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.

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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.

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Me and Johnny Cash, Part III: Dyess

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By Colin Woodward

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.

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Hemingway and Faulkner: Seeing Writers in Their Houses

Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Mississippi.

 

I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Hemingway house in Key West and the Faulkner house in Oxford, Mississippi. The two houses are an example in contrast, which is fitting, considering that Faulkner and Hemingway have been seen as a classic example of literary opposites. Both modernists. Both hard drinkers. And yet, Hemingway was a citizen of the world, while Faulkner seemed unable to get away from his “postage stamp” in Mississippi. Hemingway is accessible. Faulkner is inscrutable.

The Faulkner-Hemingway dichotomy is something of a cliché, and it’s probably too facile. After all, the two men contemporaries, who, as far as I know, had no rivalry. Both won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature (and five years apart at that). Both went to Paris to soak up the post-WWII culture. Hemingway wrote clean lines. But Faulkner wrote for Hollywood, where he had to write direct, sharp prose. His short stories, furthermore, are pretty straight-forward. Hemingway was no Faulkner, but he did spend a considerable time in the South. Not just Florida but also Arkansas.

Nevertheless, in my first semester seminar in graduate school, Faulkner was shorthand for a long-winded answer. A Hemingway answer was brief and to the point. By the time I hit my early 20s, I had read a little Faulkner (Light in August and Intruder in the Dust), and what I had read I had done on my own. In Massachusetts, they just don’t talk about Faulkner in the public schools.

Somehow, Hemingway had also eluded me for a long time. I had not been forced to read The Old Man and the Sea in high school. I knew more about Mariel Hemingway growing up than her grandfather. But when I started reading literature on my own, I knew I’d have to read some Poppa.

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The Hemingway house in Key West.

 

After my first brutal, boot camp year of grad school, I needed a break from history books. That summer, I read two Hemingway novels: The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. I enjoyed both books quite a bit. That same summer, I also started to read Charles Bukowski, who was a big fan of Hemingway, or at least the early stuff. I liked Bukowski’s uncluttered prose. For me, in the battle of Faulkner vs. Hemingway, Hemingway had won.

The victory is still his, I think. I haven’t read any Faulkner since a semester-long course I took at LSU in my second year there. Other than The Sound and the Fury, I didn’t like much of what we read. Absalom! Absalom! I found unbearable.

I’ve read some Hemingway since I left school. And my writing style owes more to Hemingway, with his crisp, short lines, than anything Faulkner ever wrote. My book, Marching Masters is in the Hemingway school. An eight grader probably wouldn’t want to read my book. But I think he could read it and understand it.

To get back to the houses: Hemingway’s house is in a place as sunny and warm as anywhere in the continental U.S. It makes sense that the author of The Sun Also Rises would have lived there. Key West is a gateway to the Caribbean. A jumping off point to a wilder world of the tropics.

If you read The Sun Also Rises, you can almost feel the Spanish sun on your back. There’s not much plot. The people talk, hang out, drink, and not get much done. No wonder I liked it in my early 20s. Really, it’s a book about being a graduate student. It could also be a book about Key West, minus the bullfights.

Key West is fun, and you can feel a connection to Hemingway by visiting his house. Hemingway wasn’t far from the bars like Sloppy Joe’s. And it’s still there today.

Key West is a bustling, happy, sunny place–the Bourbon Street of Florida. It’s all about the beach, crazy cats, feral chickens, pools, strip clubs, and having a good time.

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The Hemingway house. Key West.

 

In contrast, Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, is a wonderful example of southern Gothic. Even if you know it’s there, it’s hard to find in Oxford. You can’t really see it from the winding, narrow road that goes past it. It is nestled behind tress. The grounds are dark, a perfect reflection of the dark themes of Faulkner’s work. It’s the kind of house that seems to be hiding something.

But the place also feels mystical. I could see how Faulkner dropped so much money for the upkeep of Rowan Oak (which is not a real type of oak). It’s a writer’s dream. The building drips with the Old South that saturated Faulkner’s prose.

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The grounds at Rowan Oak.

 

Hemingway’s house feels magical. The huge windows open onto the verandas. The sun beats down hard, revealing everything. The setting is lush and green, but doesn’t feel mysterious. The house has tours and tourists all the time. Faulkner’s house, however, feels quiet and deserted. Haunted, even.

Hemingway’s naked prose reflects well the naked feel of Key West. It is a place where clothing feels optional. Nothing in Faulkner feels naked. Rather, he wants to obscure things. Rowan Oak feels Victorian, a house where children played in the garden while their parents schemed inside and hid dark secrets.

However you feel about Faulkner or Hemingway, both of their houses are must-sees for history and literature nuts. Put Key West and Oxford on your bucket list.

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Marc Maron: My New Hero

By Colin Woodward

Lately, I’ve become something of a Marc Maron fanatic.

I first saw him on Conan years ago. I didn’t know who he was then, but he was interesting. I remember him discussing the infantilization of America and mocking older men who wore white baseball caps all the time. Then he made a disparaging comment about Adam Sandler. Someone in the crowd booed him.

Booed on Conan? Who the hell is this guy?

Then his TV show, Maron, came on IFC, and I realized I had to see what this guy was all about. Season one of Maron was good. Season two was also good. Then I discovered his podcast, WTF.

At the sake of sounding like Squeaky Fromme, the more I listened, the more I realized I was on his wavelength. For example:

1.We both got married for the first time in our thirties.

2. We both have spent considerable time in Massachusetts. And we remember what Strawberry Records was.

3. We both play guitar.

4. Neither of us could get through Gravity’s Rainbow.

5. Neither of us understand Captain Beefheart.

6. Both are non-southerners who are obsessed with the South.

And so on.

Marc Maron does the kind of interviews I’d like to think I’d do if I had a podcast. I mean, how many people in the media have talked with Patterson Hood for two hours?

Larry David was a hero of mine for a while. Marc has picked up where Larry left off. Maron’s show is like Curb Your Enthusiasm for the hipster set. Um, not that I consider myself a hipster.

Every now and then, I really get into a stand-up comic. First it was Denis Leary. Then I realized Leary stole his act from Bill Hicks. I was into Hicks for a while until Larry David became famous. Now, it’s “all Maron, all the time” for me.

Stand-up comics are one of the true lights in the darkness. We like them not just because they’re funny, but because they have something to say.

Some stand-ups have an affinity for history. Larry David was a history major at–of all places–the University of Maryland. Marc Maron did not major in history at his alma mater, Boston University. But he has an obsession with the South, which pretty much makes you obsessed with history.

And as an archivist, it was very cool to read this passage from his book, Attempting Normal:

Before hoarding became a phenomenon, people just called it “collecting” or “being nostalgic.” I don’t hoard, exactly, but I get it. It’s a response to our need and desire for purpose, order, definition, and a fortress. It’s a calling that requires constant management, control,  and obsessive attention. I am amassing artifacts from the history of me. My garage is a storeroom and temporary exhibition hall of the yet-to-be-built museum documenting the rise and fall of the Marc Age. I am the curator. I decide the meaning and worth of the collection based on my feelings in a moment. Where does the particular artifact take me now? How do I contextualize this laminated all-access talent pass from the 1995 Aspen comedy festival?

Later, he talks about the dread he feels when he thinks that were he to die, his brother would come by and simply throw everything out.

Maron asks, “Do I have some fantasy that scholars will be thrilled that I left such a disorganized treasure trove of creative evidence of me? Will the archives be fought over by college libraries?”

If I were an archivist in Los Angeles, I’d be trying to get him on the phone right now. Archivists love hoarders.

The more I know about Maron, the more he reminds me of my friends from graduate school: literary guys who also know a little too much about music. I think a lot of historians are frustrated musicians. I think a lot of stand-ups are, too.

Marc, though, has been doing just fine with his comedy lately. He’s the new “King of All Media”: he has a podcast, a TV show, and a book.

The life of a stand-up might be a mess. But comics are brave. Going into battle might be scary, but millions have done it. I’ve even met a few who’ve gone into battle. I have never met anyone who has attempted stand-up comedy. Is there anything more frightening than standing in front of strangers and trying to make them laugh?

We hope that we might be able to make a living from acting on our compulsions. Marc Maron does. Maron has been renewed for a third season. And I, for one, can’t wait.

 

 

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Southern Historian’s 2014 History Book Recap

ford

By Colin Woodward

It’s tough to get reading done, let alone quickly. But in 2014, I managed to get through a few books. Some I started a long time ago and finished last year, others I read just in 2014.

Here’s a recap. They are not books published in 2014 necessarily. But here are my impressions.

Deliver us from Evil. This is Lacy Ford’s long awaited follow-up to his classic 1988 book, Origins of Southern Radicalism. Origins is a book that all U.S. history graduate students should read, preferably in their first semester. The scholarship is masterful, but the argument is more implicit than explicit. And as a literary work, it isn’t fun to read.

Deliver us from Evil has the same strengths and weaknesses. The scholarship is astounding. Ford looked at an amazing amount of archival sources, providing a wealth of material for those interested in the Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, or Nat Turner revolts. The book weighs in at a hefty 600+ pages, with the author taking a sweeping look at slavery in the early Republic and Jacksonian period.

Unfortunately, I found the book incredibly dull to read. Some historians think it’s not fair to judge a book on its literary merit. I disagree. It took me four years to finish this book. And it’s not because I’m a slow reader.

I’m also not sure if I bought the book’s main argument, which examines slavery from the viewpoint of paternalism. I felt like Ford was confusing the rhetoric with the reality: the rhetoric was that slaveholders liked to think of themselves as paternalists, but the reality was that they acted like heartless capitalists. Ford, though, sees paternalism as a means of combating the rise of the anti-slavery movement in the North. That’s plausible, but I felt like Ford very often took the slaveholders too much at their word.

And for all the scholarship that went into this book, it stops at the year 1840. Perhaps Ford is working on another book that looks at the remaining 25 years of slavery.

The American Civil War. John Keegan is probably the most respected military historian of the late 20th century. This book, however, is a huge disappointment.

The parts that examine military strategy are, on the whole, well done, especially in regard to the Union side. But the book seems shockingly ignorant of the vast historiography of the Civil War. The endnotes are slim. Keegan didn’t get his hands dirty in the archives. He makes many rookie mistakes in the first chapter that compares North/South that could’ve been caught by a graduate student, let alone a peer-reviewer.

Obviously, the Keegan name goes pretty far in publishing houses, regardless of the quality of the book.

Parts of the book are incredibly bad, and I am not using “incredible” in its common, over-used sense. I literally could not believe how bad they were. The chapter Keegan included on black soldiers is worthless, the worst chapter I have read by a major historian on the subject of African Americans during the Civil War. The concluding pages can only be described as racially prejudiced against black troops. He says, “the reality [is] that blacks were often terrified into passivity when confronted by the most black-hating Southerners, such as Texans and Mississippians.” Apparently, Keegan had not read too deeply in the literature. This sentence reads like he bought the Sambo myth that Confederates put forth when describing black troops.

But it gets worse. He continues: “[Black troops] simply could not stand up to combat as white soldiers did. Forrest, their grimmest persecutor, was simply stating reality when he said that blacks could not cope with white Southerners, who, in the last resort, were fighting to preserve slavery as the mastery of the white over the black.” That sentence could’ve been written by Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Sadly, The American Civil War was Keegan’s last book.

Destruction and Reconstruction. I always wanted to read this memoir, which was published in the late 1870s by Dick Taylor, the son of Zachary Taylor. Taylor was a Louisiana planter before the war, and he did good things for the Confederacy in the East and the West. He served with Stonewall Jackson for a while, fought in the Trans-Mississippi, and then traveled back east in the closing days of the war.

Taylor is the source for the myth that Stonewall Jackson was always eating lemons. James Robertson once called the lemon story “the myth that wouldn’t die. When I saw Robertson talk at LSU back in the 1990s, one of the questions was, “where did he get his lemons?” Robertson had to politely say that “Jackson loved all kinds of fruit!”

Taylor’s book is worth reading, though it’s heavy on the classical allusions. Just skip over those, though. He wrote with wit, and it is one of the more readable of Confederate memoirs. For me, though, Sam Watkins’s Company Aytch is still the best.

joyner

Down by the Riverside. Charles Joyner’s classic book looks at slavery in South Carolina. It’s one of the many monographs that examined the slave community in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the early 20th century, southern historians wrote books on human bondage that were essentially proslavery. By the mid-20th century, revisionists began arguing that slavery was inherently evil and exploitative.

Joyner was among the many social historians who emphasized the many ways slaves shaped their own world, how they had agency, how the master did not have total control over his slaves.

And yet, Joyner’s book swings far to the end of the slave community spectrum, to the point that slavery, as depicted in his book, seems more like summer camp than a horrible condition.

Still, Joyner’s book is insightful and an interesting read. As I well know, it’s difficult finding the right balance in a work on slavery. Say that slavery was oppressive, and you downplay African Americans’ agency. Say that slaves had the freedom and ability to challenge their condition, and you make human bondage look to have been not so bad. You may even end up playing into the hands of the pro-slavery argument that said slaves were well-treated and happy.

Other books I read last year:

Robert Hilburn, Johnny Cash: The Life

Adam Begley, Updike

V. Elaine Thompson, Clinton, Louisiana

Richard Campanella, Bourbon Street

Jim Guy Tucker, Arkansas Men at War

Roseanne Cash, Composed

I also read Ben “Crazy Cooter” Jones’s memoir Redneck Boy in the Promised Land. But that is going to get its own blog entry very soon.

 

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Writing a Book, Part III: Awards

RobertoBenigniOscar

I am old enough to remember Roberto Benigni winning two Oscars in 1998 for his terrific film, Life is Beautiful. One of the awards was for Best Actor, the other for Best Picture (foreign). Benigni’s reaction was, shall we say, beyond ecstatic. He made your average Price is Right contestant look glum. Don’t ever let anyone tell you he wasn’t happy to win an award. The Oscars alone bring men to tears.

The history trade isn’t nearly as glamorous. The award ceremonies for scholars aren’t televised (maybe on C-Span, I dunno). But winning an award is about the only chance you have ever ever seeing some “real” money from an academic book. And by “real,” I mean 1/1000 of a percent of what Stephen King or James Patterson makes on a book advance alone.

I have submitted my book for several major awards: the Francis Parkman Prize, the Lincoln Prize, the Tom Watson Prize, the Jefferson Davis Award, and the Wiley-Sword Prize. My chances are slim at winning, I know, but this is the only shot I will have at winning one for Marching Masters.

How it works: you send copies of your book to a prize committee, usually consisting of three or four people. They read it (maybe) and then let everyone know in a couple months about who won. Submitting your book for a prize can get expensive. My publisher, University of Virginia Press, submitted for three prizes for me (the Lincoln, Watson, and Jefferson Davis awards). The others I had to do on my own dime.

If you are smart, you will save the free copies your publisher gave you when your book came out and submit the free copies you got to the prize committee. If you are not smart, like me, you will have had no free copies left come prize-time. And so I had to buy copies and then ship them to the evaluating committees. Submitting a book for one prize can run you as much as $100 once you have included shipping and handling.

But the Lincoln Prize and the Watson prize offer $50,000 to the winner. The Lincoln Prize was created by Gettysburg College, because books on Lincoln are not eligible for the Pulitzer Prize (yeah, seriously). The Lincoln Prize, however, is open to anyone who writes about the Civil War. This is one of the advantages of writing for the saturated Civil War market–the prizes can be pretty good.

The Jefferson Davis, Wiley-Sword, and Francis Parkman Prizes are more modest, dollar-wise. But the awards are prestigious. Charles Royster, who was my advisor at LSU, won the Parkman Prize (not to mention the Bancroft Prize). Another one of my professors at LSU, Bill Cooper, has won the Jefferson Davis award twice.

The Parkman Prize is more about writing ability than history, though the history of the winning book has to be good, too. One of the committee members for this year, Geoffrey Ward, wrote the book that that got me into Civil War history in the first place. That book was the companion to the Ken Burns 1990 documentary on the Civil War.

Historians don’t write for money. But like everyone else in this rat race of a country, it doesn’t hurt when you get some cash for something you worked hard on. And in many cases, the books that win the “minor” prizes are better than those that win the Pulitzer.

And so, fingers crossed.

 

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