Literature and Music of the New South

Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris - Free at Loyal Books

Episode 23: Literature and Music in the New South

A New History of the American South

Dr Edward Ayers (2018)

Film Review

Following the Civil War, the US South gave birth to literary and musical traditions that influenced the entire world.

The earliest post-war literature depicted nostalgia around a lost way of life in which both Blacks and Whites were clear about the fixed role they played in society. Especially popular were books written from a Black perspective (by White authors). With the “mass-produced” culture (in the form of dime novels) that arose across the US during the 1880s and 1890s, this literature was just as popular in the North as the South. In fact “local color” fiction was one of the South’s major post-Civil War products. The best known books were Joel Chandler’s Uncle Remus stories first published in 1880. In them, an old slave (Uncle Remus) imparts knowledge to a small white boy through Brer Rabbit fables.

Southern feminist writers Kate Chopin and Ellen Glasgow also published during this period, to be rediscovered during the 1970s women’s liberation movement.

In 1906, Thomas Page published The Clansman, the basis of D W Griffith’s ground- breaking 2015 movie Birth of a Nation. The latter would inspire the 20th century rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.

Born in 1897, William Faulkner, one of the most celebrated authors of American literature, would come of age during the New South literary renaissance.

According to Ayers the new musical traditions (jazz, blues and country music) largely originated in churches. Much of of this new music was heavily influenced by African music, with its use of syncopation, call and response patterns, improvisation, falsetto and rough and slurred voice textures. The southern musical renaissance also benefited from the “mass production” frenzy that lowered the cost of sheet music and instruments (often costing as little as $1 apiece).

In 1897, ragtime became the first global musical phenomenon as former slave musician Scott Joplin incorporated Black church music and folk tunes into popular music.

New Orleans with its brass band-led funeral marches and diverse ethnic makeup was another important source of the new music. In general, new music incorporating significant improvisation was called “jazz,” whereas the moniker blues originated from slurred “blue notes,” played at a slightly different pitch from standard European music.

“Country music” was more a white phenomenon originating with northern “parlor” songs about themes of grief and loss overcome by love (of God). Many popular tunes derived from 18th century English hymns sung at revival meetings. The first country music was recorded in the 1920s.

Both Black and White musicians adapted some of this music as gospel quartets often performed as people waited their turn in barbershops.

Film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.

Hidden History: The Great African American Migration North

Goin’ to Chicago

Directed by George King (1994)

Film Review

This documentary is about the great African American migration to Northern cities that occurred between 1915 and the late sixties. Roughly 1.5 million African Americans left the South after 1915. This related partly to the mechanization of the cotton harvest (and major job losses) and partly to extreme terrorist violence Blacks faced from white supremacy groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

Blacks from Texas and Louisiana tended to migrate to California; those from Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas to Eastern cities; and those from Mississippi to Chicago.

Most settled in Chicago, filling thousands of job openings in the stockyards, steel mills and factories and with the railroads.

Owing to a shortage of housing, many landlords divided up their apartments and charged higher rents than for spacious apartments on Chicago’s exclusive North Shore. Redlining* and restrictive covenants** made it extremely difficult for African Americans to purchase homes. The first Blacks to move into white neighborhoods were subject to rock throwing and other forms of intimidation.

Mayor Richard Daly built the Cabrini Green high rise in 1962 to accommodate new migrants. Owing to tenancy conditions forcing people to move out when their incomes improved, by the late sixties Cabrini Green and similar subsidized high rises had become the new ghetto. To make matters worse, between 1975 and 1990 more than half Chicago’s manufacturing jobs moved to the non-union South or overseas.

*Refusal of banks to grant mortgages to African Americans

**Conditions in property titles that prevented homeowners from selling their homes on to African Americans.

The full film can be viewed free on Kanopy.


The Cultural Roots of Brexit and Make America Great Again

I Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Part 5 The Lordly Ones

Directed by Adam Curtis (2021)

Film Review

Part 5 traces the ideological origins of Brexit and Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign.

Curtis maintains the American and British middle class have yet to come to grips with  their unconscious guilt over colonialism and slavery. Instead they paper over these feelings with a nostalgic nationalism harkening back to a mythical past that predates the rise of mass democracy.

In post-World War I Britain, this took the form of heightened interest in rural folk music and dancing (eg Morris Dancing). Examples in the US include the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan following the release of D W Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation. The twentieth century Klan copied the white robes and hoods and cross-burning from Griffith’s film, based on medieval Scottish rituals described in Thomas Dixon Jr’s novel The Clansmen.

Although Britain lost her empire following World War II, British intelligence maintained the appearance of power by creating a magical world in which they could bug, burgle and even assassinate enemies – just as the Empire had done.

Like the UK, the US also uses its spies to maintain the fiction of US supremacy. Since its formation in 1947, the CIA has made 66 attempts to overthrow foreign governments via and/or vote rigging. They were successful in 26 (including Italy, Greece, Syria, Indonesia, Chile and Iran).

Curtis believes this US/British tendency to make real life decisions based on a romanticized past was largely responsible for the debacle in Iraq.

Part 5 also traces how the brutal effects of deindustrialization marginalized nearly the entire working class in both countries. Trump would appeal to these workers by promising to recreate a lost America, just as Brexit promised to restore Britain’s lost greatness by leaving the EU.

The video can’t be embedded because of age restrictions.

Reclaiming Our History


Plutocracy: Political Repression in the United States

Scott Noble (2015)

Film Review

As German philosopher Walter Benjamin famously stated, “History is written by the victors.” In the US, most history books are written by and for the corporate oligarchs who run our government. Plutocracy is the first documentary to comprehensively examine early American history from the perspective of the working class. Part II (Solidarity Forever) will cover the late 19th Century to the early twenties. The filmmaker is currently seeking donations to complete the project. If you’d like to help, you can donate to their Patreon account.

The film can’t be embedded but can be viewed free at Plutocracy

Plutocracy starts with Shay’s Rebellion in 1786, the insurrection of Massachusetts farmers against the courts and banks that were fleecing them of their meager wealth and property. Similar rebellions in Rhode Island and Virginia would cause leading US bankers, merchants and plantation owners to organize a secret convention to create a central government and standing army. Each of the 13 original states, which in 1787 were still independent and sovereign, sent delegates to Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation.

Instead of revising the Articles, as authorized by their state legislatures, the delegates closed the meeting to the public and voted to replace them with a federal constitution. The latter substantially limited the freedom and power of state legislatures and ordinary Americans.

Plutocracy moves on to cover the massive Irish immigration of the mid-nineteenth century and the appalling squalor so-called “white Negroes” lived in. During the 19th century, 80% of babies born to Irish immigrants died in infancy.

The film touches only briefly on the Civil War, describing laws that enabled robber barons like John Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt to evade the Civil War draft by paying a poor person $300 to replace them.

It offers a detailed depiction of post-Civil War Reconstruction, which coincided with the 1871 Paris commune and saw blacks collaborating with poor whites to establish the South’s first public schools and hospitals. This was in addition to the election of numerous former slaves to judgeships and legislative positions.

Their eagerness to return Negroes to productive status on plantations led northern industrialists to pressure Congress to end Reconstruction by removing the federal troops protecting the rights of former slaves. It also led to their passive acceptance of unconstitutional Jim Crow laws and Ku Klux Klan terrorism. The chief aim of both was to prevent poor backs and whites from associating with one another.

The federal troops withdrawn from the South were redeployed in genocidal campaigns against Native Americans and Mexicans. By the end of the 19th century, not only had Mexico ceded half their territory to the US (including California, Texas, Utah, Nevada and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Montana – in the 1984 Treaty of Guadalupe), but US corporations enjoyed de facto control of all land remaining under sovereign Mexican control.

Stripping the Native Americans and Mexicans of their land in the West, readied the US for the rise of the robber barons of industry (Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie and Vanderbilt) and a corrupt system of federal and local government run entirely by bribery and patronage.

The corruption and squalid living conditions of the late 19th century would give rise to militant trade unionism, socialism, anarchism and populism. Plutocracy depicts the Pullman and similar strikes in which strikers were brutally beaten and killed by Pinkerton’s Detectives and other goons hired by industrial bosses, as well as national guardsmen and, on several occasions, federal troops.

The film opens with a poignant depiction of the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in US history. It’s the largest armed uprising since the Civil War, involving 10,000 coal miners. Denise Giardini memorializes the Battle of Blair Mountain in her 1987 novel Storming Heaven.

*Rockefeller and Morgan had a relative monopoly on the banks, Carnegie on steel and Vanderbilt on the railroads.


Gun Ownership and the Nonviolent Civil Rights Movement

this non violent stuff

Charles E Cobb is a long time African American journalist who participated in the southern freedom movement etween 1962 and 1966. His purpose in writing This Nonviolent Stuff Will Get You Killed is to correct the revisionist “white” view of the 1960s civil rights movement.

The version of the civil rights movement taught in schools and universities is written by white historians who, for the most part, lay out historical events and omit the thinking that led to them. Or even worse, instead of asking movement veterans what they were thinking, offer a retrospective analysis of what they must have been thinking.

It was a problem Frederick Douglass frequently faced in his dealings with white abolitionists. Afraid he would appear “too learned” to be convincing, they told him, “Just give us the facts – we’ll take care of the philosophy.”

One important fact often “whitewashed” out of history is the use of guns in the southern civil rights movement. Guns have always been fundamental to rural life, in both black and white communities. In the 1960s, they were essential for the survival of black farming families – for hunting food, killing varmints in the garden and protecting themselves against terrorist raids by Night Riders and the Ku Klux Klan.

White southerners made it pretty obvious that they were prepared to kill African Americans – and their families – if they registered to vote. Despite his highly publicized use of nonviolence as a tactic, Martin Luther King had bodyguards who carried pistols to protect him. and Fanny Lou Hamer used a shotgun to protect her house against white “crackers.” Armed African American World War II and Korean War veterans – in some areas formally organized as The Deacons for Defense and Justice – carried weapons to protect workers from CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Council).

No white people were ever killed by these guards: it was sufficient to convey the message that blacks were willing to defend themselves.

As Cobb points us, no white person is willing to die for white supremacy.

Cobb is a great story teller and sheds important insights about the curious relationship between outside organizers and rural African American farmers as they set about building their trust.

It was my intention to embed Cobb’s 90 minute C-SPAN presentation about his book, but YouTube has censored the video by taking it down. So you have to click on the following link:

Charles E Cobb