It’s an exciting time for historians, especially as we get nearer to the opening of the film “Free State of Jones” on June 24th. Part of the excitement has been generated by the marketing of the film (including during Game 7 of the NBA Finals!), but also the real sense that the history is being told as carefully as possible through the medium of film, which doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to telling “the true story.”
Below are some links that will assist you in learning more about the story behind the film Free State of Jones.
Author and historian Victoria Bynum’s interview about Jones County, the Civil War, the Knight Company and other interesting facts about the Free State of Jones is available on Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
The New York Times calls this a “film with footnotes,” a reference to the intensive research that went into the making of the movie. Learn about the history in this extensive website that accompanies the movie.
As you’ve probably noticed, there have been some changes here at Pop South. The blog has a new look and the menu has been culled of all the details of my professional work. I’ve placed that material on my new author website, which I hope you’ll check out and follow. I’ve got a new book in the works–a true crime story set in 1932 Natchez, Mississippi–that I’ll be blogging about over there.
Thank you for your continued support of this blog. I don’t write with as much frequency, but once in awhile I’ll have a flurry of posts, so be on the lookout!
PS: The main title of your book “Country Soul” comes from the term “country-soul triangle,” which you use in your book. Where did that phrase come from, and why is it so appropriate?
CH: I developed the term “country-soul triangle” to refer to a network of recording studios in Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. At legendary places like FAME and Stax, black and white musicians produced a wealth of classic recordings in the 1960s and 1970s. Each city had its own successful scene, of course, but I’m interested in exploring the many connections between them—sounds and players traveled back and forth between these three cities, leading the triangle to become a center of the era’s music industry and turning each city’s signature “sound” into an internationally-recognized symbol of quality. Musicians in the triangle recorded with a wide variety of artists, but they were most associated with country, soul, and their stylistic blends. So it felt appropriate to term it the country-soul triangle.
PS: Who are some of the prominent artists who recorded in the country-soul triangle that you talk about in the book?
CH: The list of artists who recorded in Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Nashville during this period is truly overwhelming. Even in a book like this, I could only scratch the surface. Still, I tried to discuss as many performers as possible. I talk about soul stars from Aretha Franklin to the Staple Singers to Joe Tex; country artists including Willie Nelson, Charley Pride, and Dolly Parton; and pop and rock artists ranging from the Osmonds to the Rolling Stones to Dusty Springfield. The artists who recorded hits in the country-soul triangle—whether homegrown artists or visiting stars—form a constellation that demonstrates just how significant Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Nashville were to the era’s popular music. It’s really exciting to spotlight them in the book.
PS: Although you talk about many of the famous artists who recorded in the triangle, you focus primarily on the behind-the-scenes musicians at these studios. Why did you choose this approach?
CH: These musicians were the most important reason for the triangle’s success in so many genres. Their versatility and efficiency made them some of the most in-demand players of their era, and they established Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and Nashville as places where a wide variety of artists could go to cut successful records. They were also central to the way that country and soul developed artistically and culturally—not only did they develop the actual music, but they established the genres as symbols of race and politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Relatedly, they also dealt with racial politics on the most concrete level, thanks to their ongoing collaborations in the studio. Whether they were well known (like Stax’s Booker T. and the MGs) or less famous (like the FAME Gang in Muscle Shoals), the musicians dealt with the complex realities of racialized sound and an interracial workplace on a day-to-day basis. The results weren’t always positive, and certainly weren’t always equitable, but they were pivotal to understanding their larger historical importance. For that reason, I found them to be the most illuminating people to anchor my discussions.
PS: Many readers of Country Soul will be familiar with the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals. What is your own personal response to the film? What do you think it got right, and what else would you like fans of the movie to know?
CH: I really enjoyed Muscle Shoals, and I was particularly happy to see the Shoals musicians get their due credit for their significant role in shaping American popular music of the last 50 years. To see and hear them discuss their achievements, along with so many of the artists they worked with and influenced, was a welcome confirmation of their importance and a wonderful tribute to their accomplishments. On top of that, the film was filled with great footage and sounds, so—as a fan of the music—I was thrilled to watch it. At the same time, Muscle Shoals also reflects a common simplified narrative, particularly in terms of race, that I’m trying to complicate with the book. It presents the Shoals studios (particularly in the early days) as something of a utopia where race wasn’t an issue, but I discuss numerous racial conflicts and more broadly demonstrate that race was a central concern of the musicians working in the Shoals. Additionally, the film focuses largely on white men—most prominently FAME Studios founder Rick Hall—while marginalizing the accomplishments (and criticisms) of the many black artists who participated as both studio musicians and performers. (For that matter, many of the important white contributors got minimized too.) As I discuss in Country Soul, this reflects a larger tendency to credit white people as the visionary heroes and treat African Americans as passive or secondary participants. I not only discuss the historical roots of this narrative, but address its continuing implications.
PS: How did you get interested in this topic?
CH: I came to this story through the music. Country, soul, and their hybrids have long been among my deepest musical loves. From Dolly Parton and Charlie Rich to Otis Redding and the Staple Singers, I’ve realized that many of my favorite artists and recordings are products of the country-soul triangle. I also grew interested in the musicians and songwriters working behind-the-scenes, people like George Jackson, Dan Penn, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who helped create so many great records, in so many different genres. As a historian of race and the South, I became fascinated by the existence of these interracial collaborations that existed in the heart of racial turmoil. I wanted to explore the story of how this occurred and try to illustrate these musicians’ importance to the broader story of race in the United States.
If you’re interested in hearing some of the music Dr. Hughes discusses in his book, he’s put together a playlist on Spotify. Click playlist. He’s also created a playlist on YouTube.
PS: Your book Sombreros and Motorcycles in a Newer South you investigate the cultural meanings embedded in two very different tourist attractions, both of which are located in South Carolina—South of the Border and Atlantic Beach’s Bikefest. What drew you to study these two places?
I am drawn to overlooked places that have escaped scholarly attention. Both South of the Border —a Jewish-owned roadside attraction—and Atlantic Beach—a historically black seaside resort—were independently owned tourist sites that developed during the post-World War II rise of consumer culture and have managed to sustain their businesses and built environments outside of the corporate model of tourism. They both possess a distinct retro and individual aesthetic because of their independent histories during the rise of mass-produced consumer culture. Both places experienced their heydays during the period of segregated leisure culture in the South and dealt with desegregation and shifts in southern politics in interesting ways that speak to the importance of leisure culture as a defining aspect of southern culture and identity.
Also, I grew up in Conway, South Carolina, which is within an hour of both South of the Border and Atlantic Beach. I worked in the tourism industry throughout high school. Both places drew me in with a fascinating built environment that was distinct from the mass-produced tourist destinations in Myrtle Beach. Essentially, I became obsessed with the question: Why do these places look the way they do? What are their stories?
PS: You see these two tourist sites as representative of what you call a “Newer South.” Explain what that term means to you.
The Newer South entails the refashioning of older regional constructions as they move into the twenty-first century. Like the songs by the Drive-by Truckers or, the independent films of Ray McKinnon, or the recreation of the Confederate flag in the colors of African liberation by young fashion entrepreneurs in Charleston, SC, the “Newer South” explores the “duality of the southern thing.” To me this duality includes a new generation of southerners coming to terms with the past horrors of the region’s past (slavery and Jim Crow) while also moving forward with a more diverse and progressive view on the region’s more postmodern identity—meaning that identity is constantly being refashioned in more hybrid and performative ways. In a historical sense, the Newer South also encompasses a shift in economics from the New South of manufacturing towards the current dominance of the service industries in the region.
PS: What does South of the Border tell us about southern history and culture?
South of Border represents the constantly changing aspect of southern history and culture on the physical and metaphorical “borderlines.” Alan Schafer, who created and ran the roadside attraction until his death in 2001, used his hybrid Jewish-southern identity to build a diverse base for his business and push social and political boundaries. Schafer was constantly changing and expanding his roadside attraction located just south of the North-Carolina/South Carolina border and working with recently enfranchised African Americans. On the other hand, South of the Border presents the refashioned racism of the Newer South with the mascot of Pedro, a problematic cartoon-like stereotype that essentializes the complexity of Latinos into a singular “lazy Mexican” stereotype. The South of the Border roadside attraction tells us about the good and bad of southern history and culture as it moves into the twenty-first century (still owned and operated by the Schafer family).
PS: How about Atlantic Beach’s Bikefest?
The Atlantic Beach Bikesfest, which began in 1980 as a motorcycle festival for African Americans during Memorial Day weekend in the Grand Strand mecca of coastal tourism in South Carolina, also represents the refashioned racism of southern culture. Following the South’s more blatant racism, which the Civil Right Movement fought against, the more subtle prejudices of the late-twentieth century see the rise of a supposedly post-racial “family values” that is still uses to oppress minorities. The regulation of the freedom of African Americans is apparent in how the City of Myrtle Beach and some local businesses attempted to limit and even bar black bodies from public streets and accommodations during the Bikefest. Because the city treated the black motorcyclists at Atlantic Beach Bikefest differently than they did the white bikers there a week earlier for a Harley Davidson festival—the black bikers had limited access to roads and hotels—the NAACP was able to file a successful discrimination lawsuits against businesses that treated blacks differently. The controversy surrounding this new form of racism played out within the realm of tourism—the new number one industry in South Carolina—and speaks to the importance of personal expression and freedom in leisure and popular culture as well. The young black motorcycle enthusiasts at Bikefest represent a subculture with its own distinct aesthetic—fast neon speedbikes—that is distinct from the history of white motorcycle subcultures.
PS: This blog examines the South in popular culture. Where do you think your book intersects with popular culture and ideas of the region?
The book speaks to the important social and political aspects of tourism as one form of popular culture. However, the overarching power dynamics of popular culture are also complex. There is not a top down model where producers simply control and manipulate consumers. The lines between producers and consumers of popular culture are blurring in the twenty-first century. We need to explore the intertwined mechanisms of control and resistance found in popular culture.
Furthermore, recreation and entertainment are now big business in the South and must be considered an important aspect of southern culture. We overlook the messages and collective meanings of popular culture at our peril. The images and experiences we produce/consume, even while on vacation, matter.
PS: What drew you to write a book about Sherman’s March?
It came from a confluence of events when I was back in graduate school: I read and loved Charles Royster’s The Destructive War, where he analyzed the ways that Americans become accepting of a different, more devastating to civilians, sort of war. I saw Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, which made me think a lot about the reasons that this one event continued to resonate. I also heard about and ultimately read James Reston’s Sherman’s March and Vietnam which didn’t ring true to me. And finally, the opportunity to really engage critically with Gone with the Wind, one of the great Southern novels, was irresistible.
PS: How is your book different from other books on the March?
I think my book is different because it doesn’t simply retell the story of the March, but rather tries to get at the ways that Americans ascribed meaning to this event. To that end I look at the March and its aftermath from a range of perspectives: Southern white civilians, African Americans, Union veterans, and travelers. I also see how perceptions and portrayals of the March changed over time, from 1864-65 up through the present day.
The other difference is broader, and more about the ways that historians talk about “memory.” I didn’t want this to be a book that argues that there is one story of Sherman’s March and that lots of the stories people told were false and here’s why. Rather, I was interested in why certain narratives persisted and others didn’t. So I consciously shifted away from the language of “memory” to the language of “storytelling.”
PS: For the readers of Pop South, can you talk about the various sources of popular culture that you drew upon? Is there anything specific that really grabbed your attention?
I had a great time doing that research—I looked at fiction, poetry, films, photography, art, and music. The novels about Sherman’s March were generally pretty formulaic—lots of 19th century “romance of reunion,” although some of the 20th century novels, like those by Cynthia Bass and E. L. Doctorow were very powerful.
PS: Your book explores some of the misconceptions surrounding Sherman’s March? What is the biggest misconception about this event?
I think the biggest misconception is that the March mowed down everything in its path, and left Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina as smoking ruins. It was much more narrowly focused. Whenever I give talks I always say the same thing: “It’s a mistake to imagine the March as mowing down everything in its path; rather it’s better to think of it as rows of stitches, with untouched spaces in between.”
I wanted to explore new innovations in digital history—I had worked on a large digital project in Grad school, and wanted to get back to it. Specifically, I wanted to use digital media in historiographical ways, making the same kind of arguments in my book, making ideas about memory visible. Fortunately, we have an amazingly talented group of visual artists/animators at the IRC who have been working on some of these kinds of projects or questions for years. Through a collaboration with Dan Bailey, and especially Kelley Bell, a professor in Visual Arts, we came up with a scheme for all of this, funded by an ACLS digital innovation grant and then UMBC.
We decided to use maps as our guiding metaphor and interface. The maps would be a way into the myriad strands of memory. But I didn’t want just one map—I wanted several, in order to represent the different kinds of accounts I was using. Then I could get the multiple perspectives across in a visual and intuitive way. The idea of a journey seems a natural metaphor for the kind of exploration and excavation I’m doing in the larger project. We ultimately settled on five different maps, each with a different look and feel:
The Sherman or Fact Map, which lays out the basic events of the march.
The Civilians Map, for events involving African Americans and Southern civilians.
The Soldiers Map, for events told from the perspective of veterans.
The Tourism Map, which is about tourism and travel accounts.
Finally, the Fiction Map, which plots places both real and imagined.
Each map then has around 15 or 20 significant points marked. The idea is that you can toggle between the maps, and see how different people remembered or wrote about different places or events. Not every place appears on every map, but most of them are on two or three, and Atlanta, Savannah, and Milledgeville are on all five. But of course the maps alone can’t really tell the story, or make the kinds of arguments about the uses and possible abuses of memory. So what we decided to do was to create an animation or a mini-movie for each one of the map points. We pretty quickly realized that wouldn’t be feasible—too much work. So, we decided on 3-5 films per map, the rest done with single screens.
Finally, for the Georgia campaign I created a day-by-day blog of primary sources, which is now being updated less frequently for the Carolinas Campaign.
Followers of Pop South are encouraged to read Rubin’s book and to explore the terrific website that explores the March in greater depth. Check it: http://www.shermansmarch.org
This week, and for the next several weeks, Pop South will offer a serial called “Me and Jeff Davis,” based on an essay I wrote for fun but for which I never found the right publishing venue. Now that I have a blog and we are still in the midst of the Civil War sesquicentennial, why not? What follows is Part 1.
As scholars we often develop a personal relationship with our work, feeling as if we know the people we study even though they have long since died. Early in my career, my research involved a study of the Lost Cause, more specifically, those women who helped to preserve it for generations—the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).
Through these women, and my fascination with the Confederate tradition in the New South, I became very familiar with Jefferson Davis, or “Jeff,” as I like to call him.
Jeff Davis of the Lost Cause was quite different from Jefferson Davis, one and only Confederate President. The postwar Davis is a man whose journey from despised loser to sacred martyr is the man I came to know through my research.
The UDC made sure of it, even if Davis had never participated in the resurrection of his own image, which he did. They built grand monuments to him in New Orleans and Richmond, and smaller places in between. His image is one of three Confederate leaders carved into Stone Mountain in Georgia. There’s even a highway named for him, compliments of these Daughters of the Confederacy.
And while Robert E. Lee may have been the South’s most beloved hero, Jefferson Davis was the Daughters’ “Man.” He symbolized the South in her loss, defending the cause of states’ rights and his, as well as the region’s, reputation. Moreover, for the devotees of the Lost Cause, especially women, he was THE martyr of a defeated southern nation.
In fact, he was often likened to Jesus Christ; just as Christianity’s martyr died for the sins of humanity, the South’s martyr—Jefferson Davis—was regarded as self-sacrificing, a man who went to prison and suffered in behalf of the entire region.
How did Davis’ reputation as a martyr play itself out in the South?
In fascinating, costly, and even bizarre ways. In fact, I often liken my own experience with Lost Cause Jeff as something like going to a sideshow at the annual fair—you don’t want to look, but you can’t help yourself. Indeed, from the first time I came to study the Lost Cause and the UDC, it was Jeff Davis who kept revealing himself to me, and not in the most conventional ways.
Return for Part 2 of Me and Jeff Davis: The Serial, entitled “Beauvoir, Catafalques, and Head Start.” Yes, you read that correctly.
A few days ago, stories on the 75th anniversary of the premiere of Gone with the Wind (GWTW) on December 15, 1939 circulated in the news media. A new anniversary edition of the film has been released, one of many that have appeared as different anniversaries of the film have been celebrated. It is a testament to the staying power of the film David Selznick produced when he brought Margaret Mitchell’s book to the big screen.
Gone with the Wind is a story that holds the “land of Cavaliers and cotton” on a pedestal, and when it arrived in theaters in 1939, it fed America’s nostalgia for the Old South then and for decades to come.
Hollywood already had terrific success with antebellum stories set against plantation backdrops. Throughout the 1930s there had been numerous films set in the Old South, many of which were successful. Some, not so much.
But it didn’t matter. Old South nostalgia was a Hollywood staple.
Among the successes were The Littlest Rebel and The Little Colonel which appeared in 1935, both of which starred child star Shirley Temple. In 1938, the most successful pretender to the GWTW throne was Jezebel, starring Bette Davis who won an Oscar as Best Actress for her performance as a “scarlet spitfire.” (The GWTW reference was intentional.)
Surprisingly less successful was So Red the Rose, a film based on the best-selling plantation novel of the same name written by Stark Young. Young’s novel, set in Natchez, Mississippi, might have been the most important plantation novel of the decade had it not been for Gone with the Wind.
This is all of way of saying that Hollywood had primed the Old South pump for years, so that by the time GWTW premiered, a lot of the groundwork for the film’s success had already been laid. Still, there can be no doubt that GWTW eclipsed all that had come before.
From the opening scenes and first few minutes of dialogue, moviegoers were whisked into the mythical South of faithful slaves, southern belles, cavalier gentlemen, cotton fields and beautiful mansions. American popular culture fed this nostalgia, too, particularly during the 1930s, and not just on the big screen. It could be found among advertising icons like Aunt Jemima, radio shows such as the Maxwell House Showboat, and through the revival of Stephen Foster’s music and the “Dixie songs” of Tin Pan Alley. The film version of Gone with the Wind had all of that helping it succeed, too.
It is important to note that Gone with the Wind is also reviled for its racism, and yet despite this it is easy to predict that when the film turns 100, there will be another anniversary edition for sale.
America’s nostalgia for the Old South is a hard thing to shake, thanks in large part to the cultural imprint this film has made.
I’m writing to you from “the most Southern place on earth,” the state of Mississippi in the midst of the cotton picking season. I am sleeping in a house that was built 160 years ago, looking out a window at an equally old slave quarter/outside kitchen. I’ve waited three weeks to say something about the “Thug Kitchen,” debacle but now I feel I have the spiritual grounding to say what I need to say. As my hero August Wilson once said, “I stand myself and my art squarely on the self-defining ground of the slave quarters, and find the ground to be hallowed and made fertile by the blood and bones of the men and women who can be described as warriors on the cultural battlefield that affirmed their self-worth.” It’s time to get real about Thug Kitchen…
Q: You aim to explore “where Southern food ends and soul food begins.” What’s the difference between the two?
A: Inside the South, the distinctions between the two are so subtle that it almost seems meaningless. In my experience, black Southerners are just as quick to call soul food “home cooking” or “country cooking.” I found that the Southern diet, particularly after the Civil War, is demarcated more by class than race. In other words, blacks and whites of a similar socioeconomic background pretty much eat the same foods. That said, I find that soul food dishes tend to have more intensity than their counterparts in Southern cuisine. They’re sweeter, more highly spiced and tend to have a higher fat content—all the things that one would expect from a cuisine using a lot of bland starches and lesser cuts of meat. Then there are the differences in preparation. Soul food joints and home cooks tend to have more bone-in meat selections (neckbones, smothered chicken, and meaty soups) and hardcore offerings like chitlins.
Q: You’ve structured your book around the dishes that might be found in a typical soul food meal. Was it difficult to select what to include?
A: Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard, especially after I did my national soul food tour. Once one gets out of the American South, the soul food offerings at restaurants are pretty uniform. I thought long and hard about okra. It’s such an iconic food item, but I just didn’t see it on many soul food menus in the North and West even though fried okra is popping up at many more mainstream restaurants as a standard appetizer. It’s been more challenging to tell people what makes up my representative meal. As much as I say that I endeavored to describe a general meal that a soul foodie might eat at any time and at any place in the world, they think I’m whacked because I didn’t include their family favorite. I’m sorry, but I just didn’t see a trail of smothered neckbones across the country.
Q: Who are two or three of the most important figures associated with soul food?
A: If you’re expecting me to name a famous chef or TV personality, it’s a no-go with soul food. There really isn’t a Julia Child for soul food. I’m tempted to say Edna Lewis, but she was adamant that her cooking was Southern and not soul food. There are some notable figures out of New Orleans like Leah Chase and Austin Leslie, but I think Creole cuisine is different than soul food. The only person who comes close to being a soul food icon is the recently departed Sylvia Woods of Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem. Thanks to her business savvy, New Yorkers and tourists from around the world have made her cooking synonymous with soul. Otherwise, soul food’s most important figures are the cooks who carried on culinary traditions by making Sunday dinner and holiday meals for their loved ones time and time again.
Q: Why are red drinks such an important component of a soul food meal?
A: Throughout our history, African Americans have made red drinks the beverage of choice for social occasions, especially big communal gatherings. There are some popular red drinks in West Africa such as bissap (known as hibiscus tea and agua de Jamaica in the U.S.), and some in the United States such as red lemonade and red soda pop. In present times, it’s hard to imagine a soul food meal without a red drink, whether it be a powdered drink, a punch, or a carbonated beverage. Walk into any soul food joint or fast food place with a primarily black clientele and you’re going to get offered a red drink. I know this is controversial, but I think that red Kool-Aid is soul food’s official drink.
Q: Are you optimistic about soul food’s future—both among home cooks and as a chef-driven cuisine?
A: I am optimistic! There’s so much interest in food now. I know a lot of people who are into watching cooking shows on television even though they will never actually cook. What’s gratifying is that more and more people are in search of and eager to explore bizarre foods, comfort foods, healthy foods, regional foods, unusual foods, and vintage foods. Soul food has all of those elements! I think this interest will move people to cooking instead of just watching TV and visiting a restaurant. The irony is that unless soul food’s stigma can be mitigated, culinary adventurers of all types may end up discovering more about what soul food has to offer than African Americans.
(Interview courtesy of Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2013.)
Pop South interviews Stephen Prince, Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Florida, about his new book Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1915, published by UNC Press in April.
PS: The main title of your book is “Stories of the South.” Since this is a history book and not a book of literature, please tell readers of Pop South about the kind of stories your book examines.
I use the term “stories” fairly loosely. Though I do analyze literary texts, I find stories about the South in a variety of other places: congressional debates, newspaper editorials, travel narratives, speeches, sermons, visual art, popular theater, songs, promotional material, writings on the “race problem,” political cartoons, and scholarly treatises. I cast my net pretty wide in order to capture the range of sites at which people grappled with the nature of the South in the fifty years after the Civil War.
PS: The subtitle of your book is “Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity.” When you write about “southern identity” between the Civil War and World War I, specifically whose identity are you concerned with? Whites? Blacks? Men? Women?
The book starts from a fairly simple premise. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the meaning of the South – defined as a region, a people, a civilization – was an open question. “The South,” as it had been, had ceased to be. The question was what the region would become. Over the next fifty years, Americans – northern and southern, male and female, black and white – debated the nature of the South. I use these conversations to chart a course from the racial egalitarianism of Reconstruction to the nightmare of Jim Crow.
That said, I’m not particularly attuned to the ways that individual southerners understood their “southern-ness” on a private, personal level. I’m much more interested in popular, public discussions of the South. References to “the Southern Question” were extraordinarily common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Northerners played an important role in these discussions, before and after the oft-cited “end” of Reconstruction in 1877. I argue that the South was re-defined in conversation between the sections. The ability to define the South carried with it enormous political power. To tell the story of the South was to control the South.
PS: Your book relies on sources of popular culture as a way to better understand the region. What types of sources did you use and was there a consistent message among those sources regarding the American South?
The message is definitely not consistent! Contestation and debate were the only constants. One of my goals was to bring cultural history to the study of the postwar U.S. South. Political and social history still dominate the literature on Reconstruction and its aftermath. Debates over the future of the South certainly occurred in the halls of Congress and on individual southern farms and plantations, but there was a much wider cultural universe in which the nature of the region was discussed. In order to understand the retreat from Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, we need to pay attention to the larger cultural context in which political change occurred. Viewed from this perspective, a fantastic and phantasmagoric* pamphlet on the Ku Klux Klan is not just ephemera, it’s an important part of the cultural landscape in which power was won and contested. The same is true of the New South’s city boosting literature, Thomas Nelson Page’s plantation fiction, and the songs of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Culture matters. Without understanding the stories that Americans told themselves about the South, we can’t understand the history of the South.
PS: One of your main arguments is that cultural production—particularly popular culture—is as important to understanding what shaped the South in the post-Civil War era as are political and economic changes. What role did popular culture play in shaping contemporary ideas about the South in the 19thc.?
Though I try to avoid simplistic cause-and-effect analysis, a large-scale change-over-time argument structures much of the book. In the first years of Reconstruction, northerners seized the power to re-imagine the South. By the 1880s, however, conservative white southerners had realized the significance of what we might call the cultural front in the war on Reconstruction. By the early twentieth century, northerners were largely content to defer to white southerners on matters relating to the South, particularly where race was involved. Throughout, African-Americans told their own tales of the South. In the process, they offered eloquent testimony to the power of culture and public opinion. Go read Frederick Douglass’s last speech on lynching or the cakewalk scene in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. As Douglass put it, “words are things.” The way that people described affairs in the South – the words they used, the stories they told – mattered deeply.
PS: Last, but not least, what about your newest research project might interest readers of Pop South?
I’m now writing a book about the 1900 New Orleans riot, tentatively titled The Ballad of Robert Charles: Race, Violence, and Memory in the Jim Crow South. The riot has a place in all the big books on the rise of Jim Crow, but no one has attempted a full scholarly study since William Ivy Hair’s 1976 Carnival of Fury. The violence in New Orleans started when a black man named Robert Charles shot and killed several white police officers. Over the new few days, white New Orleanians took their revenge on the city’s African American residents, killing at least five and wounding dozens more. When the authorities finally located Charles, an enormous gunfight broke out. Trapped in a second story loft, Charles shot several more white people before he was killed. The riot quickly became a national story, spawning extensive newspaper coverage and becoming the subject of Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s pamphlet Mob Rule in New Orleans. Though white and black elites did their best to eradicate the memory of Robert Charles, evidence suggests that he lived on as something of a folk hero among working-class African Americans in New Orleans and beyond.
The book’s title – The Ballad of Robert Charles – comes from a 1938 interview that folklorist Alan Lomax recorded with jazz legend and New Orleans native Jelly Roll Morton. “They had a song out on Robert Charles,” Morton recalled. “I used to know the song, but I found it was best for me to forget it. And that I did, in order to go along with the world on the peaceful side.” The ballad of Robert Charles was too explosive to remember, too dangerous to sing. Following Morton’s lead, I hope my book will be much more than a story about Jim Crow New Orleans. It will also be an exploration of memory, forgetting, historical silences, and the power of the past.