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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

July 31, 2013: July 2013 Recap

[A recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
July 1: Revolutionary Realities: The French: A series on re-viewing the Revolution starts with how much we need to say merci to our friends across the Pond.
July 2: Revolutionary Realities: Benedict Arnold: The series continues with how we remember our most notorious traitor, and how we should.
July 3: Revolutionary Realities: Ethan Allen: The inspiring and significantly less inspiring sides to the Green Mountain Boys, as the series rolls on.
July 4: Revolutionary Realities: The Declaration and Race: A July 4th special on race and the nation’s founding document.
July 5: Revolutionary Realities: The Adams Letters: The series concludes with how much we can learn from John and Abigail Adams’ letters.
July 6-7: A Crowd-sourced Revolution: More Revolutionary thoughts and ideas from fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours!
July 8: Southwest Stories: Mary Hunter Austin: A series on the Southwestern U.S. begins with the many sides to one of the region’s foremost chroniclers.
July 9: Southwest Stories: Taos: The series continues with three compelling stories connected to one small New Mexico town.
July 10: Southwest Stories: Los Alamos: AmericanStudying the site of our most famous and controversial research project, as the series rolls on.
July 11: Southwest Stories: Rudolfo Anaya: The Southwestern writer whose debut novel redirected American literature—and was just the beginning.
July 12: Southwest Stories: Southwestern Mysteries: The week’s series concludes with a post on some compelling regional mysteries, past and present.
July 13-14: Southwest Stories: Folk Heroes: But wait! The series is extended with this special post on Southwestern folk heroes, cross-posted from my contribution to William Kerrigan’s great blog.
July 15: AmericanStudies Daytrips: Battleship Cove: A series on New England daytrips commences with the limitations and possibilities of Fall River’s military memorial.
July 16: AmericanStudies Daytrips: Plimoth Plantation: The series continues with the multiple complex and impressive sides to this living history site.
July 17: AmericanStudies Daytrips: Fort Warren: How this Harbor Island site brings light and darkness to the American past, as the series rolls on.
July 18: AmericanStudies Daytrips: Concord: Three reasons to visit one of America’s most historic and defining spots.
July 19: AmericanStudies Daytrips: Native American Museums: The series concludes with three distinct but complementary New England museums.
July 20-21: William Kerrigan’s Guest Post: Scholar and fellow AmericanStudies blogger William Kerrigan on Searching for Johnny Appleseed in Massachusetts.
July 22: AmericanStudying Ambiguous Hits: “American Pie”: A series on how AmericanStudies can help us analyze ambiguous pop classics commences with Don McLean’s ballad.
July 23: AmericanStudying Ambiguous Hits: “Buddy Holly”: The series continues with the ambiguous nostalgia at the heart of Weezer’s first big hit.
July 24: AmericanStudying Ambiguous Hits: “Cleaning Out My Closet”: Personas, art, and the confessional in Sylvia Plath and Eminem, as the series rolls on.
July 25: AmericanStudying Ambiguous Hits: “Like a Prayer”: The long-term historical contexts for Madonna’s controversial classic, and how we should really remember it.
July 26: AmericanStudying Ambiguous Hits: “State Trooper”: The series concludes with two ways to analyze one of Springsteen’s most ambiguous tracks.
July 27-28: Crowd-sourced Hits: Fellow AmericanStudiers add their takes on the week’s songs and other ambiguous classics—share yours, please!
July 29: American Families: The Mathers: A series on multi-generational American families kicks off with three generations of one of New England’s founding families.
July 30: American Families: The Adams: The series continues with all that Henry Adams had to live up to, and why I believe he did.
The American Families series resumes tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Any topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to write? Lemme know (brailton@fitchburgstate.edu)!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

July 30, 2013: American Families: The Adams

[As we head into a month of AmericanStudier birthdays—my own, my Dad’s, my sister’s—a series on interesting, multi-generational American families. Add your family histories and stories, public and personal, please!]
On how much Henry Adams had to live up to, and why I believe he did.
Taken individually, second cousins John Adams and Samuel Adams would each be among the upper echelon of impressive Americans; taken together (especially if we add in John’s amazing wife Abigail), the pair exemplifies much of what comprised the Revolutionary and Founding eras. Despite both taking part in the Continental Congress and signing the Declaration of Independence, the two men generally pursued very distinct yet complementary Revolutionary paths: John’s far more national, culminating in his two terms as the nation’s first Vice President and one as its second President; and Samuel’s more local, as illustrated by his influential terms in the Massachusetts Assembly and his continuous and fiery political journalism and activism throughout those years. Quite simply, no family was more central to the Revolutionary cause and its aftermath.
When John’s son John Quincy Adams won the Presidency twenty-eight years after his father, he extended that familial legacy into the Early Republic era. Quincy Adams, coming off a hugely influential term as James Monroe’s Secretary of State, did not meet with the same success as president; “Old Man Eloquent” was perhaps too staid, and the Adams family perhaps too Whiggish, for the moment that would immediately thereafter produce Jacksonian Democracy. But it’s far too easy to understate the significance of one family—one father-son combination, no less—serving as two of the nation’s first six presidents, and (with John’s vice presidency thrown in) occupying the executive branch for four of the first ten total terms of office. Much has been made of Virginia’s early hold on the presidency, but those four executives came from four different families; I think the Adams clan takes the prize.
Given that legacy, it’s understandable that Henry Adams, John Quincy’s grandson, suffered from some well-documented self-doubts, both about his own worthiness and about his family’s relevance to a changed America and world. Yet while Henry didn’t help orchestrate a Revolution or attain the nation’s highest office, to my mind he achieved an equally impressive and more unique success: becoming one of the first writers, educators, and thinkers to engage fully with the complexities, challenges, and possibilities of American identity, history, community, and life. The influences of such a man are not localized in a historic document or an election, of course—but Henry’s legacies found their way into every kind of American writing, across the Atlantic and back again, and helped shape the 20th century just as much as his ancestors had the 19th.
July recap tomorrow, and then the series resumes on Thursday,
Ben  
PS. What do you think? Family histories or stories you’d highlight, American or yours?

Monday, July 29, 2013

July 29, 2013: American Families: The Mathers

[As we head into a month of AmericanStudier birthdays—my own, my Dad’s, my sister’s—a series on interesting, multi-generational American families. Add your family histories and stories, public and personal, please!]
On the three generations that embody the first Anglo American century.
For much of 1633, and again in 1634, London clergyman Richard Mather was suspended for failing to conform to the Anglican Church’s strict regulations for preachers. Wearying of that climate of orthodoxy, and encouraged by colleagues already in the New World (including John Cotton), Mather and his young family took ship for Massachusetts in June 1635. Once there, Mather became an impassioned advocate for New World Puritanism in its debates with the European branch, as in his tract Church Government and Church Covenant Discussed. Four of his six sons followed Mather into the ministry, establishing his name as one of the colony’s most powerful clerical—which is to say also political and social—forces and legacies.
The youngest of those sons, Increase Mather, certainly illustrated the potency of that expanding family legacy, not only in his own ecclesiastical efforts, but also and more tellingly in his multiple other roles: as a president of Harvard College, a recipient of the new world’s first honorary doctorate, an advocate for reinstating the Massachusetts Charter in opposition to the Dominion of New England, a son-in-law of John Cotton, and a contemporary historian of King Philip’s War, among others. If that war indicated one way in which Richard’s idealized Massachusetts was crumbling by the end of the 17th century, Increase was also and more centrally connected to a second such fissure: the Salem Witch Trials. By that time one of the region’s most prominent and powerful figures, Increase had the ability to stop the trials if any individual did; but despite doubts, about which he did write publicly, he mostly sided with his fellow powerful ministers and judges.
I’ve written elsewhere about the two sides of Increase’s son Cotton Mather: his own failure to publicly oppose the Witch Trials, despite even stronger reservations than Increase’s; and yet his impressive and influential advocacy for smallpox inoculation. It’s fair to say, then, that this third-generation Mather minister, named after both of his influential grandfathers, exemplified both the worst and best of the family’s legacies: the kinds of hierarchical power structures that could close ranks around the Witch Trial judges; and yet the kinds of innovative and bold efforts that led the Puritans to Massachusetts in the first place, and helped create the new world and nation of which they were such a significant part.
Next family tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Family histories or stories you’d highlight, American or yours?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

July 27-28, 2013: Crowd-sourced Hits

[This week’s series has focused on how AmericanStudies can help us analyze some of our most ambiguous pop music classics. This chart-topping crowd-sourced post is drawn from the responses and analyses of fellow AmericanStudiers—add your takes, please!]
Following up Thursday’s Madonna post, Matt Cogswell writes, “I love all things Madonna, and I have always felt that people missed the points being made in ‘Like A Prayer,’ especially in its video. Many fail to point out that the Jesus character is the one to help a woman who has essentially just been raped and stabbed. Then, because he is black, that man takes the fall when he is completely innocent. It's also interesting to note that on the original Like A Prayer album, that 'God?' line is not there. That happens on the Immaculate Collection album, inspired by the Blond Ambition concert, when she shouts out ‘God?’ after masturbating in ‘Like A Virgin,’ which makes the song very much an appeal for salvation.
Nancy Caronia follows up Friday’s Bruce post, writing, “It’s so funny, that album is so melancholy to me that it pushes past the outlaw romanticism to the demise of the American Dream.”
Joshua Eyler highlights Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and Five For Fighting’s “Superman” as two songs well worth AmericanStudying. He writes, “‘GYBR’ takes Oz and turns it on its head a bit. Elton John is reflecting on fame, forcing us to rethink our ‘destinations.’ If the Emerald City is fame (with accompanying perils), then we need to leave the YBR to return to home/authenticity. ‘Superman,’ though recorded just before 9/11, ultimately became a sort of cultural touchstone for that time/event. The great hero reflects his desire to be human, to be vulnerable, to put down the heavy weight he carries, to rest. Given the events of the time, it became a reflection on our collective vulnerability and equally collective humanity.”
L.D. Burnett highlights three folk classics: “John Henry,” “Erie Canal,” and “Dan Tucker,” the kind of songs that both she and I connect to Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions.
Erin Kingsley highlights Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock,” a song whose ambiguities were flattened out a bit by the famous Chevrolet ad campaign; absent that link, as Erin writes, “The song is about the (illusory) promise of youth, one of the fundamental premises of Americana, I think.” In response, Osvoldo Oyola argues, “Seger is all about perpetuating myths; reminds me of a piece I wrote a few years ago” on “Old Time Rock and Roll.”
Matt Loveland notes that there are “so many to choose from. Patsy Cline, Woody Guthrie, Willie Nelson, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Buddy Holly, on and on and…” About Guy, he adds, “he’s got an identifiable, mash up style. You’d have to really delve into mid-century blues. The electric guitar story.” And he adds, “Les Paul, Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, Hendrix, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Ray Vaughn. This is a playlist begging to be made!”
Josh White writes, “The Ramones all day long. Punk has an intellectual history.” Bryan Waterman responds, “Fun read. Though I'd foreground Duchamp/Cage -- at least as vital as Emersonian individualism.” And Josh adds, “Plenty of crossover with New York art students and punk, particularly via Velvets and their fans...” For more of their subsequent conversation, check out the retweets in my Twitter feed!
In response to a prompt about controversial and challenging songs and videos:
Sarah Purcell highlights the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” and “Fourth of July,” by X.
Jason Parks mentions Metallica’ “One,” which is based on this film.
James Owen Heath highlights Mothers of Invention’s “Trouble Every Day.”
And Rob Gosselin mentions when Sinead O’Connor ripped up the photo of the Pope on SNL. Shil Sen adds that “she was singing ‘War,’ by Bob Marley, but I gather that she changed the lyrics a bit to more explicitly refer to child abuse in the Catholic Church.”
Finally, Paul Beaudoin makes a meta-argument about the week’s series, arguing that “In American culture, I can’t think of too many places, outside of music, where ambiguity is an essential element.” Paul also highlights, in response to a Facebook conversation about more and less exemplary pop culture icons, Dreamworlds, a multi-part documentary by UMass Comunications Professor Sut Jhally.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Friday, July 26, 2013

July 26, 2013: AmericanStudying Ambiguous Hits: “State Trooper”

[This week’s series focuses on how AmericanStudies can help us analyze some of our most ambiguous pop music classics. Add your thoughts on these songs or any others for a chart-topping weekend post, please!]
On two very different ways to AmericanStudy one of Bruce’s most ambiguous songs.
As this week’s series has no doubt proved, when it comes to music I’m a lyrics guy—by which I mean not just that I listen to them closely, but that I try to figure out what they mean, even when (as with one of my favorite current bands, The Killers) that’s damnably hard to do (“Jealousy, turning saints into the sea”?!). There are no artists to whose lyrics I’ve listened more frequently and more attentively than Bruce Springsteen, and thus few Springsteen songs that I haven’t obsessively figured out. But there are still some that remain elusive to me, their ambiguity defying my repetitive listens and analyses. And at the top of that list would be the most eerie and evocative song on all album full of them, Nebraska’s “State Trooper” (1982).
From its title track on, Nebraska can be located in the American tradition of what we might call outlaw romanticism, valorizing—or at least sympathizing with—the misdeeds of those who find themselves living and dying outside the law. The opening verse of “State Trooper” concludes with an indication that its speaker sees himself as precisely such a justified outlaw: “License, registration, I ain’t got none / But I got a clear conscience ‘bout the things that I’ve done.” Seen in that light, his repeated injunction to “Mister State Trooper, please don’t you stop me,” might reflect an outlaw code of honor, a sense that while the speaker and the law are by necessity opposed, he hopes to avoid violence whenever possible, particularly against innocent men who “maybe … got a kid, maybe … got a pretty wife.” “My argument is not with you,” says Jason Bourne to a Moscow policeman at the start of his trilogy’s final film—before he takes his outlaw fight to the heart of the American power structure.
Despite their cynical attitudes toward the law and power, such outlaw narratives tend to be ultimately optimistic, at least in their sense that there are those who will fight back—and their admiration for such figures. Yet from the final lines of its opening title track—“They wanted to know why I did what I did / Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”—Springsteen’s album is far more dark and pessimistic, portraying its outlaws as embodiments of a fallen and perhaps irredeemable America (although the album does end with an ambiguous song called “Reason to Believe”). While the speaker of “State Trooper” is apparently driving “to my baby,” the final lines suggest that he has nowhere to go: “Hey, somebody out there, listen to my last prayer / Hi-ho silver-o, deliver me from nowhere.” Seen in this light, the speaker’s injunction to the state trooper is simply a threat of more darkness and violence to come, in a world “where the great black rivers flow” and where “the only thing that I got’s been bothering me my whole life.” This is the land of the American nightmare, and its outlaws are simply symptoms of the disease, not a potential cure.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So what do you think? Takes on this song, or other American hits you’d highlight and analyze?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

July 25, 2013: AmericanStudying Ambiguous Hits: “Like a Prayer”

[This week’s series focuses on how AmericanStudies can help us analyze some of our most ambiguous pop music classics. Add your thoughts on these songs or any others for a chart-topping weekend post, please!]
Why the controversial side to Madonna’s hit is nothing new, and why it should be irrelevant.
One of the more successful days in my Introduction to American Studies course (which focuses on the 1980s as a case study) has always been the one in which we discuss the brouhaha over Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” (1989) as an exemplary culture wars controversy. It has so many perfect ingredients to sum up the era: not only the clash between a Hollywood celebrity and “middle America,” between sex and religion, but also protests over a music video, a soda company ending an endorsement deal, and, yes, the Pope. And at the heart of all those debates is a genuinely ambiguous song—I always start that day by dividing up the class and asking half to argue that the song’s about sex and the other half that it’s about religion, and each half have plenty of good evidence with which to make their case (especially since I play the rarely heard album version of the song, which includes the question “God?” prior to the musical opening).
The truth, of course, is that it’s impossible to reduce the song to one theme or the other—that from its title on, the song’s power lies precisely in its conflations of sex and religion, lust and faith, the love one feels for a lover with the love a believer feels for a higher power. The Catholics and other Christians who protested Madonna might not want to admit it, but those conflations are as old as religion itself, as illustrated very potently by “The Song of Solomon.” And they are likewise at the heart of one of the most famous and compelling accounts of faith, that of St. Teresa of Ávila: Teresa’s autobiography includes one of the most impassioned descriptions of spiritual epiphany ever recorded, a moment captured perfectly by my favorite sculpture, Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1645-1652). To be clear, I’m not equating Madonna’s pop song to Teresa’s writing, nor arguing that the intersections of love and faith, the physical and the spiritual, are the same in either (or in “The Song of Solomon”)—but those elements are present in each case, linking these texts as part of an evolving tradition toward which those protesting Madonna had to turn a blind eye.
Moreover, the protests over the video for “Like a Prayer” required an even more willful blindness. Yes, Madonna sings in front of burning crosses at times; yes, she exchanges passionate kisses with a vivified statue of a saint in a church. But in the context of the video’s story, those moments, along with every other detail (such as the appearance of an African American Gospel choir, the leader of which catches Madonna during a free fall earlier in the video) are explicitly connected to another and overarching theme: that of racism, and specifically of the kinds of discriminatory visions that can only see a black man as a killer, rather than a hero—and, perhaps, that refuse to acknowledge the possibility that Jesus was himself far darker of skin than most artistic depictions. The fact that the video became a flashpoint in culture war battles over religion and sex has unfortunately obscured its compelling engagement with these longstanding American themes and questions, and its groundbreaking portrayal of interracial physicality and romance. I’d say it’s time we focus on those elements instead.
Final ambiguous hit tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Takes on this song, or other American hits?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

July 24, 2013: AmericanStudying Ambiguous Hits: “Cleaning Out My Closet”

[This week’s series focuses on how AmericanStudies can help us analyze some of our most ambiguous pop music classics. Add your thoughts on these songs or any others for a chart-topping weekend post, please!]
On the private and public sides to persona, art, and the confessional.
I’ve written multiple posts arguing that Sylvia Plath was more than just the author of “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus,” the autobiographical poems for which she is best known, and I stand by those arguments. But the truth, as I wrote in this post on Plath’s and Mark Doty’s confessional poetry, is that even in those most overtly autobiographical poems it’s very difficult to parse out the relationship between text and identity, to say whether the speaker is Sylvia Plath or “Sylvia Plath,” poet or persona, historical figure or literary creation. “Dying / Is an art, like everything else,” Plath writes in “Lady Lazarus”—and if so, can we say that her literary suicide is the equivalent of her actual one? Where does the line between persona and person fall, and do texts like these accentuate or blur it?
Such questions have only become more prevalent in our multi- and social media saturated moment, where we hear about artists as much as we hear from them (if not indeed far more), and no contemporary artist exemplifies the ambiguities more than Eminem. Any artist who realizes three albums, in four years, named after three different persona—The Slim Shady LP (1999), The Marshall Mathers LP (2000), and The Eminem Show (2002)—is obviously well aware of, engaged with, and constantly pushing the boundaries of identity and performance. And as a result, it is incredibly difficult, both across the arc of his career to date and in any one song or performance, to identify from which persona we’re hearing—much less whether we’re getting a more genuine or more constructed or fictional perspective and voice.
Nowhere is that clearer than in Eminem’s “Cleaning Out My Closet” (2002). The song’s verses seem to be among the most confessional of his career, addressing his absentee father, his (allegedly) abusive mother, his evolving relationships to them, his wife, and his young daughter, and many other aspects of his life and identity. But since the song is included on The Eminem Show album, and since Eminem explicitly concludes the second verse with the line “It’s my life, I’d to welcome y’all to the Eminem Show,” it’s possible to read the verses’ extreme emotions as exaggerated or constructed, part of the combative Eminem persona—a possibility reinforced by the song’s chorus, in which the speaker (Eminem? Marshall?) apologizes to the same mother whom he has so viciously attacked in the second and third verses. In any case, Eminem, like Plath before him, proves that confession is as an art like everything else—and one he does exceptionally well.
Next ambiguous hit tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Takes on this song, or other American hits?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

July 23, 2013: AmericanStudying Ambiguous Hits: “Buddy Holly”

[This week’s series focuses on how AmericanStudies can help us analyze some of our most ambiguous pop music classics. Add your thoughts on these songs or any others for a chart-topping weekend post, please!]
On nostalgia, hipsterism, and the benefits of uncertainty.
Nostalgia, about which I’ve written before in this space, can often seem to a particularly conservative emotion. Not only because it valorizes the past, but also and more crucially because it so often defines that ideal past against the less desirable changes that swept it away. Very much in that vein, to continue a thread from yesterday’s post, is the striking degree to which late 20th and early 21st century American conservatism has nostalgically idealized the 1950s and portrayed the 1960s as the source of all that is wrong with contemporary society. Yet at the same time, nostalgia for the 1950s has also come to be closely associated with another, far more liberal contemporary community, one that could be said to have inherited much of the spirit of the ‘60s: hipsters (see: the popularity of Buddy Holly glasses).
Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” (1994), with its speaker who “looks just like Buddy Holly” and his girl who is “Mary Tyler Moore,” seems unquestionably to be engaged with such nostalgia; the popular and groundbreaking music video, which inserted the band into footage from the even more overtly nostalgic TV show Happy Days, only amplifies that element. But to what end? A case could certainly be made that the song expresses conservative nostalgia, such as in the opening verse contrasting the innocent speaker and his girl with modern “homies” who are “so violent.” Or perhaps the speaker is a hipster, one who recognizes the romantic allure of the earlier era and seeks to recapture it in both his look and his love “that’s for all of time.” Or maybe Weezer and songwriter Rivers Cuomo, no stranger to ironic critiques, are satirizing that hipster mentality as no more authentic than Happy Days was.
If you’re hoping this final paragraph will provide an answer, or even advance a definite interpretation of Weezer’s first hit, prepare for disappointment. But I think that the ambiguity of “Buddy Holly” is a good thing, on a couple distinct levels. For one thing, ambiguity demands critical thinking, forces us to consider how we read a text and how we would make the case for our reading—I’m sure it’s possible to listen to Weezer and simply enjoy the music, but I would argue that their tracks almost always aim to make us think in precisely that way (Cuomo wasn’t my Harvard classmate for nothing). And more specifically, I believe the song’s ambiguity toward its historical subjects reflects our culture’s complex relationship to the 50s and 60s—most of us 21st century Americans prefer the post-1960s world in which Hollywood icons don’t freely don blackface for charity events (to cite but one example of where America was at the start of the 60s), but many (if not most) of our national narratives of the 50s still associate the decade with the worlds of Happy Days, Leave it to Beaver, and those adorable Buddy Holly glasses.
Next ambiguous hit tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Takes on this song, or other American hits?

Monday, July 22, 2013

July 22, 2013: AmericanStudying Ambiguous Hits: “American Pie”

[This week’s series focuses on how AmericanStudies can help us analyze some of our most ambiguous pop music classics. Add your thoughts on these songs or any others for a chart-topping weekend post, please!]
On the straightforward and more subtle sides to a beloved ballad.
Like I imagine many teenage boys in the four decades since its release, I memorized the lyrics to Don McLean’s “American Pie” (1971) during my high school years. Partly that had to do with one very particular moment in the song, and just how much every teenage boy can associate with watching that certain someone dance with a certain someone else in the gym and “know[ing] that you’re in love with him”—and how much we thus all felt at times like “a lonely teenage bronckin’ buck.” But partly it seems to me that McLean’s song captures and allegorizes a more general part of teenage life, the life and death significance that we place on music, relationships, friendships, social status, all those potentially fleeting things we care about and worry about and love and hate with such force.
As this piece on McLean’s official website indicates, McLean intended the song as a tribute both to his own turbulent teenage years and to the even more turbulent American moment with which they coincided—a moment that began (for McLean and in the song) with the February 1959 death of Buddy Holly (among other popular artists) in a plane crash and would conclude a decade or so later with American society and culture in one of our most fractured states. His song thus became an anthem for two seemingly unrelated but often conjoined narratives: “The Day the Music Died,” the story of one of the most tragic days in American cultural history; and the decade-long loss of innocence that is often associated with the 1960s and all the decade’s tragedies and fissions. These aspects of McLean’s song are contained in every section: the February 1959-set introduction, the increasingly allegorical verses, and the far more straightforward chorus.
But there’s another, and to my mind far more ambiguous, side to that chorus and to McLean’s song. The question, to boil it down, is this: why do the chorus and song focus so fully on Buddy Holly, rather than (for example) on his fallen peer Ritchie Valens? Holly is generally cited as far more influential in rock and roll history, but at the time of the crash he had only been prominent for a year and a half (since his first single, “That’ll be the Day” [1957]); Valens, while five years younger, was on a very similar trajectory, having recorded his first few hits in the year before the crash. Moreover, while Holly’s sound paralleled that of contemporaries such as Bill Haley, Valens’ Latino American additions distinguished him from his rock and roll peers. So it’s difficult not to think that an Anglo-centric vision of America has something to do with McLean’s association of “Miss American Pie” and “good old boys” with Holly rather than Valens—an association that, aided no doubt by McLean’s song (if complicated a bit by the hit film La Bamba [1987]), American narratives too often continue to make.
Next ambiguous hit tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Takes on this song, or other American hits?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

July 20-21, 2013: William Kerrigan's Guest Post: Searching for Johnny Appleseed in Massachusetts

[Dr. William Kerrigan is Associate Professor of History at Ohio’s Muskingum College. He’s the author of the wonderful Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History, as well as multiple books on local Ohio history. And he maintains the daily American Orchard blog.]


About ten years ago I found myself in an awkward situation one early June morning in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. I was early in the process of researching a microhistory of John “Appleseed” Chapman and had decided to trace his path backwards from my home state of Ohio through the Northwestern Pennsylvania communities where, as a young adult, he began planting apple trees and back to his childhood haunts in Massachusetts. I had arrived in this picturesque Connecticut River village after a night of car-camping at an interstate rest stop, and decided to go for an exploratory jog around town while awaiting the opening of the local history room at the town library. I knew there was a house still standing in the village that some historians claimed had been John Chapman’s family home, and was delighted when I was able to find it in less than an hour of wandering. It being still fairly early in the morning, and I being unshowered and clad in jogging shirt and shorts, I made the decision to snap a few pictures of it without seeking the permission of its current residents.

As I headed back toward the town green, a police car pulled in front of me and a rather irritated officer jumped out of the car and began to aggressively question me about my business. It seemed that my picture taking had alarmed the home’s residents, or perhaps one of the neighbors, and they had called the police. That my wallet and ID were back in my car at the library parking lot only made things worse. When I explained to the officer that I was actually a professor, researching a book on Johnny Appleseed, and that the house I took pictures of was alleged to have once housed Johnny Appleseed’s family, he wasn’t buying it. That Johnny Appleseed was a real person, and that he had once lived in Longmeadow was a story he was not ready to believe. As local Moms dropping kids off at school in L.L. Bean -branded SUVs crept by and gave me a wary eye, I did my best to grovel and offer sincere apologies to the angry officer. I even offered to accompany him back to the home of the startled resident and offer my sincerest apology and explanation. He eventually let me off with a stern warning and a promise he would check into my story at the library later.

The following day I encountered a much more welcoming reception seventy-five miles to the Northeast, in Leominster, Massachusetts, where John Chapman was born. There no one offered me a skeptical cock of the head when I told them I was searching for Johnny Appleseed. Perhaps this should come as no surprise, as Longmeadow and Leominster are today two very different kinds of communities.  The median family income in Longmeadow is nearly twice that of Leominster, which maintains a more working class feel, and John Chapman was of humble origins. His father Nathaniel, orphaned at fourteen, struggled financially all of his life. Twice he married women above his station, thus temporarily raising his standing before falling on further misfortunes. In Leominster he wed Elizabeth Simonds, from a prominent local family, and the young couple appear to have begun their life together on Simonds family land. The couple were admitted to membership in the local congregational church when John was still an infant and his father was home briefly from military service in the Revolutionary War. Elizabeth died when John was not yet two and Nathaniel was away at war. The young John spent his earliest years in the care of Simonds family relatives in the Leominster area.

In 1780, after a discharge from the army, the still-poor Nathaniel Chapman wed Lucy Cooley, from one of Longmeadow’s reigning families, and the couple set up a home on Cooley land she had inherited. Lucy and Nathaniel were poor and stayed poor, eventually forced to sell their small farm to pay a tax debt. They did not seem to make much of a mark on Longmeadow, and when they and their passel of kids left for Ohio in the winter of 1803-1804, almost no one in the town seemed to notice.  And today in this prosperous community of strivers, the one-time presence of the woe-begotten Chapman family continues to be mostly unnoted.
 
In sharp contrast, Leominster and the North Central Massachusetts region celebrate the life of John Chapman in numerous ways. If you are visiting Leominster and Johnny Appleseed Country, I’d encourage you to check out these sites:

Johnny Appleseed Statue inside Leominster City Hall.  This remarkable statue was carved from the trunk of a local tree, and eventually relocated inside City Hall to protect it from slow decay. The words at the base, “Sowing West,” almost became the title of my Johnny Appleseed book.

Sholan Farms. Located atop a ridge that probably had apple trees growing on it during John Chapman’s childhood, this was the site of Leominster’s last commercial orchard. When that orchard went up for sale in 2000, a group of community activists persuaded the city to purchase the land, and the Friends of Sholan Farms have managed it as a community orchard ever since.
 
Johnny Appleseed Visitor’s Center, Route 2 West, Lancaster. A highway visitor's center, tourist information center, and good launching point for exploring the region. Also features a bronze statue of a young Johnny Appleseed. 

Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, Massachusetts. Located on the site of Bronson Alcott’s short-lived vegan utopian community, the Museum preserves that story and also serves as an art gallery and summer concert series location. While there is no evidence that Bronson Alcott and John Chapman even knew of each other’s existence, it is my contention that the two were kindred souls in many ways, and both products of the utopian and perfectionist impulses of their era.

[Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. Other daytrips you’d share?]

Friday, July 19, 2013

July 19, 2013: AmericanStudies Daytrips: Native American Museums

[If you’re like me, you’re always looking for new places to take your crazed 7 and 6 year old sons/wrestlers in training, while introducing them to some American history and culture at the same time. Even if you’re not like me, daytrips are fun. Because I live in New England, I’ll be highlighting NE daytrips this week, leading up to a special weekend guest post; I’d also recommend prior blog focal points Salem and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. But feel free to share great daytrips from around the country, or the world, in comments!]
On a trio of New England museums that together offer a well-rounded perspective on the region’s most long-standing inhabitants.
1)      Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center: I suppose it’d be impossible to mandate that every visitor to Foxwoods Casino also stop by the adjacent Museum, one of the nation’s two best dedicated to Native American culture, history, and community—but I sure do wish they would.
2)      New England Native American Institute: This Worcester cultural center is far less well-known than the Mashantucket Museum, but provides a strong complement to it, highlighting texts, oral histories, and other materials that help us connect to some of the many voices and stories that comprise New England and American native communities.
3)      Robbins Museum of Archaeology: This wonderful museum, run by the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, provides yet another perfect complement to the Mashantucket and Worcester museums, offering both collections of unique artifacts and compelling exhibitions that bring the history to life.
Each is worth your time and a daytrip—but if you have a few days, they add up to an even richer AmericanStudies experience.
Guest post this weekend,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on these or other museums? Other daytrips you’d highlight?