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. 

Charley Patton, Jimmie Rogers and Delta Music

Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Roots of American Music

By Ben Wynne

Biography, 312 pages, LSU Press

If American music is a vast river of influence, one genre flowing into another, then the Mississippi Delta is the region where much of 20th Century music flows back to. It’s a region that has been marketed and mythologized by artists and corporations throughout the history of recorded music in an effort to claim some sort of legitimate musical heritage, a kind of preternatural connection to the ‘roots’ of American music. What are the roots of American recorded music and why do we mythologized the Mississippi Delta? Ben Wynne’s book Charley Patton, Jimmie Rogers, and the Roots of American Music from LSU Press examines the Delta’s place in the American music like no other book I’ve read.

The men whose lives make up the twin narratives of the book are, even now, shadowy figures in the American musical pantheon. Charley Patton was a seminal African-American blues musician born in Hinds County, Mississippi sometime between 1881 and 1891. Rogers was a white country singer from Meridian, Mississippi known for his yodeling, was one of country music’s earliest superstars. The two men embarked on vastly different career paths during the 1920’s and 30’s. Patton played juke joints and house parties throughout Mississippi, composing such seminal blues pieces as “Pony Blues” and “High Water Everywhere.” He died in 1934 and was nearly forgotten until being rediscovered by the mainstream blues revival of the 1960’s. Rodgers was a national celebrity when he doied in 1933 at the age of 35 after years of struggling with tuberculosis.

Wynne gives us a blow-by-blow account of the hard living ways of both men and the Delta culture that shaped each of them. He chronicles two restless, rootless men at-large in an agrarian world where, to live, one usually had to be tied to the land. More often than not, the land a person was tied to was not their own. Through music, both Patton and Rodgers sought to overcome those ties. Wynne details the multiple romantic relationships of both men, their afflictions, and their musical greatness, but surprisingly the real focus of the book is the Mississippi Delta itself. This is not the romantic Mississippi Delta of American popular culture, however, this is the delta as it truly was. Wynne spends significant time early on outlining the economic and social climate of Mississippi following the Civil War. We see the reascendance of the planter class as they tightened their grip on the economic lives of Both African-Americans and poor whites.

Patton and Rodgers were, in many ways, musical ambassadors of the Delta, and Wynne meticulously shows readers just how far their influence stretched. A continuously revolving cast populates the book, as Patton and Rodgers cross paths with some of the most influential musicians of the last century. We see a young Louis Armstrong backing up Rodgers on “Blue Yodel No. 9.” We see Rodgers in Louisville recording with the Farter Family, and making a pass at Maybelle in the process. We glimpse the environment surrounding Patton’s infamous alcohol-fueled 1930 trip from Lula, Mississippi to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount Records with musicians Son House, Willie Brown, and Louise Johnson.

What truly spread the Delta sound throughout the country, however, was recorded sound. Both men would be unknown today if not for the tremendous recordings they left behind, recording that constitute the bedrock for both blues and country. Wynne takes readers inside early recording studies where men like Ralph, director of recording for Okeh Records and Jay Mayo Williams of Paramount Records successfully exploited a growing market for African-American music in the 1920’s. Peer would also record some of the earliest country musicians, including Jimmie Rodgers. This ‘cross-pollination’ of music, as Wynne defines it is, in the end, the real story in the pages of In Tune. There really is no black and white American music, just a flow of ideas and influences, creativity and commercialism, that opens up into the wide world of American music, a legacy that is as wide and deep as the Mississippi itself.

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.

The Rise and Fall of Confederate Memorials

Copyright Adam Fagen

Copyright Adam Fagen

It’s been a momentous month in the long, sad history of race relations in the United States.  In the aftermath of the tragic killings of nine black parishoners in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol on Monday.

“For those who wish to show their respect for the flag on their private property, no one will stand in your way,” Haley said. “But the Statehouse is different, and the events of the past week call upon all of us to look at this in a different way.”

On Thursday, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordered four Confederate flags be taken down from a Confederate memorial at his state’s capitol.  Throughout the U.S. South, protests to Confederate memorials seem to be growing louder by the day.  Students at the University of Texas at Austin continue to protest the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on that school’s campus.  Yesterday in Richmond, Virginia’s Hollywood Cemetery, where Jefferson and 28 Confederate generals were laid to rest, Davis’ monument was vandalized.

As many of you who follow my blog regularly already know, I’ve spent the past few years working on the documentary Dixie, which chronicles the history of protest surrounding the South’s anthem.  One of the most glaring realizations I came to during filming was that the specter of the Confederacy is still very much alive in modern America–and these battles have been fought generation after generation.  The Lost Cause, the name given to the religion-like devotion displayed by proceeding generations of southerners towards their Confederate ancestors, is still alive and well.

One of the most visible symbols of the Confederate legacy stands in the heart of the United States.  In Washington D.C.’s statuary hall stands a1931 Henry Augustus Lukeman sculpture of Jefferson Davis, donated by Mississippi.  Each state in the Union is allowed two statues in the hall.  In all, 11 of the 100 people featured in the hall have ties to the Confederacy.  Just the idea of a Davis statue in Washington D.C. was enough to cause protest in the early 20th Century.  In 1910, after hearing that such a statue was being discussed, Union veterans protested the move.  Members of the Grand Army of the Republic post in Tiffin, Ohio, petitioned congress to stop the move.  Protesting Confederate symbols goes back even earlier.

The June 18, 1902 issue of The New York Times features a lengthy response to an addresse given by Charles Francis Adams to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at the University of Chicago.  Adams, who commanded the 5th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry during the Civil War, said that someday Americans would have a calm, academic approach to Civil War history.  He told the Phi Beta Kappa Society that someday Confederate General Robert E.  Lee might even have a monument in Washington D.C. overlooking the Potomac.  The Times gave a definitive response:

“The treason of the Southern rebels in which Lee became a reluctant accomplice was entered into to defend and establish the right of succession and slavery, twin curses to the country which could never be safe from destruction until they were destroyed.”

The article continued:

“The success of their cause would have yielded at the very best two nations doomed to be forever second-rate and endangered by mutual hate and jealousy.”

Thes battles have happened before and they will, no doubt, happen again.  As Americans, we live with the ghosts of the Civil War in a myriad of ways every day.  As new battles over Confederate imagery are waged, how we fight those battles becomes as important as why we fight those battles.  If we are a noble people, if we are the sons and daughters of strong, resilient slaves, of gallant southerners, and idealistic northerners–if we are the nation of Lincoln offering ‘malice towards none,’ then the solutions to these divisive symbols can be found through reason and understanding.  Maybe reasoned debate outlasting violence isn’t a lost cause.

Four of Jean Ritchie’s Most Haunting Songs

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Covers Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX_Shutterstock (1213237a) Folk singer, Jean Ritchie, holding an Appalachian dulcimer, an instrument she popularized in the 1950s and 1960s. Folk singer, Jean Ritchie, holding an Appalachian dulcimer, an instrument she popularized in the 1950s and 1960s.

Library of Congress

American folk singer Jean Ritchie died last week at the age of 92.  Her name might not be as well known today as other folk musicians, but perhaps no living person epitomized the link between modern music and the American folk tradition quite like Ritchie.  She was born in Perry County, Kentucky, in the Cumberland Mountains, in 1922.  she was the youngest of 14 children in the Ritchie family.  Her family’s place in American folk music history is nothing less than monumental.  In the 1920’s, folk scholar Josiah Combs used, in part, the Ritchie family’s repertoire for a 1925 doctoral thesis that was the first scholarly work on the British ballad tradition in America.  British folklorist Cecil Sharp did extensive field work late in his life on English folk songs that had survived in the backwoods of America.  In 1917, sharp collected songs, in part from Ritchie’s older sister Una and May.

Ritchie’s break would come while teaching at the Henry Street Settlement in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  Famed folklorist Alan Lomax began recording her for the Library of Congress.  New York was a catalyst for the folk revival movement in the late 1940’s, and Ritchie took an active part in reconnecting audiences with the music of America.  She was a regular guest on the Folksong Festival radio show and recorded hours of songs and oral history with Lomax.  In 1952 she was signed by Elektra records, where her releases through the 50’s and early 60’s influenced younger artists in the folk revival scene, which by that point had become a highly profitable business.

Ritchie leaves behind a tremendous legacy of music, and her haunting, brooding voice seems more powerful than ever–like the plaintive wail of a past that alludes us–a past the modern world seems ever more ready to discard.  When I listen to Jean Ritchie, though, that past seems to comes back, like a memory I’ve forgotten somewhere along the line.  Here are four of Ritchie’s best.  Two traditional (Hangman and Barbry Allen) and two of her own compositions (West Virginia Mine Disaster and The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore)