Monthly Archives: June 2012

If Civil War heritage controversies are getting tiresome

…try a War of 1812 controversy on for size.  A Chicago alderman’s remarks about the 1812 Battle of Ft. Dearborn are stirring up quite a ruckus.

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Filed under History and Memory

A Lexington counterfactual

Those of you who follow the Civil War blogs are probably aware of the SCV’s recent legal defeat.  Those of you who don’t can get up to speed by clicking here.

I’m afraid I can’t give you my opinion on the city’s ordinance or the judge’s ruling because I don’t really have an opinion about either one.  As I’ve said before, the sight of a Confederate battle flag doesn’t offend me; I have about the same reaction to it as I would to the flag of Argentina.  On the other hand, a law against the flying of any flags on municipal poles except those of official government entities doesn’t offend me, either.  It sort of seems like common sense, actually.  So whether the SCV won or lost this one, I’d be cool with whatever.

Let’s indulge in a counterfactual exercise with this very recent bit of Civil War history.  Suppose the law had been overturned.  What then?

What would the SCV have gained from the effort?  They would’ve gained the right to fly the Confederate battle flag from municipal poles in Lexington, VA.  Would it have been worth it?

Sure, Lexington has symbolic value to devotees of Confederate heritage, since it’s the final resting place of both Lee and Jackson.  But anybody who wants to go to Lexington and wave a Confederate flag, plaster a Confederate flag sticker on their car, or march around in a Confederate flag t-shirt can still do so.  Your right to display a Confederate flag in Lexington is as secure as it was before the ordinance, if I understand the situation correctly.

I know the SCV’s raison d’être is to maintain the legacy of the Confederacy, and that perpetuating the display of the Confederate flag falls well within those limits.  And, again, I’ve got no problem with the display of the flag, so long as it’s not done with blatant insensitivity toward the feelings of people who might legitimately be hurt by it.

But when I think of all the causes that the SCV might take up—battlefield preservation, monument restoration, scholarships, etc.—I can’t help but wonder whether this was time well spent.

Then again, it wasn’t my time.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Talk is still cheap

Ex-gov. Ed Rendell of PA wants to remind you how important it is that we be able to learn from our history, despite the fact that he’s the last person in the world who has any business telling you that.

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Was Washington a military genius?

Gen. David Palmer thinks so:

Changes in technology over the centuries, as well as differences in geography and resources, make comparisons seem apples and oranges.  However, it is feasible to measure how well a general did with what he had to work with and considering the opponents he faced.  In that regard, Washington was an absolutely superb strategist, the best the United States has produced, ever.

Personally, I wouldn’t go that far; in fact, I think one of Washington’s own subordinates, Nathanael Greene, was a superior strategist.  But I would agree that Washington was a gifted strategical thinker, able to balance purely military factors with larger political considerations.

Palmer makes his case in a book published last month.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

A couple of updates on the Museum of the American Revolution

Here and here.  Personally, I’m more interested in the collections and the interpretation than the exterior.  I’m hoping they don’t slight the campaigns in the South.

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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites

From a house in New Orleans to southeastern Kentucky

For a supposedly isolated region, Appalachia has a history that pops up in surprising places.

Last Sunday we had a guest singer at our church who performed a great rendition of “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.”  I’d never heard anyone combine these two songs before, but it was hauntingly effective.  The only version of “House of the Rising Sun” I’d ever heard was the one performed by the Animals.

Music buffs have driven themselves nuts while trying to determine whether the song refers to an actual place in New Orleans, whether a brothel or a prison.  Of more immediate interest to us here is not the identity of the House of the Rising Sun, but the provenance of the song itself.  Long before the Animals popularized their version—and before Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Woodie Guthrie recorded theirs—the tune was circulating in the mountains of Appalachia, and thereby hangs an unexpected tale.

In 1937, folklorist Alan Lomax visited the southeastern Kentucky town of Middlesboro on the state’s border with Tennessee and Virginia.  Lomax and his wife were collecting traditional songs for the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture.  While in Middlesboro, he captured the voice of sixteen-year-old Georgia Turner, daughter of a local coal miner, singing a song called “Rising Sun Blues.”  Here’s the recording:

Lomax recorded a couple of other versions of the same song on that collecting expedition, but Georgia Turner’s was the one that made an impression.  He credited Turner as the song’s writer when he included it in a 1941 compilation, even though a few folk recordings of it were already floating around.  Once Georgia Turner’s version appeared in Lomax’s collection, the song took on a life of its own, with various performers continuing to tweak it and add their own variations over the years.  The Animals’ 1964 version is the canonical one, of course, but until Lomax came along and picked it up in Middlesboro, it was just another obscure folk tune.

The reason I think this is so cool is because Middlesboro, KY is only about twelve miles from my hometown, so I’ve spent a lot of time there.  In fact, the church of which I’m a member—the same church where I heard “Amazing Grace” set to the tune of the song Georgia Turner helped make famous—is in Middlesboro.  I knew none of this until Sunday, when hearing it in the morning service prompted me to go poking around online.  I’d always assumed “House of the Rising Sun” originated with the Animals.

Back in 2000 the AP ran a story on the song’s complicated history and the young Kentucky girl who played such a large role in it:

“Georgie, she’s the first one I ever heard sing it,” says Ed Hunter, who played harmonica at that 1937 session in Middlesboro. Still sure-footed at 78, he has outlived her by three decades and lives 200 yards from where her family’s home once stood. “Where she got it, I don’t know,” he says. “There weren’t many visitors, and she didn’t go nowhere.”

Middlesboro then was even more isolated than today, nearly 50 miles of winding roads from the nearest interstate highway. Tucked into rugged mountains just west of the Cumberland Gap, where thousands came west in the 18th and 19th centuries, the town was laid out by English iron-ore speculators. But even before that, mountaineers of English, Scots and Irish stock, including some Turners, built lives in the hills and, in their isolation, preserved a rich tradition of music and balladry.

Out of this, it seems, “Rising Sun Blues” – aka “House in New Orleans” or even “Rising Sun Dance Hall” – bubbled up.

So next time you hear this hit made famous by a British band, you can thank a teenage miner’s daughter from a small town in Appalachia for doing her part.

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Filed under Appalachian History

Assassins in America

If you’re into video games, you’ve probably heard that the third installment of the wildly popular Assassin’s Creed series is set during the American Revolution.  I’m not sure what a member of an eleventh-century Islamic order is doing in eighteenth-century Boston, but the folks behind the game apparently did their homework.

The first time I heard anything about this sect was in a college class on the medieval Middle East, when my professor assigned Bernard Lewis’s The Assassins.  Now every kid with a video game console is familiar with them; it’s the Velociraptor-Chamberlain effect at work, I suppose.  How many questions about the Assassins do you think the guides at Colonial Williamsburg will be getting because of this?

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory