Edward T. O’Donnell is a professor of history at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. A native of the Bay State, Ed completed his Ph.D. at Columbia University. For years, he was the host of the history podcast In the Past Lane, whose guests included Ken Burns.
Ed has stayed focused throughout his career. At Columbia, he gave history tours around lower Manhattan, while studying the labor movement in America. He also started a family. This type of focus has allowed helped him publish several books: 1001 Things Everyone Should Know about Irish- American History; Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum; Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality; and Visions of America. He is on sabbatical now, where he hopes to finish a new writing project. Unfortunately, he is no longer podcasting. But he has some interesting things to say about the process and the guests he talked with.
Dr. Ruth Hawkins didn’t get her Ph.D. in history, but she has proven one of the most important preservationists in the history of Arkansas. As the head of Heritage Sites Program at Arkansas State University for thirty years, she oversaw the restoration of the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Dyess, the Pfeiffer-Hemingway House in Piggott, and Lakeport plantation in southeastern Arkansas along the Mississippi River. For her preservation and other work, Ruth was elected to the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.
Ruth is the author of Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage, a book that took many years to finish. She says she’s in no hurry to write another book. But for those interested in history, the houses ASU and Ruth helped preserve are treasures. They are as close to a time machine as we can get.
Guy Lancaster is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture in Little Rock. He is also one of the foremost historians of lynching in America. American Atrocity is his most recent book.
American Atrocity focuses on Arkansas, but it tells a larger story of lynching and race relations in America. Dr. Lancaster, a native of Arkansas, also gets to the heart of the matter by asking: what is a lynching? And how do we know actually happened in many of these instances? The short answer is: we don’t. And what we know or don’t know has a lot to do with the history of race in this country, where white people were believed without question when they accused an African American person of a crime.
Mixing traditional primary source research with theory about race, Guy has written an important book. But as he and Colin discuss, lynching hasn’t disappeared, it has instead only changed. What can events like the killing of Trayvon Martin and the attacks of January 6 tell us about the legacy of lynching and the continued problem of systematic racism in this country? Lynching is a heavy topic, but these are heavy times.
Michael Stewart Foley has been writing about music and Johnny Cash for a long time. His new book, Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash, looks at the politics of the Man in Black, who had the unique ability to appeal to Democrats and Republicans even when the country was hideously divided. What was the source of his appeal?
Cash was by no measure an ideologue, but he became an internationally known figure who championed causes such as Native American rights, prisoners, and men in uniform. Cash practiced what Dr. Foley calls the “politics of empathy.” And while Cash was more political than many artists of his day, some didn’t think he was political enough.
Colin and Michael talk not just about Cash but his musical and political times, discussing everything from Cash and Vietnam to his competitors Merle Haggard and Bobby Bare, artists with a distinctly blue collar bent. Cash grew up in the cotton fields of rural Arkansas, and he never lost his love for his country or the salt of the earth people who were a part of his history and fan base.
It’s been nearly two years, but historian and music expert Court Carney, a professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, returns to talk about the recent Beatles documentary Get Back.
Director Peter Jackson’s long-awaited film attempts to put the Beatles’ Get Back/Let It Be sessions in the best possible light. Does he succeed? And how do we judge the film based on what we have known about the Beatles for fifty years?
The Beatles began recording what would become the band’s last album, Let It Be, in January 1969. It was a few months after the release of the White Album, the product of fruitful but contentious sessions in the summer of 1968. Let It Be wouldn’t be released until the spring of 1970, by which time the Beatles had broken up.
The film and album Let It Be–initially to be called Get Back–featured the Beatles trying to get back to a more live and rock and roll sound. The sessions culminated in the famous rooftop concert in London. The Fab Four got in trouble with the cops, but not before recording tracks that made it to the final album.
However difficult the process might have been, in roughly a month, the Beatles had written and recorded an album and rehearsed enough material to begin another (what became Abbey Road). So, what are we to make of Peter Jackson’s revisionism? Has be presented a happier band than we knew? Or is he merely documenting the inevitable breakup of the bestselling and most prolific band of all time? Court and Colin have some thoughts.
Amanda Frost is a Harvard-educated lawyer who teaches in Washington, D.C. at American University (and soon will be joining the faculty at UVA). You are Not American is her first book. It looks at various moments in United States history where citizenship was debated and legislated in lasting ways. Some of the cases she examines are well known, such as the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857, which ruled that African Americans had “no rights” that a “white man was bound to respect.” Other cases–such as the Wong Kim Ark and Ruth Bryan Owen cases–ended better for those seeking citizenship. But You are Not American shows how often citizenship rights have come under attack and how often immigration and citizenship laws are tainted by overt racism, sexism, and xenophobia.
Christina Proenza-Coles’ book, American Founders: How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World, is now available in paperback. Christina grew up in Miami (which she calls an “apartheid city”), the daughter of a Savannah mom and Cuban dad who fled not Castro but Batista. As a kid in Miami in the 80s, she saw Hispanic culture become dominant in her hometown, and it instilled in her a lifelong interest in America’s racial history and makeup.
Christina went to Swathmore for undergrad as a Psych major. She then attended the progressive and interdisciplinary New School for Social Research in New York City, where she studied with Eli Zaretsky and completed a dissertation comparing white settlers in colonial Virginia and Cuba.
Christina’s discussion of race and American history goes beyond the United States into places like Haiti, which has a unique and tragic history. Her book explores evergreen topics. But she and Colin talk about how has Trumpism has made historians reassess things they have taken for granted, such as the triumph of democracy over authoritarianism.
Regardless, historians try to stay productive and engaged amid the insanity. And toward the end of their discussion, Christina talks about a famous fan of hers. We won’t say who, but we’ll give you a hint: he’s a big jazz fan.
Ben Beard is a writer based in Chicago. He also loves film. He has written about civil rights and Muhammad Ali in the past, but his most recent book is The South Never Plays Itself: A Film Buff’s Journey through the South on Screen.
Born and raised in the Deep South, Ben has been writing about movies for years. The South Never Plays Itself covers such well-known titles as Birth of a Nation and Cool Hand Luke, but also examines lesser known films such as God’s Little Acre and the William Shatner vehicle, The Intruder. And it looks closely at pictures that are perhaps unappreciated, such as Driving Miss Daisy.
Ben also talks about his affinity for film critics Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael and how he manages to get writing done while holding down a full-time job.
LaQuita Scaife is the daughter of Cecil Scaife, who worked at Sun Records with Sam Phillips. Born in Arkansas, and a man who initially wanted to act, Cecil worked at a radio station in the Mississippi River town of Helena before somehow meeting Phillips. As the Sun promotions man, Cecil traveled to radio stations to get them to play the latest hits by Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. And he was the man who handed Johnny Cash his gold record for “I Walk the Line.”
A colorful, innovative, and driven businessman, Cecil later moved to Nashville, where he continued his work with Cash at Columbia Records. But he eventually went his own way, producing gospel and budget compilation albums in the 1970s and beyond. LaQuita remembers that she never knew who was going to be at the breakfast table on any given day (or what her dad would be dressed like either).
Enjoy this tour of the early rock and roll and Nashville scene, with everybody from Elvis and Cash to Conway Twitty, Billy Ray Cyrus, Brenda Lee, and Amy Grant making an appearance. And have a merry country Christmas, ya’ll!
It’s that time of year again. Time when such famous rock acts as Lionel Ritchie, Carly Simon and Dolly Parton are up for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
While I have nothing against any of the acts up for nomination this year, some are decidedly not rock and roll. And the process of electing people into the HOF has become so absurd that they might as well change it to the National Music Hall of Fame. Otherwise, it’s a museum dedicated to rock and roll that has many glaring omissions (Jethro Tull anyone?) and non-rock members, such as Public Enemy.
Rock and roll is many things. But anyone who has heard Link Wray would agree that he is rock and roll. He absolutely should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Should is a dubious word, but Link Wray should be there. Why isn’t he? Because the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is stupid, that’s why. Chicago? Seriously? Ringo Starr? Wasn’t he in the Beatles? And while I love Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac was already in before she was a member. I might’ve been okay letting her take a bit longer before she entered as a solo artist.
The wheel of justice turns slowly and sometimes not at all. We all have to put up with who knows how many more years of Trump saying stupid, harmful shit. The Yankees being in first place. And Chris Pratt somehow being locked into three major movie franchises. I can put up with such nonsense, if Link can join the Hall of Fame next year.
If you don’t know who Link Wray is, go out now and buy his compilation, Rumble! The Best of Link Wray that was issued by the ever reliable Rhino label. The compilation came out in 1993, and I wonder if Quentin Tarantino bought a copy around that time. QT featured not one but two of Wray’s songs in Pulp Fiction. The 50s themed Jack Rabbit Slims diner scene uses “Rumble” to follow Mia Wallace’s character into the bathroom. For many people, this was probably the first time they heard “Rumble,” even if they didn’t know what it was. Once you hear it, you don’t forget it.
Any rock band, and especially rockabilly band, worth a damn can play “Rumble.” The original is known not for its virtuosity, but its tone, its technique, its raw power. Nervous ‘50s squares even banned the song, despite the fact that it has no lyrics—apparently Eisenhower America was rife with bloody, Sharks and Jets-type encounters.
Oddly, while the song “Rumble” was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a single, Wray the man has not. Not yet. That needs to change. Pete Townshend once called Wray “the king,” and the man who inspired him to pick up a guitar. Neil Young has said that were he able to time travel and see one band live, it would be Link and his band the Ray Men.
Later photographs make the pompadoured, sunglass-sporting Wray look like something that landed from outer space. But he originally was a country boy—one of the many odd and original players to emerge from the postwar South. Wray was born in 1929 in Dunn, North Carolina, to parents of Shawnee ancestry. Back then, white people not only created separate bathrooms for white and black folks, the facilities for American Indians were also segregated. So much for southern hospitality.
As was true of so many rockabilly stars, Wray served in the military during the Korean War. Despite the racist culture he grew up in, Link succeeded as a musician in the Jim Crow South—probably because he could pass for white. In 1958 in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Wray came up with his unique guitar sound for “Rumble” after accidentally puncturing a speaker.
“Rumble” was a Top 40 hit for Wray, and he continued to make exciting music long after. I’m no Wray fanatic—not yet anyway—but I’ slowly going deeper into his catalog. It’s not easy. Beyond the compilations, you won’t find Wray’s albums in used CD or record bins—not for cheap anyway. Thankfully, he is seeing a resurgence on vinyl, helped by Record Store Day each spring. Ray is one of the few artists who can get me to pay full price for a new vinyl copy of his music.
My Link Wray collection is modest, but it has seen considerable use. Link Wray & the Wraymen (1960) shows Wray in his early glory. The album cobbled together several years of singles with staccato titles like “Caroline,” “Radar” and “Comanche.” Wray was exceptional not only in his unique, hard rock sound—long before people used the term “hard rock”—but because he could express himself through instrumentals only.
A later album, 1973’s Beans & Fatback, offers a more diversified sound. Link goes acoustic on some tracks. Overall, the album has a rootsier, bluesier, more southern feel than his early material. He also sings more than I had ever heard him do before. He sounds a bit like Mick Jagger, and Beans & Fatback has the feel of the Stones’s stripped down, heavily acoustic Beggar’s Banquet.
Fans—and Neil Young among them—might wish they had seen Wray live, but listening to Link live at the Paradiso in Amsterdam is pretty close. The album, recorded in August of 1979, presents Wray in all his greasy, leather-clad glory. He was joined by drummer Anton Fig (of David Letterman show fame) and bassist Jimmy Lowell. Wray was no newbie by the late 1970s, but he plays with an abandon worthy of the best rock music of the period. It’s Link Wray’s Live at Leeds. The master of the power chord ably closed a fantastic decade for rock music.
More recently, Wray has been the subject of a documentary about Native Americans, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World. Wray’s screen time is limited, but, as always, he makes an impression. Wray could easily be the subject of his own documentary. Fans could also benefit from a comprehensive biography of the man.
Why does Link continue to not get the credit he deserves? He has been on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot before, but has not won enough votes for induction. Even so, the Hall has seen fit to induct historic and influential—though little known artists—such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Let’s hope the Hall treats Link the same way very soon.