My friend and fellow historian, Victoria Bynum talks here about The Free State of Jones, the movie that is based on her superb book. Buy the book, watch the film, and learn something new about the Civil War.
It’s been forty years since I first saw the name “Newton Knight” in the footnotes of a Civil War history textbook as I headed home for the holidays on a greyhound bus northbound from San Diego to Monterey, California. Since that moment, I have thought about, researched, written, and talked about, the meaning of Jones County, Mississippi’s insurrection to the Civil War Era that our nation still struggles to understand.
Since 1992, I’ve published numerous works on Southern Unionism, opposition to the Confederacy, and the associated Civil War themes of guerrilla networks, women’s participation in home front uprisings, collaboration across racial lines, and retaliatory violence by Confederate militia and home front vigilantes.
I recently had the pleasure to attend a preview screening of The Free State of Jones. The movie unflinchingly depicts the…
It’s one of a genre of “jokes” about the state that comedians have relied on for decades for a cheap laugh. Before social media, about all West Virginians could do was shake their heads and express their frustrations among family and friends.
Not any more. Social media has changed the rules of the game. People from the state may not have the national audience that Trevor Noah has, but they can certainly clap back when it’s called for. And boy, did they clap back.
@TheDailyShow You know that we actually have the internet here and can read your tired insult, right? Try again. @Trevornoah
Unless you were living under a rock or don’t pay attention to such things, Beyoncé released a new song yesterday called “Formation.” The southern setting (New Orleans), Bey’s reference to her roots in the Deep South (Alabama and Louisiana), the entire song’s southernnass is all there, layer upon layer. Some call the song “gritty” and ask if Bey is an “activist.” And hashtags for days. #ISlay #sheslay #hotsauceswag and #RedLobster
As a southerner and a southernist I am excited by this song and video, but I can’t do it the justice it deserves. So, I am relying on the rich voices of others–black and feminist–to break it down for you. About its message and meaning and layers and importance. It’s a pop culture moment for the South, but so much more.
Last week Kentucky-based Brown-Forman Corporation, which owns the Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve brands, announced it is selling the Southern Comfort brand to the New Orleans-based Sazerac Company. Many will see this as a homecoming for Southern Comfort.
The original recipe for the whiskey-flavored liqueur is credited to a New Orleans bartender named Martin Wilkes Heron who created the concoction in 1874, which he named “Cuffs and Buttons.” Heron later moved to Memphis where he began bottling his recipe in 1889, and renamed it “Southern Comfort.”
SoCo, as it’s often called, has stiff competition from flavored whiskeys and has seen a decline in sales in recent years. But it wasn’t always the case.
Southern Comfort enjoyed a major boost in 1939 when it became one of several companies that tied their brands to the enormously successful film Gone with the Wind. In the case of SoCo, it was the creation of the “Scarlet O’Hara Cocktail.”
The drink, made with cranberry juice and Southern Comfort with a squeeze of lime, was marketed as the “Grand Old Drink from the South.” The then New York-based distributors of the brand suggested that customers “try it in a Scarlet O’Hara cocktail, but no more than two lest you be Gone with the Wind.”
Because SoCo is sweet, it has long had the reputation of being more appealing to women. It was certainly a favorite of ’60s rocker Janis Joplin.
So a few years ago, Southern Comfort sought to increase sales among men with the commercial called “Whatever’s Comfortable.”
While the commercial caught people’s attention, it didn’t draw much of a new male customer base.
It will be interesting to see what Sazerac does in its marketing of Southern Comfort now that it’ll be back in the Crescent City. Personally, I’d recommend some heritage marketing that ties it back to the place where it all began.
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.
The news of the past week has run the gamut from deep despair to joyous celebration, as millions of Americans grappled with the murder of black parishioners at Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina, while millions of others celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision upholding marriage equality.
Throughout this news cycle there has been an explosive debate over the Confederate flag and the need to take it down from government-sanctioned spaces, while, simultaneously, LGBT citizens and their allies have raised the flag of pride to commemorate a Supreme Court victory that makes this year’s pride season even more special.
This past week, there have been some amazing images of both flags, together and separately, that remind us that symbols do matter in issues of civil rights. Below are some of the photos and cartoons that have made the rounds that speak volumes about flags and people’s passion for causes.
When I moved to south Mississippi in 1991, I joined a diverse community of gay people. One of the most fascinating individuals I ever encountered was a black man known throughout the community as Miss Bootnanny. She stood 6′ 5″ tall and when I saw her, it was usually at the little gay bar in Hattiesburg called Le Bistro–affectionately known as the Cha Cha Palace or simply “the Cha Cha.”
The ‘Burg was not a large enough city to have segregated gay bars–by gender or race–so we ALL went to the Cha Cha. Miss Bootnanny’s story, the little bit I gathered, was that she had been a drum major at Jackson State University, that out of drag she worked for a local garden center, and on any day you might see her twirling her baton on a public street or in the parking lot of the Sunflower grocery store.
While I never actually saw Bootnanny during the day to confirm the latter, she left no doubt that she had once led a marching band and knew how to twirl batons. Her talent extended to fire, as I learned when I watched in amazement as she twirled flaming machetes, an impressive talent, to say the least. On a “normal” weekend at the Cha Cha, though, she always made an entrance.
One night, it went like this: I was standing around chatting with friends when all of a sudden there was a commotion and we all stopped to look, because Miss Bootnanny had arrived. In she walked, dressed in a sparkling, sequined onesie, carrying one of those flag corps flags. She marched her way around the entire bar hoisting it into the air like the Pied Piper of Fabulous, which she was. (Note: Currently seeking a photo of Miss Bootnanny to add to this piece.)
And yet, I know that her life could not have been easy despite those moments of pure joy. Growing up black in America is difficult enough. And while I have written elsewhere that gay acceptance can be found in the rural Deep South, I know very well that there are limitations–particularly when LGBT expressions are further complicated by race and evangelical religion. To say nothing of poverty.
Having one Miss Bootnanny in a small community makes her eccentric, one of “our own,” and “non-threatening.” But when more than one come together, much less five, and demand to be seen, that’s another story entirely.
Enter the Prancing Elites–the subject of a new reality TV show currently airing on Oxygen.
The Prancing Elites Projectfollows a dance team made up of five openly-gay black men who live in Mobile, Alabama, and model themselves after the J-Settes–the all-female dance team that performs with the Jackson State University marching band. The Elites wear make-up and dress like the J-Settes, too.
The Prancing Elites live to dance–whether that’s in the stands while a marching band plays, being part of a parade (any parade), or performing for a New Year’s Eve party full of white folks. The latter has elicited some harsh criticism on YouTube, which makes one long for the voice of Langston Hughes to offer his critique of the ways of these white folks.
You may have also seen The Elites on America’s Got Talent or a talk show called The Real. Yet in their new reality show on Oxygen, the realness is not just the love showered on the Prancing Elites from across the nation, a result of the media attention they’ve received. It’s also the hateful responses from both black and white members of their local community and, in some cases, even close relatives.
And while they put on a brave face, and even regard their passion for dance and being openly gay as part of a longer tradition of southern civil rights, one can quickly discern that navigating this landscape of love and hate can be difficult for these young men to endure, as they must carry the added weight of being black and gay in a region that so often despises both.
When I watch the Prancing Elites, I have several reactions.
I fear for their safety. I feel the pain of rejection of a community that uses religion to justify its hate and disapproval. And yet, I admire their courage to stand up to the bigotry of racists and homophobes.
I cheer them on in their bid to change the world for the better not by leaving the South, but by remaining here and trying to make a difference for those who want to follow in their dance steps. And I am buoyed by their confidence and the positive reactions they get from the same community.
I hope they squeeze all they can from the fame rollercoaster before the cameras go away and, in the process, help to make a better way for those like Miss Bootnanny who, all those years ago, simply wanted to be herself.
I’ve written about RuPaul’s Drag Race here before, exploring the fabulosity that drag queens from the South bring to the larger drag world. Southern queens are pros at drag performance, because they’ve often had great role models in straight southern women who also love big hair, wear tons of makeup, and compete in pageants.
Both are talented performers in their own right (Kennedy Davenport was a contestant on America’s Got Talent), but I live for the unadulterated comments they make during interviews out of drag. It’s very often the humor, or simply a turn of phrase, that fellow southerners who enjoy drag instinctively get.
I’m biased, but I believe the southern queens on RPDR are often the most talented, funniest, and polished. Last year’s winner, Bianca Del Rio, hails from New Orleans. One of the most popular contestants from the show has been Alyssa Edwards, also from Texas. And she didn’t even win the contest!
Regardless of who becomes the next Drag Superstar, we all win when southern queens are in the mix.
Note: All told, there are actually four southern queens. Violet Chachki, is from Atlanta but does not present herself as “southern.” Jaidynn Diore Fierce, is also on the show. She hails from Nashville, Tennessee.
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