His father, not long before he died, handed Robert Trentham a bundle of papers that took the classically trained singer on a path through his family history and one of the country's profoundest eras.
The documents came from his grandmother, Mattie, and chronicled the Trenthams who lived in Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee during the Civil War. By poring over the letters, photos and official papers, Trentham discovered that more than 30 of his distant relatives had fought, some as Union soldiers, others as Confederates.
As the period began to sharpen in his mind, Trentham decided he wanted to honor it somehow. That led to "In Thinking of America: Songs of the Civil War," which the tenor performs Thursday night at the First United Methodist Church in Fullerton.
The show melds dialogue gleaned from newspaper dispatches and the writings and speeches of famous men (Frederick Douglass, Jefferson Davis and Walt Whitman, to name a few) with nearly 20 popular tunes to illuminate the time. Trentham, an opera singer who has performed in several regional theaters and at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, is joined only by a pianist.
"The experience is wonderful for me because I get to connect with the audience in a way that is different from opera," Trentham said from his home in Ojai. "The songs are familiar and the [Civil War] experience has such impact, everyone is moved by it.
"With opera, people come backstage and they're appreciative [but] their eyes may be a little glazed over. With this, they hug me and tell me a bit about their own family history. It's something we share."
The Trentham story is intriguing. Loyalties to the North and South divided brothers, sisters and cousins as they settled in states aligned with the Yankee or Rebel cause. The Missouri Trenthams were for the Union, while most of the family in North Carolina and Tennessee had strong ties to the South.
The individual tales resonate. Trentham related how his great-grandfather James enlisted in the Union Army, lying that he was 18 when he was actually 15. "He naively believed the war would be over in months," Trentham said. "At just over 5 feet tall, he found himself riding with the 16th Missouri Cavalry in pursuit of [Confederate] Gen. Sterling Price."
Then there's the letter from his great-great-grandmother Verlina, telling of the time she was forced to cook "the family's pet pig" for hungry Rebels marching through her home near St. Louis.
"She prepared it with so much hot spices that it was impossible to eat. There was no way she was going to let them enjoy that pig. It became a great inspiration for the family."
In another document, William, a cousin living in Tennessee, expressed joy at joining the Confederate army near Richmond just hours before a skirmish. William was only 13, having convinced his mother and father he was old enough to fight.
"I knew we were going to go into battle and realized fully the seriousness of the situation," he wrote later. "But I listened to those guns and thought they made the grandest music I had ever heard!"
Though the family saga was the impetus for "In Thinking of America," the songs are what really propelled Trentham through the months of research needed to organize the show. He visited libraries and national and state archives throughout the country, gathering information about tunes such as "The Battle Cry of Freedom," "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh" and "Just Before the Battle Mother."
Families routinely bought sheet music of favorite songs to sing at home, often around the parlor piano. The music was more than just entertainment, it helped people understand and emotionally assimilate the war's consequences.
"For some, these parlor songs were the only way they could connect to the Civil War and, in many ways, come to terms with it," Trentham said. "They were a societal bridge [and] responded to the very sentimental and pensive mood of those days."
He underscored the impact of certain songs by noting that soldiers on both sides were kept from singing "Home! Sweet Home!" in camp.
"It was outlawed by their superiors because it made so many so remorseful and sad. The thinking was that it was just not good for morale. They were also worried about soldiers deserting."
Trentham has performed "In Thinking of America" in dozens of cities and said he's always struck by the interest in the Civil War. He attributes much of that to Ken Burns' landmark PBS series and to the country, as a whole, being more able to accept and learn from what happened then.
Now, he pointed out, museums and historical societies regularly dedicate programs to the war years, and battlefield-reenactment clubs bring to life the most dramatic events.
"When the 100th anniversary came around back in the '60s, we were divided by so many things; [and] civil rights was such a powerful issue," Trentham said. "It was just too tumultuous of a time, and I don't think we were prepared to handle memories of the war.
"It's different today, we're in a different place in our history. We're ready to study and we're ready to deal with it."
Robert Trentham will perform "In Thinking of America: Songs of the Civil War," First United Methodist Church, 114 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton. Thursday, 8 p.m. Admission is only by membership in the North Orange County Community Concerts Assn.: $15 to $35. (714) 535-8925.