The Writing Machine

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I thought I’d get a break after publishing my book.

Marching Masters came out in March, and since then, I’ve been something of a writing machine. The ink was hardly dry on my book when I got an email saying I needed to overhaul an article I had submitted four years ago for a collection of essays on slavery and historiography. The essay needed much reworking, which included plenty of new research and the revising of prose. I still don’t even know if it’ll be accepted. The final essay came in at 35 pages, with about 100 footnotes.

On top of that, I had already agreed to write two book reviews for the Arkansas Review, two entries for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas (on Buddy Jewel and Gene Williams, both of Dyess), an article on Johnny Cash and Cummins prison farm for the Pulaski County Historical Review, and an article on Cash and Winthrop Rockefeller for the Arkansas Times.

Thankfully, being a historian cuts down on the tendency toward writer’s block. And even though I don’t get paid much for writing, I love doing it.

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Talk on Marching Masters, Saturday August 16th

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The Cox building, downtown Little Rock.

I will be giving a talk on my book, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War at the Cox building in downtown Little Rock’s River Market on Saturday, August 16th at 2 p.m. The Cox building is owned by CALS, the Central Arkansas Library system. I will also give a reading from and sign books. I will have copies of Marching Masters on sale.

This is the first talk I have given in support of the book. It’s all free, and I hope to see you there!

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Quotation of the Day: Arthur Schlesinger on Historical Revisionism

“But others, especially in the United States … represent what American historians call “revisionism” — that is a readiness to challenge official explanations. No one should be surprised by this phenomenon. Every war in American history has been followed in due course by skeptical reassessments of supposedly sacred assumptions … for revisionism is an essential part of the process by which history, through the posing of new problems and the investigation of new possibilities, enlarges its perspectives and enriches its insights.”

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Pulitzer Prize winner, The Cycles of American History, 1986

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Marching Masters: Get Your Signed Copy Today!

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If you would like a signed copy of my book, you can get one direct from me for $30, which includes shipping. Payment will be made via media mail once payment is received. Should you wish to contact me about it, email me at marchingmasters@gmail.com

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Musical Sketch: Bobby Bare, Jr.

Bobby Bare, Jr., tunes up his guitar at the White Water tavern in little Rock

On Memorial Day weekend, Bobby Bare, Jr., played the White Water Tavern for the first time. I was surprised to hear it was his first show at this legendary Little Rock venue. In any case, I had a great time. The White Water’s stripped-down, deep-fried, no-backstage aesthetic suits Bobby very well. With him was the group Memphis Dawls–a female group from, you guessed it, Memphis–who are working on their first album.

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The Memphis Dawls

Bobby Bare, Jr. (born in 1966) is the son of country star Bobby Bare, who was elected to Country Music Hall of Fame last year. Bobby Bare, Sr., is 79, but he still tours. He’ll be at the Johnny Cash Music Festival this fall. And his son is similarly fond of the road.

Bobby, Jr., plays country-sounding tunes, sometimes. But his music defies easy categorization. Nashville is traditionally associated with the old school, Grand Ole Opry establishment. But it’s also home to many alt-country acts that–like Bare, Jr., Surfer Blood, and Diarrhea Planet–blend punk, country, alternative, and rock and roll.

I’ve been a big fan of Bobby Bare, Jr.’s music since 2010, when I saw him open for Drive-By Truckers on Halloween weekend in Richmond, Virginia. During his set the National, Bare played a terrific new song he had written called “Rock and Roll Halloween.” Before seeing him in October 2010, I must say, I had never heard of Bare, who plays with a seemingly ever-changing lineup called the Young Criminals Starvation League (the only constant–at least the three times I’ve seen him–is his bass/lead/pedal steel guitarist).

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Yet another member of the Young Criminals Starvation League.

Since seeing him in Richmond, I’ve been hooked on his music, and I’ve had the good fortune to see him twice in Little Rock. Once, at a memorable show at Juanita’s, Bare got a very late start for a crowd that was only slightly larger than the number of musicians on stage. Despite what must have been a disappointing turnout, Bare put on a good show. My wife–who usually steers clear of whatever I listen to–enjoyed it quite a bit.

Bobby began his recording career with two solid late-90s alternative albums, Boo-tay and Brainwashed, which he issued under the band name Bare, Jr. On both of these records, Bare gives us a guitar-heavy, alternative rock album. His best work was to come, but on his first album’s first track, “Nothin Better to Do,” Bare shows his gift for melody and unexpected musical choices by inserting some mandolin playing. What you don’t find on his early records is much of a country influence. The exception is the funny, acoustic track “Why Do I Need a Job” on Brainwashed, where Bare says he is dating a stripper named Abilene who allows him to to play in his band and not work. “The hours are great/I’m never late,” Bare muses.

Brainwashed is in many ways the creature of a time when the CD reigned supreme. The liner notes, for example, which feature photographs of Bare in a chicken costume, are far more elaborate than any of his CD packages since then. And why not? In the late 90s, record companies were doing better than ever. Guy in a chicken suit? Sure. While Brainwashed is not a great album, it has lots of energy, and shows a musician who is having a lot of fun in the era when people would pay $18 for a new CD.

On his third album, Young Criminals Starvation League, Bare went in a very different direction from his first two albums. He also found his voice as a composer and musician. On Young Criminals, Bare turned the guitars way down, adopting a more “singer-songwriter” persona. The album benefits from its home-made, demo-like feel, with Bare’s booming voice carrying most of each song’s weight.

Although Young Criminals was recorded only a few years after Brainwashed, it sounds far less dated. The lyrics are also more inspired. Like his contemporary Mike Cooley of Drive-By Truckers, Bare–as he shows on Young Criminals–can write songs that are often funny and sad at the same time. Take, for example, “Flat Chested Girl from Maynardville.” The title alone is funny, but in it, Bare paints a convincing and moving portrait of a young woman who sits in her room most of the time, hoping somebody–anybody–will take notice of her. The girl, he tells us, sells all her CDs for weed and Ecstasy and laughs as she kicks her cat into a fan. At the end of the song, the girl from Maynardville falls prey to the kind of sexual frustration that becomes sexual abandon. “Please take anything!” she wails. Bare has no delusions about the despair of people growing up, especially those who do so in cultural wastelands like Maynardville and Chattanooga. Also impressive on Young Criminals is “Dig Down,” on which he chastises his musical predecessors–not for letting him down, but for being too good. Artists like Pete Townshend, the Beatles, Hendrix, Black Francis, and Chuck Berry, he complains, sucked all the juice out of popular music, leaving nothing for Bare’s generation but the rind.

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A reviewer at amazon.com has called Bobby Bare the last of the great rock and roll star’s. I’m not sure about that, but Bobby certainly looks the part of the working musician. At the October 2010 show in Richmond, Bobby was husky, unshaven, and kept coughing like a three-pack-a-day smoker. I figured he could match bong hits with anyone in the audience and keep pace drinking beer with all of Drive-By Truckers. All the ingredients for an alt-country rock star. Bare can play and look grunge.

Yet, he is intensely professional. Yes, at the White Water, he drank onstage and his keyboardist jumped around like a three year old at the zoo. But Bobby was all business. He played many of his best songs, most of the best tunes off the new album (including the wonderful “I Don’t Want to Know”), and one of his father’s songs. He also knows how to make banter with the audience. I’ve always appreciated Bare’s sense of humor, which no doubt helps during long trips across the South. At the White Water show, he told the crowd that Chattanooga is an Indian word meaning “On the Way to Atlanta.”

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For me, Bare’s best album is the wonderful A Storm, A Tree, My Mother’s Head. The CD begins with the odd, catchy opening track “Your Goat’s On Fire,” which sounds reminiscent of the Turtles’ “Happy Together.” From there, things only get stranger, from the suicidal despair of “One of Us Has Got to Go” to the swinging chorus of “Rock and Roll Halloween,” where Bare describes a Halloween night in Atlanta where he saw pregnant nuns and brides, hooker nurses and cops, and “saw Elvis make out with Jesus in a yellow limousine.”

It’s musicians like Bare who show that alt-country acts–including Jason and the Scorchers, Drive-By Truckers, The Blasters, and Bottle Rockets–did as much to save country as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the other grunge groups did to save rock. And really, it’s guys like Bare who most carry on the rock and roll spirit, while some of the best 90s grunge acts have either disbanded, died, or faded out. When Bobby isn’t engaging in extremely black comedy (as on “One of Us Has Got to Go,” about a tragic love triangle), he is unapologetically goofy. “Monk at the Disco” (from Young Criminals), speaks of a monk who says a prayer for the skinny girl with curly hair, who “forgot to put on her underwear.” The monk later has a drink spilled on his robe after somebody had tried to sell him cocaine. “Monk at the Disco” is the type of song–I am confident in saying–that only is hatched in the brain of Bobby Bare, Jr. I am not the kind of person who remembers lyrics easily, but Bare’s stick with me.

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Slick Willie: Bobby Bare fan.

Bobby Bare, Jr., was making records with his dad around the age most of us are getting their first at-bats in Little League. You can hear him on the 1973 tune “Daddy What If,” which may be the first song ever sung with vocals by a tadpole. Eventually, though, Bobby Jr.’s voice would drop. And if he seems to live in his own surrealistic southern comic world, his father sang some pretty goofy songs, too, such as “Drop Kick Me Jesus,” which apparently is Bill Clinton’s favorite song. “Drop kick me Jesus, through the goalposts of life,” goes the chorus. It’s that kind of attitude toward Jesus that directs Bobby Bare, Jr.’s work.

After listening to and enjoying Young Criminals Starvation League, I moved on to his 2004 album, At the End of Your Leash. Leash features one of Bare’s best songs, “Visit Me in Music City,” about the Nashville scene, but overall, the album features good early and later songs. The middle (“Your Favorite Hat,” “Don’t Follow Me,” “Let’s Rock and Roll”) is less inspired and feature Bare with a female singer who is so high-pitched that it sounds like Bare is singing with Elmo from Sesame Street (I can very easily picture Bare, Jr., on Sesame Street singing with Elmo, actually).

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On his 2006 album The Longest Meow, Bare recorded all the tracks in an eleven hour session. The record isn’t as personal sounding as Young Criminals Starvation League or A Storm, A Tree. But the fact that it was quickly recorded gives it a “live” feel that is more ragged and energized than most albums you’ll hear. The Longest Meow has excellent moments–“Gun Show” is one of the record’s highlights. It really gets cooking toward the end with “Snuggling World Championships,” “Can I Borrow Your Cape” and “Stop Crying.” The Longest Meow was a move forward for Bare. It again showed his ability to blend–as have great classic rock groups like the Who and Led Zeppelin–shades of light and dark in his songs, not just lyrically, but also musically. The more gentle, acoustic numbers contrast well with the hard rock numbers.

Throughout his career, Bare has shown his ability to combine country, rock, folk, grunge, and rockabilly into one bizarre stew. Recently, Bare was featured in a documentary, Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost, which covers his tour for A Storm, a Tree. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

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Writing a Book, Part II: The First Review

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In my last post about Marching Masters, I discussed the early stages of writing a book, which involve much research. After the research comes the writing, a discussion of which I will have to skip this time. Because recently, while searching online, I read the first review of my book.

Michael Pierce, a professor at UA-Fayetteville was in the research room where I work a few weeks ago. He said the most important review is the first. That may be true. I don’t know. After reading what Kenneth Noe (author of Reluctant Rebels, among other books) said about my book, I can say that I survived my first review. It neither made nor ruined my day.

Here are some excerpts. “Woodward thoroughly delineates the multifaceted relationship between Johnny Reb and slavery.” Good.

Dr. Noe also liked that I dismissed the “trendy, Internet-borne fantasy of willing ‘Black Confederates’ and supportive white comrades joined in common brotherhood to stop Abraham Lincoln from creating a welfare state.” Nice.

“Bold in both conception and execution.” Great to hear.

“The most notable caveat, however, involved methodology.” Uh oh.

The book is “curiously old-fashioned in execution.” Dang.

I can’t say I’m surprised about Noe’s surprise at my not being specific about my soldier ‘sample.” More specifically, he takes  issue with my not using quantitative methods in a work on the army. Noe was frustrated with my use of vague qualifiers like “some” or “most.”

In my next post, I’ll respond to Noe’s critique and talk more about historians and the numbers game and how it relates to studies of the Confederate army.

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Marching Masters: Thoughts on Writing a First Book, Part I (Grad School)

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My book has been out for more than two months now. It’s hard to resist checking its progress on Amazon.com, which seems to be about the only place people buy books these days. And it’s amazing how quickly your book can jump from being ranked #83,000 to #500,000 in a matter of a day or two. I think when you’re ranked that low, the selling of one or two books makes a big difference.

Sometimes, I will find Marching Masters in the top 50 of books about abolition or the Confederacy. And when it comes to books about “abolition,” it’s hard to compete with four different paperback editions of Twelve Years a Slave, especially when that book was the basis for a film that won best picture and best supporting actress. But, I’m not too worried about sales. When you’ve written an academic book, about the best you can hope for is to sell enough copies for your publisher to issue a paperback. And you won’t see a dime until that happens.

There are prizes to be won, I guess. The competition is stiff for prizes. Many are in the $1,000 range, hardly enough to make up for the thousands of hours you spend writing a book. Still, it’s nice to receive any kind of recognition. In this day of history books being written by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, let it be known that real historians don’t write for money (not that Limbaugh or O’Reilly actually write their history books by themselves). You might write for tenure, or recognition, or the sheer joy of getting something significant published by a peer-reviewed press. You’d be foolish to expect much money, though.

My book took more than ten years to research, write, and edit. It began as a doctoral dissertation at LSU, which I began in the late fall of 2000, just after I had passed my general exams. I will speak for many graduate students in saying that being ABD (All But Dissertation) is the best time you will ever spend in an academic environment. Course work is over. You have perhaps more time per day than you ever will to read, write, and research a topic of your own choosing. The lucky ones get some research money or a fellowship that allows for a year in which you don’t have to teach or assist a professor in class.

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95% of getting through grad school is persistence. The other half is talent.

And on that note, it’s best to not teach in the early stages of being ABD. In general, teaching one class in grad school is enough. Save that drudgery for after you have the degree in hand. I’ve known people that have almost taught their way out of a Ph.D. program. Get the damn dissertation written. Don’t pull a Jack Burden. Don’t be one of those grad students who just disappears one day.

I spent a year and half doing research before I wrote a thing. This meant many, many trips to the LSU main library and the special collections reading room. Doing a fairly general Civil War topic as I did–the attitudes and policies of the Confederate army–was a blessing and curse. It was great that I had so much source material. It was also overwhelming that I had so much material to plow through.

I never had much travel money as a graduate student, so most of my research was done within a two minute walk of my window-less office on campus. I made use of every printed source I could find. Finding sources on race and slavery in Civil War letters and diaries was no easy task. Pretty quickly, I exhausted the published letters and diaries in the library’s “Confederate section” (for you bibliophiles, it’s somewhere between E440 and E620 in the Library of Congress schema). I then moved on to the various journals published in states that had been part of the Confederacy–the Virginia Magazine, the Alabama Review, the Florida Historical Quarterly, and so on.

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The intellectual environment at LSU is second to none.

I had the time and energy to look through every issue of every one of these types of journals. And there really was no other way to get at the information I needed. In any collection of Confederate letters, you never know when a Rebel is going to spout off about a slave or race or the abolitionists. And indexes are usually worthless. I even looked through the journals of non-Confederate states like Kentucky and Maryland. The Southern Historical Society Papers and Confederate Veteran were also helpful.

Some days of research yielded nothing. On others, I might fill ten note cards. But I realized looking through library sources would not be enough. I would also have to look through the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (120+ volumes).

This was another labor-intensive undertaking. There was no other way to find what Confederate officers had to say about slavery than look through every single volume of Confederate reports. And most of what I found important in these volumes was about impressment, which became its own chapter in the book. The Official Records were housed in the special collections library of LSU, which meant I became a fixture there. It took me an entire summer to get what I needed from the Official Records.

I think the OR might have already been online when I was doing research at LSU. But searching online in the OR didn’t help me except when I was looking something up that I had already come across. Perhaps there was a better way for me to find information than scanning reports looking for the word “slave” or “negroes.” But my method, flawed as it might have been, filled many note cards. My final dissertation was more than 400 pages. But it could have been easily 100 pages longer than that.

I’m somewhat ashamed to say that it was not until I had been ABD that I did archival research. It was then that I started reading unpublished letters and diaries by the score. I was so naïve that I assumed all letters in an archive were transcribed. Sometimes they were. But I quickly realized that the problem of finding useful information became even more difficult when you are trying to decipher nineteenth century handwriting. Men generally have worse handwriting than women. The men I were looking at were often writing not on desks, but saddles or knapsacks. And age had not been kind to many of these manuscripts.

Still, archival research is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a historian. Luckily, while ABD, I was able to get a two week stipend from the VA Historical Society to do research there. What an experience! I found Richmond far more exciting than Baton Rouge. And the facilities at the VHS were first-rate. The staff wore ties! I liked it so much I later worked there for three years.

My first trip to Richmond was in my high bachelor days. And if you are lucky, your friends will be similarly unfettered. If you are ABD, chances are all your friends are, too. They have a lot of time on their hands, or think they do. You might find yourself eventually spending as much time drinking pints of cheap beer and talking about class rock albums as you do on your dissertation. And In Baton Rouge, the beer can be cheap, indeed.

You might find yourself sleeping until eleven in the morning and not getting much done until 3 in the after noon. By then, happy hour has started at the Chimes, and it’s easy to say “screw it” and promise yourself that you’ll get some real work done tomorrow. The wisest or perhaps luckiest of graduate students live in something of a state of nature. Man was probably not meant to work more than 5 or 6 hours a day, especially in warmer climes. Ideally, you should be able to quit when you feel you’ve done enough. And I never kept a 9-5 schedule while I was ABD.

Grad students are intellectuals, dammit. Artists, even. Or so they have convinced themselves. They have the minds of old men but the emotional stability of children. Let them think their thoughts and write their words while they can. There’s plenty of time for the reality beatdown of post-ABD life.

Yes, grad school at its best is an intellectual Eden. Five or six house on the dissertation per day is okay, not enough surely. But that leaves more time for the important things like reading, drinking, and fornicating. Sometimes, the poorer you are, the better you live.

The French Quarter: where the Protestant work ethic goes to die, courtesy of Louisiana Catholics.

Who knows that tomorrow will bring? Tomorrow you have to work 5 hours at your part-time job, but after that, you might bump into a drinking buddy outside the library, who says “hey, let’s hit New Orleans,” and the next thing you know you’re on Bourbon Street talking talking about Jethro Tull in a seedy bar while a stripper bums a smoke off one of your cronies.

LSU can be like that.

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