcame this limitation by having someone he knew with a sound studio use computer technology to manipulate the sound of one man making the yell to sound like a whole group. He instructed, “Take this thing and record it over and over again, changing the bass and treble so it sounds like different people.”
Rawls was pleased with the result and played it for a number of people, including some local SCV groups and Civil War historians.
Then Rawls encountered his second obstacle. “I was scared to use my only source, being the one guy, and started asking around” if there were other recordings of different Confederate veterans making the yell.
“Well, sure enough, the UDC had in its archives an old wax recording of a different guy, from a Virginia cavalry unit.”
The second recording was made by Sampson Saunders Simmons on April 10, 1934. Simmons had been a courier in Co. E of the 8th Virginia Cavalry. At the time of the recording, he lived in Los Angeles, Calif., and was Commander of the Pacific Division of the United Confederate Veterans.
The recording was intended to be used in the MGM movie “Operator 13,” but never made it into the film. Seventeen days after being recorded, the wax cylinder with the recording was donated by MGM to the United Daughters of the Confederacy for posterity.
It was a challenge for Rawls to get that second recording because the UDC was afraid to let him try to get the sound off the wax. “I finally said, ‘Look, the wax itself is worth nothing unless the sound is what it is.’”
The UDC agreed to let Rawls try to recover the recording from the wax cylinder. “We took it to one of these modern studios and got the sound off of it,” Rawls said.
“They delivered the CD to me and I put it in a boom box, not knowing whether it was going to sound exactly like that other guy or completely different. If it sounded completely different, heck knows what the Rebel Yell sounded like. I put it in a boom box and – son of a gun - it sounded exactly the same.”
The museum’s CD begins with a rousing rendition of “Dixie” from the 1954 Columbia album “The Confederacy.” At the end, the singers shout what most people think of as the Rebel Yell.
After some commentary on track two, the third track has the recording of Alexander and the authentic yell. The recording of Simmons follows shortly, and is eerily similar.
Both have a high-pitched, shrieking, animalistic quality. When this writer’s young daughter first heard the CD, she said it sounded like a pack of dogs. It is definitely not the “yee-haw” that is commonly associated with the Rebel Yell.
The power of the computer comes into play next as the two real yells are digitally remastered to gradually multiply the number of voices heard making the yell. First is the simulation of a company of 70 men, then a regiment of 500, followed by a brigade of 1,800 and concluding with tens of thousands voices representing the entire Army of Northern Virginia.
J.E.B. Stuart IV, Chairman Emeritus of the Museum of the Confederacy, gives a commentary on another track, a 32-second commercial appealing to listeners to visit and support the museum. It is a shame that it did not have Stuart sharing some tales about the Rebel Yell passed down through his famous family.
The last track is a live recording from a 1950 concert in Richmond, Va., featuring conductor Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Orchestra. The orchestra plays “Dixie” for its encore. Audience members give the un-tutored version of the Rebel Yell as Toscanini finishes.
The new CD is available for $10 ($9 for members) from the museum’s Haversack Store and online at www.mocstore.org.