Arkansas: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Part I, The Good

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Downtown Little Rock. Home to many amazing sunsets throughout the year.

I lived for three years and eight months in Little Rock. I’m in Virginia now. My time in Arkansas was eventful and interesting. My leaving was always likely, but never inevitable. Some things I will miss about it. Others I certainly will not.

Arkansas is a big state, size-wise. Not so much for population. But the place has a fascinating history, and it is woefully understudied in comparison to a place like Virginia. Here are some cool things to see while you’re there. Note that these are only places that I visited. I didn’t hit every site that I should have, such as Fort Smith, Crystal Bridges, and Eureka Springs.

Fayetteville (northwest Arkansas). “Fayettechill” is the home of the Razorbacks, who reside at Arkansas’s biggest college and flagship of the University of Arkansas system. Fayetteville has all the cool things you would associate with a college town: used book stores, bars, vinyl record shops, greasy spoons, and strip clubs.

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Pea Ridge/Elkhorn Tavern (northwest Arkansas). This Civil War battlefield isn’t far from Fayetteville. It was one of the most important battles fought in Arkansas. The Rebels lost. The National Park Service runs the battlefield, which is large and pristine by Civil War battlefield park standards. You’d be hard-pressed to walk the whole field in an afternoon. And there’s so many trees that you might run into a deer as you stroll through.

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Pea Ridge/Elkhorn Tavern battlefield.

Natural Bridge (northwest Arkansas). This place is worth a stop. Admission was $5 when I was there. Virginia also has a Natural Bridge. But, not surprisingly, Virginia is more obnoxious about it.


Little Rock/North Little Rock River Trail (central Arkansas). What I will miss most about Little Rock was the amazing bicycling/pedestrian trail that winds along the Arkansas River. Most weeks, I rode 25 miles on my bike. I started in Hillcrest, rode to Cantrell Road, got on the trail by the Verizon building, crossed the Big Dam Bridge (which has the longest pedestrian bridge in the United States), went up Big Rock, turned around, and headed to downtown Little Rock. At the Clinton Library, I rode west heading back to Hillcrest. The ride took at least 2 hours, with stops for lunch and water along the way.

Because of Little Rock’s mild winters, you can cycle the trail almost every week of the year, weather permitting. Winter days range from the teens to the 70s. Most of the time, though, it hovers between 45-60 degrees, which is doable for cycling enthusiasts.

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Arkansas River, as seen from Big Rock in North Little Rock. Part of LR/NLR’s magnificent River Trail system.

Hot Springs (central/southwest Arkansas). This old gambling town isn’t what it used to be. The race track is still there, but the city is a shadow of its former glory. Still, it’s worth visiting, especially the gardens not far from the downtown.

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Hot Springs on St. Patrick’s Day is the closest Arkansas gets to Bourbon Street.

Historic Washington (southwest Arkansas). Washington was where the Confederate government moved after the fall of Little Rock in September 1863. The old, and modest, capitol is there, along with many other historic buildings.

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Courthouse in Historic Washington.

Hope (southwest Arkansas). Not far from Washington is Hope. As is true of many small towns in Arkansas, Hope has seen better days. But it is the home of Bill Clinton, Mike Huckabee, and Patsy Montana. The Clinton childhood home, run by the National Park Service, is worth visiting.

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Hot Springs. Home of one president, and one guy who should never be allowed to even run for president.

Kingsland (south-central Arkansas). Tiny Kingsland, which is about 75 miles south of Little Rock, is the birthplace of Johnny Cash. The town numbers only about 450 people. But its’ worth seeing if you’re a Cash fanatic.

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Cothams (Scott, in central Arkansas). About ten miles east of Little Rock is Cothams (pronounced “Cottums”) in Scott, Arkansas. It’s home of the hubcap burger, so called because it’s as big as one (and yeah, it pretty much is). Yet, as huge as this place’s hamburgers are, the burgers are surprisingly not as filling as you might think. And good thing, because you’ll need to save room for the Mississippi Mud Pie.

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Scott (central Arkansas). Scott isn’t a walkable community. But it is very pretty in spots, especially in the spring, and it has an interesting history (i.e., Marlsgate plantation house). The place is good for cyclists, too, who could ride easily from downtown Little Rock to the center of Scott in about an hour.

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A pecan plantation on Col. Baucum Road in Scott. The kind of spot that Bonnie and Clyde might have rested in.

Dyess (Mississippi County, northeast Arkansas). Dyess was created in the 1930s. It was a New Deal experiment intended to help small farmers by giving them a house and 20 acres of land. Nothing in Dyess was free, but it gave a fresh start to many, including Ray Cash, the father of Johnny Cash. Johnny lived there until he was 18, when he enlisted in the Air Force and spent four years in Germany.

The bed that Johnny Cash shared with his older brother Jack.

Lakeport Plantation (southeast Arkansas). Not far from the Louisiana border is Lakeport, is the only surviving antebellum plantation in Arkansas along the Mississippi River. The place was lovingly restored by Arkansas State University. The plantation still grows cotton.

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Lakeport plantation. The only surviving Arkansas antebellum plantation along the Mississippi.

Arkansas Historical Association Meeting, 2015


Johnny Cash has been good to me.

I was in West Memphis last week at the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association. I was representing my employer, the Center for Arkansas History and Culture at the University of Arkansas Little Rock. I gave a talk on Saturday on James Guy Tucker, Jr., and Vietnam.

In west Memphis, I was also lucky enough to win two awards. They were for articles I had written about Johnny Cash and Arkansas. They both were about Cash, Winthrop Rockefeller, and prison reform in Arkansas. One was published in the Pulaski County Historical Review, and it won best article for 2014. The other award was for best unpublished article submitted to the Arkansas Historical Association.

So, to recap my career. Amount of money I have made from writing a peer-reviewed book that has been available wherever books are sold: $0.

Money from writing Johnny Cash-related articles that were not peer-reviewed: $900.

How many books would I have to sell to get $900 in royalties? I don’t want to know.

Publishers have also been warming up to me. I have written only one entire chapter of my Johnny Cash book, yet I have had two publishers interested in the project.

I was also contracted recently to read a book manuscript on Johnny Cash. In a world of billionaires, $200 is a small sum. But for a historian who is used to writing things for free, a few hundred dollars is a lot. Some scholars can go a very long time without getting any money for their work.

And not just Johnny Cash, but the Arkansas Historical Association has been good to me. This year was the third year in a row that I presented a paper at the annual conference. My first was in Helena in 2013. At that point, I was actually starting to feel that I knew what I was talking about with Johnny Cash. It was only my third academic talk. And it was nice practice for someone like me who is not comfortable with public speaking.

The AHA is a very laid back conference. No one comments on your paper, as they sometimes do at other conferences. Many of the presenters and attendees I’ve met are not in academia at all. In short, it’s less stuffy. It’s very Arkansas in that way. I often appreciate Arkansas’s lack of pretentiousness.


Before heading to the conference, I stopped with my family at Uncle John’s in Crawfordsville. It’s a restaurant in a typical Delta town. Farming is still king in Crawfordsville. It reminded me a lot of Dyess, which I visited twice last year. I liked this decoration that was hanging on the men’s room wall.


I stayed overnight in Memphis for the conference. I didn’t get to see much, but that was kind of the point: I wasn’t going to have much time to look around.

And since I stayed in east Memphis, I saw where people live. Should you only ever visit downtown Memphis and Beale Street, you would never get an idea of where people’s houses are.

Maybe my next trip will Elvis-decadent. I’d love to go back for the Beale Street music festival this year. John Fogerty will be there. Wilco, too. But I have a baby coming around that time. Kids are inconsiderate that way.


The banquet for the AHA conference was held at the Southland dog track. it wasn’t easy to walk past all those slot machines without making a bet. I don’t have money to gamble. But maybe if Johnny Cash stays good to me, I will.

Randy Newman: Southern Historian?

Randy Newman in 1972, featured on the cover of his album Sail Away.

By Colin Woodward

Last month, I saw Randy Newman perform with the Conway Symphony Orchestra at the University of Central Arkansas. I’ve always liked Randy Newman. If you know anything about music, chances are you can name at least one of his songs. I recall hearing  “I Love L.A.,” which came out around the time I first remember listening to music, back in the early 1980s.

In Conway, Newman didn’t mess around. He played his “best of,” which covered floods, bad love, the slave trade, genocide, communism, child murder, and kinky sex. The usual. What does it say about me that one of my heroes is a cranky, mumbly piano-player in his 70s that I’ve never met? Not sure. I like Americans who go against the grain. And besides, loving old men is the way entertainment goes these days. Our senior musicians endure, while our young athletes and others fade away.

Newman is known for his caustic, acerbic wit and a tendency to offend. The singer got flak for his 1977 hit “Short People,” which was written purely as a goof. Newman had no idea how vocal and bitter the short people lobby was. In Conway, Newman was in classic form. He made a joke about American Sniper and how dumb his sons were in comparison with his daughter. He also called Little Rock a “dump.” Was he kidding about Little Rock? You’re never sure with Newman.

Years ago, one moment endeared me to Newman. When he finally won an Oscar in 2002 for “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc. (after losing on many other occasions), he told the crowd, “I don’t need your pity.” He then chastised the Academy Awards’ orchestra for trying to cut him off during his speech. He told them they were being “rude.” It was one of Newman’s best moments.

One reason I’ve liked Newman is not just because his songs are funny, but because history plays such a prominent role in his work. Newman was born in Los Angeles and has been there most of his life, but he lived in New Orleans for a while as a kid, and he has family with southern roots. His penchant for southern history is most pronounced on 1974’s Good Old Boys, a concept album about the South, with several songs about Louisiana and the bizarre governorship of Huey “Kingfish” Long in the 1920s and 1930s.

Newman hasn’t been afraid to tackle a subject as tricky or as touchy as race in America. Good Old Boys opens with “Rednecks,” a song inspired by the segregationist governor of Georgia, Lester Maddox. “Rednecks” is the only song I have ever heard by a mainstream singer than uses the word “nigger” (the only other one I can think of is John Lennon’s “Woman is the Nigger of the World”).

We got no-neck oil men from Texas

Good ol’ boys from Tennessee

College men from LSU

Went in dumb, come out dumb, too

Hustling ’round Atlanta in their alligator shoes

Getting drunk every weekend at a barbecue

They’re keeping the niggers down

We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks

We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground

We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks

We’re keeping the niggers down

Newman, of course, is not promoting racism, but satirizing it. And in “Rednecks,” he skewers northern and southern racism, saying that northern blacks were “free to be put in a cage” in places like West and South Chicago, Harlem, Filmore in San Francisco, and Roxbury in Boston. Racism, Newman, makes clear, is an American problem, not just a southern one.

Needless to say, “Rednecks” did not make the Top 40. And Newman did not play it in Conway. Newman did, however, play several tunes from Good Old Boys, including the moving “Louisiana, 1927,” about the horrible Mississippi River flood of that year.

What is happening down here is that winds have changed

Clouds moved in from the north and it started to rain

Rained real hard and for a real long time

Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

The song might have seemed a novelty in 1974, but it became eerily current after Katrina hit in August 2005. Newman’s Good Old Boys made numerous references to depression era figures, but its better songs, such as “Back on My Feet Again” could’ve been about making it in the recession-plagued 1970s, or the early 2010s for that matter. In plumbing the depths of American history, Newman has unearthed the everyday.

Newman has sung about historical topics outside the South, too. His terrific 1999 album Bad Love is something of a history lesson. It opens with the line “let’s go back to yesterday/when a phone call cost a dime.”The Great Nations of Europe” examines the explorers who conquered North America and decimated the native populations. Heavy stuff, and not the type of material most songwriters would want to tackle. But, it’s the kind of song Randy Newman has liked to write throughout his entire career. He is the closest thing to an endowed professor of history that American pop music has produced.

The University of Central Arkansas, where Randy Newman took the stage last month.

In Conway, Newman joked about how “In Germany before the War” should have been a hit, though the song’s subject–a child killer living in Nazi Germany–was unfit for mass airplay. Hearing it last month made me a little uncomfortable. And yet, the song is not at all explicit. It is disturbing because of what it suggests.

On a lighter note, “Life Just Isn’t Fair,” about Karl Marx and the failures of communism to combat human nature, also graced Newman’s album Bad Love. “Life” was inspired by a trip to Newman’s school, where “froggish men, unpleasant to see” were alongside “all the young mommies.” The point: ugly, rich men can get the girl. And really, what better motivator is there for men to succeed?

Randy Newman was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, even though his music rarely can be considered “rock.” More appropriately, I think he should be honored with a lifetime achievement award from the American Historical Association or the Southern Historical Association.

As Americans, we are products of our history. And few songwriters understand that better than Randy Newman.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian and the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, published through UVA Press.

Me and Johnny Cash, Part III: Dyess

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By Colin Woodward (note, this story was read on the show Tales from the South last month)


March 2014. I’m in Turrell, Arkansas, pumping gas and wearing women’s boots. It’s cold, and the cars are making slashing sounds as they drive through the mushy pavement of a Citgo station. But, I’ve never been happier to be at a Flash Market.

I left Little Rock the day before as it recovered from a late winter storm. Farther north, things were much worse.

I was doing research on Johnny Cash for an exhibit. My goal was to reach Dyess, a place I had never been before. It’s Graceland for Cash fanatics. The house had been restored by Arkansas State University, but was not yet open. I was going to get a sneak peak.


My first stop was Newport. Cash played there in the mid-50s, when he had no drummer and was willing to sing at any club, church, or high school gym that would have him. Unglamorous, maybe, but sometimes he shared the bill with Elvis.

I drove north to Newport along the “Rock and Roll Highway,” passing “rocking” towns such as Possum Grape, Nuckles, and Horseshoe. The snow storm had been over for a few days, but many of the roads hadn’t seen a plow. At some ramps, I was the plow—pushing my Toyota Corolla through piles of snow, making a crude path.

Sonny Burgess

At the Newport Rock and Roll Museum, I didn’t see much Cash. But I saw large images of Elvis and many pictures of Sonny Burgess, an Arkansas native and rockabilly legend, who knew Cash in the early days. I told Henry, the curator, I was working on a Johnny Cash exhibit. We got to talking about Sonny Burgess, when Henry asked if I wanted to talk to Sonny, who lived nearby.

I wasn’t prepared for interviewing one of the last survivors of the Sun Records scene, but Henry dialed Sonny’s number, and I talked with him. Sonny still plays with his band, the Legendary Pacers. He was very nice to me on the phone. I don’t think Sonny and Johnny Cash spent all that much time together, but it was fun to hear Sonny talk about Cash, Elvis, and Roy Orbison.

My next stop was Dyess. As I drove through the flat, white landscape of northeastern Arkansas, I thought about what it must have been like for Cash to play one night stands in the early days. Nashville musician Bobby Bare, Jr., once said playing in a band is more about being a truck driver than a musician. I began to understand.

More snow, more slush. Not many trees. Work trucks everywhere, fixing power lines.

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At Dyess, I took a right turn at the Johnny Cash sign, which brought me to the center of town, where the melted snow had made a lake of water, two inches deep. The old movie theatre—in the process of being restored—was held up by 2 x 4s. It looked like a bomb had hit it.

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At City Hall, I saw a high school picture of Johnny Cash from 1950. Cash is wearing a coat and tie, his hair slicked back. He’s decades from becoming The Man in Black. But you can see the darkness in his eyes, the seriousness and determination.

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To get to the Cash house, I had to head back the way I came, crossing two bridges. I took a left on 294: not a highway, but a gravel road, covered in snow. I hesitated for a minute, knowing that a plow had not yet touched 294. I wasn’t sure how far the Cash house was from the main road. And I didn’t know if I wanted to trudge a mile through snow in my women’s boots.

I had a choice: walk or keep on driving. So, I took the turn.
The mud and snow got deeper as I drove. With Outlaw Country playing on my radio, I slammed the car into low gear, hoping for traction, crawling toward the house.

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“I’ve Been Everywhere”

With mud splattering against the windshield, the car slid its way to the Cash house. As I pulled up, a Johnny Cash song came on the air. I swear. The song? “I’ve Been Everywhere.” I swear. That song coming on was a cosmic occurrence: this was meant to happen. My trip had gone from the historical to the mystical.

Johnny was looking out for me.

The landscape around the house was flat, white, and cold. Silent. A single tree was in the front yard. I took a lot of pictures, getting the house from every angle. The restoration was spectacular. The place—with its white paint and green trim—is a time machine. It looks like it is 1935 and has just been finished.

When I was done snapping pictures, I saw cars zipping along a main road not far ahead. I was relieved. I would not have to retrace my steps along the gravel road.

Mr. McCrory

As I headed out of town, I drove back past the McCrory country store. Out front, there were signs with Johnny Cash’s likeness advertising “souvenirs.”

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The front door of the store was sealed shut by an inch of ice. I knocked. No one answered.

A house was in the back, a small, run-down place, about the size of a trailer. I went to the door and knocked. A voice inside told me to come in.

An old man sat in a chair, watching television. It was Mr. McCrory. I told him that I had driven from Little Rock. We talked about Johnny Cash. About the store. He said he was 90 years old and had been born in Italy. He moved to Dyess later and served in World War II in Italy in the medical corps. Mr. McCrory remembered the fish markets in Naples and St. Peter’s cathedral.

I asked him if he wanted to be a doctor after the war. He said he didn’t have enough education, that he had only finished seventh grade.

Mr. McCrory talked about “the boy” opening the store for me. It turned out “the boy” was his son, who must have been about 70 years old. “The boy” let me in.

Inside, the store was—shall we say—rustic. Cramped, cold, and dark. It was a combination of country store (complete with catsup bottles and canned goods), hardware (with tools everywhere), hunter’s shack (there was a tiny stove at the back), and Johnny Cash gift shop.

“The boy,” Gary McCrory, was Arkansas friendly. And he had the look of a true Arkansan: camo hat and jacket, work boats. Rugged. But he said he wasn’t going anywhere in the snow with his truck.
I talked about the Cash exhibit I was working on as water dripped from the roof. Gary said he used to play drums in a band. I told him about my interview with Sonny Burgess earlier in the day.

The pictures of Johnny Cash in the store were interesting, but they looked like they had been there for twenty years. I bought a photo of Cash with June and the music promoter Gene Williams, who’d gone to school with Cash.

As I left town, the sun was going down. The sky seemed on fire, and there was nothing between me and the March sunset: an orange ball meeting an expanse of icy blue and white.

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The next day was sunny and a little warmer. I drove from the Jonesboro to Osceola to do more research. I had a quarter-tank of fuel. As I headed toward Joiner, about 26 miles from Osceola, the gas light came on.

I clicked on the GPS for the nearest gas station. I hurled off the highway, bounding over pock-marked roads made worse by the recent storm.

The only vehicle I saw were service trucks. I drove hard toward wherever this gas station was supposed to be. As I approached my destination, I realized the station wasn’t there. The GPS had screwed me.


I punched another location into the GPS—a Citgo station, and not a close one. It would take me another ten minutes or so to get there. I felt like I didn’t have enough gas.

I panicked at the idea of being stranded on the road to Osceola. I rehearsed my pitch to the closest farmhouse wife. “Um, excuse me? Could you spare some gas to a Damn Yankee too lazy to gas up in Jonesboro?” I thought of other options. Surely, a service truck would give me a ride to a gas station, right?

I sped over the empty, bombed out roads. Eventually, I saw tractor trailers in the distance. Where there are tractor trailers, there are good roads. Where there are good roads, there is gas.

I pulled into the Flash Market, where I stood in my woman’s boots in the melted snow, pumping gas. They were wife’s winter boots. Brown things, not made for Turrell, Arkansas. Before we had left Massachusetts for Arkansas, I got rid of my New England boots. Surely I wouldn’t need them in Arkansas.

I was wrong. But those boots got me through the mud of Mississippi County. And Johnny Cash had been looking out for me.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian. He published his first book, Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War through UVA Press. He is working on a book on Johnny Cash.

What’s Next for Book Two: Johnny Cash

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Johnny Cash at Cummins prison, 1969. Photo by Larry Obsitnik of what was then the Arkansas Gazette.

By Colin Woodward

The ink is barely dry on my first book, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War. But, I’ve already begun work on a second book. The subject of it will be Johnny Cash.

The book is an outgrowth of an exhibit I worked on here in Little Rock called Johnny Cash: Arkansas Icon. The exhibit was more than two years in the making. I did a lot of research for it, most of which did not make its way into the exhibit. I’ve been to Kingsland. I’ve been to Dyess. I’ve read the letters, newspapers, and books about Cash’s life. After a while, you feel you’ve read enough. Then it’s time to start writing.

The book will focus on Johnny Cash’s connection to Arkansas. As of today, I have a very rough first chapter that examines Cash’s family’s roots in the United States and the family’s move to Kingsland, Arkansas, in the 1850s. Later chapters will explore Cash’s concerts for Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, the trip to Cummins prison farm, and the trip to Rison in 1976.

Cash has had many biographers, but most have not been academics. None, so far as I know, have been trained historians. Some Cash books have been great. I really enjoyed Robert Hilburn’s recent biography. The Michael Streissguth biography is good, too.

And yet, Cash is in need of someone to write a book based on the documentary record–documents, that the reader can follow in the end notes. My research so far challenges some of the notions we have about Cash. Mine will not be a book about the drugs and throwing of TVs out of windows. It aims to deep into the sociological and psychological roots of Cash’s music.

When I was in graduate school, we weren’t given books to read that were about family. Genealogy wasn’t even mentioned. But as a working historian, I’ve realized how important family history and genealogy is.

Cash’s parents were from Arkansas, but his paternal grandfather was from Georgia. His maternal grandfather was from South Carolina.  The first chapter ends with the Cash family packing up and heading to Dyess. Cash then was only three years old.

Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, and Governor Winthrop Rockefeller at Cummins prison farm, 1969. Courtesy: UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture.

Although Cash only spent a few years in Kingsland, many of the themes that found their way into his later work had their genesis in Kingsland: the Civil War, trains, Native Americans, and cotton.

This book will be a departure for me. I’m leaving the Civil War for a while to enter the 20th century. My century. It won’t be a traditional biography of Cash, but rather one that focuses on the importance of place, family, and his fans in his career.

Cash lived in Tennessee for most of his life, but he had no family roots there. His move to Nashville was really one of necessity. It was a business decision. But Cash never really identified with the Nashville establishment. His roots were in Arkansas.

I’m not sure where I want to go, publisher wise. But if you work in publishing, feel free to contact me. For now, I have plenty of work to do, researching and writing.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

The 2014 Arkansas Historical Association Meeting

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Historic Washington State Park. This is the courthouse built in 1874.

By Colin Woodward

Last week, I attended the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association. This year, the meeting was at Historic Washington state Park, which is not too far from Hope, the birthplace of Bill Clinton. I went to the AHA meeting last year, too, in Helena. In 2015, the meeting will be in West Memphis.

What I like about the AHA meeting is that it’s a mix of academics, amateur historians, and the general public. It’s not nearly as formal as a conference like the Southern Historical association meeting of the Society of Civil War historians. Those types of meeting tend to be held in big cities. You give your paper in a hotel conference or ball room. In contrast, I’ve been to two AHA meetings, and both times I gave a talk in a historic church.

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Methodist Church. Historic Washington State Park.

Last year, I spoke about Johnny Cash, Winthrop Rockefeller, and prison reform in Arkansas. This year, I chose a very different topic. I did my twenty minutes on Charline Person, a planter from Miller County, who became one of the most prominent citizens in Miller County, which is in the southwest corner of the state.

I had a pretty good turn-out for my talk. The crowd at the AHA tends to be older than at conferences geared toward professors and graduate students. But any crowd is a good crowd, and the people at the AHA meetings are an attentive bunch. I enjoyed the talk.

I was also impressed by Historic Washington, which is much bigger than I thought it would be. The site was the capital for Arkansas once Little Rock fell in 1863. The 1836 Hempstead Courthouse is where the legislature met for the latter part of the war. The buildings at Washington have been painstakingly restored. Friday, the day I gave my paper, was a beautiful springs day in Arkansas. And it as nice to walk around, look at buildings, and take pictures.

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Hempstead County Courthouse, built in 1836. Site of where the the Confederate legislature met after the fall of Little Rock in September 1863.

I also visited the Bill Clinton house, which is run by the National Park Service. Downtown Hope, unfortunately, has gone the way of many communities in Arkansas. Much like Helena, downtown Hope is a shell of its former glory, where thriving business are the exception rather than the rule. Amtrak still has a line that runs through Hope. But when I was there, things were pretty quiet.

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Hope, Arkansas.

I can now say that I’ve been to all four corners of Arkansas. For me, that means Fayetteville, Hope, Osceola, and Lakeport. I’m not sure what I might present on next year, but it will likely have to do with Johnny Cash. After all, the 2015 meeting will be as close to Memphis as you can get while still being in Arkansas.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

In Defense of Otey


By Colin Woodward

So, no likes Otey. The haters surely are correct. The Natural State deserves better. The Travelers should be ashamed of themselves. They should instead follow the example of Fayetteville and name mascots after more enlightened and respectable creatures: like the pig. I don’t know how to put possum-speak on a bumper sticker. But it could never have the gravitas of “woo-pig-sooie.”

Will Arkansas ever recover from the great Otey debacle? Only Bill could say.

I’ve only been to one Travelers game. Back in 2012. I had a good time. But I was a bit surprised by the large number of military-grade weapons that were being displayed inside the front gates. Was it some kind of gun show? Were Arkansans just being vigilant, given the possibility that an unwanted possum might show up? I’m not sure. I also saw a truck that was essentially a Confederate flag with wheels.

A possum mascot has no right to bring down the rebellion-fueled buzz of whomever drives this van.

High-powered rifles and Rebel flags, of course, deserve a central, even ubiquitous place at our baseball games (and in our society in general). But a cartoon possum? Not so much.

The barefoot Otey, with a bat slung over his shoulder, one button undone on his overalls—and wearing what I can only guess is an ironically displayed bowler hat—clearly perpetuates an Arkansas stereotype. Since Arkansas has eliminated all remnants of racism, poverty, political buffoonery, and religious extremism from its society, it’s time to focus our anger on the important things: the politics of minor league mascots.

At a Travelers game, you can get a beer, a dog, and a high-powered rifle.

I lived for five years in Richmond, Va., where the minor league baseball team was called the Flying Squirrels. Before they were the Squirrels, the Richmond team was the Braves, whose fans are known to do the “Tomahawk Chop” at games. In Richmond, I was also two hours away from the nations’ capital, whose professional football team is the Washington Redskins.

Clearly, Otey is a far more absurd and offensive creature, who is keeping Arkansas at the bottom of educational rankings, per capita income, and crime.

Otey needs to go. Or maybe Little Rock should change the name of the Travelers to the Awesome Possums. Think about it. Anyone can be a Traveler. But not everyone can be awesome. Or a possum. Unless you’re George Jones.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

Me and Johnny Cash, Part II: My Trip to Kingsland, Arkansas

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By Colin Woodward

On the day of my birthday in late August, I visited Kingsland, Arkansas, in Cleveland County, about an hour south of Little Rock. Kingsland is the birthplace of Johnny Cash. Cash was born there in February of 1932, but the place doesn’t seem to have changed all that much. It’s a very small town of about 450 people. One house had chickens running loose in the front yard. There was a water tower advertising the town name. A couple churches. A city hall that was about the size of a large garage. Many of the roads are gravel, and you can drive through Kingsland before finishing a Johnny Cash song on the radio.

It was a hot and sunny day, and I was there to take pictures of where Cash spent the first few years of his life (the family moved to Dyess, not far from Memphis, in 1935). The town borders a major road, but there was only one place, a truck stop, called the One-Stop, to get a Coke or anything to eat. There was a pretty good size school, though. And if the One-Stop didn’t have fine dining, it was quite a hang-out for the locals, who were friendly and helpful.

The actual location of the house where Cash was born is unknown to me. The house certainly isn’t there anymore, and hasn’t been there for a long time. All I know is that the house was near where the railroad tracks, which still run through the town, meet the Saline River.

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I was trying to find the Cash marker that was put up in 1976. Despite the fact that Kingsland is only about the size of a few city blocks, the marker was difficult to find. There is no “Johnny Cash Avenue” or “Man in Black Boulevard” to clue you in. I had to ask a woman named “Peenut” at the One-Stop for directions to the marker. As it turned out, I had driven past it about five times. Eventually, I discovered it was near a church and a basketball court. The marker, which includes a guitar design, was painted a long time ago, and the harsh southern Arkansas sun has bleached it white. The marker’s visibility is not helped by a fence that has been placed around it.

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I also wanted to spot the building where Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton had their picture taken together in the 1950s. Back in the 50s, it was the Kingsland post office. It later became a bank. I wasn’t able to find it, so I went back to the One-Stop to ask “Peenut” yet again for directions. The “Cash-Horton” building wasn’t too far from the Cash marker.

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Old post office where Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton stopped for pictures in the 1950s.

And really, in Kingsland, you’re not too far from anything. Still, I needed help. But I wasn’t alone. “Peenut” told me that people from all over come to find the Cash marker and see where he was born. It’s too bad there’s no Johnny Cash Museum or some such in Kingsland, where you could get a mug or t-shirt.

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Kingsland Mercantile

I also ventured to Rison, the seat of Cleveland County (which has a population of about 11,000 people). In Rison, I visited the office of the Cleveland County Herald. There, I looked through some bound volumes of issues from 1976 and 1994, when Cash visited Cleveland County. The 1976 visit to Rison was especially dear to Cash, who called it one of the “biggest kicks” of his life, because he visited  the town with his daddy. If you buy the book House of Cash, written by John Carter Cash, there’s a CD inside that has Cash doing a five-minute spoken word segment about the 1976 Rison visit, including a story about his father and the Cotton Belt Line that he set to music.

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Rison, Arkansas

Rison isn’t big either (about 1,300 people), but the town had a grocery store, Mexican restaurant, and a library, where I did research in old issues of the Herald. Cash’s father, Ray, helped build the courthouse, which sits on a the hill overlooking Rison. The grocery store there is one of those older, small grocery stores that I love going into.

Stan Sadler, who used to work at the Herald, let me borrow some Johnny Cash photographs to take back to Little Rock with me. I didn’t get a chance to meet Sadler, whom I had spoken with via email. But he had the Cash photos waiting for me when I got to Rison, and the images were terrific. Stan’s generosity was one of those friendly acts that are difficult to find outside Arkansas.

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Courthouse in Rison, which Johnny Cash’s father helped build.

Cleveland County was perhaps an odd place to spend my birthday. But for me, following the trail of a famous artist–like a Cash or Faulkner or Hemingway–is just as fun, if not more so, than visiting a historic building or Civil War battlefield. And it won’t be the last Johnny Cash-related place I’ll visit. Dyess is next on my list.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

Crime in Little Rock, Arkansas

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By Colin Woodward

In 2017, Little Rock was rated the most dangerous city in America with a population less than 200,00 people. Arkansas is a third world place, more or less, and with it comes third world levels of crime.

This is a violent country, and Little Rock is a violent city. Things in central Arkansas have improved much from the early-mid 1990s, when the crack epidemic made crime so bad that HBO aired a documentary called “Bangin’ in Little Rock”. In the early 90s, many cities were damn near unlivable. Gangs were killing other gang members–not to mention innocent bystanders–over new drug turf. Mid-size cities had murder rates far greater than they should have had. The inner cities were seething. Los Angeles blew up in 1992 as a result of the Rodney King verdict. By the late 1990s, cities found ways to lower crime rates, helped by new approaches to the problem and the subsiding of the crack warfare.

In August 1993, I enrolled as an undergraduate in a college in Hartford, Connecticut, which was experiencing some of the worst crime in its history. The city set a record for murders one week that summer when I was there. It was my first experience being away from home for longer than a week. Given the bloodshed in Hartford, most of us at Trinity College didn’t dare venture off campus, at least not alone. It wasn’t until four years later that I felt safe enough to walk to the grocery store a few miles away.

After leaving Hartford, I moved to Baton Rouge, where the crime was–amazingly enough–far worse. Just about everyone I knew in Louisiana had been a victim of a crime in one from or another: breaking into cars, muggings, burglaries, assaults. You name it. If you can manage to live in Baton Rouge, New York City should be easy. Or Beirut.

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Now, I live in Little Rock, where crime statistics are hard to come by. The city’s wikipedia page has no crime statistics (as of 2017 May 9, there is a crime section of several sentences, with no references to recent crime). Is the city trying to hide something? You bet it is. Yet, you don’t have to live here long to realize how high the crime is. There’s a popular Facebook page called Forbidden Hillcrest, which reports on the crime in that prosperous neighborhood and surrounding areas. It’s easy to read Forbidden Hillcrest and think that Little Rock is in chaos. It’s not chaotic, but that doesn’t mean the crime rate isn’t high.

The facts don’t lie. There were five murders this past week. The latest involved a man allegedly shooting a driver after a road rage incident. Another case involved two teens being kidnapped. One was released, but his friend was murdered. After these killers are found, tried, and convicted, they will know the true meaning of misery when they are sent to Cummins or some other prison. If they make it that far.

At the rate of 5 murders per week, Little Rock would average 250+ murders for the year. There are only about 193,000 people in this city. To put that in perspective, in 2007, New York City, which has over 8.3 million people, had fewer than 500 murders. Even if Little Rock only averages, say, 25 murders this year, its per capita murder rate is much higher than in New York City. And let’s not even get into the rapes, robberies, and other crimes.

Little Rock usually averages between 25 and 40 murders per year. Here are some statistics. The number of murders in Little Rock for the last few years (updated after this post went live in 2013):

2016: 42

2015: 31

2014: 44

2013: 36

2012: 45

2011: 37

2010: 25

2009: 32

2008: 40

2007: 51

2006: 58

2005: 41

With the warmer weather comes more crime, usually. July 2012 was the deadliest month for Little Rock since 1993. Ten people were murdered in July last year in the capital. Only one month in the past twenty years has been worse: December 1993, when eleven people were murdered.

Recently, Little Rock had the dubious distinction of becoming the 6th most dangerous city in the United States. Little Rock police, among others, might contest such a ranking. But there is no question that Little Rock is a high crime city.

Why? There are many reasons. There are the obvious factors of race, class, drug problems, and history. The South has always been a violent place, with a higher percentage of poor people than other parts of the country. Not all people who commit crimes are poor, of course, but the South, more so than other parts of the country, is still working out issues of racial and class justice left over from the Jim Crow era.

Another problem is political, namely, legislatures that don’t focus on the crime issue or want to pay for improving the conditions that lead to crime: bad schools, unemployment, drug abuse, bad parenting, psychiatric disorders–just to name a few. I’ve heard a lot about the most recent Arkansas legislative session, but I didn’t hear any serious crime measures proposed. All I heard was talk about making people handle crime on their own by letting them carry guns in churches and college campuses. Gee, thanks. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about. Amazingly, Arkansas does not have a “Stand Your Ground” law. Perhaps the bad press out of Florida has cooled efforts to give Arkansans a license to kill.

On Forbidden Hillcrest you can read a lot of responses along the lines of: “you should’ve had a gun!” Victim blaming. Yet, more guns, concealed or not, does not make us safer. Whether or not you use your gun in a legitimate instance of self-defense, a crime has still been committed. At best, you can make a bad situation not as bad. Warding off an attacker still means you were attacked.

No one will contest another person’s right to defend him/herself. You might not be a criminal. But being in a constant state of violent preparedness still makes you a violent person. And urging people to get a gun and not address the root causes of crime is at best a cheap, lazy solution. Instead of politicians urging a greater police presence, they want an armed citizenry taking matters into their own hands. As for myself, I don’t feel safer thinking other people might have concealed weapons. I feel safer seeing more cops, especially on foot.

Guns, used responsibly or not, lead to frequent tragedies. About 30,000 people per year in this country are killed by guns, 2/3 of them suicides. That means 600,000 people in the last 20 years have died from guns, roughly the number that died in the Civil War. The fact that most were self-inflicted make you wonder why you might own the gun you have.

Little Rock’s downtown has improved dramatically in the last twenty years. Shops and restaurants and other businesses are thriving. There’s new construction. It’s relatively safe. You see cops. It’s much improved over the late-80s, when the downtown was a desert. Still, the city has a long way to go before it could be considered safe.

Responsible parents care most about improving schools and lowering crime. That’s something Republicans and Democrats can always agree on. For some people, carrying a gun everywhere makes them feel safe. For me, living in a place where I feel like I would never have to carry a gun is the truest measure of safety. Little Rock has a lot to offer, but the crime rate is not one of its highlights.

Me and Johnny Cash: My Trip to Cummins Prison Farm


By Colin Woodward

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Cummins Unit in Grady, Arkansas. I went because I was asked by Jo Wheeler and Danny Robins producing a show for BBC radio to talk about Johnny Cash’s April 1969 concert at the prison. Earlier this year, I had written a short article about Cash, Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, and prison reform. The BBC also talked that day to John Kirk, the head of the history department at UALR, who is an expert on Gov. Rockefeller and civil rights in Arkansas.

While my people love Johnny Cash, they probably don’t know how passionate he was about changing the prison culture, especially in his home state of Arkansas. It’s safe to say that in 1969, Arkansas had the worst prison system in the country. In 1970, the entire prison system was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Governor Rockefeller had made prison reform one of the foundations of his run for governor in 1966.  When WR ran for reelection in 1968 (governor’s then served only two years in Arkansas), Johnny Cash campaigned with him, performing concerts in such places as Harrison, Winthrop, and Fayetteville.

The April 1969 Cummins concert was something of a culmination of Cash’s efforts to bring about prison reform. By then, Cash’s At Folsom Prison live album had become a huge hit. Cash had always written about law-breakers and prisoners. “Folsom Prison Blues” was one of the first songs he had ever written, and it became an instant classic. But Cash also had recorded such great prison songs as “25 Minutes to Go,” about a condemned man’s last few minutes on earth–done with typically dark Johnny Cash humor (though the song was written by Shel Silverstein). At Cummins, however, Cash’s performance was never more political.

Most people probably don’t think of Johnny Cash as very political. But he was. Class issues had always been at the heart of his music. His early hit “Folsom Prison Blues” speaks of “rich folks” drinking coffee and smoking cigars in a train’s “fancy dining car,” while a prisoner rotted away behind bars. Cash identified with the working man: the poor farmers, the auto workers. He also championed Native Americans and the soldiers fighting the war in Vietnam. All without ever sounding smug or PC. He went so far as to call the prisoners at Cummins “my people.”

It’s tempting in 2012 to think of country music–at least the stuff you hear on FM radio–as the soundtrack of anti-government, redneck conservatives. Cash might’ve been a redneck and Republican. But he probably would not like the Republican Party of today. One could go so far as to call Cash a liberal, albeit in the Cold War sense of that term. Men as personally diverse as John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were pretty much cut from the same liberal cloth: they were anti-communist, big government candidates in 1960.

Cash’s humble upbringing was more similar to that of Duke-educated Nixon (born to lower-class Quakers) than the wealthy, Harvard-graduate Kennedy. Cash was raised in a religious household on a government-planned farm in Dyess. He later joined the military to escape his hometown. Cash was many things, but anti-government wasn’t one of them.

By the late 1960s, Cash had little use for racist southern demagogues like George Wallace, who dominated  Democratic southern states, including Arkansas. It is no wonder Cash threw his support behind Rockefeller, a Republican and a Yankee. But not until 1968 did Cash campaign for a politician who had made prison reform a cornerstone of his governorship. At Cummins, Cash composed a song just for the concert, “When I Get Out of Cummins,” which spoke of him stomping up the steps of the capital in Little Rock to demand change from the legislators.

Cash, of course, had the luxury of being at Cummins for only a day. For some inmates, they would not leave Cummins alive. He could also say things about issues that politicians had to address more cautiously.


Cash was earnest about the possibilities of rehabilitation. And Gov. Rockefeller was able to do some good while in office. But problems within the system continued, both in practice and in the court of public opinion. Robert Sarver, the head of the prison system in Arkansas, went on the Dick Cavett show in 1970 to discuss what was going on in his state. Cavett was shocked by what Sarver told him, amazed that in Arkansas prisoners, called trusties, were allowed to carry guns, while civilian guards were not. Sarver’s interview was interesting in that you hear him at once trying to work some damage control while also being forthright about the prisons. Sarver contended that all prisons were bad, though Arkansas’ were admittedly worse. He said, perhaps a little flippantly, that reform was nothing that a little more money wouldn’t solve. Sarver, however, also said that it was ridiculous that a kid who had stolen a few hubcaps might serve hard time at a place like Cummins. He also said that drug laws should be liberalized so that men convicted of marijuana offenses were not sent to the same place as violent criminals.

Sarver had to defend his boss, the governor, and his decision to fire Tom Murton, who had exposed some of the more horrible abuses in the system. Murton wanted a further investigation into the discovery of three skeletons at the Cummins site. He believed there were as many as 200 skeletons there. Rockefeller fired him before the investigation could continue. Sarver said Murton was “too honest,” making political enemies when some politicians stood in his way. Murton, nevertheless, wrote a book about his work at Cummins, which became the basis for the film Brubaker.

Johnny Cash didn’t talk much about African Americans in his songs. But his efforts at prison reform highlighted the racial issues that compounded the economic and political challenges of prison reform. Before the 1960s, Cummins had been the prison for African Americans in Arkansas. Shortly before Cash visited Grady, however, Robert Sarver had ordered the desegregation of the state prisons. This action would take some time to implement fully, and not without many problems.

Cash’s belief that prisoners could change for the better wasn’t merely political, but also religious. He was raised in a southern Baptist household. And after struggling with a hellish drug problem for much of the 1960s, Cash found new strength in Jesus. If he could change, so could others.  He knew that had things gone worse for him, he might’ve ended up somewhere like Cummins.

The day of his concert, he talked with an inmate who had played guitar in his band at the Grand Ole Opry years before. Cash believed religion could change men for the better. And he said he’d donate money to build a chapel at Cummins (though it appears the money went to the construction of the first state prison chapel at Tucker instead).


My trip to Cummins was the first time I had ever been inside a prison. It was a beautiful fall day, and the administrators and guards were friendly, but going inside was not easy. Like Johnny Cash, I believe society should think more about rehabilitation than retribution. But also like him, I was glad my stay lasted only a few hours.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.