Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Felt Gap

The other day  in class we showed the first two episodes of “Eyes On the Prize,” theaward-winning PBS documentary on Civil Rights movement that was made in the 1980s, and on my way home from work I heard that, while I was busy watching legions of white racists in Mississippi and Alabama throw bricks at tiny school children in the mid 1950s, the USA had bombed Syria and surreptitiously confirmed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

My takeaway? America is full of  mean people and injustice, and it always has been. Nothing changes, it just gets covered up for a time and then breaks out again, like measles or bamboo. If you’ve ever looked at a comments thread on literally any YouTube video, the only conclusion you can come to is that we live in a mentally ill society that deserves to be blown to smithereens.

The news made me want to go out and protest the shit out of something. That’s what you should do in the face of cruel and idiotic public policy. It’s what people did after My Lai and the Tet Offensive. It’s what we did a few weeks ago, with the Muslim ban, and it worked: it got overturned. It’s a thing. But it doesn’t seem to be happening now; people are too confused. People seem to be giving other people the benefit of the doubt. People don’t know which side they’re on.

One night, long ago, the USA bombed Kuwait while I was at a Replacements show. The band, one of the least political of its ilk, mentioned it before playing the song “Sonic Reducer” as an encore; I remember leaving the gig at the Warfield and walking into a small band of protesters on Market Street.

That didn't happen in Oly after the dropping of MOAB, and not just because there’s a windy rain storm going on. I think everyone is waiting for the Science March as well as sunshine. But I feel like sunshine is gone in my life forever.

My sense of unease may be heightened by the fact that the courses I am teaching this year are, quite frankly, downers. Necessary downers, but nonetheless. This quarter I’m co-teaching one on Civil Rights, the Counterculture and the rise of Counter-conservatism. My job is the Counterculture, with especial attention paid to the music; my colleague, Geoff, is a historian whose sandbox (as we say in academia) is the history of the American South. That being the case, he opened class with a two hour lecture on Reconstruction and it made me think of the song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”  

Now that’s not protest music – unless you consider protest music in the widest possible vein, as in, ‘music that comments on the effects of historical events.’ But it seemed worth playing to a class full of young people who had actually never heard it, as it is, in fact, about Reconstruction. The only question was, ought I to play the original version by the Band, or to use the cover – and hit – by Joan Baez. To decide, I asked my Facebook friends.

The first six responses said, simply, “JOAN.” Then the tide turned towards the Band in a flood of argumentativeness that could hardly be stemmed: "Musically the Band itself could be seen as a reactionary response to the psychedlic and never-since-as integrated influences on the pop music of the time -- I'm thinking of top-40 as well as say Jimi Hendrix or Sly and the Family Stone," opines one friend, while another argues "...the song is not explicitly a reactionary protest number in that slavery, African-Americans, etc are never mentioned at all, so it's hard to see it as a direct response to the rise of soul and funk in the '60s unless you're going to pitch pretty much ALL white Southern music as reactionary and urban black music as progressive."

Meanwhile, many other commenters point out, as Greil Marcus once did, that Joan Baez's version turns the line "There goes Robert E. Lee" into "There goes THE Robert E. Lee," as if he is a steamboat churning up the Mississippi River.

God, I love Facebook! How did I live without it? At least, I love my particular iteration of it – I think it’s important to remember that every person’s Facebook page is different: it depends a lot on your curation. If in some ways it is the product of a life well lived, then I have lived the best life ever. If it is just some kind of shadow-version of real life, the reflection on Plato’s ever present cave-man wall, then, well, I don’t know: I still think my cave man wall is smarter, better-mannered and more intelligent than most.

But back to the Band, whose version I played in class after all. (Joan fans should know she has gotten a fair share of time already, having contributed greatly to earlier lectures on Civil Rights protests.) In the book Mystery Train,  the critic Greil Marcus described the song as being less about the Civil War than about “the way each American carries a version of that event within himself.” Perhaps this echoes Robert Penn Warren’s claim that the Civil War is America’s only “felt” history, i.e. history lived in our national imagination, or as Pierre Nora once put it, a way to participate emotionally in history.  It may not be protest music per se, but “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is an important reflection of popular memory of the Civil War.
Jacob Lawrence, Migration Series

Marcus went on to say, “It is hard for me to comprehend how any Northerner, raised on a very different war than Virgil Kane’s, could listen to this song without finding himself changed. You can’t get out from under the singer’s truth—not the whole truth, but his truth—and the little autobiography closes the gap between us. The performance leaves behind a feeling that for all our oppositions, every American still shares this old event; because to this day none of us has escaped its impact, what we share is an ability to respond to a story like this one.”

You know that quote by William Faulkner, “the past isn’t over, it isn’t even past”? So many things this year have conspired to remind me of that that I don’t feel I even need to name here.  Clearly, the repercussions of the Civil War are still with us, which is reason enough to listen to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” again. The gap between everyone's truth has gotten so large. Is there anyway we can close it now?


Corry342 said...

It's a peculiar fact that the best--perhaps only--hit rock song about the Civil War was written by a Canadian. Indeed, Robbie Robertson's mother was from the Mohawk Tribe, so culturally he was just an observer.

Levin Helm was from Arkansas, and while Arkansas was part of the Confederate States Of America, Helm's accent is distinctly not Virginian. Oh well, to "Yankees" like me I guess it was close enough

Not many classic rock groups have written songs about the Civil War. Poco, of all bands, had an entire album in the early 80s, but even I didn't buy it (at one time or another I have owned about 14 Poco albums, so if I didnt buy it that's kind of an indictment). The Faces had a great, if obscure song ("Flags And Banners" on Ooh La La) written by Ronnie Lane, but once again that's by an outsider.

Plenty of folkie/country/singer songwriter types wrote plenty of Civil War themed songs (Steve Earle's "Devil's Infantry," for example) but it just wasn't a rock band thing.

Anonymous said...

Some of my direct ancestors owned slaves, and some also fought for the Confederacy. Morally, they were wrong, and their side lost, but they were brave and they were loyal to what they felt was right. I know of them through research and family lore, and one of the stories passed down concerns two brothers, heads of a farm (not big enough to call a plantation, but it was run with slave labor) and a matriarch who saw the writing on the wall and counseled her boys to sell all the slaves quickly and put the money into gold as the South was destined to lose the war. They refused, not because they believed the south would win, but because to sell the slaves at that juncture meant to break up their individual (enslaved) families as that was what happened at auctions. "We would never be so cruel to OUR negroes" they said. I tell this story to my children to illustrate that we often, as a family, are capable of doing the wrong thing for what seems like the right reason, and to be wary of acting as though we know better when it comes to moral decisions that may be more complex than usual. But the boys were not the original purchasers of the slaves, so you have to grant them at least some small credit for their sentiment.

The ancestors I know of who fought - much poorer men, not slave owners by any means - were lucky enough to survive, but unlucky enough to serve in an outfit from Arkansas that was present at three different siege battles on the Mississippi river where they likely spent months hiding in hand dug caves, being shelled and eating mules and rats until they finally surrendered. Each time they were told by the "yankees" to swear to cease being soldiers, and then they went back to soldiering, back to being besieged. At war's end they could not return to Arkansas because there was literally nothing to eat there, as too few were left to do the planting for the year, so they were posted in east Texas until the spring of 1866, where they were hungry but not fully starved to death. So their story was one of loyalty to the sentiments of men like the two brothers, without the saving grace of being in the ruling classes. You have two choices in a situation like that - lose faith in everything you fought for, or double down and consider yourself a sacrificing martyr whose cause was Just. Wising up and seeing the rationale of the enemy is hardly an option. As a Gulf war or Iraq vet if he lost his leg and buddy for nothing, or for oil, or for Bush and Cheney's ego. They seldom see it that way, even though they know the conflict was FUBAR.

My Aunt Sally dated Levon Helm briefly during a period when The Band was out on the road without him, playing with Dylan. I have listened to and loved The NIght They Drove Old DIxie Down since I first heard it as very young teenager, and the richness of the song never ceases to chill me, at least in some small measure, and usually a lot more if I have put it on the turntable myself. And this was before I knew my Aunt had known Levon. That's just some old family story to me that seems to illustrate that the world is a small place. But the song itself seems like a link into a universal shared history of what it means to be Southern and white.

Anonymous said...

continued, sorry for the length but this is a great topic

I've seen EYES ON THE PRIZE many times, and my brother and I had a cottage industry of making dubs on VHS for friends, and some teachers during the (way too) many years that the incredible series was hard to source. Every child in America needs to see this film series, and the follow up, and be illuminated as to what it means to fight for our nation's ideals.

The story of America is nothing if not a story about racism, and the "better angels" of our conscience, that force within most all of us that tries to move away from racial hatred and towards justice. But we've moved away from darkness by FIGHTING darkness. And fighting is in our blood. Part of me is not surprised that we ended up with a President Trump, a man whom I consider completely unredeemable, whose soul is dog shit.

To be poor is very often to be ignorant. To fight is to rely on a sense of pride, and of the determination to remain inflexible to the ideals you can understand and get behind. We're a nation of "poor but proud" people. And we're often easily fooled.

There's an entire book called The Nobility of Failure that I read once while working in a screenplay about some historical Lipan Apaches. who fought an impossible, un-winnable war which to them was about personal honor, and to their enemy was about Total War and territory, and was fought as a war against savages who had little human worth. To the Lipans this amounted to genocide, lies and starvation. But they were fighting for a way of life, not so much their own lives, which they knew were forfeit from the get-go.

If your family came across the Atlantic to get away from governments and kings telling you what to do, and what to believe or what to pray, the "war of Northern Aggression" seemed a bitter thing indeed. Slavery is all throughout the Bible, and Jesus never freed any, either.

The south LOST. It's a hard thing to swallow for proud people who fought smarter and harder than their opponents, and enjoyed better leadership on the battlefield often, under generals who were seen as more honorable, often, but this song speaks to the injustice inherent in poverty as much as it does to the Lost/ Confederate cause issues. People are poor because someone else gets the good things, not because the poor somehow "lost" the best things in life or gave then away freely. It's lack, not carelessness, and it's an unequal distribution of resources that Virgil Caine sings about. They TOOK the very best, even when you made the moral choice to oppose what you feel was wrong. So it hurts.

gina said...

Wow, thank you, Anonymous, for your very insightful comments - I am from California by way of England, so I sometimes feel I have a particularly hard time understanding anything about racism or the American South. Or maybe I've just been willfully ignorant for a long time - trying to correct that now. Knowing people's personal stories - and by that I mean both yours and Virgil Kane's, which is somehow just as real, helps to close the gap. I am feeling so alienated and just plain embittered by history right now, so every story helps.

KMTBERRY said...

The comments here are FANTASTIC, but might I mention VERY hard to read as medium gray on a pale gray background. Gina- is this something you can fix in settings?

Vivien said...

What great insights, Anonymous. I too have some issues with the southern side, not so much because of civil war itself - I do comprehend that loss and poverty were used to drive a stake between poor white and poor black instead of somehow make common cause (thank you, reconstruction); god knows people with no excuse continue to vote against their best interests for irrational reasons.
However, understanding of south for those such as myself has come comes largely via literature (Oconner, Faulkner etc) - and that really complicates how to see through to the racism more effectively. And what to do about it. Hmm not making sense here. But comes with the romaticisation that seems to lurk.
But yes, every state, city, county in this nation lives every day with the legacy of slavery and the civil war.
Kathy I am reading black on white... your browser?

Corry342 said...

Well, I am reading "black on grey" (is this a Civil War metaphor or what?). Readable but not ideal. I think it is a combination of Format Choices (the blog itself) and how each individual reader is consuming the blog (Browser etc)

I think we have a structure for how everyone sees the civil war itself, but I am unable to muster the strength to explain it.