Song of the Day: Nostalgia Upon Nostalgia

Naples

I found Springsteen’s new album in a bookstore in the Naples train station.  Napoli loves Bruce!

I am really enjoying Bruce Springsteen’s new album Western Stars.  Like I usually do when Springsteen releases a new album, I have been listening to Western Stars on repeat.  (It has been nice to take a break from the Hamilton soundtrack). Last week I was walking and riding around Rome, Positano, San Felice-Circeo, Sorrento, and Capri listening to the album.  Western Stars was released on June 14, 2019.  I am guessing I have listened to it about 100 times so far.  In fact, I am listening to it as I type these words.

So far my favorite song–the last on the album–is “Moonlight Motel.”  Springsteen tells the story of an old roadside motel somewhere in the west.  The narrator spent a lot of time at the motel with a woman he loved.  The relationship is now over (did she die?) and the man reflects nostalgically on the old motel:

There’s a place on a blank stretch of road where
Nobody travels and nobody goes and the Deskman says these days ’round here
Two young folks could probably up and disappear into
Rustlin’ sheets, a sleepy corner room
Into the musty smell
Of wilted flowers and
Lazy afternoon hours
At the Moonlight Motel
Now the pool’s filled with empty, eight-foot deep
Got dandelions growin’ up through the cracks in the concrete
Chain-link fence half-rusted away
Got a sign says “Children be careful how you play”
Your lipstick taste and your whispered secret I promised I’d never tell
A half-drunk beer and your breath in my ear
At the Moonlight Motel
Well then it’s bills and kids and kids and bills and the ringing of the bell
Across the valley floor through the dusty screen door
Of the Moonlight Motel
Last night I dreamed of you, my lover
And the wind blew through the window and blew off the covers
Of my lonely bed, I woke to something you said
That it’s better to have loved, yeah it’s better to have loved
As I drove, there was a chill in the breeze
And leaves tumbled from the sky and fell
Onto a road so black as I backtracked
To the Moonlight Motel
She was boarded up and gone like an old summer song
Nothing but an empty shell
I pulled in and stopped into my old spot
I pulled a bottle of Jack out of a paper bag
Poured one for me and one for you as well
Then it was one more shot poured out onto the parking lot
To the Moonlight Motel

I am struck by the layers of nostalgia in this song.  Obviously the Moonlight Motel was new once.  The pool was filled with water.  The fence was not rusted.  Children played on the property.  One could easily write a song about how the motel has faded and become just another run-down stop in a place on a “blank stretch of road.”  That would be one kind of nostalgia.

But Springsteen longs for the run-down days of the Moonlight Motel, when the pool was empty, the flowers were wilted, and the rooms were musty.  This was the motel where he fell in love.  Springsteen likes to write about things that are in ruins.

And let’s not forget that the entire album draws upon a 1970s California sound that is not around anymore and for which Springsteen seems nostalgic.  This is the music of Glenn Campbell (listen to “Sundown”), Jimmy Webb, and Burt Bacharach (listen to “There Goes My Miracle”).

So many layers.

Listen:

How Bruce Springsteen Created “Thunder Road”

Springsteen HiattI am really excited about reading music writer Brian Hiatt’s new book Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind the Songs.  (I would love to get a review copy so I can cover it here).

Here is a summary of the book:

The legend of Bruce Springsteen may well outlast rock ’n’ roll itself. And for all the muscle and magic of his life-shaking concerts with the E Street Band, his legendary status comes down to the songs. He is an acknowledged master of music and lyrics, with decades of hits, from “Blinded by the Light” and “Born to Run” to “Hungry Heart,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and “The Rising.”
 
In Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind the Songs, longtime Rolling Stone writer Brian Hiatt digs into the writing and recording of these songs and all the others on Springsteen’s studio albums, from 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. to 2014’s High Hopes (plus all the released outtakes), and offers a unique look at the legendary rocker’s methods, along with historical context, scores of colorful anecdotes, and more than 180 photographs. Hiatt has interviewed Springsteen five times in the past and has conducted numerous new interviews with his collaborators, from longtime producers to the E Street Band, to create an authoritative and lushly illustrated journey through Springsteen’s entire songbook and career.

Rolling Stone magazine is running an excerpt from Hiatt’s book.  Here is a taste of “How Bruce Springsteen Created ‘Thunder Road‘”:

There were many revisions, including an amusing array of women’s names (In addition to Angelina, Anne, Chrissie and Christina all got a ride before Mary won out). The harmonica part in the intro was, at one point, played on sax instead. A handwritten worksheet from the sessions shows Springsteen’s focus on details like the fill Weinberg plays at the song’s “pulling here to win” climax – he wanted to try something a la the Dave Clark Five. Appel, whose relationship with Springsteen began to fray during the making of Born to Run, recalls a moment when the artist and Landau wanted to build “Thunder Road” more gradually, and replace the electric guitars that come in close to the two-minute-mark with acoustics – in Appel’s telling, he talked them out of it. As it was, Springsteen spent thirteen hours straight overdubbing electric guitar, Iovine recalls. And at some point in ‘75, Springsteen also recorded an eerie alternate version, a solo acoustic take that feels like a ghostly reflection of the released song, as if it’s being sung by a heartbroken narrator decades after its events.

As Springsteen wrote in his book Songs, “Thunder Road” offered a proposition : “Do you want to take a chance? On us? On life?” There was, however, an undercurrent of dread, as there almost always would be going forward. Springsteen was only 24 when he recorded “Thunder Road,” which makes the line “maybe we ain’t that young anymore” all the more striking. “The songs were written immediately after the Vietnam War,” Springsteen told me in 2005. “And you forget, everybody felt like that then. It didn’t matter how old you were, everybody experienced a radical change in the image they had of their country and of themselves. The reason was, ‘you were changed.’ You were going to be a radically different type of American than the generation that immediately preceded you, so that line was just recognizing that fact. The influences of a lot of my heroes from the Sixties and Fifties ended up on that record, but I realized that I was not them. I was someone else. So it wasn’t just a mish-mash of previous styles. There was a lot of stuff we loved in it from the music we loved, but there was something else, too – quite a sense of dread and uncertainty about the future and who you were, where you were going, where the whole country was going, so that found its way into the record.”

Read the entire piece here.  Or learn more about how Springsteen created “Badlands.”

Out of the Zoo: “Irene”

Annie and Irene

I interviewed Irene Stearns my junior year as part of a National History Day project on the Kalamazoo Gals. Irene worked at the Gibson guitar factory during WWWII coiling strings.

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she writes about her friendship with one of the “Kalamazoo Gals.”  Enjoy! –JF

If you’re from Michigan like me, or perhaps you’re a guitar aficionado, you may have wandered down Parson’s Street in downtown Kalamazoo to a run-down factory that used to house Gibson Inc. Even though Gibson no longer resides in my hometown, the instrument making will remain part of its history for many years to come.

Perhaps one of the most special eras of Gibson’s history lives on through Irene Stearns. Irene coiled guitar strings for Gibson in the 1940s;  she worked alongside numerous other women who the company hired during World War II. Aptly nicknamed “Kalamazoo Gals” by author John Thomas for Glenn Miller’s song “I’ve got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” these women received high praise for their quality work.  “Banner Gibsons,” which were crafted by these female luthiers during the war years, are some of the most valuable (and arguably some of the best sounding) Gibson instruments to date. The Kalamazoo Gals are often commended for their courage and hard work, alongside thousands of other women who helped fill the “arsenal of democracy” during WWII. We thank them for opening doors for women in the workforce and praise them for opposing the traditional roles women were expected to play back then. We learn about these women who worked during WWII and even paint them as revolutionaries.

I got the privilege to befriend Irene two years ago when I was compiling research for an exhibit about the Kalamazoo Gals. We spoke extensively about her work at Gibson and it didn’t take me long to realize that she saw herself as anything but revolutionary. Irene worked at Gibson not because she wanted to open doors for women of future generations, or even because she wanted to be remembered as a courageous Rosie-the-Riveter. She worked simply because she didn’t like her old job and wanted a new one. She never thought her story would make the history books–she was just going to work, doing what she had to do to earn little money. She never once thought she would receive any kind of recognition or praise.

We can learn a lot from people like Irene. The extensive human narrative we call history is filled with ordinary characters who never expected to be remembered. The parts of their lives that we find fascinating, or inspirational even, they saw as normal. It often makes me wonder: Which ordinary actions I take today could be seen as extraordinary tomorrow? How will my steps here and now affect the ones future generations will be able to take in the future?

I don’t know the answer to these questions; I probably never will. However I do know from Irene’s story that the little things matter. The way I work, the way I meet challenges and take opportunities will contribute to the way I am remembered. It’s impossible for me to know what future historians will think when they look back on my story–but I want them to see that I did what I could to make it the best one I could write.

American Lonesome

Lonesome BruceI just learned about Gavin Cologne-Brookes new study of Bruce Springsteen’s music, American Lonesome: The Work of Bruce Springsteen.  LSU Press will publish it in November.

Here is a description from the LSU Press website:

American Lonesome: The Work of Bruce Springsteen begins with a visit to the Jersey Shore and ends with a meditation on the international legacy of Springsteen’s writing, music, and performances. Gavin Cologne-Brookes’s innovative study of this popular musician and his position in American culture blends scholarship with personal reflection, providing both an academic examination of Springsteen’s work and a moving account of how it offers a way out of emotional solitude and the potential lonesomeness of modern life.

Cologne-Brookes proposes that the American philosophical tradition of pragmatism, which assesses the value of ideas and arguments based on their practical applications, provides a lens for understanding the diversity of perspectives and emotions encountered in Springsteen’s songs and performances. Drawing on pragmatist philosophy from William James to Richard Rorty, Cologne-Brookes examines Springsteen’s formative environment and outsider psychology, arguing that the artist’s confessed tendency toward a self-reliant isolation creates a tension in his work between lonesomeness and community. He considers Springsteen’s portrayals of solitude in relation to classic and contemporary American writers, from Frederick Doug-lass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Dickinson to Richard Wright, Flannery O’Connor, and Joyce Carol Oates. As part of this critique, he discusses the difference between escapist and pragmatic romanticism, the notion of multiple selves as played out both in Springsteen’s work and in our perception of him, and the impact of performances both recorded and live. By drawing on his own experiences seeing Springsteen perform—including on tours showcasing the album The River in 1981 and 2016—Cologne-Brookes creates a book about the intimate relationship between art and everyday life.

Blending research, cultural knowledge, and creative thinking, American Lonesome dissolves any imagined barriers between the study of a songwriter, literary criticism, and personal testimony.

Episode 38: Jesus Is the Rock That Rolls My Blues Away

Christianity Podcasthas had a complicated relationship with rock and roll music. For some, this style is the “devil’s music,” arguing that even Christian rock music is evil. For others, rock and roll is just an art form like any other, whether the lyrics are “secular” or faith inspired. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling both discuss their experiences with rock music and the Christian faith. They are joined by Randall Stephens (@Randall_Stps), author of The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ’n’ Roll.

The Blues Is Not “Slave Music”

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Bluesman Charlie Patton

I learned a lot from Lamont Pearley Jr.’s piece at Black Perspectives on the historical roots of blues music.  Here is a taste:

Contrary to what some people believe, the blues is not “slave music.” Although it was cultivated by the descendants of slaves, the blues was the expression of freed African Americans. The Great Migration directly influenced the blues’ many evolutions. As Black people moved from the South to northern cities, the music reflected the new urban terrain in which the people set up communities. However, the general belief that the blues comes out of slavery lasts to this day, passed down from its predecessors, including the Black SpiritualsSlave SecularsCorn Ditties (also known as “Field Hollers” and “Corn-Field Ditties”), and String music. As a folklorist who performs the traditional style of blues music, I have had the opportunity to speak with and interview many who revere the blues, yet are misinformed about the culture and experience of the blues people who created the musical expression.

The beginnings of the blues can be traced to the late 1860s, arguably the most vicious and violent period in the United States. Vigilante justice was at an all-time high, and by 1889, the lynching of African Americans surged dramatically. The bluesman and blueswoman emerged in this difficult period, along with the stories of folk heroes translated to song and the new venues in which the music would be performed. The blues did not speak of the life of the enslaved but of the experiences of freed men and women during the periods of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. It spoke of cotton bales/gins, boll weevil, juke houses, and sharecropping. Farming and sharecropping were the starting places for most of the legendary blues musicians celebrated today, including Charlie PattonRubin LaceySon HouseHowling WolfMuddy Waters and the most famous in recent generations, B.B. King.

Read the rest here.

Episode 28: That Memphis Sound

 

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Otis Redding. Booker T and the M.G.s. Eddie Floyd. Isaac Hayes. The Staples Sisters. What do all of these classic soul and R&B artists have in common? Stax Records. As he toured the history of the Civil Rights Movement this summer, host John Fea included a stop at the Stax Museum (@StaxMemphis) in Memphis, Tennessee. Eager to relive the experience and share such attractions as a floor-to-ceiling record room and Isaac Hayes’s gold-plated Cadillac, Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling are joined by the museum’s executive director, Jeff Kollath. They discuss the importance of that “Memphis Sound” for the city as well as creating a “usable past” with popular music history.

*The Rising* at Fifteen

1573c-bruce-springsteen-the-rising

In honor of the 15th anniversary of the The Rising, I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s 9-11 album several times on my recent drive from Mechanicsburg to Princeton and back.

I have written about The Rising several times here at the blog.  Here are some of those pieces:

Rise Up: Springsteen in Pittsburgh” (September 13, 2016)

Why September 11 is About Vocation” (September 10, 2011 and September 11, 2014)

Bruce Springsteen’s Spiritual Vision for America” (March 6, 2012)

Many of themes I wrote about–vocation, calling, courage, faith, hope, community, loss and tragedy–continued to resonate with me as a drove down the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

“May your strength give us strength

May your faith give us faith

May your hope give us hope.

May your love give us love.”

Over at Salon, David Masciotra reflects on the 15th anniversary.

Here is a taste:

“The Rising” demonstrated that Springsteen, already an uncontested legend, and his band, already one of the best in rock history, were not merely a classic rock expression of nostalgia. They could adapt to a rapidly changing world and musical landscape, even in the worst of circumstances and with the most brutal of muses, and provide music that sounded and felt built for the present.

Springsteen has often explained that he aspires to write songs with “blues verses and gospel choruses.” “The Rising” maximized that formula. “Lonesome Day” — one of Springsteen’s best songs — rocks with abandon, even while integrating country elements into its introduction and musical break, to describe a scene of devastation. “House is one fire / Viper’s in the grass . . . ” Springsteen sings. The chorus offers a secular prayer of revivification: “It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, yeah!”

The simplicity of Springsteen’s faith claim that somehow, even if it is hard to imagine, everything will turn out alright is another force allowing the record to transcend its historical inspiration. “The Rising,” an anthem of life, death and love giving an awe-filled depiction of how firefighters moved through what Springsteen calls “secular stations of the cross,” soon became the campaign theme for Barack Obama’s campaign. “My City of Ruins,” making great use of music similar to Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” describes communal destruction and individual despair before a chorus of “Come on, rise up!” Its message of social uplift caused it to resonate in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and Christchurch, New Zealand, after the city suffered an earthquake in 2011.

Before playing “My City of Ruins” at a benefit for 9/11 survivors and family members in Red Bank, New Jersey, Springsteen said, “This is a song I originally wrote for Asbury Park. You write songs, and you hope that they end up where people need them. So, this is a gift from Asbury Park to New York City.”

The man in the parking lot was right. It seems that people will always need the songs of “The Rising.” When a friend takes her last breath, when a spouse slips away, when a natural disaster leaves a city in ruins, or when the victory of an unqualified, bigoted demagogue turns a national election into a lonesome day, Springsteen’s exploration of human tragedy and triumph — from the funeral of a lover to the house party of a friend — will inspire those in need to drop the needle and pray.

After Springsteen sings “I drop the needle and pray,” near the end of “Mary’s Place,” the Alliance Singers, a New Jersey gospel choir formed in the wake of 9/11 and personally recruited by Springsteen for “The Rising,” shout with church fervor and ecstasy, “Turn it up!”

That’s as good advice as any.

Read the entire piece here.

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 6

Stax_Museum_Memphis_TN_01

For previous posts in this series click here.

We spent a lot of time in the bus today as we drove from Birmingham to Memphis.  For me the highlight was tearing my calf muscle while running through the pouring rain to make it back to the bus on time after lunch.

I cannot put much weight on my leg, but I was able to hobble my way through the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.  If you want to learn more about Stax Records I would encourage you to watch this documentary.  (Below is the first of 9 segments):

While poking around online I found John Schaefer‘s short post comparing Motown to Stax.  Here is a taste:

Motown and Stax. The two great labels of American soul and R&B. There is really no good way to prove that one label was better than the other – but that won’t stop us from asking the question. After all, this is the fun part of being a fan. Sports fans, I have to admit, enjoy arguing about who has the best centerfielder or middle relief pitching or defensive front line as much as we do actually watching games. So Motown vs Stax may be the musical equivalent of Mickey Mantle vs Willie Mays – an argument you can never settle – but who cares?

As for me, I love the Stax Records roster of Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T and the MGs. Sam and Dave can be added to that list, too, though they were part of the alliance with the major label Atlantic Records. It’s interesting to note that this legendary institution of black music was founded by white guys (actually, a guy and his sister); and the fact that they had a color-blind house band as early as the early 60s is pretty great. Also, the records had a grit and a sense of audio verite that was and is noticeably different from the slick, highly produced sound of Motown.

The Stax Museum tells the story of this historic record label through a narrative of interracial cooperation.  It is clear that the guardians of the Stax legacy believe that the cooperation between blacks and whites was representative of what the Civil Rights Movement hoped to achieve in both Memphis and the nation.  The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis was not only a national tragedy for the Civil Rights Movement, but it was also a tragedy for Stax’s vision of interracial cooperation, at least in the music industry.  Consider this line from the museum website:

Memphis’ racial tension came to a head when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis after speaking to the city’s striking sanitation workers (the Lorraine had been a regular gathering place for Stax employees, both black and white).

When citizens rioted in the streets after King’s murder, Stax’s building was left untouched, but the studio’s atmosphere as a creative respite with no regards for race was forever altered.

The Stax Museum (and the website) does not elaborate on how this “creative respite was forever altered,” but it is hard not to interpret this as a critique of the Civil Rights Movement’s turn toward Black separatism and Black power.

Today we continue in Memphis and then make our way to Nashville.  Stay tuned.  I will leave you this classic Stax hit from the Staples Sisters:

And a bonus track from Booker T & the MG’s:

Take a History Course on Dolly Parton

Dolly_Parton_with_Larry_Mathis_and_Bud_BrewsterJacey Fortin of The New York Times reports on a history course at the University of Tennessee focused on the life and times of country singer Dolly Parton.  The course is taught by historian Lynn Sacco, author of Unspeakable: Father-Daughter Incest in American History.

Check out Sacco’s course website here.

Here is a taste of the course description:

History honors students look at how a “hillbilly” girl from Appalachia grew up to become an international one-word sensation. The course pulls students in to study someone they thought they already knew and familiarizes them with analyzing popular culture as a historical source. Reading about how hillbillies and feuds began as made-up characters and tropes in novels and cartoons to the rise of hillbilly music to Christian entertainment and the thread of tourism, students see the processes by which fiction often becomes fact, and how heritage is a blend of the real and the imagined.

Here is a taste of Fortin’s article:

According to Dr. Sacco’s syllabus, the seminar looks at a history of the 20th century not from the vantage point of elites, but through the eyes of Ms. Parton, “a poor white girl born in midcentury Appalachia.”

It has a wealth of reading materials, including Ms. Parton’s own 1994 book, “Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business,” and a slew of contemporary articles from periodicals such as The Tennessee Magazine, The Knoxville News Sentinel and The New York Times. Their topics range from child labor in the early 20th century to the Kennedy-era Appalachian Regional Commission and modern economic anxiety in the region.

Read the rest here.

 

Music and the U.S. Survey

I have not taught the second half (1865-present) of the United States survey course in over fifteen years.  My former students at Valparaiso University might remember me coming into class with a small boom-box and playing music as I lectured. But since arriving at Messiah College and focusing solely on the first half of the survey, I have, for the most part, put my boom box away. (Having said that, I used to play a lot of music in my “Immigrant America” course, but I have not taught it in several years).

I got a bit nostalgic about the second half of the U.S. survey when I read Patrick Iber’s post at the “Teaching United States History” blog.  It is titled “The Soundtrack of the Survey, 1865-Present.”

Here is part of Iber’s soundtrack:

The Civil War:

  • Battle Cry of Freedom, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zhCheCryopA (Battle Cry of Freedom has both Union and Confederate versions, so students can compare the different meanings of freedom that each gives to the cause.)

Reconstruction:

Capital and Labor:

Women’s emancipation,

Jim Crow:

World War I:

Roaring 1920s:

The Great Depression:

The New Deal:

World War II

Read the rest here.

 

Springsteen at 65

Bruce is going to be 65 next week.  Over at History News Network, John W. Johnson of the University of Northern Iowa offers three reasons why American historians should take notice:


1.  Springsteen holds an important place in the history of rock music.
2.  Springsteen addresses historical themes and events in his music.
3.  Springsteen is ubiquitous as a public figure.

Here is a taste of Johnson’s piece:

In 1984, Ronald Reagan appropriated the chorus from “Born in the USA” for his upbeat re-election campaign. Springsteen responded by inquiring from the stage: Has the president “actually read” the lyrics to “Born in the USA”? A key stanza features an archetypal veteran expressing some not so optimistic sentiments: “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/Out by the gas fires of the refinery/I’m ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.”
During the last few years, hardly a week has gone by without “a Springsteen story” hitting the news. Some examples: 1) Springsteen delivers the keynote address at the South By Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Festival; 2) Springsteen is recognized to receive Kennedy Center Honors; 3) Springsteen stumps for Barack Obama in the final stages of the 2012 presidential campaign; 4) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie claims to have attended more than 100 Springsteen concerts; 5) Fans of The Boss submit more than 2000 videos for possible inclusion in the crowd-sourced film, “Springsteen and I”; 6) Boss: The Biannual Online-Journal of Springsteen Studies publishes its first issue with articles bearing such esoteric titles as “Springsteen as Developmental Therapist: An Autoethnography”; 7) A scrap of paper with Springsteen’s handwritten working lyrics for “Born to Run” sells at a Southeby’s auction for $197,000; and 8) Springsteen stars in a short western, “Hunter of Invisible Game,” reminiscent of John Ford’s “The Searchers.”
Since 2005, long articles on Springsteen and his music have appeared in such serious publications as The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and The New Yorker. In 2013, Rolling Stone published Collector’s Edition—Bruce, containing pictures and four decades of Springsteen interviews. Perhaps only Bob Dylan, among American singer-songwriters of the last fifty years, has inspired more book-length studies than Springsteen.
Here’s another rough index of Springsteen’s impact on contemporary popular culture: My impressionistic survey of the music played in the background before and after commercial breaks on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” reveals that Springsteen is by far the most featured artist. Occasionally the hosts and guests on the program even joke about who will be able to claim the privilege of having such Springsteen standards as “Badlands” or “Thunder Road” play over and around their comments.
So . . . love Springsteen or hate him. You just can’t ignore him.
If you’re a historian of recent America, Springsteen should be on your playlist AND in your syllabus. Now eligible for Medicare, Springsteen continues to create, perform, entertain, campaign and provoke.
A very happy 65th birthday, Bruce! Rock on!

I would also add that Springsteen is an important figure in American religious history.  

HT: Tim Lacy

The Author’s Corner with Marc Ferris

Marc Ferris is holds an M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has written for the New York Times, Newsday, and other venues. This interview is based on his new book, Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely History of America’s National Anthem (John Hopkins University Press, August 2014).

JF: What led you to write Star-Spangled Banner?

MF: In 1996, while sitting in a graduate history seminar at Stony Brook University, I searched for a topic to write about. As a guitarist, bass player and drummer, I wanted to combine my two interests of history and music and the thought flashed into my head: every American knows The Star-Spangled Banner. The 200th anniversary would arrive in the not-too-distant future and the song had a lot of history – and controversy – behind it: think Jimi Hendrix.

Though Americans may revere the song for its official status as the national anthem, I had never heard anyone praise the tune. All I recalled were complaints: it is hard to sing, no one can remember the words of the first verse (there are four) and it is war-like. When I realized that it took Congress 117 years from the song’s inception to make it the anthem and surmised (incorrectly) that they did so to bind the country through patriotism during the Great Depression in 1931, I figured I had a decent paper topic.

To my surprise, I discovered that few books had been written about what I contend is the most controversial song in United States history and after conducting a semester’s worth of research, I knew had discovered something big. One professor in the department implored me to drop the topic, but I never considered taking his advice and managed to assemble a sympathetic committee. I am forever be grateful to professors Richard F. Kuisel, Wilbur R. Miller and Nancy Tomes for encouraging me. They knew that I loved the subject and would not be dissuaded, so they approved the topic for my dissertation.

After receiving a Smithsonian Institution fellowship, I spent the summer of 1999 gathering sources at archives in Washington, D. C., Baltimore and Frederick, Maryland. Then, life intervened and the project stalled. I had two kids and work as a freelance writer took up a lot of time. Then, as the newspaper business plummeted, I became a public relations executive. Not getting my Ph. D. or starting on the book project became the great regret of my life. As a sports fan, I cringed every time I heard the song, knowing that I was squandering a great opportunity.

Ever since I latched onto the topic, I had always marked 2014 in my mind, since it represented the song’s bicentennial. Then, in 2012, after a few personal setbacks, inspiration struck. I realized that if 2014 came and went without my completing the project, I would hate myself, so I flipped the switch in my mind, dusted off my thigh-high mound of documents and spent every waking moment outside of work writing (except for bathing, sleeping, eating, exercising and playing music). By the end of the year, I had finished a first draft.

To this day, I am flummoxed that no one had written anything substantial about the song in the interim. Many books have appeared chronicling single tunes, including My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, America the Beautiful and God Bless America, but these titles, while interesting and informative, merely circled the bulls-eye, in my opinion. The Star-Spangled Banner is the official national anthem and obviously occupies a distinctive position in the nation’s history. Even if I had come across a competing book about the anthem, I knew that I had compiled a great trove of documents and had developed a singular interpretation of the song.

Despite the fact that just about every American has heard the anthem played many times in his or her lifetime and that the bicentennial loomed, the New York publishing houses wanted nothing to do with “serious” history, as one agent called it. I didn’t mind, knowing that it’s easy for the gatekeepers to say no. Their indifference gave me the freedom to write the book I wanted to write – based on scholarship but accessible to every American with even a passing interest in the song. Had I not been so fortunate to link up with Johns Hopkins University Press, I would have published it myself.

There is no substitute for crafting a history book based on a solid foundation of research and dynamite topical material. The one lesson I would impart to anyone taking on a major project – not just a book – is that by scooping up spoonfuls of dirt, a mountain appears.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Star Spangled Banner?

MF: Studying an important musical composition like The Star-Spangled Banner presents a unique prism to explore deeper historical trends, including in this case the intersection between patriotism and religion, known as civil religion, the use of music as propaganda and competing definitions of patriotism. The most controversial song in United States history, it is the true people’s anthem and it has exerted a strong cultural hold over American culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Star-Spangled Banner?

MF: Many books relate the details about how Francis Scott Key came to write the song in Baltimore harbor as the English Navy shelled Fort McHenry through the night of September 13 and 14, 1814. This book tells the rest of the story and anyone who reads it will never look at the song the same way again. Every five or six pages, a fact or issue of interpretation will cause readers to think “wow, that’s interesting, I never knew that.”

Going through the final proofs, I decided to make a list of fun facts related to the song. I quickly complied 30 without much digging. Here are five of the most interesting:

1. Shakespeare wrote the phrase “by spangled star-light sheen” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and “what Stars do Spangle heaven with such beauty?” (The Taming of the Shrew).

2. Anyone with United States currency in a pocket or purse is carrying around a paraphrase of a line in the fourth verse of The Star-Spangled Banner, “In God is Our Trust,” parsed to In God We Trust and printed on coins since the Civil War and paper bills beginning in 1957.

3. The words of To Anacreon in Heaven, the song that Francis Scott Key borrowed for the melody of The Star-Spangled Banner, is a sly 1700’s paean to drinking and sex. Though understated, the line “I’ll instruct you, like me to entwine; The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine” is unambiguous.

4. In one of the most incredible ironies in United States history, a slave-owning southerner whose entire family supported the Confederacy wrote the Union anthem (Francis Scott Key, The Star-Spangled Banner), while an anti-slavery Northerner (Daniel Decatur Emmett) wrote Dixie, the Southern anthem.

5. Jimi Hendrix is hardly the first musician whose rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner anthem created a backlash: ragtime performers in the 1890’s and jazz bands in the 1930s played idiosyncratic versions that also raised an uproar. In 1968, Aretha Franklin and Jose Feliciano delivered controversial, individualistic versions of The Star-Spangled Banner almost a year before Jimi Hendrix performed his incendiary version at Woodstock.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MF: At the age of 13, my family moved to Israel for a year and living there, surrounded by ancient ruins and enmities, a love for the past seeped into my soul. I goofed off throughout high school and in my first semester of senior year, I decided to buckle down and got good grades in the required United States history course. In college, I also took a lackadaisical approach to studies until sophomore year, when, during another required course in modern United States history, I internalized the material due to an inexplicable interest and got an A on a 100 question multiple choice test.

While talking with a classmate at a party, we discussed our majors and I told him I planned to study sociology. He said “if you liked social studies last year, you should think about being a history major.” As soon as he said the word “history,” the noise faded, a light came down from the sky and the term echoed in my head. The next day I marched down to the administration office declared my new major. I am not sure whether to thank or curse Steve Essig, but from that day on, I became Mister History, finished my undergraduate years with great grades and decided that I wanted to be a history professor. I earned a Master’s Degree in the subject, taught at many top-flight institutions and entered a Ph. D. program, where I discovered a topic that I love.

JF: What is your next project?

MF: This book is in its first week of distribution and I still have a 9 to 5 job, so the next book project seems far off. I would love to conduct further research into the anthem, digging deeper into all the issues that I could only raise but not fully explore. It would be interesting to write a more journalistic book or long-form magazine article about what the anthem means to Americans of diverse backgrounds, based on concerted travel across this great land, but someone would have to fund that.

More traditional themes I would like to explore include a history of country music (it’s a lot more diverse than most people think) and a history of bourbon – the spirit. Both are experiencing exploding popularity, but I would take the same “serious” approach that I expended on the country’s anthem – based on copious research but accessible to anyone remotely interested in the topic.

JF: Great stuff, thanks Marc! I should also add that I was also a student in that 1996 Stony Brook University seminar that Marc mentioned above.  Also check out this interview with Marc on MSNBC.

Thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner.

Springsteen Thursday: "The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle" Turns 40

It looks like a big Springsteen morning here at The Way of Improvement Leads HomeNovember 5 marked the fortieth anniversary of Springsteen’s second album, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.

Here is a taste of Melanie Paggioli’s article on the album at The Friends of Bruce Springsteen Special Collection blog:

Bruce Pollack in the New York Times writes: “In an era of diminishing returns, false prophets and false bottoms, where the best of our instant pop-up superstars are either choked off, laid back, lame or laid out flat…. it is with a great sense of relief that I announce to disbelievers that Bruce Springsteen has delivered another stone, howling, joyous monster of a record…..”

Pollack ended his review with a prophetic “Can you imagine what his third album will be like?”

Many fans didn’t discover The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle until that third album emerged, and Born to Run caught their attention when it came on the radio and compelled them to buy a ticket to the next Springsteen show they could. They tracked down and bought his first two albums to learn where this third masterpiece had come from.

As Springsteen’s career grew, critics continued to praise the album as its place in his body of work was becoming clearer.

Springsteen Thursday: BOSS: The Biannual Online-Journal of Springsteen Studies

I just learned about this journal today.  Here is a summary:

BOSS: The Biannual Online-Journal of Springsteen Studies is a new open access academic journal that publishes peer-reviewed essays pertaining to Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s immense body of work and remarkable musical career has inspired a recent outpouring of scholarly analysis. BOSS will create a scholarly space for Springsteen Studies in the contemporary academy. We seek to publish articles that examine the political, economic, and socio-cultural factors that have influenced Springsteen’s music and shaped its reception. The editors of BOSS welcome broad interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches to Springsteen’s songwriting, performance, and fan community, as well as studies that conform to specific disciplinary perspectives.

Please submit articles between 15 and 25 pages that conform to The Chicago Manual of Style to Springsteenstudies@gmail.com by January 1st, 2014. Authors will be notified of acceptance by March. The first issue of BOSS will be published in June, 2014, which marks the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Born in the U.S.A

The journal is connected with The Friends of Bruce Springsteen Special Collection at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, NJ.