Category Archives: American Studies

Thinking about display and design at the Smithsonian

Guest post by Robert C. Post

Bob Post 1On the dust jacket of my book, Who Owns America’s Past, there is a blurb from Dr. Deborah Douglas, Director of Collections at the MIT Museum and a marvelous historian. Debbie calls it “part history, part memoir, and part polemic,” and I’ve had to admit that she “got” my book in a way I never intended. The book addresses ways in which the Smithsonian Institution—in particular the Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum—has put artifacts on display, and on that basis it can also be separated into three parts, in a way I fully intended. The conventions for exhibits are categorized under three different headings. First, there are exhibits of one particular type of artifact that are collections-driven—a Hall of Horology, Railroad Hall (pictured above), and so on. When artifacts are small, such as clocks and watches, there may be dozens or hundreds of them arrayed in display cases. When they are large, as with locomotives, one or two of them may dominate an entire exhibit hall by their dramatic presence.

Bob Post 2Then, there are exhibits that can be called story-driven, often with names like the titles of books—We the People, Suiting Everyone, A Nation of Nations (pictured right). In conceiving such exhibits, a narrative is developed first, and artifacts of many different kinds are then deployed like illustrations in a book. Sometimes the techniques of exhibit design, such as dramatic lighting, are as striking as the artifacts themselves.

Finally, there are exhibits that are best called postmodern. A pioneering example of this, The Henry R. Luce Hall of News Reporting (pictured below). Here, “real” artifacts are intermixed with “props,” and together they are exhibited in whatever historical context seems to offer the most potential for immersing an audience in some sort of “experience.” Can’t you hear the sculpted newsboy calling, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”?

Bob Post 3In postmodern exhibitry, “realities” are constructed from an array of storytelling possibilities; they are like a literal reading of historian Hayden White’s remark that “any historical object can sustain a number of equally plausible descriptions or narratives of its processes.”

It is tempting to cast these three kinds of exhibits in an evolutionary sequence, from spare taxonomies with only one tale to tell, to the collaborative inventions of storytellers (curators) and dramatists (designers) selecting from many possible options. Even today, however, the Smithsonian still stages collections-driven exhibits, one reason being that the other two types are much more expensive to mount. Both are design-intensive, and postmodern exhibits also involve costly elements of “experience”—sound, fury, electromechanical interactives. Exhibits of this type are almost always a product of “outside” funding, corporate or institutional. Are we to assume, then, that they may harbor some sort of “spin,” to the order of donors? Would The Henry R. Luce Hall have feature Time and Life at the expense of Newsweek and Look?

Or, coming up to date, would The General Motors Hall of Transportation do more with Chevrolets than with Fords? Actually, it does not; to assume otherwise would be mistaken. But another assumption, that collections-driven exhibits are somehow more certain to be “objective,” this is also mistaken. Something exhibited even in the most unadorned fashion—the old locomotive all by itself, say—is being affirmed: People are being told that this is worthy of being “in the Smithsonian,” and it is worth celebrating. So, back to Dr. Douglas’s blurb and the characterization of my book as “part polemic.” This refers largely to the artifact on the cover—the Enola Gay, the B-29 from which an atomic bomb was loosed on Hiroshima in 1945. Fifty years later, when the Smithsonian planned to display the Enola Gay, it seemed that there were two “equally plausible” narratives. One of them would include evidence of what happened on the ground: melted watches and lunchboxes, total ruination, ghastly photos. The other would be limited to the airplane itself as a technological marvel. It was the latter narrative that won out after a wrenching political dispute, and the way it is presently displayed. My distress about this is why I can now understand Debbie’s three part assessment, ending with “part polemic.”

Bob Post received his Ph.D. from UCLA in 1973, and then was employed by the Smithsonian for twenty-three years, as a technician, historian, editor, and exhibit curator. Exhibits are the subject of his latest book from Johns Hopkins University Press, Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History. Pictured in the photos above, showing off exhibits for which they were responsible, are two of his most esteemed colleagues: Jack White (with the locomotive), also an prizewinning Johns Hopkins author, and Peter Marzio (with the newsboy), who followed his Smithsonian tenure with a distinguished career as director of the Houston Art Museum. A note of clarification: The Museum of American History opened in 1964 as the Museum of History and Technology; the name-change took place in 1980.


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Filed under American History, American Studies, D.C., History of technology, Popular Culture, Washington

A Pequot at the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814

Guest post by Carl Benn

We normally think of native people in the War of 1812 participating in traditional war parties, which is accurate for the vast majority of the Iroquoian, Algonquian, Siouan, and Muskogean peoples of eastern North America who took up arms between 1812 and 1815. A small number, however, served within Euro-American militaries, or at the intersections between native and newcomer formations, such as in the British Indian Department (which had a number of officers who were native). One aboriginal man who served in the United States Army was William Apess (or Apes). He saw action along the border between New York and today’s Quebec in 1813 and 1814, including the Battle of Plattsburgh in September 1814. Now, 200 years later, as people in northern New York commemorate that event, it is worth recalling Apess’s participation, especially because he published his memories of the battle.

The 1814 Battle of Plattsburgh, a print after artwork by Hugh Reinagle, 1816, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The 1814 Battle of Plattsburgh, a print after artwork by Hugh Reinagle, 1816. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

William Apess came from the Pequot nation, one of the Algonkian-speaking peoples of New England. Originally from Connecticut, he found himself down on his luck in New York City in 1813 and, like many young men of any origin, became easy prey for a recruiting party. He joined an artillery regiment, trained at fortifications around New York harbor, then fought at Châteauguay and Odelltown late in 1813 and early in 1814 when the British defended Canada successfully against American invasion. Later in 1814, the British took the offensive when large numbers of reinforcements arrived in North America following the (temporary) end of the great war in Europe against Napoleon Bonaparte. Part of that deployment saw the British march into northern New York in September in anticipation of seizing Plattsburgh to secure the border area against further American attempts to invade Canada and to give the United Kingdom additional advantages in negotiating peace with the United States.

The British army entered the north side of Plattsburgh on September 6 with 8,100 men, and the opposing armies exchanged artillery and infantry fire for the next several days. On September 11, the Royal Navy squadron near the town suffered defeat at the hands of the U.S. Navy on Lake Champlain. That was an important victory for the Americans because the overall British commander, Sir George Prevost, decided against continuing his attack on Plattsburgh. He thought the American naval force could support the town’s defenders, threaten his communications lines, and even nullify the strategic value of a land victory in the negotiations to end the war. Therefore, rather than risk high causalities in an assault that might be of limited value, Prevost withdrew north to Canada.

In 1831, William Apess published a revised version of his 1829 memoir, A Son of the Forest – an important and early indigenous autobiography that has been receiving increased scholarly attention in recent years. One part of it recalled the Battle of Plattsburgh:

“… the enemy made his appearance on Lake Champlain with his vessels of war. It was a fine thing to see their noble vessels moving like things of life upon this mimic sea, with their streamers floating in the wind. This armament was intended to cooperate with the army … and at that very time in view of our troops. They presented a very imposing aspect. Their red uniforms and the instruments of death, which they bore in their hands, glittered in the sunbeams of heaven like so many sparkling diamonds. … The enemy, in all the pomp and pride of war, had sat down before the town and its slender fortifications and commenced a cannonade, which we returned without much ceremony. Congreve rockets, bombshells, and cannonballs poured upon us like a hailstorm. There was scarcely any intermission, and for six days and nights we did not leave our guns, and during that time the work of death paused not, as every day some shot took effect. During the engagement, I had charge of a small [ammunition] magazine … The British [naval] commander bore down on our vessels [on Lake Champlain] in gallant style. As soon as the enemy showed fight, our men flew to their guns. Then the work of death and carnage commenced. The adjacent shores resounded with the alternate shouts of the sons of liberty and the groans of their parting spirits. A cloud of smoke mantled the heavens, shutting out the light of day, while the continued roar of artillery added to the sublime horrors of the scene. At last, the boasted valor of the Britons failed them. They quailed before the incessant and well-directed fire of our brave and hardy tars and, after a hard-fought battle, surrendered to the foe they had been sent to crush. On land the battle raged pretty fiercely. … As soon as the British commander had seen the fleet fall into the hands of the Americans, his boasted courage forsook him, and he ordered his army of heroes … to retreat … This was indeed a proud day for our country.”

Apess’s description of the battle is fascinating partly because he embraced the common American patriotism of the period. Yet, it also is curious because so much of his autobiography consists of a thorough condemnation of the United States and its citizens for the way they treated aboriginal peoples by taking their land and by otherwise exploiting them, as he experienced himself during his life. At one point for instance, he reflected on his enlistment, writing, “I could not think why I should risk my life and limbs in fighting for the white man who had cheated my forefathers out of their land.” In balancing the two aspects of his memoirs, we are reminded of the ambiguity and ambivalence that marked so much of the native experience, particularly in those regions where indigenous people lived surrounded by the Euro-American world, as in much of New England, in contrast to more westerly regions of the Republic where natives continued to exercise considerable independence. William Apess’s autobiography also allows us to see how diverse the aboriginal world was in the period, and warns us not to homogenize or simplify what is, in effect, a very complex – but most fascinating – story.

For more on the Battle of Plattsburgh bicentennial events this weekend, visit the website of the War of 1812 Council – Lake Champlain Region.

bennCarl Benn is the author of numerous works on the War of 1812 and First Nations history, including Native Memoirs from the War of 1812: Black Hawk and William Apess, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is a professor of history at Ryerson University in Toronto.

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Filed under American History, American Studies, The War of 1812

A star-spangled path to writing a book

Guest post by Marc Ferris

ferrisIn 1996, while sitting in a graduate history seminar at Stony Brook University, I searched for a topic to write about. My professors indulged my inquiry into the culture clash between United States authorities and headhunting tribes in the Philippines after the SpanishAmerican War, but I wanted to combine my dual love of history and music.

Somehow, the thought flashed into my head: “The Star-Spangled Banner” is an old song and, hey, its two hundredth anniversary is coming up in the not-too-distant future. I recalled that Americans may revere the song, but they sure complain about it a lot, griping that it is hard to sing and too difficult to remember the words of the first verse (there are four). I wanted to know how this composition become the anthem. Why did it take 117 years to designate it as such, and what finally prompted Congress to dub it the anthem in 1931?

That semester, as I conducted research and wrote an overview paper on the topic, I discovered that the anthem is the most controversial song in American history. I also learned that I was on to something big, particularly since few books had been written about the song. Though one professor in the department implored me to drop the topic, partly because song biographies are generally outside the bailiwick of historians not affiliated with music departments, I thank Richard F. Kuisel, Wilbur R. Miller, and Nancy Tomes for encouraging me. They knew that I loved the subject and would not be dissuaded, so they approved the topic for my dissertation.

Thanks to a Smithsonian Institution fellowship, I spent the summer of 1999 gathering sources by combing the archives in Baltimore and Washington, D. C. Then, the project languished as life intervened. Every time I heard the song, I cringed, knowing that my beloved project lay dormant. Writing the dissertation (which became the book) seemed like climbing Mount Everest. After having kids, working as a freelance writer, and then entering the field of public relations, it looked as if 2014—the song’s bicentennial—would come and go, and I would end up hating myself.

But in 2012, inspiration struck, and I dusted off my thigh-high mound of documents. I spent every waking moment outside of work writing (except for bathing, sleeping, eating, exercising and playing guitar, drums, and bass). By the end of the year, I had a first draft. The New York publishing houses wanted nothing to do with “serious” history, as one agent called it, but I wrote the book I wanted to write—based on scholarship but accessible to every American with even a passing interest in the song. Had I not been so fortunate to link up with Johns Hopkins University Press, I would have published it myself. If there is one takeaway, it is that by scooping up spoonfuls of dirt, a hill appears.

Going through the final proofs, I decided to make a list of fun facts related to the song. I quickly complied thirty, which will rotate on Facebook and Twitter. Here are five of the most interesting:

  1. Shakespeare wrote the phrase “by spangled star-light sheen” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and “what Stars do Spangle heaven with such beauty?” (The Taming of the Shrew).
  1. Anyone with United States currency in his or her pocket or purse is carrying around a paraphrase of a line in the fourth verse of The Star-Spangled Banner, “In God is Our Trust,” parsed to In God We Trust and printed on coins since the Civil War and paper bills beginning in 1957.
  1. The words of To Anacreon in Heaven, the song that Francis Scott Key borrowed for the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, is a sly 1700s paean to drinking and sex. Though understated, the line “I’ll instruct you, like me to entwine; The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine” is unambiguous.
  1. In one of the most incredible ironies in United States history, a slave-owning southerner whose entire family supported the Confederacy wrote the Union anthem (Francis Scott Key), while an anti-slavery Northerner (Daniel Decatur Emmett) wrote “Dixie,” the Southern anthem.
  1. Jimi Hendrix is hardly the first musician whose rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” anthem created a backlash: ragtime performers in the 1890s and jazz bands in the 1930s played idiosyncratic versions that also raised an uproar. In 1968, Aretha Franklin and Jose Feliciano delivered controversial, individualistic versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” almost a year before Jimi Hendrix performed his incendiary version at Woodstock.

Marc Ferris earned an M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsday, Time Out New York, Spin, Vibe, and elsewhere.  His book, Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem, was published this month by JHU Press.

Meet Marc Ferris and other JHU Press authors at a variety of activities during Baltimore’s Star-Spangled Spectacular:

10 September 2014, 6:30 pm
Book Talk & Signing -
“The Battle of Baltimore: How Our Harbor Helped Define America”
With Marc Ferris (Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem)
Burt Kummerow (In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake)
and Ralph Eshelman (IFGR and Travel Guide to the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake: A Reference Guide to Historic Sites in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia)
National Aquarium
Baltimore, MD

Ferris_jacketThe Battle of Baltimore—which took place in September 1814, shortly after the British attack on Washington, D.C., and the torching of the Capitol and the White House—was an uplifting victory for beleaguered America. The success of Baltimore’s citizen soldiers hastened the war’s end and famously inspired Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As tall ships return to the Inner Harbor for Baltimore’s bicentennial celebrations, join us for a special program exploring the history and legacy of the Battle of Baltimore, featuring a panel of historians and authors whose recent work has focused on the War of Travel_Guide_cover1812 and its impact on American identity. A reception and book signing precedes the program. This event is hosted by Aquarium CEO John Racanelli and is co-sponsored by JHU’s Odyssey Program, the Maryland Historical Society, and the National Aquarium’s Marjorie Lynn Bank Lecture Series. Book-signing at 6:30 p.m.; program at 7:00 p.m.

Admission: $15.00; register online through JHU’s Odyssey Program (refer to session 918.088.91) or call 410-516-8516.

11 September 2014, 1:00 pm
Author Interview
 - Marc Ferris
Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of Americas National Anthem
Midday with Dan Rodricks
WYPR, 88.1 FM

eshelman201211 September 2014, 12:30 pm
Book Talk & Signing -
The Battle of Baltimore

Ralph Eshelman
In Full Glory Reflected and Travel Guide to the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake
Johns Hopkins Club
Baltimore, MD

Admission: $20. Club members should call the Hopkins Club for reservations; non-members may contact Jack Holmes for information at 410-516-6928.

11 September 2014, 6:00 – 8:00 pm
Book Signing
- Marc Ferris
Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of Americas National Anthem
Barnes & Noble
The Power Plant
601 E. Pratt Street
Baltimore, MD 21202

SSS logo

1214 September 2014, 11:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Book Sale at
Star-Spangled Spectacular
National Park Service Tent
McKelden Square, Inner Harbor
Baltimore, MD

JHU Press will sell books related to the War of 1812 and host our authors for book signings in the National Park Service tent during the Star-Spangled Spectacular at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Join us at the NPS tent in McKelden Square (at Pratt and Light Streets) to celebrate the bicentennial of the Battle of Baltimore and the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”!

Admission: Free. Visit Star-Spangled Spectacular for information.

12 September 2014, 4:00 – 6:00 pm
Book Signing
- Ralph Eshelman and Burt Kummerow
In Full Glory Reflected and Travel Guide to the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake
Barnes & Noble
The Power Plant
601 E. Pratt Street
Baltimore, MD 21202

13 September 2014, 9:15 am
Author Interview
 - Marc Ferris
Star-Spangled Banner
Weekend News
WBAL TV, Channel 11

Ferris_jacket13 September 2014, 6:00 pm
Book Talk & Signing –
Marc Ferris
Star-Spangled Banner
The Ivy Bookshop
6080 Falls Rd
Baltimore, MD 21209

Book talk, performance, and signing by Marc Ferris at the Ivy during Baltimore’s Star-Spangled weekend!

Admission: Free; call the Ivy at 410-377-2966 for information.

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Filed under American History, American Studies, Baltimore, Book talks, The War of 1812

Open Tennis and Open Minds: What Arthur Ashe Can Teach Us All

Guest post by Eric Allen Hall

As the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, make clear, the fight for civil and human rights is far from over. The shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, by a white police officer provides a window into contemporary race relations. The predominately African American protesters in Ferguson argue that whites don’t know what it’s like to be black in America, where people of color come under suspicion for criminal activity more frequently than whites. The same phenomenon plays out in the world of sports. One need look no further than the public and media reaction to Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman’s televised comments following the NFC Championship to see how some black athletes are branded. In the minutes, hours, and days after his “tirade,” Sherman was labeled a “thug” and “ghetto,” despite graduating with honors from Stanford and not having a police record. Tim Wise, the author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, suggests that blacks and whites fail to understand one another, and many, if not most, don’t even try. If honest and open dialogue is the key to breaking down racial barriers, as Wise and others contend, Arthur Ashe was decades ahead of his time.

The tennis great lost his battle with AIDS over twenty years ago, but his spirit and legend are very much alive as the U.S. Open gets underway on August 25. The stadium in Flushing bears his name, the gift shop sells prints of his victory over Tom Okker at the inaugural 1968 Open, and former and current players, old friends, and fans will soon gather and reminisce about his powerful serve and his commitment to sportsmanship. Ashe and the Open share a unique history, a past filled with milestones and controversy. Ashe made his first appearance at the U.S. Nationals, the precursor to the Open, in 1959 when he took on the “Rocket” Rod Laver. Ashe wasn’t even supposed to be there. He was black, the son of a working-class father, and from the Jim Crow South. Black youths in those days served drinks to wealthy white spectators. They did not face off against the world’s number one-ranked player.

Nine years later, much had changed. Forest Hills opened its doors for the first time to amateurs and professionals alike. Ashe had also grown up since losing to Laver. He had traveled the world, led UCLA to a national championship, dominated the Australian circuit, joined the Army, and starred for the U.S. Davis Cup team. Yet the “burden of being black” was ever present. Ashe’s trophies and accolades did not erase the fact that black men and women across America were fighting and dying for civil rights. Attending segregated schools in Richmond, being denied entry into tennis tournaments because of his race, and watching television newsreels of black demonstrators being beaten in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma made Ashe keenly aware of his race and his responsibilities to the civil rights movement.

The 1968 U.S. Open, as it turned out, would mark Ashe’s first Grand Slam title and the moment when he added his voice to the black cause. His defeat of Okker, a professional, in five sets was the first Grand Slam event won by an African-American man. The image of Ashe embracing his father at center court and acknowledging the white fans who cheered him from the grandstands resonated throughout America. Jackie Robinson wrote, “Proud of your greatness as a tennis player[,] prouder of your greatness as a man. Your stand should bridge the gap between races and inspire black people the world over and also affect the decency of all Americans.”

Robinson would be right. For the remaining twenty-five years of his life, Ashe made it his mission to bring together people of all races, ethnicities, and social classes. During his groundbreaking trip to South Africa in 1973, Ashe met with and debated black journalists, a prominent white cabinet member, and a pro-apartheid professor at an elite university. At the U.S. Open a year after his win over Okker, he spoke at length with a group of antiapartheid activists who insisted that he boycott the event in protest of the Open’s decision to hire a white South African director. Ashe talked and listened to all, especially those with whom he disagreed and even if the topic was controversial. Perhaps that’s Ashe’s greatest lesson to us all.

hallEric Allen Hall is an assistant professor in the history department at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro.  He is the author of Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era.



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Filed under African American Studies, American Studies, Current Affairs, For Everyone, Sports

Why the Amish Sing: Songs of Solidarity and Identity

Guest post by D. Rose Elder

elderThe media typically portray Amish characters as either disapproving, humorless, and colorless adults rigidly humming a solemn hymn to keep worldly thoughts at bay or conflicted, cocky, out-of-control rumspringa adolescents listening to ear-splitting rock and testing all the limits of decency. Of course, TV and the movies are by definition fantasy. But for many curious non-Amish these images lurk in their minds as at least partial truth.

While interviewing Amish families for my book Why the Amish Sing, I discovered a fuller picture. First and most importantly, to quote an Amish friend, “We’re human just like you are. We have the same temptations. We have to choose.” Music is one area where the Amish work at holding back the wild horses of modernity and secularism by carefully selecting the texts and tunes that nurture godliness, kindness and mutuality. I argue that music serves as one of the scaffoldings by which the Amish build and maintain boundaries and healthy community structures.

The soundtrack of an Amish life includes many noises from the modern world. Cars zip by even on remote back roads. A windmill or pump rubs and grinds, screeching metal-on-metal. The roaring whirr of a lawn mower shatters the silence. Nature’s sounds of birds trilling or cooing welcome the dawn. Horses nicker, and cows pleadingly moo, “Milk me.”

Human voices also adorn an Amish person’s day. A grandmother calmly provides directions for safely using scissors. A father petitions God for breath, strength, and the ability to forgive. A daughter’s lilt leads a favorite family song. High-pitched children’s voices gleefully encourage each other on the baseball field or buzz in loud whispers around the potbelly stove before school starts. An auctioneer coaxes up the price of a dozen eggs. In casual settings, several verses of “How Great Thou Art” ring in the air, or a German text about being a faithful child is sung to the tune of “Just As I Am” in unison or well-rehearsed harmony.

Last winter, a lovely Amish couple, Atlee and Mary Miller, invited some friends over and allowed my friend Steve Hebrock, a sound engineer, and me to record their singing. When we arrived, Atlee, his son, Daniel, and two friends, Steve and Jerry, were joking and amusing each other with personal stories. Mary joined us. We became caught up in the air of delight. This group of men was comfortable with each other with no social lubricant other than stove-brewed black coffee. Atlee told of his bus ride from his military induction appointment when the announcement came that world leaders had signed the armistice ending World War II. Steve mentioned a favorite moment in the chicken house with his son. The men enthusiastically sang Steve’s song, ““Ich war ein kleines Kindlein,” a meditation on the human condition. “What have I accomplished while I have been on this earth?” the singers asked.

I was a small child born into this world;

As to my time of death

I have nothing to say what happens on the earth;

I have created nothing in my time on earth.

The words require participants to accept their humanity and to devote themselves to their Creator. Mary, Atlee’s wife, adds that the words of that text are very touching.
Sung a third again as fast, the tune would sound like a cousin of the haunting British folk tune, “Barbara Allen.” But, at the pace the men sang, it is a bittersweet introspection that ends on a heartbreaking modal (mixolydian) flat ti (lengthened for emphasis), then do, re, do. Singing together provides the setting for Amish friends to share serious memories and keep their community’s stories vibrant.

D. Rose Elder is an associate professor of ethnomusicology and rural sociology and coordinator of humanities and social sciences at the Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute. She is the author of Why the Amish Sing: Songs of Solidarity and Identity, recently published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

This post has also been published today on the Amish Wisdom Blog.


Filed under American History, American Studies, Amish, Anabaptist & Pietist Studies

The song (like the flag) is still there

Guest post by Marc Ferris

The story of how The Star-Spangled Banner became America’s national anthem and what took Congress so long to designate it as such is a fascinating tale that reflects the give and take between the rulers and their subjects over national symbols, the symbiotic relationship between patriotism and religion, and the song’s adoption and adaptation by Americans of all political persuasions. Akin to the flag lionized by Francis Scott Key, the song is “still there” and will be for a long time because—like the Fourth of July, Flag Day, and other national holidays—it reflects the people’s will.

Star Spangled song sheetYet, there are occasional rumblings over the song. Many Americans complain about its melodic leaps, for example, though its range is the same as Silent Night (and when was the last time anyone complained about that Christmas chestnut?). America the Beautiful also contains an awkward jump in the chorus (at the first iteration of “America”), yet it has been a popular rival to The Star-Spangled Banner.

It’s worth remembering that the anthem never would have taken hold if ordinary Americans had trouble singing it during the 1800’s. The melody Key consciously borrowed, To Anacreon in Heaven, served as the bedrock for more than 80 other popular ditties from the late 1700’s through 1820. One of the reasons why The Star-Spangled Banner has fended off all challenges, in fact, is its distinctive melodic edge, which is lacking in other anthem alternatives, including Hail, Columbia, popular in the nineteenth century. Over the years, several campaigns have attempted to dislodge The Star-Spangled Banner from its official status, either by holding anthem contests or attempting to promote alternatives such as America the Beautiful and God Bless America. Both of these came too late to the party and suffered from serious limitations, including challenging, dated melodies and stilted, sometimes unmemorable words.

Despite the anthem’s familiarity, Americans do seem to have a hard time remembering the words to even the first verse (and there are four!). Perhaps people had better memories in the early 1800’s, since renditions of the anthem in that era routinely included all the words. In one joke that circulated during World War I, a solder returning from patrol in enemy territory encounters a checkpoint. The guard asks, “Who goes there?” The solder replies, “An American.” The sentinel responds, “Then recite the first verse of The Star-Spangled Banner.” The soldier answers, “I can’t remember it.” To that, the guard says, “Then pass, American.”

After the battle in Baltimore harbor in September 1814, the culmination of the War of 1812, the song spread rapidly, first by word of mouth and then in print (often without musical notation). The conflict represented a serious crisis to the country’s sovereignty and the outcome remained in doubt until Baltimoreans repulsed the British. Key captured the relief felt by many Americans, and his words served as a journalistic answer to the question, “What happened in Baltimore?”

Yet, over the years, his lyrics have also come under fire for being militaristic, even though Key merely related what he witnessed. If Americans still sang the fourth verse, they would know that Key, a pacifist who took up arms against England in 1814, reluctantly sanctioned war by writing “then conquer we must, when our cause it is just.” He also sought the approval of a higher power and devised a phrase that inspired the country’s official slogan: “And this be our motto ‘In God is Our Trust’” (parsed to “In God We Trust” and adopted by Congress in 1956).

Perhaps all the complaints simply reflect complacency, since the anthem is performed so often at ballgames, flag-raisings, school assemblies, and civic events. Yet one of the most chilling renditions of the song took place just last year, at the first Boston Bruins game after the marathon bombings. Singer Rene Rancourt started the song off, then stopped singing after a few bars and waved his microphone like a conductor’s wand. The crowd bellowed a moving and heartfelt version, proving that a determined group of randomly assembled Americans can indeed sing their anthem with emotion and purpose—if they want to.

ferrisMarc Ferris earned an M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsday, Time Out New York, Spin, Vibe, and elsewhere.  His book, Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem, will be published by JHU Press in September.


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Filed under American History, American Studies, Baltimore, Holidays, Popular Culture, The War of 1812

Q&A with Donald Kraybill

From the Preface to the forthcoming Renegade Amish: Beard Cutting, Hate Crimes, and the Trial of the Bergholz Barbers:

Amish. Hate. Crimes. These three words suddenly linked arms in the fall of 2011 when a string of beard-cutting attacks startled the Amish community in eastern Ohio. The fact that the perpetrators were Amish generated an avalanche of news stories about Amish-on- Amish violence as the bizarre story played out until the defendants were sentenced in February 2013. Pundits and late-night talk shows alike poked fun at the Amish—these supposed saints who now had streaks of sin on their faces. Even a cartoonist joined in the humor by depicting a distraught Santa Claus with only stubbles on his chin, waiting in vain for children to sit on his lap. Apart from beards, bonnets, and buggies, nonviolence is a cardinal signature of Amish identity. That a band of supposedly pacifist Amish had assaulted their own people shattered all the Amish stereotypes in the popular imagination.

When this cultural brawl finally ended, ten men and six women from a maverick Amish community near Bergholz, Ohio, were behind bars. A federal jury found them guilty of multiple charges involving conspiracy, hate crimes, kidnapping, lying, and obstructing justice. Most shocking of all, the three Bergholz clergymen—Bishop Samuel Mullet and his two ministers—were among those charged and convicted. The jurors found evidence that the assailants had attacked the Amish victims because of their religion.

Apart from etching violence into the annals of Amish history, the case set a new legal precedent—under the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act—for its first-time conviction of assailants for religion-driven hate crimes. Moreover, it was also the first one within the same faith community. In addition, because a hate crime conviction requires evidence of “bodily injury,” the jury had to judge whether cutting a beard qualified as disfigurement, which is one type of bodily injury. The verdicts stretched the definition of bodily injury for hate crimes and the nature of acceptable evidence for interstate commerce—one requirement for federal jurisdiction and prosecution of hate crimes. Some legal experts considered the interstate commerce evidence tenuous in the Bergholz case, and others have even raised questions about some aspects of the constitutionality of the Shepard-Byrd Act.

With his new book coming out in August, Donald Kraybill has stopped by the JHUP blog to answer a few questions about the Amish beard cutting scandal which shook the Amish community in late 2011.

Q: How did you first learn about the Ohio Amish beard cutting story?

A: I heard about it on various media in September 2011. I thought it was a joke at first or some kind of misunderstanding.

Q: Have beard cutting attacks happened before in Amish history?

A: This is a precedent. It never happened before these attacks by the Bergholz Amish community. It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve come across in researching and writing on the Amish of North America over the last 35 years.

Q: How did you get involved?

A: I was contracted in the spring of 2012 by the U. S. Department of Justice to assist them in the prosecution. I helped them to understand Amish beliefs and practices. In September 2012 I served as an expert witness for five hours during the three-week federal trial in Cleveland, which included 16 Amish defendants.

Q: Why did you write the book?

A: For several reasons. This was such a benchmark case in Amish history. I wanted to understand it better and also document it for historical purposes. I was also curious about the background of the Bergholz Amish which executed the attacks. Who were they? How were they transformed from a peace-loving group into a violent one? Were they, in fact, really Amish?

Q: How did you answer that question in the book?

A: I provide an abundance of evidence that shows many ways in which the Bergholz clan strayed from Orthodox Amish faith. Throughout the trial they maintained that they were Amish. They still use horse and buggy transportation and dress Amish-like. Of course there are no laws that prevent any group from claiming the Amish brand. In my judgment they are not Amish, at least not according to any conventional standard of Amish belief and practice.

Q: How do other Amish people view the Bergholz clan?

A: The 65,000 other Amish people in Ohio were greatly embarrassed and shamed by the beard cutting attacks. The attackers even included members of the Bergholz clergy. Another reason I wrote the book was to vindicate the thousands of sincere and devout Amish people in Ohio and other states whose Amish identity was maligned by these attacks

Q: Why did the federal Department of Justice become involved in what might appear as a petty Amish quarrel?

A: There were nine victims, sixteen offenders, and five different attacks in various counties. It would have been difficult to undertake multiple prosecutions in different counties for a host of reasons which I explain in the book. The federal prosecutors argued that the nature of the crimes and the fact that they involved interstate commerce made it possible to prosecute the offenders under the 2009 Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Act. The jury agreed and convicted the sixteen defendants with some 87 different criminal charges.

Q: What surprised you most about the story?

A: The case is now under appeal to the sixth circuit federal appellate court. Recently the national Anti-Defamation League pulled together a coalition of 40 different groups vigilant about civil rights abuses. These groups filed a friend of the court brief urging the appellate court to uphold the convictions. The coalition groups view the Amish convictions of federal hate crimes as a benchmark that will help to protect many other Americans from hate crime attacks. The case is especially pertinent for attacks motivated by the hatred of a person’s religion, sexual orientation, race, gender, or disability.

Q: What is the most important take away of the book?

A: The sad irony is that the hate crime convictions of some former pacifist Amish have helped to reinforce the long-standing American tradition that citizens are legally protected to practice their religious faith according to their conscience without fear of being attacked by those who may despise their religion.

Kraybill_RenegadeDonald B. Kraybill is a Distinguished College Professor and Senior Fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of more than a dozen books on Amish culture, including The Riddle of Amish Culture, The Amish, and the upcoming book on the Bergholz Barbers, Renegade Amish.

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