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.
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.
Copyright Flickr User NG71
The 150th anniversary remembrances of the American Civil War are winding down this month. For the last five years, the United States and it’s citizens, in a myriad of ways, have commemorated the conflict that claimed the lives of more than 620,000 people and ended the institutionalized enslavement of African-Americans in the United States once and for all. The 150th anniversary commemorations particularly relevant to myself as I spent a good deal of that time working on the documentary Dixie, which explores the sociological history of the Confederacy’s anthem and the ways in which the Civil War continues to shape the lives of Americans. People often think of the political and social changes wrought by the Civil War, but the most dramatic change was to the landscape of the South. Today we look at a bit of that landscape, a bit of the antebellum landscape that remains 150 years later: High Bridge near Farmville, Virginia.
High Bridge was originally part of a Southside Railroad line between Petersburg and Lynchburg. The bridge crosses over the Appomattox River. The 20 piers of the structure included nearly four million bricks. The bridge was completed in 1852, just nine years before the beginning of the Civil War. In 1865, as Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia retreated westward after abandoning Richmond, Lee knew lines of pursuit needed to be cut if his army was to survive. High bridge was capture by Union forces on April 6. Confederate forced managed to take the bridge and capture 800 Union prisoners. The following day, Union reinforcements launched a counterattack and dislodged Confederate forces from the bridge. Confederate troops set fire to the bridge as they retreated, but were unable to destroy it. The intact bridge kept the Union Army in close pursuit of Lee, who turned his forces towards Appomattox Court House, where he would surrender on April 9.
High Bridge’s strategic value to the Union kept it from being destroyed, but much of the South was not so lucky. Atlanta, Charleston, Columbia, and Richmond were all severely damaged. The devastation of the landscape remained a physical reality for generations of southerners. Southern rail lines were heated by Union troops and then twisted into loops resembling bowties. These so-called “Sherman’s neckties” could still be seen in the south decades later.
The Southside Railroad was rebuilt by former Confederate general William Mahone after the war, part of a what became the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad. The bridge became part of the Norfolk Southern Railway in 1982. The Norfolk Southern donated the bridge and rail land to the State of Virginia, which became High Bridge Trail State Park in 2008. The renovated bridge, with the walking and bike path pictured above, opened on the 147th anniversary of the battle: April 6, 2012. The state park should ensure that this once lost piece of Civil War history will be preserved for years to come. A bit of the past shaping the future.
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.
I have had the chance to interview a number of the famous and infamous in my life. Despite all of the fascinating people I have had the pleasure to talk to, I always wonder about those that I never had the chance to sit down with face-to-face. Of all of the misses and near-misses in my life, none has affected me like the death of Pete Seeger. Seeger died Jan. 28 in Manhattan at the age of 94.
Seeger’s death leaves a void in American music. It cuts a direct tie to an earlier age of both American history and American music. Seeger knew both Huddie Leadbetter, aka Lead Belly, and Woodie Guthrie. Lead Belly and Guthrie, along with Seeger himself, are the three luminaries of 20th Century folk music. Seeger and Guthrie met in 1940 during a concert in California for migrant workers.
If that story was not Steinbeckian enough, Seeger’s early life resonated with the force of the American artist. We see him leaving Harvard and riding the rails, trading songs and stories with hobos all along the American landscape. We see the American leftist of the mid-Century, performing pro-labor and pro-Communism songs. We see the recording star of the 1950’s with his group The Weavers.
Seeger’s career faltered in the 1950’s. Seeger was not a member of the party by the early 50’s, but his earlier ties were a non-starter in the era of Joseph McCarthy. Like many American artists with leftist sympathies, Seeger was called before McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Seeger was indicted on 10 counts of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison. He was sentenced to a year in prison. The conviction was eventually thrown out. By then it was the early 60’s, and a decade spent touring coffee houses and colleges had made him a folk hero. His songs brought fame to a whole new generation of folk singers, and became a virtual soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement, songs like “Where Have all the Flowers Gone,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “We Shall Overcome.” It was this last song that made me want to interview him.
I have spent the last four years working on the independent documentary “Dixie.” The film tells the story of the minstrel song, written by Daniel Decatur Emmett in 1859. The song has a controversial past–one reason is due to it’s use as a counter-protest anthem by southern segregationists. “We Shall Overcome” and “Dixie” battle head-to-head during many confrontations and I wanted to know Mr. Seeger’s thoughts on the song. I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Seeger’s representatives and plans were in the works, but alas, as Mr. Seeger’s tune “Turn, Turn, Turn,” with words borrowed from Ecclesiastes, would say: ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die.”
I was never able to sit down and speak with Mr. Seeger about “Dixie” and “We Shall Overcome.” Pete Seeger, perhaps more than anyone, knew the power of a song. As my work on “Dixie” draws nearer to completion, I am looking back on the film, on the people I’ve interviewed with a myriad of opinions on “Dixie.” I have certainly learned the power of a song during these last four years. My thoughts are with Mr. Seeger’s family and I feel fortunate that, when the singer dies, they leave a bit of themselves behind–their voice, their power, their song.
Library of Congress