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Monday, June 30, 2014

June 30, 2014: AmericanMythbusters: The Pledge of Allegiance

[As is the case with any nation, American identity has been built on a number of central myths—and occasions like the 4th of July bring them out in force. So this week I’ll be highlighting and challenging five such myths, leading up to a special holiday weekend post. Add your thoughts on these or other myths, American or otherwise, in comments!]
On the widespread fundamental inaccuracies about an emblematic American text.
A few years back, my younger son’s preschool class—made up of kids between 3 and 4 years old, not surprisingly—learned to say the Pledge of Allegiance every day. I didn’t have a particular problem with that, for a couple of reasons: it was a pretty diverse group of kids, and I liked that they could all learn from a very young age that America ideally means all of them, equally, no questions asked; and it was just so darn cute to hear him recite his version of it. So the practice, again, not an issue. But having heard the main classroom teacher articulate the theory while telling a fellow parent about her reasoning behind having them recite it—she said, and this is a paraphrase but it’s close, “It’s just one of those founding American things, you know? So I feel like they should know it as soon as possible”—helped confirm for me something that I’ve long suspected, which is that our communal knowledge of the Pledge is pretty significantly inaccurate on two key fronts.
For one thing, the Pledge’s historical origin is both more recent and much more radical than we probably know. It was created not in the Founding era, but more than a century later, in 1892; the still fresh sectional division of the Civil War, and its resulting destructions and continuing bitterness, meant that the word “indivisible” was not at all a given, and instead very much a point of emphasis for the Pledge’s creator. And moreover that creator, Francis Bellamy, was thinking not only of those divisions, but also and even more strikingly of the Christian Socialism to which both he and his cousin Edward Bellamy (author of the socialist utopian novel Looking Backward) subscribed: Frances Bellamy later admitted that he originally planned to include “equality” along with “liberty and justice for all,” or even to use instead the French Revolutionary slogan “liberty, equality, fraternity,” but recognized that in the late 19th century such beliefs were still unfortunately “too fanciful, too many thousands of years off in realization.” Yet even the emphasis on “liberty and justice for all,” in the same decade in which the Supreme Court confirmed the legality of Jim Crow segregation and the same year in which the number of lynchings of African Americans reached an all-time high, was like “indivisible” far from a given; and Bellamy’s reaffirmation of those core ideals, particularly as located in the Pledge’s culminating phrase, was and remains a significant and inspiring statement.
As valuable and influential as it would be for those origins to be part of our public consciousness of the Pledge, however, it would be even more significant for us to recognize its most overt evolution, and the contexts behind it. For the first sixty-two years of its existence, the Pledge included no reference to religion; it was only in 1954, after a campaign by the Catholic organization the Knights of Columbus, that Congress added the words “under god.” It should, I believe, be impossible not to recognize the very specific contexts for that addition, in an era of still strong McCarthyism (with its tendency to conflate atheism with anti-Americanism) and likewise a period in which opposition to the “godless Communism” of the Soviet Union was becoming entrenched in every aspect of American government and society. Less absolute but still worth our awareness is the reaction of the Bellamy family to this addition—Frances had been dead for over twenty years, but his granddaughter argued vehemently that he would have been opposed to the change, noting that he had been forced out of his church in 1891 due to his socialist perspective and had toward the end of his life voluntarily left a church in Florida because of its endorsement of racial discrimination. While we can never know for sure what Bellamy would have thought, we can certainly acknowledge the very contemporary and politicized motivations behind this addition; doing so, to my mind, would—especially if coupled with an understanding of Bellamy and the Pledge’s origins—make it much more difficult to see critiques of “under god,” or of the Pledge itself, as un- or anti-American.
I am not, to be clear, arguing that we should discard the Pledge, or even necessarily alter its current version. Instead, as I hope is always the case in this space, I am arguing first that we can’t ever assume that our versions of core national texts and stories are necessarily accurate or complete, and that we have to try to tell the fuller, more complex, perhaps more dark but usually also more rich and meaningful, stories and histories behind them. Second, and even more significantly, I’d argue that when we do, it opens our history and identity up, truly democratizes them, makes clear how much they have evolved and how much they continue to do so, and thus how much of a role we have to play in shaping and carrying them forward.
Next myth tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other myths, American or otherwise, you’d want to bust?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

June 28-29, 2014: June 2014 Recap

[A recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
June 2: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: The Celestials: My annual series on books to bring to the beach begins with a wonderful recent historical novel.
June 3: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: Spoiled: The series continues with a book of short stories that spoke to me powerfully despite my initial misgivings.
June 4: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: Personals: An engaging, witty, and thoughtful poetry collection by a colleague and friend, as the series rolls on.
June 5: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: Amusing the Million: If you take just one work of AmericanStudies scholarship to the beach this summer, I vote for this amazing book.
June 6: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: The Chinese Exclusion Act: The series concludes with a shameless but earnest pitch for putting my most recent book on your summer list.
June 7-8: Crowd-sourced Beach Reads: The beach read responses and nominations of fellow AmericanStudiers in one of my fullest crowd-sourced posts yet—add your own in comments, please!
June 9: D-Day Stories: Band of Brothers: A series inspired by the invasion’s 70th anniversary starts with the best part of the great miniseries.
June 10: D-Day Stories: The Longest Day: The series continues with the blockbuster film and what it tells us about such images of war.
June 11: D-Day Stories: Eisenhower: What we can learn from the story of the general turned president, as the series rolls on.
June 12: D-Day Stories: The 29th Infantry: On one of the more subtle but enduring ways we can remember military units and service.
June 13: D-Day Stories: Frank Draper, Jr.: The series concludes with the website that illustrates what the 21st century can add to how we remember soldiers and wars.
June 14-15: War Stories: Board Games: Following up the D-Day series, and in honor of my best friend’s birthday, a post on a few board games from which I learned a lot about war and history.
June 16: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: Summer Wind: A series on summertime songs begins with some thoughts on performance, authorship, and collective memory.
June 17: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: Summertime Blues: The series continues with the rock classic that reveals multiple sides to the voices of youth.
June 18: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: Summer in the City: Whether and how we can historically contextualize a fun rock song, as the series rolls on.
June 19: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: Summertime: On two distinct but complementary ways to AmericanStudy the Fresh Prince and one of his biggest hits.
June 20: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: All Summer Long: The series concludes with a song that captures both pseudo-nostalgia and the genuine influence pop culture can have on our lives.
June 21-22: Crowd-sourced Summer Jams: A crowd-sourced bbq, featuring the responses and nominations of fellow AmericanStudiers—bring your grilled favorites in comments, please!
June 23: AmericanStudier Camp: Camp Virginia: A series AmericanStudying summer camp starts with the camp without which there’d be no AmericanStudier.
June 24: AmericanStudier Camp: Hello Muddah: The series continues with the novelty song that became a multi-faceted relfection of American society and culture.
June 25: AmericanStudier Camp: Jewish Summer Camps: The preservation and revision of culture and tradition, as the series rolls on.
June 26: AmericanStudier Camp: Playing Indian: On the vital work of AmericanStudies scholarship that can help us make sense of a troubling summer camp tradition.
June 27: AmericanStudier Camp: Friday the 13th: The series concludes with a recent change in the cultural images of summer camps, and what we can make of it.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to write? Share ‘em, please!

Friday, June 27, 2014

June 27, 2014: AmericanStudier Camp: Friday the 13th

[With the school year coming to a close, many kids, including my own little AmericanStudiers, are soon headed to summer camps. So in this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy some of the histories and stories connected to this childhood tradition. I’d love to hear some of your stories and connections in comments, fellow campers!]
On what camp has come to mean, and what to make of the change.
I’ve traced a number of different contexts for and meanings of summer camp in this week’s series, but the truth is that, for anyone who grew up in the 1980s as I did, there’s one particularly clear camp connection I haven’t yet mentioned: death. Brutal, bloody, inventive and inevitable death. The series of Friday the 13th films, which began with 1980’s Friday the 13th and saw seven sequels released in the 1980s alone, created in Camp Crystal Lake a horrific doppelganger to the extremely unhappy camp experiences captured in “Hello Muddah” (although, to be fair, the childish campers themselves were never Jason Voorhees’ targets). And thanks to that franchise’s unparalleled and consistent box office success, numerous other horror and slasher films mined the same territory over those years (and beyond), turning summer camp into one of the celluloid settings in which attractive teenagers were most likely to be gruesomely murdered.
So what do we make of this shift in, or at least striking addition to, the cultural images and meanings of summer camp? While, again, the youthful campers themselves were not typically endangered in these films, they were most definitely surrounded by and witnesses to the horror—which, if we connect Friday the 13th with the babysitting scenario at the heart of its most obviously influential predecessor, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), is a common thread across these defining early slasher films. It’s hard not to see this consistent emphasis, the presence of young children observing the monsters and their unfolding horrors, as a commentary on—or, at the very least, a reflection of—a society in which images of childhood innocence were giving way to darker visions and fears. Indeed, the Friday the 13th series took that idea one step further still, creating in the unique character of Tommy Jarvis a multi-film narrative of a young child impacted and then significantly changed by his observations of and encounters with Jason Voorhees.
Moreover, it’s equally difficult not to connect those ideas of childhood observation and change to the experience of watching these films. One of my own most unsettling memories is of watching my first Friday the 13th film, Part VI, at the home of a middle school friend; it might sound too pat to be true, but the moment and line I remember most vividly is when one of the young campers sees Jason outside a cabin window and tells the (doomed) counselors that she has seen “a monster.” On the other hand, I don’t want to overstate this effect—I attended overnight camp a couple of years later, and I can honestly say that I didn’t think about Friday the 13th a single time during my week’s stay, nor did such images lessen the fun I had at the camp. So perhaps it’s most accurate to say that summer camp, like so many aspects of late 20th and early 21st century American society, contains multitudes, competing and even contrasting images and narratives, historical and contemporary, cultural and social, that nonetheless coexist in our collective consciousness.
June recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Stories and camps you’d share?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

June 26, 2014: AmericanStudier Camp: Playing Indian

[With the school year coming to a close, many kids, including my own little AmericanStudiers, are soon headed to summer camps. So in this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy some of the histories and stories connected to this childhood tradition. I’d love to hear some of your stories and connections in comments, fellow campers!]
On the camp tradition that embodies a troubling American trend, and what we can do about it.
I’ve tried from time to time, mostly in the posts collected under the category “Scholarly Reviews,” to cite works of AmericanStudies scholarship that have been particularly significant and inspiring to me. But it’s fair to say that I’ve only scratched the surface, and I’ll keep trying to find ways to highlight other such works as the blog moves forward. One such work is Philip Deloria’s Playing Indian (1998), a book which moves from the Boston Tea Party and Tammany Hall to late 20th century hobbyists and New Age believers (among many other subjects) to trace the enduring American fascination with dressing up as and performing exaggerated “Indian” identities in order to construct and engage with individual, communal, and national identity. In one of his later chapters, Deloria considers Cold War-era practices of “playing Indian” through which children’s social experiences and burgeoning American identities were often delineated—and right alongside the Boy Scouts and “cowboys and Indians” play, Deloria locates and analyzes summer camps.
In the example cited in that last hyperlink, Missouri’s Camp Lake of the Woods held an annual “Indian powwow” for its campers—the tradition dates back at least to the 1940s, and apparently continued well into the late 20th century. (I’m assuming it no longer occurs, although I haven’t found evidence one way or another.) By all accounts, including Deloria’s research and analysis, such summer camp uses of “Indian” images and performances were widespread, if not even ubiquitous, as camps rose to their height of national prominence in the 1950s and 60s. Even if we leave aside the long and troubling history that Deloria traces and in which these particular performances are unquestionably located, the individual choice remains, to my mind, equally troubling: this is childhood fun created out of the use of exaggerated ethnic stereotypes, community-building through blatant “othering” of fellow Americans, and a particularly oppressed and vulnerable community at that; to paraphrase what I said in my post on the racist “Red Man” scene in Disney’s Peter Pan (1953), I can’t imagine these camps asking their campers to “play” any other ethnic or racial group. The performances were obviously not intended to be hurtful, but it’s difficult, especially in light of Deloria’s contextualizing, to read them in any other way.
So what, you might ask? Well for one thing, we could far better remember these histories—both the specific histories of playing Indian in summer camps, and the broader arc of playing Indian as a foundational element in the construction of American identity and community across the centuries; Deloria’s book would help us better remember on both levels. For another thing, it would be worth considering what it means that so many American children experienced and took part in these performances, how that might impact their perspectives on not only Native Americans, but ethnic and cultural “others” more generally. And for a third thing, it would also be worth examining our contemporary summer camps and other childhood communities—certainly the most overt such racism has been almost entirely eliminated from those space; but what stereotypes and images, performances and “others,” remain? Summer camps are fun and games, but they’re also as constitutive of identities as any influential places and material cultures can be—as Deloria reminds us, play is also dead serious, and demands our attention and anaylsis.
Final camp connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Stories and camps you’d share?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

June 25, 2014: AmericanStudier Camp: Jewish Summer Camps

[With the school year coming to a close, many kids, including my own little AmericanStudiers, are soon headed to summer camps. So in this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy some of the histories and stories connected to this childhood tradition. I’d love to hear some of your stories and connections in comments, fellow campers!]
On ethnicity, community, and the preservation and revision of tradition.
In the nine first-year writing courses I taught as an adjunct at both Boston University and UMass Boston, I focused on one aspect or another of immigration and American identity; as a result, I found that the conversations and work in those courses circled around again and again to some key topics and themes. Many were what you would expect: the old and new worlds; assimilation and acculturation; hyphens and hybridity; multi-generational continuities and changes. But nearly as frequent were our discussions of ethnic communities and neighborhoods in the U.S., the areas early scholars of immigration dubbed ethnic enclaves—we talked a good deal about the limitations and strengths of such enclaves, the ways in which they can on the one hand foster isolation and separation (and even ghetto-ization), sub-standard living conditions and inequal schools, prejudice and ignorance toward immigrant groups, and other issues; but at the same time can preserve specific cultural identities and customs and languages, build community and support across generations, become potent new world homes for immigrant communities.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, following the era’s sizeable waves of Jewish immigration to the United States, many of those arrivals settled in such ethnic enclaves, most famously in the tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan (as described at great length in early 20th century literary works such as Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky [1917] and Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers [1925]). While some of those neighborhoods and communities persist to a lesser degree, they have mostly dissipated over the subsequent century, as Jewish Americans have spread out across the country. Yet like members of most ethnic and cultural, as well as most religious, communities, many Jewish Americans have worked for continuity despite these historical and social changes, particularly by passing along customs and beliefs, traditions and ideals, to their younger generations. Education and activities, schools and community and cultural centers, have provided vehicles for such preservation of culture—but another, complex, and I believe more easily overlooked, such vehicle has been the Jewish summer camp.
For more than half a century, Jewish schoolchildren (and of course some non-Jewish schoolchildren) have spent portions of their summers at sites such as Wisconsin’s Camp Ramah, Camp Woodmere in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, and New Hampshire’s Camp Tevya, among many others. In many ways these camps have facilitated and continue to facilitate a preservation of Jewish culture and community across the generations: with Hebrew and Talmud instruction, historical and social lessons, and other communal activities and connections. Yet at the same time, if we parallel such camps with those attended by American schoolchildren from all cultures and communities (and it seems clear that these camps have also featured all of the stereotypical camp activities: boating and hiking, capture the flag and campfires, and so on), we could argue the opposite: that they have offered another avenue through which Jewish American kids have connected to a broader, non-denominational American society and experience, one shared by all their peers. A tension between ethnicity and acculturation, tradition and revision, the Talmud and campfire sing-alongs—what could be more American than such dualities?
Next camp connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Stories and camps you’d share?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

June 24, 2014: AmericanStudier Camp: Hello Muddah

[With the school year coming to a close, many kids, including my own little AmericanStudiers, are soon headed to summer camps. So in this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy some of the histories and stories connected to this childhood tradition. I’d love to hear some of your stories and connections in comments, fellow campers!]
On the very American afterlife of a classic camp (sorry) song.
In 1963, comedy writer and TV producer Allan Sherman wrote (along with musician and songwriter Lou Busch) the comic novelty song “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp).” The hyperbolic lyrics were based on the less-than-ideal experiences of Sherman’s son Robert at New York’s Camp Champlain (Robert had such a miserable camp experience that he was eventually expelled!), and captured pitch-perfectly both the exaggerations and extremes (and vicissitudes) of a young person’s perspective and the mythic presence of summer camp in our childhood and national imagination. The song was such a hit (occupying the #2 spot on the Billboard singles list for three August weeks) that Sherman wrote and performed a sequel on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson less than a year later, cementing the song’s status as the nation’s unofficial summer camp anthem.
It was in 1965, however, that the multi-faceted American story of “Hello Muddah” began to unfold in full. In that year Milton Bradley released a Camp Granada board game, advertised by a TV commercial featuring yet another version of the song performed by Sherman himself. Moreover, the 1965-66 TV schedule featured the first and only season of Camp Runamuck, an NBC sitcom based on the song (including character names and plot details drawn from the lyrics). Those cultural and material extensions of the song have been amplified, in the decades since, by a children’s book, an acclaimed Off-Broadway musical revue, and numerous pop culture allusions and references. Indeed, while the original version of the song continues to exist (even in the pre-YouTube days of my childhood I remember hearing it somewhere), it’s fair to say that “Hello Muddah” has become in many ways more of a brand than a text, revised and reframed and made new for all these distinct cultural and commercial purposes.
That process, by which an individual and isolated artistic work gets adopted into the multi-faceted, multi-media mélange that is American popular culture and society, is anything but new, as my Dad’s pioneering website Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture makes clear. But as that website itself illustrates, this kind of American cultural evolution has become significantly more visible, and more exactly recordable and traceable, in our 21st century digital moment. I won’t lie, I didn’t know anything about the “Hello Muddah” board game and TV show until I started researching this post—but now they, like the many permutations of the song itself (which I have a dim memory of singing during my own, thankfully far less extreme and far more positive, experience at Virginia’s overnight Camp Friendship as a middle schooler in the late 1980s), have become part of my own evolving American perspective and identity.
Next camp connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Stories and camps you’d share?

Monday, June 23, 2014

June 23, 2014: AmericanStudier Camp: Camp Virginia

[With the school year coming to a close, many kids, including my own little AmericanStudiers, are soon headed to summer camps. So in this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy some of the histories and stories connected to this childhood tradition. I’d love to hear some of your stories and connections in comments, fellow campers!]
On the unique summer camp without which there’d be no AmericanStudier.
The van was, to the best of my recollection, entirely ordinary. Just a van. The movies that we watched while driving in that van were, although I can only remember one specific title (the forgotten ‘80s classic Space Camp [1986]), nothing earth-shattering either. Just mediocre kids’ entertainment. The lunches that we ate at our various destinations, likewise. The counselor to camper ratio was, while probably well within state requirements, nothing special; I think there were around 12 of us at a time, and just the one counselor. As summer camps go, these basic details might make this one sound pretty average at best. But Camp Virginia most definitely changed my life.
Recently a colleague asked me what had inspired my dual passions for American literature and American history, and in my answer I focused on a couple core elements of my childhood: being raised by two parents who cared deeply about reading and writing; and growing up in Virginia, surrounded by all that history (especially of the Revolutionary and Civil War eras). But when it comes to the latter, of course many tens of thousands of kids grew up in Virginia during the same period as I, and I doubt that many of them were similarly inspired by its treasure troves of historical goodness. And while my parents without question would have introduced me to those troves, the most foundational introductions were those provided by Mr. Kirby. Ronald Kirby was my fourth-grade teacher at Charlottesville’s Johnson Elementary School, and I’m sure he did a great job in that role, but for me he’ll always be the founder, sole counselor, chauffeur, lunch maker, movie selector and starter, 7-11 bathroom demander (a long and funny story that I can’t possibly replicate here, but it’s a good one, trust me), and above all guide and teacher and historian and mentor, of Camp Virginia.
Every summer (well, I did it for two straight summers, but I think he ran it every summer for many years before and after that as well), Mr. Kirby would offer week-long Camps, each one focused on a different historical topic (mainly the Revolution and the Civil War, but I imagine there were variations and other topics too). Each day we’d drive to a couple of historical sites, and while I do still (kinda) remember the van and the movies and the lunches, it’s those visits and sites that really stand out for me. But not even the sites, many of which I’ve been to numerous other times as well. It’s the aura that stands out for me, the ambience, the ways that Mr. Kirby could, with a well-chosen anecdote or detail, with attention to a particular spot or artifact or story, with his very enthusiasm and passion and interest, undimmed after however many years and visits and campers, make the history come alive for me and, in so doing, make me come more fully alive as a student, a historian, a Virginian, an American. It’s no exaggeration to say that at the end of those weeks I was hooked, was destined for a life (in whatever profession or discipline) in which history would always be a major destination.
I don’t have any idea how much Camp Virginia cost—and I have to figure that Mr. Kirby barely broke even, what with the van and gas and admissions fees and the like—but if I learn of anything even vaguely similar as my boys grow up, there’s nothing I wouldn’t pay to give them the same kinds of experiences. It’s not about loving history per se—of course I’d love if they do, but they’ve got to find their own passions, influenced I’m sure by mine and their Mom’s and New England and many other factors but ultimately and very rightly their own—but about coming alive, about being brought to places that change their worlds and broaden their horizons and help shape them into the men they’ll become. Not bad for an ordinary van.
Next camp connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Stories and camps you’d share?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

June 21-22, 2014: Crowd-sourced Summer Jams

[As the solstice approaches, this week’s series has focused on AmericanStudies contexts for some of our most enduring summertime songs. This crowd-sourced bbq and post is drawn from the responses and favorites of fellow AmericanStudies—share your potato salad … I mean, your thoughts … in comments, please!]
Following up Tuesday’s post, Roland Gibson notes, “There's actually just one small point of clarification I wanted to make to you and your audience—from my perspective as a former music theory student, and also composer and musician myself: ‘Summertime Blues’ by Eddie Cochran is a great song that I like a lot, but structurally/musically speaking, it's a ‘classic rock’ song like you said, but it's not really a ‘blues’ song, like the name implies. When I talk to people about the blues as a genre—and there are many examples, to be sure—my favorite example is BB King. I have a CD of his at home that has songs like “How Blue Can You Get,” “Walkin' and Cryin',” and “Everyday I Have The Blues”—these are examples of playing and singing the blues the way they are supposed to be played and sung. My ultimate goal here is to add for people what I've learned about the blues—and not to take away from what you were saying in your blog.”
Responding to Wednesday’s post on “Summer in the City,” Nicholas Birns writes, “This song always evoked a very specifically Lindsay-era New York for me, the rhythms, the optimism, the slight melancholy all evoke both the tumult and promise of the Lindsay years.”  
On the same post, my colleague Joe Moser writes, “Speaking of peripheral politics in seasonal music, I'm a big fan of singer/songwriter/pianist Regina Spektor's 2006 song ‘Summer in the City’ (not to be confused with the The Lovin' Spoonful tune). Her ‘Summer’ is primarily about romantic estrangement and longing, but she also nicely captures the feeling of youthful political alienation in the line ‘So I went to a protest just to rub up against strangers.’ For me, like many others, recalling the summers of 2006 and 2007 dredges up mixed feelings about the still-active-but-waning movement against the Iraq War, which was very possibly the kind of protest that Ms. Spektor had in mind. Here is a lovely performance of the song from 2007; she introduces it by making a generous comparison between summer in NYC (her home) and Austin, Texas (the site of the performance and my former home).”
Rob LeBlanc shares the focus of my Thursday post, noting that, “I always listen to ‘Summertime’ by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince around this time of year,” and adding about the opening verse lines that I also quoted, “Those four bars contain enjambment and internal rhyme! I have always been impressed by that song.”
Paul Beaudoin shares a bunch of summer classics: Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze”; George Benson’s “Breezin’”; Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime”; Ella and Louis’ “Summertime”; Martha and the Vandella’s “Heatwave”; and The Pointer Sisters’ “Steam Heat.”  
Annie Railton nominates Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” which was almost a focus one of my week’s posts.
AnneMarie Donahue highlights, “Rockaway Beach’ by the Ramones. Aside from this song being awesome fun to listen to (and scream out of the window of your first car with your best friend) this came off one of the more interesting albums by the band. Rocket to Russia was uneven, to describe it best. Some songs were brilliant (‘Sheehan is a Punk Rocker’), others were iconic (‘Teenage Lobotomy’) and some were fracking awful (‘I wanna be well’). The song in and of itself is a blast and very exemplary of the American punk sound. But what I will always love was that my parents had this on vinyl, so I got to hear it that way and fall in love with the songs as a child. This song just made me happy because the same summer that everyone fell in love with Marky Mark I got to pretend I was different and unique by ranting about DeeDee and bad-mouthing the Sex Pistols. Summer music is hit or miss but this was a fantastic song.”
And Kate Smith adds, “I must admit that Amos Lee's ‘Windows Are Rolled Down’ reminds me of summer—particularly warm but not too warm sunny summer days—solely because of the final lines that give off this carefree feeling (the lyrics, yes, but also the melody and emotion).  ‘Windows are rolled down/Sun is rising high/Windows are rolled down/Feel that wind rushing by, hey.’ I usually manage to simply get caught up in that feeling and ignore the rest of the lyrics, which are a bit sad. Apparently this is the story behind the song.”
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Summer favorites you’d add?

Friday, June 20, 2014

June 20, 2014: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: All Summer Long

[As the solstice approaches, a series on AmericanStudies contexts for some of our most enduring summertime songs. Add your responses or other summertime favorites for a crowd-sourced weekend bbq—I mean, post. Okay, both!]
On classic rock, pseudo-nostalgia, and the undeniable role of pop culture in our lives.
Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” (2008) features—repeats as the opening two lines of its chorus, no less—one of the worst “rhyming” couplets in recent years: “And we were trying different things/And we were smoking funny things.” So it’s fair to say that I shouldn’t necessarily subject the song’s lyrics, or any Kid Rock-penned words, to the most rigorous AmericanStudier analyses. But while “All Summer Long” doesn’t quite rise to Dylan-like lyrical complexity, the song does comprise a particularly striking example of what I would call the pseudo-nostalgia often found in the very concept of “classic rock”: in its title line, “Singing ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ all summer long”; in its concurrent, repeated evocation of the vital role of “our favorite song” and “play[ing] some rock and roll” in creating its idyllic teenage memories; and even musically, in its samples of both the Skynyrd song and (randomly) Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.”
So why does a song about, as the opening verse locates us, “1989” and “summertime in Northern Michigan” make such defining use of a 1974 song by a Jacksonville, Florida band while sampling a 1978 one by a Chicago singer/songwriter? To my mind, these classic rock references link Kid Rock’s song to one by his fellow Michigander (and oft-cited musical influence) Bob Seger, “Old Time Rock and Roll”; Seger’s song is perhaps the clearest single expression of classic rock pseudo-nostalgia, the attitude that music used to be great and has sadly fallen off, and thus that the best we can do in the present is play that old time rock and roll. I call this attitude pseudo-nostalgia in part because of the blatant irony and even hypocrisy involved in denigrating contemporary music and pop culture while contributing to them; and in part because it seems to me less interested in the past itself in any specific or meaningful ways, and far more in the seeming authenticity or coolness that such an attitude grants its holder in the present.
On the other hand, I can’t claim to know what songs or artists Kid Rock and his teenage girlfriend and friends played on the beaches of Northern Michigan in 1989—and in any case it would be hypocritical of me to critique their classic rock affinities, given how much classic songs and albums by artists like Skynyrd, Seger, Tom Petty, Pink Floyd, and, of course, Bruce Springsteen meant to my own youthful life and identity. Indeed, I would argue that my generation was the first for whom the popular culture of our parents’ generation was at least as meaningful and constitutive of our perspectives and identities as that of our own—a phenomenon that has only been amplified since, thanks in large part to the ways in which YouTube and the rest of the digital world have preserved so much of 20th century pop culture into the early 21st century. Our 21st century summer playlists are indeed as likely to feature “Sweet Home Alabama” as “All Summer Long,” not just in a nostalgic way but also and more importantly as a vital part of our present culture and world. Works for me!
Crowd-sourced bbq tomorrow,
Ben
PS. So one more chance to bring some food to the bbq: thoughts on this song? Other summertime favorites you’d share?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

June 19, 2014: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: Summertime

[As the solstice approaches, a series on AmericanStudies contexts for some of our most enduring summertime songs. Add your responses or other summertime favorites for a crowd-sourced weekend bbq—I mean, post. Okay, both!]
On two distinct but equally significant ways to AmericanStudy the Fresh Prince.
He had had his famous failures, but by the time Will Smith released 1991’s “Summertime” (under his rap name the Fresh Prince, and in conjunction with his partner and co-writer DJ Jazzy Jeff), the multi-talented artist was back on his path toward world (or at least cultural) domination. He had just completed the first season of his TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which would over its six seasons become one of the decade’s most popular sitcoms; he was only two years out from his acclaimed film debut in Six Degrees of Separation (1993), and only a handful from his first mega-hits, Bad Boys (1995) and Independence Day (1996); and “Summertime” itself became one of his first huge hits, reaching #4 on Billboard’s singles chart and #1 on the R&B/Hip Hop chart. It wasn’t quite the Willenium yet in 1991, but the occasion was at least approaching.
I’m not sure if it’s possible to argue with Smith’s uniquely successful presence in 1990s American culture (has any other artist had simultaneous hits in TV, film, and music?), but how we AmericanStudy that presenc e, well, that’s a more complex and open-ended question. On the one hand, I think it’s possible to see Smith’s rap career, and more specifically a song like “Summertime,” as a crucial stage in the genre’s evolution from something locally and culturally grounded (in urban, African American communities and experiences) to something more mainstream and marketable (more, you could say, Bel-Air). “Summertime” even opens with lyrics that explicitly contrast its vibe and identity with other contemporary songs: “Here it is the groove slightly transformed/Just a bit of a break from the norm/Just a little something to break the monotony/Of all that hardcore dance that has gotten to be/A little bit out of control.” Seen in this light, the song’s sample of (and closing allusion to) Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness” (1974) indicates that it is a “new definition” (as that closing lyric puts it) of such musical and cultural traditions.
On the other hand, this reading of Smith’s music and/or persona would seem to me problematic in precisely the same ways as were critiques of The Cosby Show for being insufficiently representative of particular versions of the African American experience. That is, Will Smith’s raps were no less (and no more) “representative” than Tupac Shakur’s, and vice versa—each are first and foremost the expression of a particular artist and voice, but each can also connect to multiple possible communities and experiences, and thus communicate those to their audiences. Seen in that light, “Summertime” can be read as a profoundly intertextual conversation with tradition, one that opens with a verse that entreats its audience to “think of the summers of the past” and then alludes in each of the next two verses to “Summer Madness,” that source of its musical sample. Whether that tradition is specifically African American or broadly American (or simply human) depends in part of the listener’s own identity and perspective, and of course the different possibilities are far from mutually exclusive. Indeed, they’re all part of that complex cultural entity that was and is the Fresh Prince.
Last summer jam tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this song? Other summertime favorites you’d share?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

June 18, 2014: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: Summer in the City

[As the solstice approaches, a series on AmericanStudies contexts for some of our most enduring summertime songs. Add your responses or other summertime favorites for a crowd-sourced weekend bbq—I mean, post. Okay, both!]
On whether all art is political, and why the question matters more than the answer.
In the summer of 1966, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” became a mega-hit, staying at #1 on the Billboard singles chart for three consecutive August weeks. The song’s famous bridge, which features a series of car horns and ends with a jackhammer, is only the most overt of the many ways in which the song perfectly captures its title subject, especially for young city dwellers (like the Spoonful themselves): the contrast between sweltering days and cool (figuratively if not literally) nights; the way in which the former seem to move so slowly when all you want is to get to the thrills of the latter; the grit and sweat that cake necks and sidewalks, bodies and spirits, making all feel nearly dead yet also somehow more alive at the same time. Given how many of those young record buyers lived in cities like New York and Los Angeles, it’s no surprise that “Summer in the City” became one of the season’s and year’s biggest successes.
Of course, the summer of the song’s release also featured “hot towns” that had nothing to do with the thermometer: 1966 was the third of what would turn out to be five consecutive years of “Long Hot Summer,” periods of urban unrest and riots connected to the decade’s simmering racial, cultural, and social tensions, activisms, and conflicts. Indeed, oe of the first such conflicts had erupted in the Spoonful’s own New York City two years earlier, following the July 1964 shooting of a Harlem youth by a white police officer; by 1966 few major urban areas had been left unaffected. It’s difficult to imagine, from my admitted temporal distance, any 1966 city dweller thinking of summer in the city without connecting it to these seasons and years of strife; given early rock and roll’s combination of racial interrelationships and social radicalism, it’s even more difficult to think about a rock group penning such a song without having the long hot summer in mind. But on the other hand, there is absolutely no evidence in the lyrics for “Summer in the City” (nor in the band’s smiling performance captured at the first link above) that it had such less cheery contexts.
By a certain line of critical reasoning, all art is political precisely because it has such contexts, whether it overtly engages with them or not (and indeed, by a certain line of reasoning the failure to engage is itself a political act, even in the most pop of popular culture). But to my mind, the goal shouldn’t be to figure out whether to implicate a song like “Summer in the City” in its political and historical contexts, or even how to read the song in light of them—the goal, and I would say it represents a central AmericanStudies project, should be to think about both The Lovin’ Spoonful and the Long Hot Summer as part of American culture in the summer of 1966 (along with, for example, the iconic surfing film The Endless Summer). There would be all sorts of ways to think about the combination of these different moments and texts, events and voices, but the vital first step is simply to recognize their co-existence, the way in which any American summer—every American season—is comprised out of all of them.
Next summer jam tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this song? Other summertime favorites you’d share?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

June 17, 2014: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: Summertime Blues

[As the solstice approaches, a series on AmericanStudies contexts for some of our most enduring summertime songs. Add your responses or other summertime favorites for a crowd-sourced weekend bbq—I mean, post. Okay, both!]
On what a summer classic reveals about the voices of youth.
I listened to a lot of early rock and roll growing up (something about having a couple baby boomers for parents during the era that first defined the concept of “classic rock” and produced countless “Best of the 1950s” type collections), and few songs stood out to me more than Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” (1958). I don’t know that any single song better expresses the clash of youthful dreams and adult realities on which so much of rock and roll and popular music more generally have been built, and I definitely believe that Cochran and his co-writer (and manager) Jerry Capeheart hit upon the perfect way to literally give voice to those dueling perspectives: in the repeated device through which the speaker’s teenage desires are responded to and shot down by the deep voices of authority figures, from his boss to his father to his senator.
Coincidentally, Cochran himself died very young, at the age of 21, in an April 1960 car accident while on tour in England. Cochran’s death came just over a year after the tragic plane crash that took the lives of three other prominent young rock and rollers, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. There’s obviously no direct relationship between these two accidents, nor would I argue that these artists’ youthful deaths were the cause of their popularity (all four were already popular prior to the accidents). But on the other hand, I think there’s something iconic, mythic even, about rock and rollers dying young—or about, more exactly, our narratives and images of such figures—and I believe it’d be difficult to separate those myths from the idealistic and anti-authoritarian attitudes captured in Cochran’s biggest hit. That is, it feels throughout “Summertime Blues” as if the speaker’s youthful enthusiasm is consistently being destroyed by those cold adult responses—and melodramatic as it might sound, the loss of childhood dreams can certainly be allegorized through the deaths of the kinds of pop icons who so often symbolize youth.
Yet of course most young people continue to live in, and thus impact, the world far after their youthful dreams have ended (“Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone,” to quote another youthful anthem), and in a subtle, unexpected way Cochran’s song  reflects that human and historical reality as well. When Cochran’s speaker tries to take his problem to more official authorities, he is rejected by his senator for a political reason: “I’d like to help you, son, but you’re too young to vote” is the reply. In 1958, when “Summertime Blues” was released, the national legal voting age was 21, and so the 20 year old Cochran could not vote; but over the next decade a potent social and legal movement to lower the voting age would emerge, in conjunction with the decade’s many other youth and activist movements, and in 1971 Congress passed and the states ratified the 26th Amendment, which did indeed lower the eligible age for voting to 18. Being able to vote certainly doesn’t eliminate all the other problems of teenage life and its conflicts with adult authority—but it does remind us that neither the gap nor the border between youth and adulthood are quite as fixed or as absolute as our myths might suggest.
Next summer jam tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this song? Other summertime favorites you’d share?

Monday, June 16, 2014

June 16, 2014: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: Summer Wind

[As the solstice approaches, a series on AmericanStudies contexts for some of our most enduring summertime songs. Add your responses or other summertime favorites for a crowd-sourced weekend bbq—I mean, post. Okay, both!]
On performance, authorship, and memory.
Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” (1966) was far from Old Blue Eyes’ most successful song, but the nostalgic ballad of summer love lost was certainly a hit, rising to #25 on the Billboard singles chart and #1 on the Easy Listening chart, and helping to make its album, Strangers in the Night, one of the most successful of Sinatra’s long career. Yet Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” was not only not the first recorded version of the song, but it was released less than a year after that first version, Wayne Newton’s, which itself had reached #78 on the Billboard singles chart and #9 on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1965. And less than a year after Sinatra’s, Welsh star Shirley Bassey released her own version of the song! Such was the culture of popular music in the 1960s.
Newton, Sinatra, and Bassey were able to record and release their own verisons of “Summer Wind” in large part because the song had been composed by none of them, and instead by an outside songwriting duo: the music was by Heinz Meier and the lyrics by legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer.  For more than 40 years, from his earliest songs as a twenty-something in the early 1930s to just before his 1976 death, Mercer composed the lyrics (and occasionally also the music) to some of the 20th century’s best-known works: from “P.S. I Love You” (1934) and “Jeepers Creepers” (1938) to “Moon River” (1961) and “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962), along with more than 1400 others. So there’s no possible way to see Mercer’s career as anything less than a triumphant success; yet Mercer was also a singer in his own right, and it’s fair to ask whether it might have been difficult to see other performers gain fame from his compositions—which might explain why Mercer released his own version of “Summer Wind” (1974), just two years before his death.
Whatever Mercer’s own perspective, the question is an important one for any student of popular music and culture. Does it matter that most of Frank Sinatra’s hits were written by other songwriters? Does it matter that many of Elvis Presley’s were? When we remember these hugely influential and transformative artists, are we simply remembering their talent and presence, irrespective of these questions of authorship? (With Elvis there are of course related but distinct questions of race that these issues also raise.) These are complex questions, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we should not remember Sinatra or Presley (although it’d be possible to argue that the difference between Sinatra and Wayne Newton, for example, was at least partly one of access to better songs). But I would strongly suggest that our collective cultural memories need to include songwriters like Mercer far more fully than they do, and indeed that it is such songwriters whose works and voices can often truly capture the arc of American popular culture.
Next summer jam tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this song? Other summertime favorites you’d share?

Saturday, June 14, 2014

June 14-15, 2014: War Stories: Board Games

[In honor of last week’s 70 anniversary of the D-Day invasion, in this week’s series I’ve highlighted different ways we’ve told the story of that fateful day and its aftermath. This special post considers one other way we capture the stories of war, but is also inspired by Sunday’s birthday of my best friend Steve, with whom I’ve played most of my lifetime of board games!]
On three board games through which I learned a lot about war histories and stories.
1)      Ambush!: Ambush!, which began with a focus on post-D-Day European campaigns and then expanded to include Italy and the Pacific as well, stands out as (by far) the best solitaire board game I ever played. But its style of gameplay also captures the uncertainty and constant danger of warfare as well as anything I’ve encountered: as the player moves his eight squad members across the board in pursuit of each unique mission, anything and everything can suddenly transpire: sniper fire, the arrival of an enemy tank, an encounter with a civilian, a mine or other explosive device being triggered. Awaiting the results of each move was, as board games go, as nerve-wrecking as it gets.
2)      Sink the Bismarck!: Something about board games with exclamation points, I suppose. Inspired by one of the most unique naval histories in World War II, as well as the 1960 British film of the same name, Sink the Bismarck! was an incredibly complicated board game, and I’m not sure I ever played with every rule and feature (or even most of them). To be honest, I spent a good deal of time just examining the board, the pieces and cards, the rules and peripheral materials, learning not only about the game but also about the histories and stories connected to this famous German battleship, to the Axis and Allied naval armadas, and to all the complexities of naval warfare. I don’t think Michael Scott Smith would mind that outcome one bit.
3)      Gettysburg: Ah, the genius of Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg, a game that was at one and same time deeply grounded in the battle’s histories (the board alone taught me a great deal about the battle’s locations and landscapes) and open to each player’s and game’s unique choices (I still remember the time I had J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry flank the Union lines and capture General Meade, winning the battle in one fell swoop; luckily for all Americans it didn’t really work out that way!). The battle and war are history, but the game made them come alive, made them new and meaningful for each player and experience. I owe much of my enduring love of history to precisely such effects.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on any war games you’ve played?