Harmonizing History


Heidi Butler ’18 will spend part of the summer studying how American hymns reflected the tumultuous times in America in and around the Civil War.

As the daughter of two American Baptist ministers—both of them musicians—Heidi Butler ’18 grew up immersed in a musical realm that had a particular depth and spirit that made music much more than the sum of its parts. That she would use the art form as an avenue to explore American history began to become clear in high school and coalesced at Washington College, where she’s a double major in American studies and music, as a piano student.

This summer, she’s applying that unique lens to a research project that she hopes may form the basis for part of her Senior Capstone Experience next year. With help from the Clarence Hodson Prize, a competitive grant to support an internship or research project for a top student in the fine or performing arts, Butler is spending part of the summer in Atlanta, Georgia, researching 19th-century hymns and how they responded to and reflected what was happening culturally at the time.

“I’m interested in the Civil War and the Gilded Age, so the latter half of the 19th century,” she says. “I’m interested in how the church interacted with what was going on in the country and the society at the time.” She will be studying at the American Baptist Historical Society, housed at Mercer University, and at Emory University, which maintains the English and American Hymnody Collection—one of North America’s largest collections of manuscripts related to the writing of hymns and psalms.

It’s a perfect combination of her twin passions for history and music, a pairing that she says gives her an intriguing way to examine both.

“I love history, but you can’t learn about history without also understanding the cultural movements of the time and vice versa; you can’t really understand the music and art of the time period without understanding the history and context from which it’s coming,” she says.

As the current secretary of the Cater Society of Junior Fellows, Butler has grabbed every opportunity to expand her research and inquiries beyond the classroom. She earned a Cater grant to travel to Cuba with the ethnomusicology class organized by the music and anthropology departments, where she studied the American influence on Cuban music (which was not as prevalent as she expected, but did exist in surprising subtle ways).

Last summer, while an intern at the National Museum of American History through the Comegys Bight internship program at the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, she did an independent research project on the development of the piano, using a Cater grant to help pay for her housing.

And this spring she’s also involved in an independent research project studying cultural and worship opportunities available to Jewish students at colleges and universities in Maryland; this project was funded by the Roy Ans Fellowship in Jewish-American Studies.

Butler started playing piano in second grade, and she picked up the clarinet in fourth grade so she could play in her school band. As a student in piano as part of her music major, she also plays clarinet for the College’s symphonic band. This spring she’s working in the theatre department as the music coach for the show “Silent Sky,” and she’s in the band for “Last September,” a musical that Andrew Wink ’17 has written as his SCE.

For her own SCE, Butler knows she will be performing a piano recital in American music, most likely including historical pieces such as Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susannah,” and at least one spiritual.

In addition to her work with Cater Society, she’s president of the College Democrats, vice president of Best Buddies, and she works at The Writing Center and for Admissions. She hopes, after graduating, to pursue a PhD so that she can become a professor in American studies.