The Typography of Slavery

Runaway Slave Images, Clockwise from Upper left: Boon’s Lick Times (Fayette, Missouri) 1845; Long Island Star (Brooklyn, New York) 1828; Maryland Gazette (Annapolis) 1789; Boon’s Lick Times (Fayetteville, Missouri) 1845; Tarboro Press (Tarboro, North Carolina) 1845; Edgeville Advertiser (Edgeville, South Carolina) 1845; The North Carolinian (Fayetteville, North Carolina) 1845; Western Carolinian (Salisbury, North Carolina) 1824; The Times Picayune (New Orleans) 1852.

Printing presses have always fascinated me. I spent a lot of time studying them as a newspaper reporter in my teens and early 20’s. This was in the early 2000’s, and it was a time of transition for print media. Papers were updating equipment and moving on from traditional printing methods towards completely digital technologies. No matter the size or circulation, every paper had one dusty room that housed a large printing press that was growing more obsolete by the day. Once in a while—when I should have been working—I would take some time to look through the old type cases. These were wooden boxes with multiple compartments to store the metal type used to print newspapers. Capital letters were stored in the upper case and small letters in the lower case. This, incidentally, is why we call those letters upper and lowercase. Along with the metal letters used to make newspaper print, there were all kinds of wonderful images hidden in those old drawers. These images carved into metal told a story not only of the newspaper, but of the local community the newspaper covered. The metal type in those boxes contained generic images used for want ads, local columns, national political news, crime briefs—any image the paper might need to draw a reader’s attention to a mass of black text.

Lately, I’ve been spending a good portion of my days conducting research on 19th Century U.S. history. Newspapers of that era had little in the way of visual imagery to break up massive amounts of text. One area that did feature unique images were advertisements. The quality of these ads ran the gamut from crudely made to intricately carved works of art. On the crude end of the spectrum were the common images papers used for small advertisements and announcements made by everyday folks. Most papers had small type that looked like houses for property listings, cows for livestock sales, and dogs for missing pets. These small impressions on 200-year-old papers in digital form are easy to look past with modern eyes. One category of metal type that is hard to overlook, however, is the metal type used to announce the runaway slave. 

As a historian, I always try to remember that the people whose stories I tell were indeed real living breathing individuals. They had hopes and fears and desires and struggles. That’s why these advertisements, with their small black figures pressed into ink centuries ago, are so jarring. These figures not only represent human beings taking the drastic step to flee chattel slavery, they represent how easily this evil was tolerated in everyday life. These newspapers were prepared for the inevitability of masters advertising runaways—masters ready to pay to have their role as master protected. Someone at each of these papers had to physically see that the images depicting runaways were fixed into place, covered in ink, and pressed onto the paper. These papers were accomplices in a worldwide commercial establishment built on slavery. These images show the horrors of slavery reduced to just another small news items among the hundreds of the day. 

One of the greatest horrors of the slave system was the systematic destruction of not only the family unit, but of the enslaved person’s very own identity. The enslaved were often not only taken away from family members, they were removed from any sense of community they might have had on the plantation. They were named by masters and had little control of their own bodies under this system. Ironically, these ads written by masters provide brief glimpses into the lives of these faceless African-Americans. The master’s own words often tell us that these former slaves were intelligent, well-spoken, and strong. The ads describe ways runaways dressed and the physical scars they carried with them.

The moveable type images from these newspapers themselves are intriguing. Obviously, these images were white constructs—a white artisan’s depiction of a runaway. These images were seen by white Americans nearly every day. Some of the type was used so often over so long a period of time that it began to wear, blurring the figures like the image from the Times Picayune featured above. The Times Picayune, based in the nation’s largest slave market in New Orleans, is littered with runaway ads covering every several decades of the antebellum United States. For whites experiencing these images of African-Americans, the message was clear: African-Americans were deception, capable of subterfuge, and often on the wrong side of the law. These runaway ads are more than meets the eye, though. In these images I see determination, self-reliance, and an attempt to strip the bonds of slavery and forge a new identity—their own identity. 

Mickey Newbury: Crystal & Stone 2nd Edition

Crystal & Stone

There are many back roads and crossroads in American music.  One road leads to another, branches off, and before you know it, the beginning of the trail is left somewhere in the dust.  These musical crossroads have taken many shapes over the years.  In the 19th Century pop and folk merged together, in the early 20th Century it was ragtime giving away to jazz, and later blues led to rock and roll.  One of the most interesting crossroads of the last 50 years was the convergence of rock, country, blues, and folk in the 1960’s and 70’s.  These styles incubated in the emerging American counterculture and led to the emergence of some of the best-known singer-songwriters of the last century.  Artists like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson all became cultural icons.  Among the most unheralded, at least by the general public, is singer-songwriters of that period is Mickey Newbury.  I say unheralded among the general public, because Newbury’s influence on music is profound.

The man documenting that influence is Joe Ziemer, and the second edition of his biography on Newbury, Mickey Newbury: Crystal & Stone, is out now from AuthorHouse.  You can order it here.  I met Ziemer while working on my documentary film Dixie, where he discussed Newbury’s most famous contribution to popular music, “An American Trilogy,” a piece that deftly combines “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “All My Trials.”  Newbury spontaneously combined the tunes, which are respectively, the song of the Confederate Army in the U.S. civil war, the song of the U.S. Army during that same war, and a folk song based on a Bahamian lullaby.  Newbury de-anthemized the songs, creating a haunting soundscape of the American experience.  The song was a mainstay in Elvis Presley’s concerts in the 1970’s, popularizing gun the tune overseas. “An American Trilogy” has become emblematic of the United States in some circles and is perhaps more popular in Great Britain than it is anywhere else.  It was chosen as the number one American song of the millennium in a 1999 UK poll.

The irony is that Newbury was a tremendously talented songwriter, whose compositons have been recorded 1,543 times in the last 50 years, by artists like Ray Charles, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings–the list goes on and on.  A Texas native, Newbury was at the forefront of the outlaw country movement.  Ziemer has called him ‘the original outlaw.’  As the title of Ziemer’s book implies, Newbury was a complex artist, full of equal parts strength and sensitivity.  Ziemer, who befriended the musician later in life, paints a portrait of Newbury with the exhaustive research of the historian and the fondness of a close friend.  He first encountered the music of Newbury while listening to a friend play him in concert in the 70’s.  Ziemer had no idea who wrote the piece his friend played.  For 50 years, music lovers have been discovering Newbury in much the same way.

I first heard Newbury named-dropped in Waylon Jennings’ 1977 hit “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”: “Between Hank Williams pain songs/And Newbury’s train songs/and Blue eyes cryin’  the rain/Out in Luckenbach, Texas/Ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain”  I was intrigued.  Who was this man wedged between two Hank Williams references in a Waylon Jennings song?  It turns out, like many people, I encountered Newbury’s music without knowing it.  Many of Newbury songs reached charged for other artists.  Andy Williams reached #4 On the Adult Contemporary chart in 1968 with “Sweet Memories,” Jerry Lee Lewis reached #2 on the Country chart with “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.”  Younger generations perhaps best know Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s cover of Newbury’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” featured in the dream sequence of the Coen brother’s 1998 film The Big Lebowski.

Ziemer’s book is a robust 500 pages and was 15 years in the making, and will help round out the library of any American music aficionado.  Zeimer put it best in his preface to this second edition:

“Mickey was fragile and tough… like crystal and stone… transparent and rock-solid. The man was obliging and stubborn, open-minded and opinionated. He was a brilliant Bohemian and an unpretentious country boy. Loyal and fearless to a fault, Mickey was a tender-hearted, spiritually perceptive Christian, a family man, a rambler at heart, and perhaps bipolar.”

One thing Newbury most definitely was: an American original.  Ziemer’s volume captures the charisma and complexity of Newbury as a person and underscores the impact of Newbury as an artist.

New Coke and the Battle for the South: 30 years Later

Copyright Molly Block

Copyright Molly Block

For every commercial product that becomes an essential part of American life, there are thousands of others that get relegated to the dustbin of history.  Sometimes, as today’s image of the Dulitz Building in Galveston, Texas by Molly Block shows, some products simply fade with time.   But what happens when an established product tries to reinvent itself into something new?  That happened 30 years ago today, when Coca-Cola reformulated its classic soft drink into what was colloquially known as “New Coke.”

By the 1980’s, Coca-Cola had been steadily losing market share for decades, decreasing from a high of 60 percent just after World War II to less than 24 percent by 1983.  One major factor in the decline was Pepsi-Cola’s successful marketing campaigns towards a younger demographic.  Coca-Cola launched a secret taste testing project with a new, sweeter, more Pepsi-like version of Coke.  The new formula overwhelmingly beat Pepsi and the existing Coke formula, however, about 10-12 percent of taste testers experienced anger and alienation over the new formula, saying they might stop drinking Coke altogether if it was reformulated.  The change continued, however, just in time for the 100th anniversary of Coke in 1985.

Pepsi executives managed to smuggle a six-pack of the new beverage and saw the new formulation as a real threat.  Pepsi quickly took out a full-page ad in The New York Times declaring victory in the “Cola Wars.”  The Coke PR machine moved into overdrive.  Workers renovating the Statue of Liberty were the first Americans given cans to take home and thousands of free cans were given out in Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Park.  The results were promising, Coke sales were up 8 percent over the previous year.  There was still one area of the country Coke needed to win over: the South.

Coke had always been a southern drink.  It was developed in 1885 by John S. Pemberton, a confederate Civil War veteran.  His brother, General John C. Pemberton, famously surrendered Vicksburg to Ulysses S. Grant in 1863.  John S. Pemberton invented Coke in Columbus, Georgia as a patent medicine to combat alcoholism in civil war veterans, as well as an epidemic of “nervous prostration” in high-strung southern ladies.  Coca-Cola had been headquartered in Atlanta since the 19th century, and it was southerners who fired the first shots against the reformulated drink.  According to Oliver Thomas’ 1986 book, The Real Coke, The Real Story, many southerners viewed the change through the prism of the civil war.  In Houston, ads for New Coke were booed when they appeared on the scoreboard.

New Coke continued to do well in the rest of the country, but protests continued into the summer in the south, with bottles being emptied in the streets.  Coke had a bigger problem, though–it’s bottlers.  On June 23, several bottlers took their concerns to Coke executives in a private meeting.  On July 11, Coke executives announced the return of the original formula.  Sen. David Pryor (D-Arkansas), announced on the the floor of the U.S. Senate that it was “a meaningful moment in U.S. history.”

Old Coke was rechristened ‘Coca-Cola Classic.’  The ‘classic’ label was kept until 2009.  New Coke kept the name Coca-Cola until 1992, when it was renamed Coca-Cola II.  It was discontinued in 2002.  Coca-Cola Classic was outselling both New Coke and Pepsi by the end of 1985.  Old Coke had been gone for only 77 days.


Dixie and Blackface

Copyright, Ryan Kelley

Copyright, Ryan Kelley

It has been a busy month. The lull in blog posts was caused by a number of projects presenting themselves all at once. Work is winding down on my documentary “Dixie,” but other work is taking its place. Some of this is of course, related to the film. The big project for the last month was a journal article I am writing about the life of Dan Emmett, the man who wrote the song “Dixie” and virtually invented the blackface minstrel troupe. If you are unfamiliar with blackface, well, that’s probably a good thing. Blackface was the act of white musicians burning cork and smearing the black residue over their faces to give the impression that they were African-American slaves. Bands of these performers, called “minstrel troupes,” sprang up all over the United States in the 1840’s and 50’s. Blackface became a persistent American entertainment. As recently as fifty years ago it was not uncommon to see local variety shows featuring blackface in communities throughout the U.S.

Some of America’s most beloved performers took their turn under the blackface. That’s beloved crooner Bing Crosby pictured above in an advertisement for the 1943 film “Dixie.” It is a glittery technicolor fantasy of Emmett’s life, but the film does get a few things right, like the blackface. Der Bingle dons the blackface mask on more than one occasion during the film. The truth of blackface is not so glittery at all, but it isn’t as simple as pure racism. There were many forces at work that led to whites taking on the mask of the African-American slave. The essay I’ve been working on tries to dig deeper and understand those forces through a comprehensive look at Emmett’s life.  Blackface is a subject that, in many ways, we still see the consequences of on a daily basis.  Blackface influenced almost every form of American entertainment that followed it–vaudeville, ragtime, jazz, early motion pictures, just to name a few.

What blackface meant to the performers, however, and to the preservation of African-American culture as culture as whole, however, is complex and woven tightly into the fabric of American history.  It is a tragic and fascinating story that I hope to explore further, even after the publication of the essay.  I know many of you who read this blog study music and racial history, or at least have a passing interest in it. I’ll keep you updated on where you can read the essay once it leaves the editor’s desk.

10 Quotes on Seeing the Earth from Space

"Blue Marble" by the crew of Apollo 17.  December 7, 1972

“Blue Marble” by the crew of Apollo 17. December 7, 1972


Today is Earth Day.  The day first proposed by Iowa-born activist John McConnell at a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) conference in San Francisco in 1969. Earth Day was first celebrated March 21, 1970.  This original Earth Day was primarily focused on world peace.  U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin) organized a separate Earth Day dedicated to environmental issues on April 22 of that year.  Earth Day is now celebrated by more than 192 countries each year.

It is a turbulent and oftentimes confusing world we live in.  It can be difficult to gain perspective on the fragile nature of our planet.  Fortunately, the Earth day movement came of age during a time when humanity was exploring outer-space for the first time.  There is a phenomenon dubbed “The Overview Effect” by author Frank White in his 1987 book The Overview Effect — Space Exploration and Human Evolution.  Simply put, the Overview Effect describes the feeling some space travelers have upon seeing the earth from space.  It is a shift in awareness.  Astronauts have expressed a need to see humanity unite to protect what they see as a fragile planet.  Astronauts have certainly seen the earth in a way many of us can only imagine.  For Earth Day, here are some of the most interesting quotes on the earth from space voyagers from around the world:


“When I watched the horizon, I saw the abrupt, contrasting transition from the earth’s light-colored surface to the absolutely black sky. I enjoyed the rich color spectrum of the earth. It is surrounded by a light blue aureole that gradually darkens, becoming turquoise, dark blue, violet, and finally coal black.”

Yuri Gagarin, Cosmonaut, First Human in Space


“Up in space when you see a sunset or sunrise, the light is coming to you from the sun through that little shell of the Earth’s atmosphere and back out to the spacecraft you’re in. The atmosphere acts like a prism.   So for a short period of time you see not only the reds, oranges and yellows, the luminous quality like you see on Earth, but you see the whole spectrum red-orange-yellow-blue-green-indigo-violet.  You come back impressed, once you’ve been up there, with how thin our little atmosphere is that supports all life here on Earth. So if we foul it up, there’s no coming back from something like that.”

John Glenn, Astronaut, First American to Orbit the Earth


“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

Neil Armstrong, Astronaut, First Human to Walk on the Moon


“A Chinese tale tells of some men sent to harm a young girl who, upon seeing her beauty, become her protectors rather than her violators. That’s how I felt seeing the Earth for the first time. I could not help but love and cherish her.”

Taylor Wang, Astronaut, First Ethnic Chinese Person in Space


“Something about the unexpectedness of this sight, its incompatibility with anything we have ever experienced on earth elicits a deep emotional response… Suddenly, you get a feeling you’ve never had before… That you’re an inhabitant… of the Earth.”

Oleg Grigoryevich Makarov, Cosmonaut


“If people can see Earth from up here, see it without those borders, see it without any differences in race or religion, they would have a completely different perspective. Because when you see it from that angle, you cannot think of your home or your country. All you can see is one Earth.”

Anousheh Ansari, Iranian-American Space Tourist


“I left Earth three times. I found no place else to go. Please take care of Spaceship Earth.”

Wally Schirra, Astronaut, Mercury and Apollo Programs


“As we got further and further away, it [the Earth] diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man.

James B. Irwin, Astronaut, Apollo Program


“Looking outward to the blackness of space, sprinkled with the glory of a universe of lights, I saw majesty—but no welcome. Below was a welcoming planet. There, contained in the thin, moving, incredibly fragile shell of the biosphere is everything that is dear to you, all the human drama and comedy. That’s where life is; that’s were all the good stuff is.

Loren Acton, Space Shuttle Astronaut


“The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic.  The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space. ”

Aleksei Leonov, Cosmonaut, First Human to Conduct Extra-Vehicular Activity


And finally, one last passage from Carl Sagan:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Carl Sagan, Astronomer



Mickey Newbury and the Battle for Dixie

Mickey Books

It has been a busy month on this end.  My four-years of work on the documentary film “Dixie” nears completion.  That is to say, there are still months of 12-hour days ahead as my editor Trent Reeves and I put the final touches on the film.  I have read quite a few books on the song “Dixie,” it’s composer, Dan Emmett, it’s ties to the African-American Snowden family, and race relations in the U.S. in general.  This is, of course, beside the thousands of first-hand accounts and news articles buried in archives around the country.

The last book I have read for the project is “Mickey Newbury: Crystal & Stone” by author Joe Ziemer.  I had the chance to interview Mr. Ziemer over the weekend about Mr. Newbury’s life and work.  Why Mickey Newbury for a film about the song “Dixie?”

Mickey Newbury was a Houston-raised singer-songwriter who began his recording career in the 1960’s, just as conflicts over race were reaching a boiling point in the U.S.  Mickey took in what was happening in the culture and began recording a series of introspective country albums in Nashville.  His songs were covered by, among others: B.B. King, Solomon Burke, Tom Jones, Willie Nelson, Eddy Arnold, Roy Orbison, Kenny Rogers, Joan Baez, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, John Denver, Tammy Wynette, Linda Ronstadt, Bill Monroe and Olivia Newton-John, to name a few.  Oh, and Elvis Presley.  This is where “Dixie” comes in.

Mickey saw what was happening in the culture and the way “Dixie” was being used, specifically by certain white-robed groups who like to burn crosses.  He wanted to do something about it, so he composed “An American Trilogy,” which combined “Dixie” with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “All My Trials,” a traditional slave song.  The result was one of the most powerful compositions of the 20th Century.  Elvis began covering it in his Las Vegas act and the song soon spread around the world, becoming an anthem or sorts around the world.  Of course, there’s a lot more to the story than that, but I have to save that for the movie.  If you want to know more about Mickey Newbury himself, definitely pick up Joe Ziemer’s book on Amazon.

I will be posting more often now.  My thanks to those of you who are following the blog, it is appreciated.  I look forward to learning more about you all as “Dixie” finishes up.