Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Soul of America by Jon Meacham

The painting, Rainy Day on Fifth Avenue, 1916 by Childe Hassam captures the faith, risk, hope for the future, and the challenges which have faced our country ever since its foundation. There has almost never been a time when the delicate balance of interests represented by our diversity of populations, size of our land-mass, degree of independence, and the challenge of our founding as a democratic, representative republic has not existed.

We're living through an era of division along social, ethnic, racial, age, and technological, and more lines than most of us can imagine. And we find it scary! We imagine that we're in worse shape than our country has ever before seen, filled with complex issues most of us cannot see our way through. Into this era of fear and sense of lost direction, comes Jon Meacham's 2018 book, The Soul of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels, available from all your favorite outlets. 

Meacham's narrative focuses on the leadership of often flawed but effective terms of U.S. Presidents, faced with seemingly intractable problems that threaten the continued effectiveness of our system. He presents both Democratic and Republican presidents who respond with both inspiration and, sometimes, subtle political  maneuvering and at others blunt exercises of Presidential power. He looks at presidents whose behavior does not deal easily with their reputations (the intractable racism of Woodrow Wilson, who was once seen as one of the four great presidents, but is now nearly forgotten, for instance.) He also points out how history often is made by having the right person in the right place at the right time Abraham Lincoln provides a great example. In each era he describes, the future of our Republic often is questioned, yet we survived, adjusted, and often triumphed. As I read this highly readable book, I found that I gained increased insight into the strengths, weaknesses, and difficulties encountered by the great, and not-so-great, as they navigated the issues raised and the difficulties involved in building and maintaining a democracy. 

People accustomed to Meacham's television guest appearances will recognize his upbeat personality and positive viewpoints expressed about individuals and situations. He radiates confidence in positive outcomes, as does this book, without ever sounding heedless of the real challenges these men face. Despite my own gloominess about our current level of anger, division, and violence, reading Meacham increased my confidence that we will emerge a stronger and better nation.

Jon Meacham

John Meacham is a visiting professor of History at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, TN. He graduated with honors from The University of the South, after which he embarked on a long and successful career as a newspaper and magazine writer as will as a prolific writer of historical works. He has won the Pulitzer Prize as well as numerous other awards and recognitions. He is also a frequent guest on television programs, interpreting history in context delivered with warm good humor. I highly recommend this book to history and politics buffs. It's highly readable and filled with insight and wisdom. I bought John Meacham's The Soul of America in a trade paperback edition from As usual, the book arrived in a timely fashion and in very good condition. 

Monday, February 12, 2024

June - A Documentary Life of June Carter Cash

June Carter Cash

June, a documentary film now available for streaming on Paramount+, strikes all the right notes. It allows fans who only knew June Carter Cash as Johnny Cash's wife, to understand and revel in the career she built in country music before she married him.  June provided him with an anchor and a fully committed love, helping him build his career as became one of the most recognized and successful  artists in country music history. 

The Carter Family at Bristol Sessions

June Carter was country music royalty. The Carter Family lived in the rolling hills of southern Virginia, where their father, A.P. Carter farmed while spending most of his time trekking off to collect songs in the nearby mountains. The Carter Family, A.P, his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle travelled south to Bristol TN/VA to participate in the first recordings of country music, made by Ralph Peer in 1929. The next generations of Carters emerged as Sara, along with her daughters Anita, June, and Helen emerged and continued to perform and record, while staying anchored in Mace's Springs, VA.  (We visited the Carter Fold fifteen years ago, finding Carter descendants continuing the Carter Family legacy of acoustic music and country dancing. It felt like a genuine pilgrimage.)

The Carter Sisters - It's My Lazy Day

When June Carter met Johnny Cash, she already had two daughters, was currently married, and a Grand Ol' Opry star in her own right. They fell in love (or perhaps "exploded into" would be a better term), and were soon inseparable. The rest is still more music history. Fortunately, there seem to have been movie cameras around both June and Johnny from early in their careers, and the Opry kept excellent records of its performers. Thus, the film is also visually stunning and moves along quite quickly. Lots of interviews with big and lesser known people along with their children permit a well-balanced and nuanced view. 

June Carter Cash & Johnny Cash - Jackson

We didn't realize how much of Johnny Cash's musical life had impacted us during our musical journey, or how important June Carter Cash was to both the history of country music and the success of Johnny Cash. June subordinated her own ambitions and talents to care for Cash, even deep in his years of drug addiction. When he joined The Highwaymen, she practically disappeared, sidelined while keeping him propped up and able to perform, creating a whole new career. We laughed, cried, and thoroughly enjoyed this marvelous documentary film. 

June is currently streaming on Paramount+. It runs for an hour and thirty-eight minutes, and seems too short, leaving the viewer wishing to see more about the family and their surroundings. It's well worth your time!

Friday, February 2, 2024

Sing Me Back Home: Southern Roots and Country Music by Bill C. Malone

 Bill C. Malone, a name unknown to many people who are performers or fans of country music is the man who virtually invented a body of research and experience which has helped to define and broaden various kinds of music referred to as Country. Without his thoughtful scholarship informed by his rural roots in East Texas, country music would be less widely distributed and understood. His book, Sing Me Back Home: Southern Roots and Country Music, published in 2017, contains sixteen meticulously annotated essays exploring the roots, spread, influences, and importance of Country Music, not only in music, but in the wider American musical culture.  

Born in East Texas near Tyler (where we lived for three years while I taught at what was then Texas Eastern University and is now The University of Texas at Tyler) Malone grew up on a hard-scrabble cotton farm, where his first interest in music was sparked by his father’s bring a battery operated radio into the home in the mid-1930’s. Soon, his inexpensive first guitar was given to him as a gift. Malone, showed an interest in the music he heard, and later, as a student at the University of Texas at Austin, widened his interest into his studies and his research. Encouraged by his faculty advisor, he wrote his doctoral dissertation at UT on country music. It was published as the still-in-print book Country Music U.S.A.

Sing Me Back Home: Southern Roots and Country Music, published in 2017, is a collection of serious, well documented essays previously published in scholarly journals or delivered as speeches to university audiences. Despite his academic excellence, Malone’s country roots and essential decency shine through on every page. Examined in its overall focus, lies Malone’s highly knowledgeable awareness of the deep variety and wide-reaching roots of what has become known as country music. He looks carefully at the roots from which much of the music sprang, discovering more complexity and nuance than most fans attribute to their own version of the sources and nature of their preferred version of country. 

In his chapter on Bill Monroe, for instance, he looks at the lonely boy who picked up a mandolin, as well as the young man who followed his brother to the industrial Midwest. He was influenced by all the musical strands he encountered as well as bringing his own personality and strength towards developing the basis of what others came to call bluegrass music. He finds the same diversity in early country music, discusses the influences of going to war, the wide dispersal growing from radio and, later television, on the development of country music. He examines how jazz, pop, the movement of rural people to the cities, and other factors make country music and bluegrass variants on the same tree trunk. He particularly examines how various ethnic and cultural communities in America have contributed to the music. Purity is not what you find, but, perhaps, a greater understanding of much of what makes America great emerges.

If you’re interested in a book that helps you solidify your personal conception of what country music really is, this book may not be your best choice. If, on the other hand, you think you can benefit from getting a more eclectic understanding of how common people from America’s rural roots became one of the most powerful and influential musical formats in contemporary life around the world, this book will thrill you. 

I bought Sing Me Back Home: Southern Roots and Country Music as a used book from in a hardback edition. The book is published by the University of Oklahoma Press and is widely available