Friday, September 15, 2017
Sunday, September 3, 2017
On Monday, August 21st (2017), I appeared as a guest on WTTU’s radio program Teacher on the Radio, hosted for many years now by my friend Andrew Smith. I was asked to put together a playlist of songs that focused on one of two things: Native American Indians in popular music (as performers, not subjects), and African American musicians in genres that most folks don’t associate with African Americans. I said a couple of words about most of the songs, but we also wound up having an impromptu interview in which Andrew asked for my take, as a historian of race, on the current mood of the country in the wake of the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville. While preparing the playlist, and later having that on-air discussion, I realized something I had never realized before about American Indians and African Americans in music and how that fits into the overall racial history of America.
What I’m going to do now is, first, give some links to previous essays I’ve written that deal with the questions Andrew and I discussed, and with which we all continue to wrestle. Second, I will give my playlist, with a little background about the songs and performers. Third, I will tie it all together and show how the two things are interrelated.
First, my previous essays about race. Feel free to check those out later, or do so and then come back here for the next parts.
“Barack Obama and Race in America” (this one has a detailed look at how race was constructed)
And now, the Playlist.
Mildred Bailey, “All of Me”
Mildred Bailey, one of the most popular vocalists of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and the first non-black woman to achieve fame as a jazz singer, was a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe and was born and raised on a reservation in Idaho. She used her pull to secure gigs for her younger brother and his partner, a skinny white kid named Bing Crosby.
Howlin’ Wolf, “Spoonful”
Howlin’ Wolf was one of several blues singers from the Delta who claimed some Native American ancestry, in his case Choctaw. A lot of the “hoodoo” (folk magic) elements in the songs performed by him and other Delta singers was a mixture of Native American and African spirituality.
DeFord Bailey, “Davidson County Blues” and “John Henry”
DeFord Bailey, of Smith County, TN, was one of the most influential harmonica players of the first half of the 20th century. He was the first (of only three) black performers to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
Link Wray, “Rumble”
Link Wray’s parents were both Shawnee. He introduced the power chord to rock music with this 1958 hit, and heavily influenced the generation of guitarists that came after him, helping form the sound of modern rock.
Buffy Saint-Marie, “My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying”
Buffy Saint-Marie was a Cree Indian from Canada, who was adopted by a white couple in Massachusetts and only learned details about her Native culture as an adult. She was a popular folk singer in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the latter decade she was both a Red Power activist and a frequent guest on Sesame Street (teaching about American Indian culture).
Charley Pride, “Kiss an Angel Good Morning”
Charley Pride was the second black member of the Grand Ole Opry. He was a baseball pitcher in the last days of the Negro Leagues, and became a country music star in the late ‘60s, releasing 29 #1 songs in his career.
Redbone, “Come and Get Your Love”, “Wounded Knee”, and “Wovoka”
Redbone was a band composed of two brothers who were of mixed Mexican, Shoshone, and Yaquis Indian heritage; another Shoshone member, and a Cheyenne. “Redbone” is a New Orleans term for someone of mixed race; no one in the band had ancestral connections to Louisiana, but the Vegas brothers loved Cajun music. Their biggest hit was “Come and Get Your Love”, which hit #1 in 1974 and then hit #1 again 40 years later when released as a single from the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack. The other two songs on the play list have strong American Indian themes, with “Wounded Knee” applying principally to the 1890 massacre of Lakota Ghost Dancers by the U.S. Cavalry, but also relevant at the time as the AIM occupation of Wounded Knee was going on when the song was released. “Wovoka” was the name of the Paiute holy man who founded the Ghost Dance movement in the 1880s.
Jesse Ed Davis, “Washita Love Child”
Davis was born in Norman, OK, and was half-Kiowa and half-Comanche. He was one of the most respected session guitarists of the 1960s and 1970s, and was especially known for his extended solo on Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes.” The solo on that song starts at around 1:44
The Band, “The Weight” and Robbie Robertson (with U2) “Sweet Fire of Love"
Robbie Robertson was the lead guitarist and principal songwriter for The Band. His mother was full-blood Mohawk. The original 1968 version of “The Weight” featured vocals by Levon Helm with Robertson, the writer, on lead guitar.
Indigenous, “Things We Do”
Indigenous is a blues-rock band that debuted in the 1990s, composed of three siblings –two brothers and a sister –who are Nakota, or Assiniboine.
Gangstagrass, “Long Hard Times to Come”
Gangstagrass has had a revolving membership for the past decade, but usually consists of two or three white bluegrass musicians and two black rappers. This song was the theme for the TV show Justified, set in Harlan County, KY.
Darius Rucker, “Alright”
Rucker, formerly of the pop group Hootie and the Blowfish, is the third African American member of the Grand Ole Opry. He has had a string of hits since crossing over to country.
Carolina Chocolate Drops, “Hit ‘Em Up Style” and Rhiannon Giddens, “Julie”
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, including vocalist, banjo player and fiddler Rhiannon Giddens, formed after attending a Black Banjo Festival in NC. In 2010 they won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
Taboo: “Stand Up / Stand N Rock”
Taboo, a member of The Black Eyed Peas, is of mixed Mexican and Shoshone descent. This protest song about Standing Rock won an MTV Video Award. In it, Taboo is backed by Native vocalists from several different tribes.
What it all means
The African American acts on this list showed up in “unexpected places”… in the sense that the public associates African American artists with rap, hip hop, blues, jazz, and various subgenres of rock: rhythm and blues, Motown, soul, funk. The public does not associate black artists with country, folk music, or bluegrass. However, there is a lot more black history in those latter categories than most people are aware, and a hundred years ago black and white music in the American heartland was much more fluid. Black and white musicians borrowed freely from one another. It was common for black musicians to have a repertoire of “hillbilly” or “country” songs, and for white musicians to play blues songs. The line between Leadbelly and Jimmie Rodgers was much less sharply defined than the line between Fifty Cent and Toby Keith.
What caused the separation? Radio and record producers. “Race” music –which they defined as music for black audiences –was segregated from music for white audiences. Which they just called “music.” Perhaps this was due, in part, to the popularity of jazz in the late 1910s and 1920s with white and black audiences alike, and the association of that music (by most older whites) with the black community of New Orleans, which made middle-class white kids dancing to it seem like an unholy cauldron of miscegenation which must be nipped in the bud. Regardless of the reasons, by the late 1920s “white” and “black” rural-themed music, both with strong Southern backgrounds, were separated on the dial. And that set the tone for decades to come. I remember in the 1990s, when we had these esoteric things called “record stores,” looking for Kenny Wayne Shepherd (a white blues musician). I noticed that Shepherd and other white artists who had recorded blues albums were filed under Rock and Roll, while Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal –who were recording some of the same classic blues favorites and had powerful electric guitar styles –were filed under Blues. It was often the very same songs, played in a very similar style. Yet still it was … segregated. (While much of the older generations’ ire at Elvis regarded his gyrating hips, a good deal of the animus also came from the fact he was a white man singing “black” music).
I am going to diverge for a moment to talk about a theory I’ve been thinking about (although I’m sure I must be the millionth person to do so). In the 1950s and 1960s older blues musicians had a hard time making it in the U.S. due to the popularity of rock and roll (which was itself originally an innovation of young black artists like Chuck Berry expanding the scope of blues). Many of them toured in Europe, where they were more popular than they were at home –especially in England. Many of the British Invasion acts were heavily influenced by blues, and by specific blues musicians, and did not hesitate to admit it. While this may be an overly broad statement, I think a lot of those young Brits came from very blue collar, working class backgrounds, and identified with blues as a result… but they were not weighed down by the racial attitudes that white Americans their age and social class tended to have, which allowed the Brits to embrace the blues so much more honestly and readily.
The Native American acts in our playlist are different. They were not part of a movement in popular music that was separate from the white “mainstream”, as African Americans often were; they were part of the mainstream, and their ethnicity did not usually stand out. Redbone performed in Native regalia, not just in concert but on live TV, where they showed up quite a bit in the mid-seventies. But almost everyone I talk to about them, for whom that band’s biggest hit has been part of the soundtrack of their lives, is amazed to learn they were American Indians. The same is true for most of the Natives who show up on this list.
And that has been my epiphany about popular music and race. I had never realized just how closely it followed the trajectory of America writ large. I have argued, as have many, that “American identity” was originally forged in colonial times by being defined against Indians and Africans. In that scenario, Africans were deserving of slavery because (in whites’ eyes) they were “inferior,” and had to be kept separate. Indians were either reviled or romanticized, sometimes both simultaneously, and were always being described by whites as either having vanished in the past (except the "degenerates" who remained) or in the process of vanishing before the superior white society… a society which absorbed the Indians’ very identity, in an effort to demonstrate their own American-ness (it was not a coincidence that the colonists at the Boston Tea party disguised themselves by dressing as Indians).
And the artists in our playlist? They are either African Americans performing in genres that a hundred years ago included blacks (or would have, had the “genres” themselves existed as separate from music in general) but which now come as a surprise, because “race” music was long ago separated into specific forms, or they are Native Americans that almost no one in mainstream America recognized as Native Americans, even when the artists repeatedly told them so, thus practically forcing them into a “vanished”status.
Friday, August 18, 2017
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
Something I've been hearing: "First they are taking down statues... what next, are they gonna burn books? You shouldn't erase history!" My response:
The act of a local, state, or national government putting up statues is not a way of MARKING history,it is a way of commemorating, or CELEBRATING, particular people or events. Sometimes it is a way of commemorating innocent victims of something very bad that happened, or celebrating a group of anonymous people, but more often it is an endorsement of, and praise to, particular individuals. This is different from historical markers, that are all over the country, which flat-out mark the history of something that happened in a particular place. Do you believe, for instance, that the world will forget the history of James Earl Ray, assassin of MLK, unless we put up a statue of him? Of course not, and to do so would be outrageous, especially if it was on public property like a courthouse, because it would clearly be a celebration of him.
"But," some would respond, "taking down Confederate statues -or any statues -is defacing the past, since those statues are a reflection of the times in which they were made." First, I would point out that most of these statues, when removed, are taken to museums... what could be more historical preservationist than that? Second, times change, as do attitudes, and we should be cognizant of what values our local governments choose to memorialize. What you as a private citizen choose to place on your property, or on your person, is completely different from what should be displayed on government or public property.
And I've heard some say that, in placing 21st century values on 19th century things, we are guilty of "presentism"... people should be judged by the norms and mores of their own time. To which I reply: wherever you are in the South, there was a sizable minority of people in your town during the Civil War who opposed the Confederacy and thought it was wrong. Who looked at the whole thing, essentially, kinda like we do now. So the "presentism" argument does not fly.
Finally, I've heard people claim that taking down statues that represent something negative is "whitewashing" history. Just because we don't like something in the past is no excuse for trying to change or erase it, they would say. Many, in fact I'd guess the vast majority of, people who say that believe that the Civil War was not really about slavery but about a constitutional disagreement over states' rights, and even that slavery was not as bad as people say. This demonstrates an incomplete and fundamentally wrong view of the Civil War. Having all these Confederate statues around didn't help those people understand history much, did it? In fact, I'd say they worked AGAINST an accurate understanding, because they perpetuate the Lost Cause myth.
Now I'm going to go back to presentism. Because if you make that argument -if you say we have to look at how people felt at the time these statues went up -you have to be honest, or get educated, about when and why they went up. Confederate statues and flags in public places have a specific history, and it starts decades after the Civil War. In fact, the vast majority of them appeared in one of two eras: either the early 1900s to the 1920s, or circa 1950 to 1965.
Era One was the decades after the establishment of Jim Crow segregation laws, a time when lynching was rampant because "uppity" blacks were not allowed to exist. A time when groups like the NAACP were founded to fight those things and protect the rights of black Americans; a time when the KKK came back into the spotlight and reached its peak in American history; a time when black men served in the military in WWI and came back more ready to organize, leading to even more lynchings and race riots.
Era Two was the Civil Rights era, when segregation was being challenged by black activists, and the national government was starting to put chinks in Jim Crow's armor (Truman desegregating the military by executive order, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, Eisenhower sending troops to impose order on the desegregation of the Little Rock high school). When the Democratic Party announced civil rights as one of the planks in its platform in 1948, the same summer Truman integrated the military, a large number of Southern Democrats left and formed their own third party (the "Dixiecrats") with their primary stated purpose being to preserve segregation and white supremacy. They used the Rebel flag as their symbol, and it started showing up everywhere. There was also another resurgence of the KKK.
So when you hear about flags and statues coming down, take note of the date given as to how long they had stood. Almost all of them went up in one of these two periods (the Lee statue at the heart of the protests in Charlottesville, VA, went up in 1924; the Confederate Soldier statue toppled by a crowd in Durham, NC, went up in 1925- incidentally, the two peak years of the KKK). Know what that means? It means they are not really about the Civil War at all, they are about white supremacy and opposition to civil rights. And they are on government property. And by the way, that Confederate battle flag that Bree Newsome climbed up that flagpole to take down two years ago? It went up over the SC statehouse in 1962.
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
I started college when I was 32, after five years of having historical fiction and nonfiction published in various magazines and books, such as Louis L'Amour Western Magazine and Wild West (where I'd had several pieces published by then, one of them a Spur finalist). I also had six unpublished novel manuscripts -four westerns, a science-fiction novel I'd co-written with a friend, and a 140,000 word historical epic (Bound for the Promise-Land).
I was also broke and had recently lost my steady floor-cleaning job, and was trying to piece together what small accounts I could on my own. I was pretty depressed, to be honest. It seemed that every job in the want ads that I knew I could do and be good at required a college degree -something I had not acquired, having been a Jehovah's Witness when I graduated high school (college was a no-no for them). My long time friend -and co-author of that sci-fi novel (All That We See or Seem) -encouraged me to get that degree, that it was not too late, and so my journey in higher ed began.
I started at Tennessee Tech as an English major. My goal, initially, was to get my Master's and teach composition. Not the best paying job in the world, but it would pay the bills -I had spent most of my life, since age 15, cleaning floors after all. And it seemed like a natural fit. I had been seriously pursuing the life of a writer for ten years, and it was the thing I loved doing the most.
About a month in, they had what was called "Career Day," when freshmen could mill about and visit stations staffed by reps from various departments. I stopped by the history table, manned by Dept. Chair Bill Brinker. I had already realized, from my one history course (Western Civ I, with Will Schrader) that I loved studying about the past as much as I loved writing- by the time my conversation with Dr. Brinker was over, he had convinced me I could double-major, and I was on my way. Later on I set my sights on a bigger challenge, a Ph.D, and decided that History was the field I would pursue it in.
I am really, really surprised that it took me a whole month to figure that out. The more I have looked back on it over the years, the more I have realized I was born to be a historian.
I really think my uncle (by marriage) Edgar had a lot to do with it. My family has deep, deep roots in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee, going back over 200 years... and most of that time (okay, all of that time), most of my family were poor. My mom's sister Essie, though, married the guy who owned the garment factory where most of the family worked, and I spent a lot of time with them in my formative years... getting a broader perspective on a lot of things from Edgar, who was very cosmopolitan. He was a Czech Jew who had escaped Europe (barely) during the Holocaust. He spoke five languages, collected artifacts from the Middle East.... and had a lot of history books.
In particular, he had the Marshal Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of WWII, in 25 volumes. I devoured those books for years- even though the photos were way too intense for a kid seven or eight years old. I read the whole thing, over and over. I was hooked on history.
(Note: My aunt and uncle are no longer on this mortal coil, but those books are on my shelves at work.)
I remember seeing those ads on TV for the Time-Life Old West collection -the ones pitched by the raspy Jack Palance. ("You'll learn about a gunfighter so mean he once shot a man for snoring too loud!") My uncle didn't have them, but the library did, and I devoured them, too. I also remember checking out a beautiful coffee-table book about Medieval Europe.
I've written often about my childhood love of the western, across all media. But as I think about it now, I realize that a lot of my toys had a historical nature. I used to send off for those playsets that were advertised on the back of comic books (in rotation with Sea Monkeys)... remember those? I played with "army men" like all the other little boys in that era, but the army in question might be 20th century U.S. and it might be something else entirely.... Revolutionary War, Civil War, Classical Rome, Knights vs. Vikings. Or it might be smaller in army scale and larger in physical scale... the same company that made the Johnny West action figures also made 12" well-equipped knights and Vikings.
When I was 9 our fourth-grade teacher read The Hobbit to us, a chapter a day after lunch. I found out that the same author had a new book coming out, and I bought it in paperback... The Silmarillion. It remains my favorite Tolkien book, because it tells the whole history of Middle Earth. For a year or two after that I was devising games, using playing cards or whatever else I could find, that told the stories of multiple generations of elves and dwarves and humans.
I think the real indicator that I was going to be a historian, though, came when I was 13. I had eagerly been following the storyline of the Dark Phoenix Saga in the pages of Uncanny X-Men (can you imagine what exquisite torture it was to follow this gripping story one chapter at a time over several months, counting the lead-up and denouement?)
I thought wow, this would make a great movie. And then, because I was an extremely odd child, I found myself wondering how they would list the cast... there were so many characters, who would get top billing?
So... I embarked on a research project. I went through a year's worth of X-Men comics, panel by panel... and counted how many times each character appeared, down to the most obscure bit players. (Scott, Jean, and Logan appeared the most, obviously, but I can't remember in what order the other heroes and villains came).
I felt a strange sort of comfort in having gained this data... so I kept going. I did the same thing to every Marvel comic in my collection... and I had practically every issue of everything that had come out in the previous five years (for the average cost of one Marvel comic per week for a month today, four or five bucks each or 16-20 bucks total -you could, each month, buy every single Marvel title and about half the DC ones in 1977 when they were 30 cents apiece.)
It became a ritual, with every new comic I acquired. Which was a lot; starting at age 13 I mowed yards, trimmed hedges, attacked tangled overgrown areas with a slingblade, even cleaned gutters... whatever it took to keep myself in money for my comics and paperback novels. Eventually I had a big notebook full of data... my own archive. I lost interest about halfway through high school, and I don't know whatever became of all that research (and didn't care, once I started swooning after girls full-time)... but I remember a good deal about the results.
For DC I had an incomplete data set, so the results were skewed; I only got about two-thirds of the DC titles, and very rarely picked up one of the Superman books, because I found him extremely boring.
But Marvel... I had about a decade's worth of Marvel comics by the time I lost interest in the panels-per-character project. Spider-man was far and away the top character -his panel count was in the tens of thousands. He was so popular that he had three monthly titles, plus he was constantly guest-starring in other people's books (to raise their sales). The next few were the ones you would expect- Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor. Then Wolverine, because after the X-men took off in the early 80s he was suddenly guest-starring everywhere.
Top villain? Dr. Doom, head and shoulders above the rest. Next were Doctor Octopus, the Red Skull, and Loki. Doom was the Fantastic Four's arch-enemy, but he, too, showed up everywhere- Luke Cage, even the Dazzler, had their go-rounds with him.
Supporting characters? Because there were so many Spider-man titles, and because Spidey's supporting cast were a bigger part of his stories than were the civilian pals of other heroes, Peter Parker's entourage dominated. Especially the cranky Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson. In fact, this was the biggest surprise: JJJ wound up being somewhere around #8 overall, ahead of all but the most iconic superheroes (and Aunt May wasn't too far behind).
I'd also had another project going: an encyclopedia of every character, race, and planet to appear in the 9 year run of Marvel's Star Wars comics... on typing paper, with pen-and-ink drawings. I'm not sure what happened to those either, but it's okay- nowadays we have Wookieepedia. That's not a joke. We have Wookieepedia.
Anyway, my tastes changed, as did my the focus of my OCD tendencies. But I kept devouring history books. When I was in the hospital room waiting for my child to be born, when I was 23, I was reading the final volume of Will Durant's Story of Civilization.
It is odd, though, when I think back on that side-hobby of my teen years, the panels-per-character thing. Because, basically, that's what I am still doing as a historian... sifting through printed sources, counting things, trying to locate trends and extrapolate from the numbers.
It's very strange.
But so am I.
Head over to the Western Fictioneers blog -HERE -to check out my guest blog. It deals with both the American West (Especially Indian Territory) and the Moonshine Wars of Southern Appalachia. It is also a teaser of sorts, for several big projects I have started work on.
Thursday, April 20, 2017
Troy D. Smith
Coal dust settles on me like black snow
Choking in the darkness
Sweat and soot making grime
Soaking into the clothes
From the company store.
Lint swirls around me, blowing fans
Only moving the heat around
Shirt factory whistle sharp in my ear
Walking through the fallen buttons
Fallen faces, fallen wages
Chunking rocks in muddy fields
Clearing the way for bright leaf dreams
Scent of tobacco curing in faded barns
Splinters from tobacco sticks
Break on callused hands
Grandkids now grown toil away
Stocking shelves, shining floors
Making change at drive-through windows
Everything has changed
Nothing has changed
Driving down from the mountain
Window open to the chill morning air
Watching the people drive to work
Trudging yet hopeful, finding joys
In simple things, finding strength
In Psalms and prayers and Johnny Cash
As the Caney Fork flows slowly by
(fish are biting somewhere)
As pride in labor, and dignity, and humanity
Still manage to take root
And weather the sun, and reach for the sky
Always reaching, always proud,
Saturday, March 11, 2017
I was deeply honored to have my novella "Odell's Bones" chosen as the winner of Western Writers of America's Spur Award in the short fiction category. You can see a complete list of winners, past and present, HERE, and I congratulate all the winners and finalists.
I have to tell you straight up, I've never made much money at this writing gig. Once upon a time I hoped I could pay the bills with it, but I wound up relying on a day job for that (a day job I absolutely love, being a history professor, and one that ALSO involves writing and publishing for little if any money.) But if given a choice, the recognition for my work that I have received from the Spur Awards (I won once before, 16 years ago, and was nominated a couple of times before that), the Peacemaker Awards, and a handful of critics and historians of the genre who have spoken well of me -plus the many, many author colleagues who have encouraged me through the years -well, I honestly value that, and appreciate it, and treasure it, far more than any amount of money. Sounds weird, but it's true. I am especially grateful, all the time, for several close friends I made in this business who were my mentors and my boosters who have shuffled off this mortal coil. It is an honor to labor in their shadow, and on the shoulders of the many giants this genre has produced and continues to produce.
The first great American fiction to catch the world's attention, that of James Fenimore Cooper, was frontier fiction. Much of the literature produced on this continent before that -ostensibly nonfiction, but some of it ya have to wonder -also was about the frontier experience, from the captivity narratives of New England to the accounts of people like Daniel Boone. And in a tiny, shimmering, but very real way, I and all my western writer colleagues are a part of that tradition, of that chain. It is humbling. And, at the same time, it is something for all of us to be proud of. This includes a large number of exceptional writers -some of them among the greatest western writers who have ever lived -who have yet to be awarded one of those shiny, jingly Spur plaques, but who should have been many times over. So my hat is off to us all: today's winners, yesterday's, tomorrow's, and the many who were deserving but unjustly (or unluckily) neglected.
That said, I should tell you how to find "Odell's Bones." You can get it on amazon and elsewhere as a 99 cent EBOOK. OR, in paperback only, it is one of six stories in the collection WEST OF SUNDOWN. Finally, available in either paperback or ebook, it has been added in a revised edition of my (very large) collection THE STEALING MOON, which has 36 stories in all.
Check it out. And then check out those many other fine western writers out there.