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.
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: 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
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.
Pop South is pleased to introduce its readers to Zandria Robinson, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Memphis where she’s also an alumna. Dr. Robinson’s new book This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South delves into black southern identity in Memphis, Tennessee. You should also peep her blog New South Negress where she extends the conversation on race, region, and culture she began in her book. (Note: This interview will also appear on this blog under “Porch Talk” as “This Ain’t Chicago with Zandria Robinson”.)
PS: For the uninitiated, tell us about how you arrived at the book’s title “This Ain’t Chicago?”
The title is actually a direct quote from many of my respondents, black southerners I interviewed in Memphis over the course of five years. Initially I noted it as something that people said frequently, but did not immediately grasp its import. I thought that folks were responding to the fact that they thought I was from Chicago because I was attending graduate school there. Later, as respondent after respondent made this comment and gave me varied but similar reasoning about why “this” wasn’t Chicago, I realized they weren’t talking about me, or Memphis, or even Chicago. They were saying, the South isn’t the North; the South is qualitatively differentfrom anywhere else. Once when I was talking to one of my advisors, Chas Camic, about my findings, I told him, “people keep saying, ‘this ain’t Chicago, this ain’t Chicago.’ He said, “sounds like a good title for a book.” And it stuck. It was also a convenient dig at the Chicago School of Sociology, recognized as the “founding” school of American sociology at the University of Chicago, which has dominated how we think about black life and urban studies for nearly a century. (But others like Earl Wright II have shown that actually W. E. B. DuBois founded the first American school of sociology at Atlanta University.) So “this ain’t Chicago” is like the descendants of those African Americans who never left the South, for Chicago or anywhere else, talking back to the descendants of those migrants who have made up the majority of the stories about black life in sociology since WWII, as well as talking back to scholars and others who have ignored the contemporary black southern experience.
PS: What do you mean by a “Post-Soul South?”
Post-soul is a term popularized by the cultural critic Nelson George and expounded upon by Mark Anthony Neal to delineate the contours of the cultural moment after the civil rights movement. For me, “soul” is a cultural shorthand for the music, art, and ideas in black culture between WWII and the assassination of King. King’s assassination is like a scratch across that long soul record that shuts down the party, and though the music began again, it did so with a new aesthetic influenced by the massive social and political changes that came about as a result of the civil rights acts, the deployment and then rolling back of affirmative action, the crack epidemic and mass incarceration, further disinvestment in black neighborhoods, and a host of other deliberate practices that sought to limit the rights of black folks in America. The art produced in and influenced by this context is “post-soul.”
While the South experienced the changes sweeping across all of America beginning in the 1970s—the effects of deindustrialization and globalization, the entrenchment of neoliberalism, suburbanization and destabilization in the urban core, etc.—the notion of a post-industrial, post-soul, or post-civil rights moment means something different in the place where rural patterns of government and industry prevailed, the blues was still being created and lived, and government officials had publicly declared segregation forever. Further, the legacy of slavery, evangelical religiosity, higher black-to-white population ratios, and the expansion of plantation power affected how southerners experience the historical and cultural moment after King’s assassination as well.
PS: Why do you believe Memphis is an ideal place for discussing the American South’s racial and regional identity?
As my colleague and sociologist Wanda Rushing argues, Memphis is “neither Old South or New South,” by which she means it doesn’t have a legitimate legacy of the Old South like your major slave ports on the eastern seaboard with their towering plantation homes and wealth, nor does it have the glitz and progressive shine of a bustling New South metropolis like Dallas or Atlanta. For me, Memphis sits at the intersection of soul and post-soul, rural and urban, civil rights, and post-civil rights. It is the site of the creation of some of the most important soul music ever, which is now sampled in the post-soul era all throughout hip-hop and R&B music and beyond, all over the world. It is symbolically, historically and geographically linked to the Mississippi Delta, which historian Jim Cobb has aptly called “the most southern place on Earth,” and the city is populated with country folks who make and are re-made by the southern urban landscape here. And it is a place where King was assassinated and today the African American infant mortality rate is amongst the highest in the nation. The social justice goals that need to be met here—addressing poverty, investing in children and human capital, eliminating health disparities, challenging environmental racism, amongst others—are directly related to the unfinished legacy of King. They also echo throughout the South, where negative outcomes abound for the most vulnerable groups. Essentially, Memphis is a place where you can examine snippets of “old” and “new” South as they collide with one another in urban space. It’s where the things that we popularly think make southerners southern intersect with the things that we popularly think make black folks black.
PS: Since this is a blog that examines the South in popular culture, how does your book engage with popular culture?
This Ain’t Chicago is really about my love affair with popular culture, and black southern popular culture in particular. In the middle of an analysis of some ethnographic data you’ll find gestures towards Outkast lyrics. At first, I set out to write an urban sociological text, one that inserted a southern city into the urban sociological landscape to shake us out of our disciplinary deference to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. But my background in literary criticism, as well as the fact that it was in popular culture where the work on the contemporary black South was being done, meant that This Ain’t Chicago became much more about the relationship between people’s ideas and popular culture representations of their experiences. I take popular culture just as seriously as “data” as I take my respondents’ sentiments. In fact, it is black southern popular culture, and hip-hop in particular, that was doing the ethnographic work about the South when sociologists were not. Three Six Mafia, Gangsta Boo, 8-Ball and MJG, Arrested Development, Ludacris, T.I., Outkast, Nappy Roots—the list goes on and on—were giving us a visual and lyrical ethnographic analysis of the post-soul South through their music and music videos while sociologists were still talking about Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles and historians were talking about everything before King’s assassination. So popular culture is really a starting place for me in thinking through questions about racial and regional identity, and I bring analyses of hip-hop, film, and other popular culture artifacts to the fore in the book.
PS: What projects are you working on next that followers of Pop South would find interesting?
I’m working on a project about black southern bohemians, sort of poking at the whiteness of the notion of bohemians in the South (Austin, TX, Athens, GA, Asheville, NC) and the New York-ness of the notion of black bohemians. In particular, I’m thinking about how black southerners create and maintain bohemian cultures that manifest in art, music, photography, and other aesthetic practices. And I’m also thinking about how race and regional identity affect black southern bohemianism. André 3000 of Outkast is often seen as sort of the black southern bohemian as if he is an anomaly of some sort. But there are other examples in popular culture and certainly on local black arts scenes that demonstrate that for black southerners, bohemianism is a cultural and aesthetic response to the constraints of race, class, and region on black life that many folks employ. So, I’m exploring these ideas through the same sort of mix of ethnograpy and popular cultural analysis that This Ain’t Chicago employs.
Check out Professor Robinson’s interview with Dr. Regina Bradley for her series Outkasted Conversations:
Next week I’ll be giving the annual Low Lecture, co-sponsored by the Department of History, at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The good people there made this nice poster to accompany the talk.
Note: This blog post first appeared on the UNC Press Blog on March 21, 2011. I post it here in honor of Loretta Lynn who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom this past week.
Whenever I visit the Thirsty Beaver, a local honky tonk in my neighborhood in Charlotte, I always find something new on the wall that catches my attention—a velvet Hank Jr. picture here, a child-size set of overalls done in Hee Haw fabric there. This time, it was a metal serving tray on which there was an image of Loretta Lynn. Someone heard me comment on it and offered that Ms. Lynn’s tour would be coming to town. I was so excited by that news that on the day the tickets went on sale, I beat a path to the ticket counter and had seats on the third row with a great view of the Queen of Country Music.
She sounded terrific as she sang hit after hit, and as I looked around the audience I noted that while there was strong representation from the senior set, there were also people who ran the gamut in age from teens through middle age. My mother saw her in concert with Conway Twitty years ago, and here I was, a generation later, thrilled to hear her perform. Loretta Lynn has experienced something of a renaissance. Her work with Jack White, who produced her Grammy award-winning album Van Lear Rose (2004), as well as 2010’s tribute album marking her fifty years in country music, has garnered new fans for Lynn. Having her songs covered by artists ranging from young country music’s Carrie Underwood to rockers Paramore is indicative of Lynn’s broad appeal.
I also realized as I sat there enjoying her music and singing along with favorites like “Fist City” and “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” that I was bearing witness to a woman who serves as a link to country music’s past and its future. Her first singing partner was Ernest Tubb, an icon of early country music, and her most recent partner was Miranda Lambert who, along with Sheryl Crow, re-recorded “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
Loretta Lynn should also be understood as an important figure in women’s history. Since she emerged on the country music scene in the early 1960s, she’s been unafraid of speaking on issues that affect women, though hers is more of a working-class feminism. Her song “The Pill,” controversial for a country music artist, spoke of reproductive choice and being able to decide (through birth control pills) when to be pregnant. “One’s On the Way” about those stream of pregnancies, also showed Lynn’s keen observation about how different the lives of women “here in Topeka,” (or any other small town for that matter) were from the feminists about whom we often read, write, and teach as these lyrics demonstrate:
The girls in New York City they all march for women’s lib And Better Homes and Gardens shows the modern way to live And the pill may change the world tomorrow but meanwhile today Here in Topeka the flies are a buzzin’ The dog is a barkin’ and the floor needs a scrubbin’ One needs a spankin’ and one needs a huggin’ Lord one’s on the way
As we mark Loretta Lynn’s 50th anniversary in country music, I think it’s important to recognize her not only for her contributions to country music, but also for her role in women’s history as a troubadour for working-class women everywhere.