Podcast, Episode 4: Robert E. Lee and the Politics of Historic Preservation
In this episode, Colin talks about the recent efforts to remove statues of Confederate leaders, including one of Robert E. Lee, in New Orleans. Is this a good idea? And if so, by what criteria do we measure historical figures?
Colin’s discussion takes him from Robert E. Lee and Huey Long, to Andrew Jackson and Johnny Cash, discussing how we remember people–whether soldiers, authors, politicians, or musicians.
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.
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.
A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of returning to St. Francisville, Louisiana, after a ten-year absence. The town (which I will abbreviate as SF) is about 30 minutes north of Baton Rouge. And it is as charming as Baton Rouge is not. St. Francisville the epitome of the quaint southern community. When I had been there before, it was only for a few hours at time. Never for three days. Having seen it again, it’s better than I remember it.
Waiting for Its Closeup
St. Francisville is something out of a movie. Maybe a story about a hardworking southern lawyer, a la To Kill a Mocking Bird. Someone could also film a great vampire movie there. The Grace Episcopal Church sits on breathtaking grounds, surrounded by a Gothic cemetery that is worthy of Faulkner. I’m surprised a great southern writer hasn’t claimed St. Francisville as his own. Should the town take bids for a writer in residence, I would gladly accept the post. The place needs a chronicler.
The town is as dripping with history as it is Spanish Moss. The Mississippi River is not far from the center of town. And the Mississippi probably has had as much as anything to do with how its history developed. The town is also not far from Port Hudson, the last major stronghold the Confederates held on the Mississippi. The Confederates at Port Hudson surrendered a few days after the Rebellion lost Vicksburg. The loss of the Mississippi for the Confederacy sent the war into a second stage that would end at Appomattox Court House.
The Republic of West Florida
Like so many parts of our country, the town has a colonial heritage. SF was the capital of the short-lived Republic of West Florida that broke away from its Spanish rulers. This independent country–consisting of none of the territory that is now the state of Florida–lasted for little more than two months in 1810, not long before Louisiana became a state. The republic’s flag was blue with a white star. Some people still fly the flag in front of their homes.
SF was one of the wealthiest towns in the South before the Civil War. Cotton flowed up and down the river in the antebellum period, and St. Francisville became one of the pistons in the economic engine that was American slavery. The place is not as well-known as Natchez, Mississippi, which had a large number of antebellum millionaires and had the distinction of being the wealthiest place, per capita, in the prewar era.
SF wasn’t shabby either. Planters grew cotton and sugar and got filthy rich. Unlike Natchez, though, SF has not seen the kind of sprawl or racial problems that characterize much of the New South. If you’re interested in reading about modern day Natchez, I would point you to Tony Horwitz’s classic work of journalism-history Confederates in the Attic. SF wasn’t mentioned in his tour of the South. But someone could write a very interesting book about.
Grace Episcopal Church
St. Francisville is quiet. There’s not a lot “to do”–at least in contrast to a place like New Orleans, which is about two hours to the south. SF a place you could take a grandparent or history nerd looking for a good time. It’s also a geographic marker, serving as the place where northern Louisiana becomes southern Louisiana. North Louisiana is a Protestant and evangelical and non-denominational stronghold. The southern part of the state belongs to the Catholics–or at least in theory. SF is of course named after St. Francis of Assisi, who supposedly spoke to birds. There’s a Catholic Church on a hill as you head toward Bayou Sara. But Grace Episcopal feels more like a Catholic church.
Southern Louisiana not only has a different religious demographic from the northern part, it looks different. You won’t see many live oaks until you hit SF along highway 61. Live oaks are really what define the landscape of the Deep South. And not all live oaks have Spanish Moss hanging from them. SF does, and ambling through the town is like walking through some great southern novel.
The town has plenty of plantation homes to visit. I was able to see one last week, Rosedown, which was once owned by the Turnbull family, which lived in the house until the latter half of the 20th century. The Turnbulls were wealthy before the Civil War. Immensely so. The family owned 450 slaves, and the master of the house had four plantations. He was such a good businessman that he ran four plantations in addition to the ones he owned. Unfortunately, a hard rain storm kept me from seeing the gardens surrounding the house. Maybe next time.
The war destroyed the master class, but not the plantations. The Turnbulls endured after the war, but the house was saved not by cotton but petroleum. The Turnbulls married into Texas oil money around the time of the First World War. And they were able to put gobs of money into restoring the house after WWII. Eight million dollars, if memory serves. Our tour guide at Rosedown said 90% of the furniture in the house was original. In contrast, Lakeport plantation in Arkansas has no original furniture (it’s resplendent all the same, though).
I will never forget the heat or humidity of southern Louisiana. But I guess I had forgotten just how wet it could feel even on cooler days. For one of the days in SF, it rained for eight hours straight. It made the Spanish Moss drip even more. The air conditioner had trouble keeping our room cool and dry. You begin to mold. Welcome to the subtropics. Drinking helps.
A Ghost to Most
But, you don’t go to southern Louisiana for comfort. You go there for atmosphere. You go there because you can feel like you’re in a different country, where things feel naked and wild. Barely civilized. In late summer, everything is green and wet. The vines and kudzu want to strangle trees and houses. Things are verdant, pregnant, oversized.
In south Louisiana, things feel heightened–the sun, the rain storms. The night feels darker somehow, too. I couldn’t help feel a little scared as I walked through the center of town late at night. Many houses had no lights on at all. By the Episcopal cemetery, I could hardly see the sidewalk as I stepped under the low-hanging oaks.
Were I a ghost, I’d live in St. Francisville. For sure.
St. Francisville vs. Baton Rouge
While I was in Louisiana, I also managed to drive down to Baton Rouge. I lived there for eight years, but I was glad to leave. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling stressed out again. Every living thing drives everywhere in Baton Rouge, with the possible exception of a few misanthropic graduate students who can’t afford cars. The interstate is used as a crosstown thoroughfare. And the area around LSU is even more congested than I remember. Good food there, though. I gorged myself on Cane’s chicken. Twice in two days.
It was good to get back to St. Francisville. It is as beautiful as Baton Rouge is ugly. It’s more southern than the South, which too often wants to be Atlanta or Houston rather than Charleston or Savannah. SF makes you want to live on a diet of pecan pie and Tennessee whiskey and write stories about a mentally ill Confederate colonel who sleeps with the bones of his long dead wives. Or something.
Some southerners–when they wrap themselves in the Confederate flag or embrace the politics of obstructionism–are too tied to what has made their region infamous. They seem to have forgotten that such a thing as charm still exists. I feel like St. Francisville, as charming as it is, deserves more visitors than it gets. But maybe its residents want it that way.
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.
Today we’re featuring a first on this blog: a post by Charles Harrison Fitzhugh, who works at the Life and Liberty Institute, a conservative think tank in Roanoke, Virginia. He is also the author of Abraham Lincoln: War Criminal, John Birch: Sage Patriot, and Why Obama is the Anti-Christ and other Tales for Right-Thinking Children. He recently watched 12 Years a Slave. Here is his review.
(I was asked to watch this “film” by Mr. Woodward, who I think no better than a communist and pedant. Nevertheless, I did sit in my chair for more than two whole hours, hoping that I could deflect some of the arrows this movie shoots at my beloved heritage. Actually, I was reassured by this movie, which I viewed on my Samsung UHD S9 during commercial breaks during the Ravens/Skins game. Here are my thoughts.)
12 Years a Slave is set in the golden age of free market capitalism. The plot centers around hardworking job creators–essentially large-scale farmers–who were the progenitors of regional economic dynamism. At one point, a free black musician by the name of Solomon Northup gets drunk and finds himself in a waiting room of a firm’s corporate offices in Washington, D.C.
There, after reconsidering his professional future, Solomon awaits transfer to the Deep South. After regaining consciousness after his night of ill-advised debauchery playing fiddle (the devil’s music), he meets some men further up the corporate ladder. These men advise Solomon that he should accept the conditions of his transfer rather than negotiate for better terms of employment. These men apparently are at the middle management stage of their careers. They are effective motivators, who expedite Solomon’s relocation, which is all-expenses-paid to the sunny, subtropical state of Louisiana, where the good times roll.
On the boat down to New Orleans, Solomon meets disgruntled black workers, one of whom was Omar on The Wire. One of conspirators wants to mutiny in order to gain his “freedom.” However, Solomon, who no doubt knew–despite being subjected to the falsehoods of abolitionist fanatics–that “slavery” was far, far better than working in a northern factory. Solomon thereby chooses not to take part in an illegal revolt on the ship. Wise decision. One of the conspirators is killed and thrown overboard. Solomon’s work reassignment is allowed to continue unimpeded.
Once in Louisiana, Solomon is taken in by a kindhearted master, named Ford, played by Sherlock Holmes. Before being sent to work, we are shown the interview process whereby laborers found new employers. It is in essence a cramped Human Resources office, run by a colorful, hilariously overworked, and well spoken Mr. Freeman, played by Paul Giamatti.
This grizzled, fast-talking salesman is like an Old South Archie Bunker. He shuns paperwork and bureaucracy and makes precious observations about people of color. What I found even better is that in this scene, the market speaks. There is minimal complaining on all sides concerning the natural workings of supply and demand.
Solomon finds himself working as a carpenter on a south Louisiana plantation. The place is like something from a tourism brochure, with dripping Spanish moss and verdant scenery. But Solomon, who is used to crass northern ways, criticizes his supervisor, a carpenter named Tibeats, who looks a bit like a young Pete Townshend. Solomon and his supervisor quarrel over how best to build a structure, and Solomon is justly reprimanded for speaking out of turn.
Solomon’s master decides it would be better to (again!) transfer the troublesome Solomon, who clearly has no respect for the costs involved in corporate management. Rather than continue to suffer a decline in productivity at the plantation, Ford sends Solomon to a new employer.
Louisiana is a Right to Work state, and the movie documents the history of how crushing the souls of workers has benefited the South, which consistently ranks at the top of per capita income, educational achievement, low crime, and quality of life. 12 Years a Slave shows the wisdom of settling disputes quickly by individuals rather than enduring arbitration and other tiresome practices found in organized labor.
My employer, the Freedom and Liberty Institute, has advocated for the abolition of the minimum wage, a federal balanced budget amendment, the repeal of constitutional amendments 1 and 3-27, reinstatement of the gold standard, privatization of Social Security, liquidation of the Federal Reserve, reestablishment of debtor prisons, and other fiscally responsible measures.
12 Years a Slave shows what employers can do when freed from OSHA, Obamacare, child labor laws, and other drags on the free market. Supply-side economics clearly works. The workers depicted in this movie want for nothing, as they are given free housing, clothing, and provided with organic, fresh foods. The meat is even free range! When you think about it, the plantations were like the first Whole Foods stores.
Unfortunately, the film presents a distorted picture of “slavery.” One problem I had was that the movie depicted southerners as slaveholders. As everyone knows, only 5% of southerners in the antebellum era ever owned a slave. True. Look it up. Read your history, ignoramus. The other 95% of southerners of course had no interest or stake in slavery whatsoever.
If you examine newspapers from say, October 1859, southerners were not talking about slavery or abolitionism at all. They were instead concerned with things like the tariff, which put an unfair burden on southern capitalists. 12 Years a Slave would’ve been far more historically accurate had it not dealt with slavery at all.
Nor does the movie deal with the cherished legal tradition of English property rights. As Mr. Epps states so insightfully in the movie, his slaves are his property, and he can do with them as he pleases. No one would condemn a man’s right to own a chicken, would he? Same with slavery. Maybe if you hate slavery, you should become a vegan. Property, too, like cows and chickens, must be kept in line through ruthless shows of force.
Slave revolts were awful things for masters. I mean, what if my Samsung UHD S9 all of a sudden sprouted legs and ran out my door in a mad dash to the Ohio River? Would you really object to me stopping it from doing so? Obviously, not. Mr. Epps’ claim to ironclad property rights–inherited from Locke, who wrote of one’s right to life, liberty, and property– has the better argument over the legally weak “humanitarian” critique of human bondage and chattel slavery.
On the whole, the movie shows how the free market incentivizes its workers. Solomon eventually is transferred back to the North, where he thinks he can find better economic opportunities. Solomon’s employers instilled in him a valuable work ethic, and gave him marketable skills like cutting sugar cane and picking cotton. But if you ask me, Solomon was nothing but an ungrateful trouble maker. Solomon’s mysterious death only reinforces the notion that he was far better under slavery than living as a wage slave in some Papist, northern slum.
Sadly, this film shows how abolitionist propaganda still permeates the minds of the liberal Hollywood establishment. Naturally, the film’s backer, Mr. Bradley Pitt, is made to look the hero. Tough talk coming from a man who has made his fortune playing vampires and con men! And his wife is known for playing a lesbian drug-addict in Gia (I know, because I’ve seen that movie, many, many times).
This movie presents a hopelessly biased look at antebellum southern life. Of course it’s easy to make slavery look bad in some ways. If you crammed all the bad things that have happened to you in the last 12 years into a two hour film, it would look something like this movie, right?