I Wanted to Be Wade Boggs, but I’m More Like Bill Buckner

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By Colin Woodward

Back in 2009, my then girlfriend (now wife), bought me a pack of baseball cards. I saw the cards of many players I grew up with. Two of them, Wade Boggs and Bill Buckner, played on the infamous 1986 Red Sox team, which came within one strike of winning the World Series. Had the Sox won that game, the team would have broken a 68 year long slump: as of 1986, the Sox hadn’t won a World Series since 1918.

The 1986 Season

That year, Boggs was my hero. For the third time in five years, he led the American league in hits and batting average. Bill Buckner, a former Cub and Dodger, also had a good year. His batting average was much lower than that of Boggs, but he drove in 102 runs–far more than Boggs did. To drive in 102 runs is impressive for any player in any year.Buckner also swatted 18 homeruns and hit 39 doubles. Were he playing today, Buckner’s salary would be in the eight-figure range.

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Buckner had had a good year, and the year before that, he had 110 RBIs. In 1986, Buckner played first base most of the year, despite his bad ankles. Buckner was a 36 year old veteran who was in his 18th season, with near-Hall of fame caliber statistics.

It’s easy to forget how good Buckner was. Instead, his career is overshadowed by the error he made in Game 6.

Game Six

Here’s what happened. Leading 3-2 in a best of seven series, the Red Sox went into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Six with a two-run lead. The first two Mets batters made outs. But then a rally started. The Mets ended up tying the score. Ray Knight was in scoring position when Mookie Wilson hit a routine ground ball to Buckner. Buckner let the ball go through his legs. Knight scored. Mets win.

The Red Sox went on to lose game 7 and the Series. Buckner came to epitomize “the Goat” both in New England and across the baseball world. In 1987, the Red Sox had a losing season. Buckner finished the year with the Angels. Geographically, Buckner was as far as he could have been from Boston and still playing major league baseball. Buckner hit .306 for the Angels, his highest average in five years.

It was easy to call Buckner the Goat, the chump, the guy who brought down every Red Sox fan’s dream of winning the first World Series since 1918. But really, the Red Sox should never have been in the Series at all.

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The 1986 ALCS

In the American League Championship Series, Boston pulled off an amazing come-from-behind win against the Angles in Game 5, in Anaheim. The Red Sox were down to their last strike when Sox outfielder Dave Henderson hot a ball off the end of his bat that had just enough pop to get over the fence. The Sox went on to win the game in 10 innings and take the series in seven games.

What the Mets did to Boston, the Sox had done to the Angels a few weeks before. The Angels pitcher who gave up the homerun to Dave Henderson, Donnie Moore, killed himself in 1989. But there was no curse. The Angels had to wait until 2003 to win their first World Series.

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1987

Buckner finished 1987 with the Angels. But Boggs stayed where he was. In 1987, the “Year of the Live Ball,” Boggs again led the league in hits and batting average. He also had career highs in homeruns (24) and RBIs (89). The Red Sox had a lousy year, but not Boggs. My hero was safe. Buckner was gone. And there was always next year. The next year was a good one for Boston. The Red Sox won first place in a weak American League East Division.

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Boggs had another stellar year. He again led the league in hits and average as well as doubles and runs. He was without a doubt, the best hitter in the American League, if not the majors (where his only competition was Tony Gwynn).

Boggs was my hero, the guy whose stance I copied when mine wasn’t working for me in Little League. He was the “Chicken Man,” who supposedly ate chicken before every game. Another one of his superstitions was that he took his final laps at 7:17 at night before a game in the hopes of going 7 for 7 (which has been done only once since 1892 in a 9 inning game). He even had a candy bar: the 352 bar, named after his lifetime batting average of .352.

Margo

In 1988, Boggs was at the height of his career. But then scandal hit. And Boggs arguably went through a far greater humiliation than Bill Buckner ever went through.

The press announced that Boggs was having an affair with Margo Adams. Boggs was a married man, and he was shamed in an era before we assumed our best athletes were dishonest and sleazy. In one of the Red Sox yearbooks from the early 80s, Boggs was seated with his wife Debbie in their house in Florida. Boggs looked tan and happy. And maybe he was happy with Debbie. But he was also happy with Margo. Until she told everyone.

The scandal worsened. Adams posed for Penthouse magazine. Rude fans of the Red Sox’s opposing teams began yelling “Margo! Margo!” when Boggs came to bat. Boggs went on Barbara Walters with his wife, and he cried like a little bitch. he had also cried on the bench when the Red Sox lost to the Mets in Game 7 in 1986. Both Boggs and Buckner were in need of redemption. In 1990, Buckner returned to the Red Sox. It was his final season. Buckner didn’t have a great year. Boggs had his worst season up until that time. The Red Sox made it to the playoffs, but they were swept by the awesome Athletics team.

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Curse of the Bambino

In 1990, Dan Shaughnessy published his book The Curse of the Bambino, which discussed not just the 1986 season, but all the bad luck that had accompanied the Red Sox since the team sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1918. It was probably the low point in the history of being a Red Sox fan.

At the end of the 1992 season, Boggs signed with the Yankees. His hitting skills had worsened since the Adams scandal. For Boggs to have signed with the Yankees was for me–and many Sox fans–an acts of betrayal. First you cheat on your wife, then you cheat on your team? Buckner committee an error, an honest mistake. Boggs, though, was just a jerk.

With the Yankees

Once in New York, however, Boggs became a better hitter, and he won a World Series ring. He finished his career in his adopted home state, Florida. In 2005, Boggs was inducted in the Hall of Fame. He finished his career with over 3,000 hits, 578 doubles, and a .328 batting average. Boggs wore a Red Sox cap at his Hall of Fame induction. But he didn’t finish his career with Boston. Bill Buckner did, though.

Buckner didn’t make the Hall of Fame. But he came close. He had 2,715 lifetime hits, 498 doubles, more than 1,200 RBIs, and he was a career .289 hitter. His career spanned from 1969 to 1990, but for most of those season, Buckner played fewer than 140 games.  Had Buckner been healthy for two more seasons in his prime, he would have finished his career with 3,000 hits and thus have been assured entry into the Hall. But he didn’t.

And yet, he had a higher lifetime batting average than Hall of Famers Cal Ripken, Ryne Sandberg, Carl Yastrzemski, Craig Biggio, and Tony Perez, just to name a few. He also had far more hits than Sandberg. And unlike Sandberg, the great Cubs second baseman, Buckner came very close to winning a World Series.

Almost

Buckner was a very good player, but not a Hall of Famer. As with so many of us, Buckner was good but not great. Memorable but not immortal. The guy hobbling on one leg, trying to win the big game.

Buckner almost caught Hank Aaron’s 715th homerun. But he didn’t. He could’ve made that play in the ninth inning of Game Six. But he didn’t. Maybe if Buckner had fielded Mookie’s slow roller, the Sox would have won that game in extra innings. Maybe not. They could’ve won game seven, but they didn’t.

Life is a series of moments that we can never get back. Maybe we could have gotten into a better school, made first string, first chair, got that raise, caught that game fish. Might have ended that relationship better. Might have done better in the interview. Got the bad guy, found the cure.

Baseball players are lucky. There’s no Hall of Fame for most of us. Just life. Boggs is there. Buckner isn’t. But Buckner never cried.

Redemption

In 2008, Buckner received a four-minute standing ovation at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox, who had won the World Series the year before. It was the second for Boston in three years. In 2004, the Sox came from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the detested Yankees, winning the last two games in Old Yankee Stadium. “The Curse of the Bambino” was no more.

The Sox went on to sweep the Cardinals in the World Series. That took care of previous defeats at the hands of the Cardinals in the 1967 and 1946 World Series. Boston fans have a long memory. In 2013, the Sox won yet another World Series. Again, the team beat the Cardinals. Game Six and the Buckner error are now just history, just a footnote to one of the most storied franchises in all of sport.

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Bill Buckner appeared in one of the final episodes of the great sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David, a Yankees fan, even wanted to see Buckner redeemed. On the show, Buckner makes a great catch. And Boggs? The last story I heard about him involved him drinking massive quantities of beer on a cross-country flight while he was playing. Was Boggs an alcoholic? I dunno. No one knew about Margo Adams for a long time either.Wade Boggs: Hall of Fame drinker.

I wanted to be like Boggs, but I was more like Buckner. And that’s a good thing. I realize the Hall of Fame is for major achievements in baseball. But someone like Buckner makes you want to reassess our criteria for entry in it. He was a very good player and one who had a major role in the history of the sport. Wade Boggs certainly hasn’t shared the stage with Larry David.

Colin Woodward is the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He is also a lifelong Red Sox fan and baseball enthusiast. He is working on a book about Johnny Cash.

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Arkansas Historical Association Meeting, 2015

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Johnny Cash has been good to me.

I was in West Memphis last week at the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association. I was representing my employer, the Center for Arkansas History and Culture at the University of Arkansas Little Rock. I gave a talk on Saturday on James Guy Tucker, Jr., and Vietnam.

In west Memphis, I was also lucky enough to win two awards. They were for articles I had written about Johnny Cash and Arkansas. They both were about Cash, Winthrop Rockefeller, and prison reform in Arkansas. One was published in the Pulaski County Historical Review, and it won best article for 2014. The other award was for best unpublished article submitted to the Arkansas Historical Association.

So, to recap my career. Amount of money I have made from writing a peer-reviewed book that has been available wherever books are sold: $0.

Money from writing Johnny Cash-related articles that were not peer-reviewed: $900.

How many books would I have to sell to get $900 in royalties? I don’t want to know.

Publishers have also been warming up to me. I have written only one entire chapter of my Johnny Cash book, yet I have had two publishers interested in the project.

I was also contracted recently to read a book manuscript on Johnny Cash. In a world of billionaires, $200 is a small sum. But for a historian who is used to writing things for free, a few hundred dollars is a lot. Some scholars can go a very long time without getting any money for their work.

And not just Johnny Cash, but the Arkansas Historical Association has been good to me. This year was the third year in a row that I presented a paper at the annual conference. My first was in Helena in 2013. At that point, I was actually starting to feel that I knew what I was talking about with Johnny Cash. It was only my third academic talk. And it was nice practice for someone like me who is not comfortable with public speaking.

The AHA is a very laid back conference. No one comments on your paper, as they sometimes do at other conferences. Many of the presenters and attendees I’ve met are not in academia at all. In short, it’s less stuffy. It’s very Arkansas in that way. I often appreciate Arkansas’s lack of pretentiousness.

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Before heading to the conference, I stopped with my family at Uncle John’s in Crawfordsville. It’s a restaurant in a typical Delta town. Farming is still king in Crawfordsville. It reminded me a lot of Dyess, which I visited twice last year. I liked this decoration that was hanging on the men’s room wall.

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I stayed overnight in Memphis for the conference. I didn’t get to see much, but that was kind of the point: I wasn’t going to have much time to look around.

And since I stayed in east Memphis, I saw where people live. Should you only ever visit downtown Memphis and Beale Street, you would never get an idea of where people’s houses are.

Maybe my next trip will Elvis-decadent. I’d love to go back for the Beale Street music festival this year. John Fogerty will be there. Wilco, too. But I have a baby coming around that time. Kids are inconsiderate that way.

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The banquet for the AHA conference was held at the Southland dog track. it wasn’t easy to walk past all those slot machines without making a bet. I don’t have money to gamble. But maybe if Johnny Cash stays good to me, I will.

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The Walking Dead and the American Apocalyptic Tradition

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By Colin Woodward

The Walking Dead is regarded as one of the best shows on television. It’s certainly the most violent and disturbing. I  have watched it from the beginning, and it is not a show that leaves you feeling indifferent. At its best, it is an inspired and timeless comment on human nature. At its worst, it is sadistic torture-porn.

To read the show politically, one could see it is a fantasy for all the government-hating survivalists out there. At a religious and historical level, it speaks very much to the American apocalyptic tradition.

Americans’ fascination with the apocalypse is as old as America itself. Recently, I reviewed a book on the Civil War and the apocalypse: Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era. Every generation must deal with the notion of the end of the world. My parents remember the Cuban missile crisis and “duck and cover.”

When I was growing up in the 1980s, the Soviet Union, with its many, many bombs, was still seen as an existential threat. A TV movie like The Day After examined nuclear obliteration. The 1984 film Ghostbusters satirized our obsession with Armageddon by showing the undead driving cabs in New York City.

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On the one hand, The Walking Dead is a horrifying exploration of the collapse of civilization. Flesh-eating zombies roam the land. People survive based on their wits and their aim with a bow or a gun. But even the toughest of them aren’t always lucky. The show can be extremely dark and bleak.

On the other hand, the show portrays how well humans can react well in a crisis, and how they cling to decency and humanity even when the End of Days seem upon us.

The United States is a country founded on Enlightenment principles, best expressed in the Declaration of Independence. But the earliest settlers of what became the United States were arriving on our shores in the late 1500s and early 1600s: essentially at the tail end of the middle ages. They were post-Renaissance people. But they were also pre-Enlightenment. The armor and weapons the men of Jamestown or Plymouth carried around looked downright medieval.

The ethos of the Walking Dead, really, is truer to the 17th century than it is the 21st. A plague is decimating humanity. Cars don’t run. Infrastructure has collapsed. Commerce is non-existent. There is no government to help. Whenever our heroes Rick, Darryl, and Maggie find refuge at a building, house, or community, the place turns out to be a trap. Whatever exists behind walls seems more sinister than what is in the natural world. Our travelers stick to the road, but it is leading nowhere.

Much of the shows design and props are a throwback to the Middle Ages–an era when towns were surrounded by walls and forts. Once an enemy breached the walls, all hell broke loose. The same holds true in The Walking Dead. The characters often try to hide behind walls, whether it be an abandoned prison or a “Utopian” community run by the sadistic “Governor.” The walls may protect, but they also obscure and become traps. Empty cities are perilous mazes. Hospitals are sinister. The price to defend the walls is often a high body count. Far more characters get slaughtered behind walls than they do in the open field and the woods.

The weapons of the show are also throwbacks to the pre-gunpowder days. Take Darryl’s bow. Yes, it’s symbolic of the man’s backwoods, cracker roots. It is also a nod to the middle ages and the pre-gunpowder days. The show also features many uses of the sword and the knife. One character is like a black samurai–another nod to the middle ages. And when guns fail, knives save characters who would’ve otherwise been dead. Guns are a modern invention. They are powerful, but often fail. They jam. They run out of bullets. In The Walking Dead, the gun is a symbol of the failure of modern society.

At its core, the show is far more Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who wrote of the “war against all,” than it is Thomas Jefferson and his belief in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Hobbes famously said that life in a state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The folks in The Walking Dead live in a true “war against all” situation. Violence and killing is constant. In a grotesque parody of Christian theology, the dead rise but not in the way Lazarus did. They are not miracles, but insatiable monsters. The show is Biblical in its obsession with the end of the world. And though past zombie sagas, like George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, had a healthy dose of good ol’ American satire, The Walking Dead rarely seeks out humor.

Nor does it seek out much pleasure. The violence is pornographic. But sex is never shown. The only character with seemingly any hint of the libertine is the fiery-haired Abraham, who doesn’t mind sipping on a whiskey bottle or going to bed with the woman with the pigtails.

Usually, though, The Walking Dead holds to the grim aesthetic of the pioneers and the Wild West: people move through the wilderness, but there are dangers at every tun. Every week, the show is like an updated version of the Donner Party. It also employs many of the tropes of the Wild West. But The Walking Dead is a world even more chaotic than the Wild West, which, as brutal as it could be, was a step the country needed to take in order to “civilize” the West. And one wonders: are the humans of the Walking Dead the pioneers or are they the Indians?

The popularity of The Walking Dead may be read as statement on contemporary American society in many ways. Unlike the apocalyptic vision of the Cold War, things do not end in a big bang. Rather, the world ends with the relentless attack of slow-moving zombies. Perhaps the show taps into our post-911 fears of Islamic extremism, which is a low-tech, but no less terrifying threat to western civilization than the Soviet Union was.

In today’s political climate, we hear a lot–too much, really–of religious rhetoric. Just a few years back, I heard people say they thought Obama literally was the anti-Christ. And that his presence was a harbinger of the End Times. It’s easy to dismiss such talk as crackpot. But it was serious, and it suggests that those that cling the language of Armageddon don’t fear the Rapture. Rather, they welcome it.

By depicting the harshest realities of a post-apocalyptic world, the show forces us to become virtual survivalists. We think: how would I do in this situation? Sure, Rick looks tired, but he also is tan and is in good shape and is a natural leader. By setting characters in a Hobbesian world, The Walking Dead is terrifying. It is also appeals to a grim but stoic ideal. In The Walking Dead world, Americans’ love of guns, hunting, and rugged individualism are advantages. Long wars–Hobbesian or not–are exhausting, but they can also tests us in ways no other human experience can.

The Walking Dead is not just superior entertainment. In a way, it is the exact opposite. It wants us not to escape, but confront the harshest types of human behavior. It places us in an apocalyptic situation and asks: how would you fare?

America’s interest in The Walking Dead can be read many ways. But it clearly is a history lesson in how the apocalypse continues to fascinate our society.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian and the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He is writing a book on Johnny Cash.

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Me and Johnny Cash, Part IV: Cash and Cash

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By Colin Woodward

Here’s the amount of money I have made so far from selling hundreds of copies of a peer-reviewed book, published by one of the best universities in the South, featured on amazon.com, and carried in stores at Barnes and Noble: $0.

Here’s the amount of money I have made by writing about Johnny Cash: $450. And I haven’t published anything yet on him.

If you had told me fifteen years ago that studying Johnny Cash was more lucrative than the Civil War, I would have started research on Cash back in graduate school.

Last month, I was lucky to win a prize from the Pulaski County Historical Society for an article I wrote on Johnny Cash and his early Arkansas roots. I had never shown the article to anyone before sending it to the prize committee. The award was $300. It’s the largest prize I have ever won.

Last month, I also did a ten minute spoke-word story on the podcast Tales from the South about my adventure in Cashlandia. A day after it aired, someone at University of Arkansas Press asked me to review a manuscript on Cash. And I would receive a $150 honorarium for doing so.

Welcome to the weird world of historical scholarship. You never really know where and when you will get paid for writing anything. If you’re lucky, you’ll one day get paid for writing something.

Being a scholar entails a long period of apprenticeship. Early on, you can’t be picky. Write reviews for anyone. Get an article published in a journal, if you can. But keep writing. Then, once you’re done with your advanced degree, get your book published, as quickly as possible. Don’t expect any money from it. Try not to wince when you hear about the millions of copies that bourgeois trash like Fifty Shades of Grey sold. And try not to be too bitter.

For a while, simply getting published will be a thrill. Eventually, though, writing history for free becomes exhausting and frustrating. And yet, you learn there is a at least a little money to be made at various places. Academic book reviews and book publishers don’t pay well, if at all. But some encyclopedias, whether online or print versions, may offer from $30-60 for an entry. That’s not much when you work out the hourly rate for writing a scholarly encyclopedia entry. But it’s more than zero, more than you would get for a peer-reviewed book or article, and you will feel better about getting money for writing.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas, for example, offers to pay for all entries (it also gives you the option to donate the money back to the encyclopedia). It’s a great way to get practice writing and doing the historical craft. And you can earn enough money for dinner.

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In the past few years, I’ve made a few hundred dollars writing for encyclopedias. But my book? Well. I’m still waiting for my first check. Charlie Rose, please return my calls.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian. He published his first book, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War through UVA Press. He is writing a book on Johnny Cash.

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Randy Newman: Southern Historian?

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Randy Newman in 1972, featured on the cover of his album Sail Away.

By Colin Woodward

Last month, I saw Randy Newman perform with the Conway Symphony Orchestra at the University of Central Arkansas. I’ve always liked Randy Newman. If you know anything about music, chances are you can name at least one of his songs. I recall hearing  “I Love L.A.,” which came out around the time I first remember listening to music, back in the early 1980s.

In Conway, Newman didn’t mess around. He played his “best of,” which covered floods, bad love, the slave trade, genocide, communism, child murder, and kinky sex. The usual. What does it say about me that one of my heroes is a cranky, mumbling piano-player in his 70s that I’ve never met? Not sure. I like Americans who go against the grain. And besides, loving old men is the way entertainment goes these days. Our senior musicians endure, while our young athletes and others fade away.

Newman is known for his caustic, acerbic wit and a tendency to offend. The singer got flak for his 1977 hit “Short People,” which was written purely as a goof. Newman had no idea how vocal and bitter the short people lobby was. In Conway, Newman was in classic form. He made a joke about American Sniper and how dumb his sons were in comparison with his daughter. He also called Little Rock a “dump.” Was he kidding about Little Rock? You’re never sure with Newman.

Years ago, one moment really endeared me to Newman. When he finally won an Oscar in 2002 for “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc.(after losing on many other occasions), he told the crowd, “I don’t need your pity.” He then chastised the Academy Awards’ orchestra for trying to cut him off during his speech. He told them they were being “rude.” It was one of Newman’s best moments.

One reason I’ve liked Newman is not just because his songs are funny, but because history plays such a prominent role in his work. Newman was born in Los Angeles and has been there most of his life, but he lived in New Orleans for a while as a kid, and he has family with southern roots. His penchant for southern history is most pronounced on 1974’s Good Old Boys, a concept album about the South, with several songs about Louisiana and the bizarre governorship of Huey “Kingfish” Long in the 1920s and 1930s.

Newman hasn’t been afraid to tackle a subject as tricky or as touchy as race in America. Good Old Boys opens with “Rednecks,” a song inspired by the segregationist governor of Georgia, Lester Maddox. “Rednecks” is the only song I have ever heard by a mainstream singer than uses the word “nigger” (the only other one I can think of is John Lennon’s “Woman is the Nigger of the World”).

We got no-neck oil men from Texas

Good ol’ boys from Tennessee

College men from LSU

Went in dumb, come out dumb, too

Hustling ’round Atlanta in their alligator shoes

Getting drunk every weekend at a barbecue

They’re keeping the niggers down

We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks

We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground

We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks

We’re keeping the niggers down

Newman, of course, is not promoting racism, but satirizing it. And in “Rednecks,” he skewers northern and southern racism, saying that northern blacks were “free to be put in a cage” in places like West and South Chicago, Harlem, Filmore in San Francisco, and Roxbury in Boston. Racism, Newman, makes clear, is an American problem, not just a southern one.

Needless to say, “Rednecks” did not make the Top 40. And Newman did not play it in Conway. Newman did, however, play several tunes from Good Old Boys, including the moving “Louisiana, 1927,” about the horrible Mississippi River flood of that year.

What is happening down here is that winds have changed

Clouds moved in from the north and it started to rain

Rained real hard and for a real long time

Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

The song might have seemed a novelty in 1974, but it became eerily current after Katrina hit in August 2005. Newman’s Good Old Boys made numerous references to depression era figures, but its better songs, such as “Back on My Feet Again” could’ve been about making it in the recession-plagued 1970s, or the early 2010s for that matter. In plumbing the depths of American history, Newman has unearthed the everyday.

Newman has sung about historical topics outside the South, too. His terrific 1999 album Bad Love is something of a history lesson. It opens with the line “let’s go back to yesterday/when a phone call cost a dime.”The Great Nations of Europe” examines the explorers who conquered North America and decimated the native populations. Heavy stuff, and not the type of material most songwriters would want to tackle. But, it’s the kind of song Randy Newman has liked to write throughout his entire career. He is the closest thing to an endowed professor of history that American pop music has produced.

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The University of Central Arkansas, where Randy Newman took the stage last month.

In Conway, Newman joked about how “In Germany before the War” should have been a hit, though the song’s subject–a child killer living in Nazi Germany–was unfit for mass airplay. Hearing it last month made me a little uncomfortable. And yet, the song is not at all explicit. It is disturbing merely in what it suggests.

On a lighter note, “Life Just Isn’t Fair,” about Karl Marx and the failures of communism to combat human nature, also graced Newman’s album Bad Love. “Life” was inspired by a trip to Newman’s school, where “froggish men, unpleasant to see” were alongside “all the young mommies.” The point: ugly, rich men can get the girl. And really, what better motivator is there for men to succeed?

Randy Newman was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, even though his music rarely can be considered “rock.” More appropriately, I think he should be honored with a lifetime achievement award from the American Historical association or the Southern Historical Association.

As Americans, we are products of our history. And few songwriters understand that better than Randy Newman.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian and the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, published through UVA Press.

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Movie Review: Fury

Brad Pitt;Logan Lerman

By Colin Woodward

Fury (2014)

Plot: A tank unit fights its way across Germany during World War II. Along the way, these grizzled, hard-bitten troops teach a wet-behind-the-ears recruit that war is bad.

That plot summary contains cliches. It was meant to. This movie is a cliche.

Someone needs to write a book about how Hollywood, despite all its supposed “limousine liberals” reinforces traditional and conservative values.

Take Fury. It benefits from employing all the tricks of the CGI era. It looks convincing. The film has plenty of mud, blood, and decapitations. The look and feel of the tank’s innards feels real. The acting, on the whole, is competent. Fury is, essentially, however, a remake of The Alamo, in which Americans fight against overwhelming odds.

The film reinforces this idea with some misleading opening titles about American tanks being outgunned by the better-armed Germans. Yes, the German tanks were far superior to their American counterpart, the Shermans. But the Americans had far more tanks with which to wage war, a fact that one scene in the film ably demonstrates. A Tiger is able to pick off several U.S. tanks before being outflanked by Pitt’s crew, which disables the German tank with a shot to its poorly armored rear.

Saving Private Ryan began a new era of (fittingly) violent World War II movies. But even for a war movie, Fury is grisly. Previous entertainments, from Ryan to Band of Brothers to The Thin Red Line, were gritty. But they had an element of humanity about them. The men of Fury, in contrast, only seem to take pride and pleasure in one thing: killing.

Despite the unusually high gore factor in the film, Fury’s plot elements are standard fare. The soldiers are in the mold of the typical World War II platoon. The tank has a Mexican; a nearly incomprehensible and crude redneck; a Bible-quoting southerner with a William Faulkner mustache; a wan, hapless desk jockey whose been thrown in with the veterans; and the tough-as-nails sergeant (played by Pitt). We’ve seen these characters before.

Lee Marvin would have been great in this kind of movie. But he’s been dead a long time, and so instead we get Brad Pitt as the central character. Pitt’s sergeant is something of a sadist. In one preposterous early scene, he forces the new recruit to murder a captured German soldier—shooting the man in the back, no less. And in the ludicrous final act, the film goes into full John Wayne mode. Pitt’s sergeant urges his men to undertake what is essentially a suicide mission, where a handful of men in a broken down tank try to hold off what appears to be a battalion of SS troops.

The film also contains a long, awkward, and gratuitous scene in which the men have a meal with two attractive German women (who are later blown up by stray German artillery). The women look less like people living in a war ravaged town than they do magazine models. And yet, after we have seen countless men torn apart in battle, the director cuts away from the lovemaking scene. No naked flesh in this movie, mind you. Because that would be too much for the viewer to handle. This movie takes pride in not showing any basic human pleasures.

Great war movies are like great westerns. They need strong and charismatic leading men who you will root for, even when those men do horrible things. Brad Pitt, unfortunately, does not have the quality of the great war movie actors. Here, he seems to lack both gravitas and vulnerability. He can be effective in movies like Oceans 11, when he can be suave and snarky. As far as WWII movies go, he was better in Inglorious Basterds, which had the reliable Quentin Tarantino at the helm and was a fairly tongue-in-cheek affair. This movie needs more of an everyman, perhaps Timothy Olyphant or Jeremy Renner leading the tank across Germany

A classic movie like The Dirty Dozen was amoral and often cartoonish. But it had characters you cared about. It knew the movie had to be about more than the killing scenes. Fury doesn’t understand that it’s not enough to have the Nazis be the villains. Countless movies have done that. At the end of the film, we won’t be pleased just because the Americans exacted a higher body count. We want soldiers who are more than just killing machines.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian and the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, published through UVA Press.

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Me and Johnny Cash, Part III: Dyess

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By Colin Woodward (note, this story was read on the show Tales from the South last month)

Turrell

March 2014. I’m in Turrell, Arkansas, pumping gas and wearing women’s boots. It’s cold, and the cars are making slashing sounds as they drive through the mushy pavement of a Citgo station. But, I’ve never been happier to be at a Flash Market.

I left Little Rock the day before as it recovered from a late winter storm. Farther north, things were much worse.

I was doing research on Johnny Cash for an exhibit. My goal was to reach Dyess, a place I had never been before. It’s Graceland for Cash fanatics. The house had been restored by Arkansas State University, but was not yet open. I was going to get a sneak peak.

Newport

My first stop was Newport. Cash played there in the mid-50s, when he had no drummer and was willing to sing at any club, church, or high school gym that would have him. Unglamorous, maybe, but sometimes he shared the bill with Elvis.

I drove north to Newport along the “Rock and Roll Highway,” passing “rocking” towns such as Possum Grape, Nuckles, and Horseshoe. The snow storm had been over for a few days, but many of the roads hadn’t seen a plow. At some ramps, I was the plow—pushing my Toyota Corolla through piles of snow, making a crude path.

Sonny Burgess

At the Newport Rock and Roll Museum, I didn’t see much Cash. But I saw large images of Elvis and many pictures of Sonny Burgess, an Arkansas native and rockabilly legend, who knew Cash in the early days. I told Henry, the curator, I was working on a Johnny Cash exhibit. We got to talking about Sonny Burgess, when Henry asked if I wanted to talk to Sonny, who lived nearby.

I wasn’t prepared for interviewing one of the last survivors of the Sun Records scene, but Henry dialed Sonny’s number, and I talked with him. Sonny still plays with his band, the Legendary Pacers. He was very nice to me on the phone. I don’t think Sonny and Johnny Cash spent all that much time together, but it was fun to hear Sonny talk about Cash, Elvis, and Roy Orbison.

My next stop was Dyess. As I drove through the flat, white landscape of northeastern Arkansas, I thought about what it must have been like for Cash to play one night stands in the early days. Nashville musician Bobby Bare, Jr., once said playing in a band is more about being a truck driver than a musician. I began to understand.

More snow, more slush. Not many trees. Work trucks everywhere, fixing power lines.

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At Dyess, I took a right turn at the Johnny Cash sign, which brought me to the center of town, where the melted snow had made a lake of water, two inches deep. The old movie theatre—in the process of being restored—was held up by 2 x 4s. It looked like a bomb had hit it.

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At City Hall, I saw a high school picture of Johnny Cash from 1950. Cash is wearing a coat and tie, his hair slicked back. He’s decades from becoming The Man in Black. But you can see the darkness in his eyes, the seriousness and determination.

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To get to the Cash house, I had to head back the way I came, crossing two bridges. I took a left on 294: not a highway, but a gravel road, covered in snow. I hesitated for a minute, knowing that a plow had not yet touched 294. I wasn’t sure how far the Cash house was from the main road. And I didn’t know if I wanted to trudge a mile through snow in my women’s boots.

I had a choice: walk or keep on driving. So, I took the turn.
The mud and snow got deeper as I drove. With Outlaw Country playing on my radio, I slammed the car into low gear, hoping for traction, crawling toward the house.

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“I’ve Been Everywhere”

With mud splattering against the windshield, the car slid its way to the Cash house. As I pulled up, a Johnny Cash song came on the air. I swear. The song? “I’ve Been Everywhere.” I swear. That song coming on was a cosmic occurrence: this was meant to happen. My trip had gone from the historical to the mystical.

Johnny was looking out for me.

The landscape around the house was flat, white, and cold. Silent. A single tree was in the front yard. I took a lot of pictures, getting the house from every angle. The restoration was spectacular. The place—with its white paint and green trim—is a time machine. It looks like it is 1935 and has just been finished.

When I was done snapping pictures, I saw cars zipping along a main road not far ahead. I was relieved. I would not have to retrace my steps along the gravel road.

Mr. McCrory

As I headed out of town, I drove back past the McCrory country store. Out front, there were signs with Johnny Cash’s likeness advertising “souvenirs.”

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The front door of the store was sealed shut by an inch of ice. I knocked. No one answered.

A house was in the back, a small, run-down place, about the size of a trailer. I went to the door and knocked. A voice inside told me to come in.

An old man sat in a chair, watching television. It was Mr. McCrory. I told him that I had driven from Little Rock. We talked about Johnny Cash. About the store. He said he was 90 years old and had been born in Italy. He moved to Dyess later and served in World War II in Italy in the medical corps. Mr. McCrory remembered the fish markets in Naples and St. Peter’s cathedral.

I asked him if he wanted to be a doctor after the war. He said he didn’t have enough education, that he had only finished seventh grade.

Mr. McCrory talked about “the boy” opening the store for me. It turned out “the boy” was his son, who must have been about 70 years old. “The boy” let me in.

Inside, the store was—shall we say—rustic. Cramped, cold, and dark. It was a combination of country store (complete with catsup bottles and canned goods), hardware (with tools everywhere), hunter’s shack (there was a tiny stove at the back), and Johnny Cash gift shop.

“The boy,” Gary McCrory, was Arkansas friendly. And he had the look of a true Arkansan: camo hat and jacket, work boats. Rugged. But he said he wasn’t going anywhere in the snow with his truck.
I talked about the Cash exhibit I was working on as water dripped from the roof. Gary said he used to play drums in a band. I told him about my interview with Sonny Burgess earlier in the day.

The pictures of Johnny Cash in the store were interesting, but they looked like they had been there for twenty years. I bought a photo of Cash with June and the music promoter Gene Williams, who’d gone to school with Cash.

As I left town, the sun was going down. The sky seemed on fire, and there was nothing between me and the March sunset: an orange ball meeting an expanse of icy blue and white.

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The next day was sunny and a little warmer. I drove from the Jonesboro to Osceola to do more research. I had a quarter-tank of fuel. As I headed toward Joiner, about 26 miles from Osceola, the gas light came on.

I clicked on the GPS for the nearest gas station. I hurled off the highway, bounding over pock-marked roads made worse by the recent storm.

The only vehicle I saw were service trucks. I drove hard toward wherever this gas station was supposed to be. As I approached my destination, I realized the station wasn’t there. The GPS had screwed me.

Citgo

I punched another location into the GPS—a Citgo station, and not a close one. It would take me another ten minutes or so to get there. I felt like I didn’t have enough gas.

I panicked at the idea of being stranded on the road to Osceola. I rehearsed my pitch to the closest farmhouse wife. “Um, excuse me? Could you spare some gas to a Damn Yankee too lazy to gas up in Jonesboro?” I thought of other options. Surely, a service truck would give me a ride to a gas station, right?

I sped over the empty, bombed out roads. Eventually, I saw tractor trailers in the distance. Where there are tractor trailers, there are good roads. Where there are good roads, there is gas.

I pulled into the Flash Market, where I stood in my woman’s boots in the melted snow, pumping gas. They were wife’s winter boots. Brown things, not made for Turrell, Arkansas. Before we had left Massachusetts for Arkansas, I got rid of my New England boots. Surely I wouldn’t need them in Arkansas.

I was wrong. But those boots got me through the mud of Mississippi County. And Johnny Cash had been looking out for me.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian. He published his first book, Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War through UVA Press. He is working on a book on Johnny Cash.

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