The musical mystery that took Bob Hester more than a year to unravel started with a simple premise.
Out of 136 songs in the 1867 anthology Slave Songs of the United States, six were credited as coming from Augusta.
Hester, an Augusta State University student, wanted to find the origin of those six songs for his thesis.
It seemed easy enough. All six of the songs had the initials WFA beside them in the table of contents, meaning the book's chief editor, William Francis Allen, had contributed them to the anthology.
Allen kept a detailed diary, writing every day about who he saw, who he corresponded with, a little about the weather. Surely there would be notes about his trip to Augusta and how he procured the songs.
Hester acquired a copy of Allen's diary from the Wisconsin Historical Society and started with the period when Allen was superintendent of schools in Charleston, S.C. By his reckoning, Allen came over to Augusta for a visit on the Charleston-Hamburg train and transcribed some of the spirituals during his stay.
But the diary showed he had never been to Augusta. Puzzled, Hester combed through the rest of the diary -- a large portion of the 500 hours he invested into his thesis.
"I am the world's leading expert on reading the handwriting of William Francis Allen," Hester joked.
Still, there was no mention of Augusta. By this juncture Hester felt he knew Allen intimately and believed Allen had "unquestionable integrity."
But Allen had never been to Augusta or even talked to a black person from Augusta. That raised the next question: "Where did the songs come from?"
Hester returned to the original anthology and began tracking the backgrounds of its contributors. Among that list was a C.T. Trowbridge.
Trowbridge's role in this story begins on the sandy beaches of the South Carolina sea islands: Port Royal, Hilton Head and St. Helena. Union troops easily conquered these islands at the start of the Civil War, prompting the rice and cotton plantation owners to flee for the safety of Charleston. They left behind thousands of field hands, which were promptly claimed as "contraband" slaves because they were formerly Confederate property.
Word quickly spread that there was a small Union enclave in South Carolina and runaway slaves flocked to the relative safety of the coast. Union Gen. David Hunter decided to recruit a thousand men for a special black regiment and appointed a Sgt. Charles Taylor Trowbridge of Brooklyn, N.Y., to the task.
Trowbridge's commanding officer described him as having "a great faculty of dealing with the negroes, catching their dialect, and commanding their confidence."
Of particular interest to Hester: "This was aided by a musical aptitude which brought him into sympathy with them; he readily joined in their peculiar songs and knew his Methodist hymn-book by heart."
This could have been the end of Trowbridge's story, but then Hester's research uncovered a tidbit in The Augusta Chronicle about the arrival of the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment in the summer of 1865.
What caught Hester's attention was that the regiment was formerly the 1st South Carolina Volunteers and was now under the command of a Lt. Col. Charles Trowbridge.
"Now the little bells are going off in my head," Hester said.
Through primary sources like journals and Chronicle articles, Hester was able to recreate Trowbridge's summer in Augusta and the ample opportunities he had to record the songs of the city's black people, including an Independence Day picnic.
Meanwhile, Allen was compiling the anthology with the assistance of his other editors. Going back to his diary, Hester found that he had three face-to-face meetings with Trowbridge in Brooklyn during the summer of 1867. After each visit he made an entry: "...copied songs."
While there was no direct notation that Allen took the songs from Trowbridge, "the preponderance of the evidence points ... to this conclusion," Hester wrote in his thesis.
"Trowbridge had the experience and vocal skill to impart the songs aurally to Allen, who in turn had the necessary skills to transcribe them into music notation," Hester wrote.
One of his most amazing finds was an early recording of Trowbridge singing a song called The Vacant Chair. The recording, made between 1897 and 1901, pre-dated today's familiar round records and was made instead on a wax cylinder. It's scratchy and barely understandable, but to hear Trowbridge's actual voice, captured more than 100 years ago, was mind-boggling for Hester.
Looking back, it's hard for Hester to describe how he felt after a year of chasing the story. From his perspective, he found some closure on this local enigma and brought those six songs back home.
"It's only a tiny slice (of history), but to me it's an interesting slice," he said. "I started with the music and, in a sense, I ended with the music."