Monthly Archives: January 2014

Play That Funky Music, Satan

I’m going to examine a short section of a well-known song.  This instrumental break was never innovative or influential– it didn’t brashly proclaim a new genre of jazz like Charlie Parker’s double-time alto sax break in “Night in Tunisia,” and it would never lay a sampled foundation for decades of future hip-hop and electronic music like the “Amen Break.”  However, when we consider the story, genre, artist, and cultural milieu behind Charlie Daniels’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (1979), the 16-bar interlude– I’ll call it the “Devil’s Break,” in which Lucifer rips his bow across his strings with the musical equivalent of Sherman’s March to the Sea– deserves some in-depth discussion.

We’ll start with two points regarding the song’s subject matter and style: First, the song’s subject matter is a variation of a very old folk tale involving a deal with the Devil.  There are many more retellings of this story than we have time to get into here, from Goethe to Stravinsky to Robert Johnson to Zappa; suffice to say that a main character chooses to wager his soul with the Devil in exchange for knowledge, talent, a gold violin, or just plain titties’n’beer.

Second, there’s the song’s style and genre–it is a fast-paced bluegrass tune, centered around a sixteenth note fiddle reel, which for the most part follows a descending minor lamento chord progression.  It’s incredibly catchy, and the fiddle reel is obviously enough to defeat the Prince of Darkness himself.  But there is something more, something different in the Devil’s Break.  You see, when Satan

pulled the bow across the strings and it made an evil hiss.                                                                  And a band of demons joined in and it sounded something like… 


The tempo kicks back to a half-time feel, the key moves from harmonic minor to the Dorian mode, the guitar begins dead string comping on its upper strings, and a clavinet that sounds straight out of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” appears out of nowhere.  The Devil’s Break actually sounds quite similar to a sped up version of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie.”  I’ve taken the liberty of mashing the two up just to show this.

So, quite simply, the Devil Plays Funk.  Funk loses to Bluegrass.  We need to take this further.


For the rest of this essay, I’m going to look at the historical and social background that shows why the funky Devil Break is culturally significant, perhaps more so than Daniels ever intended it to be.  Before we go there, however, we need to just address the simple, on-the-surface reasons that Daniels threw in this little chunk’o’funk onto his bluegrass lawn.  Several months ago, when I initially posted some of these observations and questions on facebook, my brother-in-law, the talented guitarist Jackson Evans, pointed out that Daniels probably just added the funky Devil Break because in the late 1970s, funk sold.  This is true.

The entire period from the mid 60s to late 70s was one of huge social, cultural, racial, and political upheaval in the U.S.  Music was not exempt.  This was one of the most fertile times of musical genres mixing, morphing, and synthesizing with one another, for better or for worse.  Rock groups like Queen, Kansas, Led Zeppelin, and Rush combined operatic themes and complex, epic musical forms into what would become “prog rock.” Jazz musicians like Miles Davis and George Benson moved away from the swing, traded their archtop guitars and double basses for solid body instruments, and began jazz-rock “fusion.”  Rock groups like Chicago, Cold Blood, and Wild Cherry adopted funk motifs and horn sections.  Established bands such as the Rolling Stones dipped their toes into nearly every musical genre of the decade. Blues begat soul, soul begat funk, funk begat disco, punk punched disco in the face and begat New Wave, and so on and so forth.  We all know this story.

Charlie Daniels was very much in the midst of this unprecedented musical mestizaje.  He certainly realized the paradox of being a product of The South, the most insular and culturally conservative region of the United States, but also owing his fame to a post-hippie mass interest in diverse musical niches.  In other words, he was in a great position to be an intermediary in the emerging culture wars, another product of the 1970s.

Plenty of his songs predating “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” explicitly stated this: 1971’s “Uneasy Rider” brilliantly lightened up the dark story of hippies and rednecks from the movie Easy Rider and poked fun at Southerners’ paranoia about federal incursion by the FBI and George McGovern.  1974’s “Long Haired Country Boy” breached the stoner/drinker divide and called out Southern television preachers for their hypocrisy.  Even Daniels using the term “Son of a Bitch” at the end of “The Devil” (which was changed to “Son of a Gun” for radio play) was a significant breach of Old Southern decorum.

Given Daniels’ position as a long-haired Southern Rocker, and the fertile state of musical mixing in the 1970s, it is not surprising that he would have put some funk into “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”  It was probably just good business, and it works with the song structure.  Honestly, you’ve got to be impressed at it– funk is easy to fuse with rock, blues, or jazz, but with Appalachian Bluegrass?  That’s hard to pull off.  The tinny, nasally Scotch-Irish twang of Bluegrass is one of the culturally “whitest” genres there is, as we’ll see later on.  Yet Daniels threw some funk into it.


But here’s where it gets more complicated.  As a southerner, Daniels can make some jabs at his culture, but he is also viciously defensive of this culture when it is attacked by outsiders.  This is not unusual in itself; the tribal nature of most subcultures tends to allow self-mockery but defends against mockery by others.  Witness how many Jewish comedians make fun of their culture, or how many California rock bands dwell on the superficiality of their home state.  For that matter, as a cultural Mormon, I never miss an opportunity to attack that religion, but I will be the first to defend it when an uninformed outsider makes a quip about it.  Given the history and position of the South, and especially of the Appalachian South, it is not surprising that this region takes this “internal-mockery mixed with external-defense” incredibly seriously.

We see this in other songs by Daniels, which border on nationalism and jingoism.  “The South’s Gonna Do it Again,” seems to be a fairly lighthearted celebration of Southern Rockers, until you consider that the title is a play on the neo-confederate “The South Will Rise Again” mantra.  Later tunes such as “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag” and his cover of “Our God is an Awesome God” firmly place Daniels on the right of the American political spectrum.  Add others’ pieces such as Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muscogee” Lynyrd Skynryd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” and Loretta Lynn’s “One’s on the Way,” and we can see that while Southern musicians were happy to accept some elements of 1960s counterculture and diversity, they wished to do so on their own terms, rather than with the patronizing help of draft card burning druggies, a Canadian like Neal Young, or Gloria Steinem-styled feminists.


This ain’t no rag, it’s a flag!  Well, and a shirt.

This acceptance of outside elements (though not necessarily influence), combined with a more rigid defense of individual heritages is perhaps THE defining feature of cultural history in the 1970s, as Bruce Schulman has shown brilliantly in his history of the decade.  Political and legal advances of the mid-to-late 1960s insured more equal rights in the eyes of the law for disenfranchised demographics.  Non-white racial minorities such as blacks, Latinos, and American Indians gained the most, women began more tenuous steps to equal rights that would come to full fruition in the mid 70s, and even LGBT populations began a very long journey toward social and legal acceptance with the 1969 Stonewall riot.

But here’s the caveat: these movements toward de jure equality under the law in no way brought about de facto social integration; we never became a true melting pot, and MLK’s dream of  “All God’s children joining hands” never really took hold.  If anything, individual cultures became MORE insular and guarded of their identities.  Black Power, Red Power, Chicano activism, militant second-wave feminism, Harvey Milk’s San Francisco gay culture, they all said essentially the same thing: “Thanks to the 1960s, we are living under greater acceptance and freedom than ever before.  We’re going to use this freedom to keep to ourselves and strengthen our identities.”  One of the great films to come out of this era, The Godfather, was essentially an analogy for this complex process: after returning from a stint in the U.S. military, the most integrated, melting-pot, homogenized institution in America, Michael Corleone returns to his unique ethnic family identity (which in this case includes decapitating horses and shooting people in the eye).

Ok, so basically we’ve seen how all of this came together in the 1970s, and played into Daniels being in a position to funk up his bluegrass.  But there’s more to this story.  No amount of increased social, cultural, and musical heterogeny can explain this: Why does the DEVIL play funk?  In response to Lucifer’s throwing down of the funk gauntlet, the song’s hero Johnny pushes the musical genre even further toward idealized American decency in his response.  The key goes to major, and Daniels starts throwing out song title couplets that can be described as nothing less than “rural heartland” style– “Mama’s little baby loves shortening bread,” “chicken in the breadpan peckin’ out dough.”  In a sense, this is Johnny countering the Devil’s musical virtuosity with music of his “roots,” just as Daniel San, err, I mean, Ralph Macchio responded to the satanic metal shredder Steve Vai by quoting a Paganini etude in the awesomely bad 80s movie Crossroads.

However, I see this all as undeniably racialized– the Devil is playing black music, and Johnny is playing white music.  In order to see how profound this pairing of funk and the Devil Break is, we need to look at how white Anglo culture, and especially southern culture, has viewed black music over the course of a half millennium.  Time for some historical musicology.


Much more so than music forms like soul, blues, or jazz, the funk of the late 1960s and early 1970s was inseparable from Black Power and the aforementioned cultural entrenchment of the era.  One of the earliest funk songs, by James Brown, was the self-explanatory anthem, “Say it Loud– I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968).  “Jungle Boogie” reclaimed the white establishment’s dismissal of African music as primitive “jungle music,” complete with whoops, grunts, and Tarzan yells.  1970s films with black heros such as Shaft or Superfly had ultra funky soundtracks by Isaac Hayes or Curtis Mayfield (no hyperlinks needed).  Hip-hop very quickly based its most important samples off of funk beats as well, and proudly owned its heavy percussion; as Chuck D. of Public Enemy shouted to kick in his historical anthem “Can’t Truss It,”  HERE COME THE DRUMS!

The most defining feature of funk may very well have been this beat.  It came indirectly from a  traditional big band swing beat, which though originally based upon the “bouncy” rhythm of 19th century marching pieces such as the Battle Hymn of the Republic, was thoroughly identified with jazz and blues by the 1920s.  Because of its association with black musicians like Ellington, Italian crooners like Sinatra, and Jewish composers like Gershwin, many saw the swing beat as music of the “other,” and subversive to WASP America (not to mention Nazi Germany) during the interwar period.  However, by the 1960s swing had become thoroughly sanitized and non-threatening, thanks to white crooners like Bobby Daren, Paul Anka, and worst of all, Pat Boone.

Funk– and the later hip-hop that sampled funk beats– put swing into a higher-gravity, plodding, half-time feel in which heavy, consistent bass and snare drums undercut the bouncing swing of a drum set’s ride cymbal or high hat.  (It’s easier to explain with example than with words; check out this very obvious switch from a traditional swing beat to a half-time funk/swing beat in Jurassic Five and Cut Chemist’s “Swingset.”)  As far as my observations can tell, funk’s “half-timing” of the swing beat started a popular music trend that rap metal (yuck) would do to fast-paced punk in the late 1990s, and that dubstep  (double yuck) would do to trance in the early 2010s.

Beyond the technical background of making a beat heavier and half-time (I think kids these days call it “dropping the bass”), the funk/hiphop beat made black music scary for whites again (it’s carnal!).  Here’s where things get really interesting.  For centuries, White Christian fears of other cultures’ music have been centered around percussion.

This percussophobia initially had less to do with blacks or Africans, and more to do with the great Other in early modern history, the Ottoman Empire.  From the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Battle of Vienna in 1683 and beyond, Muslim Turks represented everything that the Christian mind feared, and for good reason; they were in a position to destroy Christendom, and nearly did on occasion.  It is impossible to overstate how much fear of this Imperial Islam shaped Western European identity two centuries after the Crusades, and on the eve of the Age of Exploration.  Christopher Columbus actually promoted his western route across the Atlantic as a way for European commerce to reach East Asia while avoiding the Ottomans.  The Portuguese also expanded their trade routes while avoiding Anatolia, and then carrying out aggressive naval warfare against Muslims in the Indian Ocean.  Spaniards expelled Muslims from Iberia, forced Sephardic Jews to flee to Ottoman Turkey, and then thanked God for allowing them to reach America before Islam had.

England, the farthest-west European power, was even more wary of Ottoman Turks, and saw the empire’s despotism, slavery, and lascivious harems as diametrically opposed to English notions of individual freedom and prudence.  In promoting English colonization and spreading the Black Legend in the late 1500s, Richard Hakluyt the Younger called Spanish conquistadores “most Turkish” for their atrocities to Indians.  In satirically showing the barbarism of American slavery, Ben Franklin took the position of a Muslim.  Mozart, obviously no Englishman, nonetheless knew that the tragedy of a young woman kidnapped by Turkish pirates would be unusually poignant if she was a freedom-loving Englishwoman.  Even the fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien built upon this English fear of percussive hordes coming from the southeast– the armies of Mordor included darker-skinned “southrons,” and Orcs loved their drums (in 5/4, according to Peter Jackson).

orc drums

Armies of Mordor, Take Five!

The Ottoman Empire also pioneered modern military music through their powerful, percussive Janissary Corps.  This trumpet, drum, and cymbal music was intended to psychologically weaken enemies with fear even before fighting started, and it worked.  Christian Europe feared the drums of war as an instrument of the Other.  Of course, later into the 19th century, emerging European nation-states from Austria to Prussia to Britain would adopt and “Christianize” Ottoman music styles, drums and all, into their own marching bands, but heavy percussion was still seen as militaristically barbaric.  Both early classical and folk music forms avoided the drums of war.  Also by this time, Americans had found another percussive other to fear, this one from Africa.

ottoman drums

The intersection of Afro-American slavery and music is fascinatingly complex.  I have neither the time nor the knowledge here to get into details, but it is worthwhile to examine briefly how different percussion forms persisted amongst colonial slaves in different parts of the Americas, and under different European powers.

Slaves working in two giant hubs of the sugar industry, Spanish Cuba and Portuguese Brazil, developed some of the world’s most rhythmically complex music styles.  The mambo, rhumba, son, cha cha, and the samba are some of the best known.  Drawing off of the group dynamics of African tribal music, they are polyrhythmic– with multiple intertwined beats varying and coinciding with one another.  Check out the beginning of Tito Puente’s “Master Timbalero” for some polyrhythms that border on overwhelming.   African Polyrhythms could also employ call-and-response, as this Samba piece by Sergio Mendes powerfully shows.

The music was also inseparable from the hellish phenomenon of the transatlantic slave trade.  Polyrhythms were  complex in the Americas precisely because people from hundreds of different African regions and tribes, each with their own percussive styles, were uprooted, stripped of nearly everything but musical memory, and thrown together.  Even more horrifying was the nature of sugar production specifically.  It was grown in disease-ridden swamps, the sharp edges of sugarcane cut slaves’ hands, and its processing into sugar and rum took place in some of America’s first factories– furnaces and mills called engenhos (literally “engines”) by the Portuguese.  Disease and toil ensured that the average slave only lasted for seven years in the engenho, and for this reason, slave populations rarely became self-sustaining.  Well into the 19th century, around 90% of all African slaves wound up on sugar plantations.  This also meant that, compared to North America, African rhythms were more readily preserved and retained.  Polyrhythms were born in hell.


It rots your teeth, too.

The dual-definition “clave” (both a rhythm and an instrument) is even more specifically linked to sugar slavery.  The instrument is a pair of wooden sticks hit together to produce a sharp, clicking sound that carries over the cacaphony of polyrhythms; it comes in right after the bass in the above-linked Tito Puente sample.  The clave rhythm– usually played by the clave instrument, but sometimes by a cowbell, the bell of a cymbal, or even handclaps, is a constant pattern that repeats throughout a mambo, rhumba, or son tune; its asymmetry is not dissimilar from the Bo Diddley Beat, or even a simple swing high hat.  All of these simple, yet slightly asymmetrical rhythms lay a foundation, a background for more beats to layer upon.  They are the “key” to keeping complex rhythms together, and in fact, “clave” is a Spanish term for “key.”  Furthermore, as Ned Sublette’s book on Cuban music shows, the original wood stick claves were probably made from wooden pegs used in the construction of ships, and would have been very easy for slaves to obtain.  The clave, then, was the key that held together the ships that took Africans to the Americas, the polyrhythms that these slaves created, and the cohesion and identity of hundreds of disparate groups thrown together to work to death in the engenhos.


It’s a pretty hefty responsibility for a couple of sticks.

Ok, but what do the complexities of polyrhythms and the brutality of sugar slavery have to do with the Devil playing funk in Georgia?  It turns out that, especially compared to Latin America, the English-speaking colonial world developed its percussophobia very early on, and in the American South.  In his autobiography To Be, or Not… To Bop, while discussing his own forays into Latin/swing fusion, Dizzy Gillespie made the observation that the reason that African-American music never developed the rhythmic complexity of Afro-Latin music was because “the English took our drums away, unlike the Spanish.”

Chano Pozo with Dizzy Gillespie

The early years of Latin Jazz: Gillespie performing with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo in the late 1940s.  Pozo’s story did little to dissuade Percussophobia– he was obsessed with Voodoo, and would later be fatally shot in a drug deal.

In 1739, just south of Charleston, South Carolina, several dozen slaves (many born in Africa) managed to obtain weapons from an armory, killed their masters, and burned their plantations.  They then headed south along the Stono River toward the freedom of Spanish Florida, recruiting more escapees, killing whites in their path and marching to the sound of drums.  Eyewitnesses wrote of the horror of the sound of the drums.  Unfortunately for the Africans, they never made it to Florida; a colonial militia defeated them, and the survivors were executed.  The next year, the colonial assembly began passing a series of laws called the “Negro Acts” to ensure that such a rebellion would never happen again.  They cut down on the numbers of slaves imported directly from Africa.  They mandated a more rigidly trained colonial militia (this obsession over militias to prevent slave revolts also led to the Second Amendment about a half century later).  And, they banned the use of drums by slaves.  While slave revolts certainly continued for the next 100+ years, their frequency in North America was much less than that in Latin America.

But there’s more to the story than just a single event; it’s not as simple as “Southerners were scared of drums in slave revolts, and that’s why the devil plays funk!”  We’ve already seen that the English were unusually hostile to and fearful of Ottoman Muslims– much more so than the Spanish were– and this may have contributed to their percussophobia well before Stono.  Even a casual listener can tell that English folk music is less percussive than Spanish folk music.

Furthermore, as slave communities matured in the South following the Stono rebellion, the dozens of factors that historian Philip Morgan laid out in his book Slave Counterpoint probably resulted in a gradual simplification of African American music’s rhythms, to the point that they lost most of their polyrhythmic complexity.  Tobacco, indigo, cotton, and even rice production were less lethal than sugar, resulting in more stable, self-sustaining populations with a diminishing memory of African rhythms.  Especially in more northern slave regions such as Virginia, white overseers were a more constant presence than in the malaria-infested Caribbean, and subversive, secret drumming would have been difficult.  Quite simply, in the Anglo-American world (I’m equating England and the United States for the most part regarding views toward slavery and race), African slaves were Anglicized more quickly.

Once again, we can’t get away from contrasting this with the state of percussion and black culture in Latin America.  The militaristic beating of drums was instrumental (no pun intended) to slave revolts in Brazil as well.  In fact, the Brazilian dance/martial art style of Capoeira, which combined fighting with percussion, began in escaped slave communities called Quilombos that were essentially waging war upon Portuguese settlements through the 17th century.  The guy from Sepultura even wrote a song about it.

Slave dance

Here they come, Here they come, Slave Drums.

 Yet, despite the link between percussion and rebellion in the tropics, neither Spain nor Portugal ever enacted laws equivalent to South Carolina’s Negro Acts.  As brutal as the work in tropical sugar engenhos was, the Iberian world had more laws in place to serve as a sort of minimal “safety net” for slaves than the Anglo-American world did.  Due to a tradition of a stronger monarchy going back to King Alfonso X, as well as familiarity with the extensive body of Islamic and even Roman slave law, Spain’s medieval legal code, Las Siete Partidas, placed quite a few regulations on how slave owners could treat their slaves under the Spanish Empire.  Christians could not be enslaved, but slaves should convert afterward.  Slaves could marry, and their families were protected.  They were entitled to religious holidays, to save their own money, and to purchase their own freedom.  they could even testify in courts of law, which the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision so blatantly shot down.  Although I’ve not yet found any specifics on percussion regulations in the Spanish colonies, it does not make sense that the modern world’s first global bureaucratic empire, with laws such as this would have ever allowed its colonies to enact something as capricious as South Carolina’s all-out ban of percussion.  The hell of sugar spawned African polyrhythmic community, but Las Siete Partidas nurtured them.

Compared to the Ibero-Latin world, England had relatively little experience dealing with non-white, non-Christian peoples during the Middle Ages.  They never shared a peninsula with Muslims, they never saw themselves as heirs to the tradition of the Roman Empire, they caricatured Ottomans as almost cartoonish villains, and they moved very quickly away from slavery and toward a light feudalism that lauded the free, property-holding “yeoman farmer.”

Ironically, this resulted in a more hands-off slave policy as mandated from the English crown, and harsher, more reactionary laws on the level of individual colonies.  Las Siete Partidas saw slaves as humans– infidel, subjugated, captured, degraded, but still human.  England, the birthplace of modern capitalism, saw slaves as simply property, as chattel.  As Edmund Morgan has shown in American Slavery, American Freedom, the tradition of individual liberty that England pioneered and American took to extremes included the freedom for a master to do with slaves as he pleased, with little government interference.

This complex comparison shows, I think, why African American slave music in the States was less percussive.  It shows why even swing, while certainly providing a platform for potential polyrhythms (it does combined double-time ¾ over a 4/4 or 2/4 time signature), had much more in common with Anglo-American folk rhythms than mambo or Samba had with Iberian folk rhythms.  It shows why even swing and jazz had their origins in New Orleans, the port city with the most direct ties to the Latin world, and where slaves from the Caribbean would meet and dance in Congo Square.

At the same time, British fiddle reels in Appalachian communities began gestating into the folk bluegrass that would eventually lead to “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”  Regarding bluegrass, I have probably been stressing the linear continuity of “English” culture into “American” culture too much in this essay, although we’ve seen that percussophobia was definitely continuous.  Despite the stereotype of Appalachia as being isolated, insular, and even xenophobic, I cannot stress enough the heterogeneous origins of bluegrass.  The original inhabitants of Appalachian frontier, perhaps mislabeled as “Scotch-Irish,” were coming from a centuries-long background as borderlanders, familiar with English, highland Scottish, and Irish cultures as David Hackett Fischer has shown.  And bluegrass drew upon even more diversity.  By the time its name was coined in the late 1930s, instruments included the Spanish guitar, the African banjo, the Mediterranean mandolin.  Though not as blatantly as other music forms, it also incorporated elements of black music–gospel, field hollers, rhythm and blues– as well.

What’s also fascinating is that somehow, as America became more connected technologically, artistically, and culturally in the 1920s, and as more people were exposed to more musical forms than ever before, narrowly regional Appalachian mountain music somehow took the title of “real American music.”  Somehow, this twangy music played by rural folks, with its multicultural origins hidden just enough, could give a white America at its racist and nativist zenith a comfortable view into a whitewashed past of American popular culture.  It is significant that Aaron Copland drew heavily off of Appalachian motifs and Shaker hymns while trying to force some sort of true American high musical form while Ellington, Gershwin, Goodman, and dozens of other jazz composers were creating high art from immeasurably more pluralistic influences, and receiving less acclaim for it.  It is also significant that even today, when we think of the musical genres of “Americana,” or even just simple “folk,” the associations are almost always white.

And of course, mountain folk music and its Country & Western successors remained percussophobic.  Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry banned drums completely from its inception in the 1920s, gradually allowed snare drums with brushes by the 1950s, and did not allow full drum sets until 1973, in part due to the rise in popularity of the outlaw country and southern rock that Charlie Daniels was a part of.  In a famous standoff, cantankerous Texas bandleader Bob Wills, who was fusing country and jazz into Western Swing as early as the 1930s, ignored the Opry’s drum ban, lifted the curtains on his drummer unexpectedly during a performance, and was not asked to return to the venue. Much rockabilly and early rock eschewed the heavy percussion of full drum sets.  Johnny Cash’s band used a minimal brushed snare drum/cymbal combo, letting the upright bass carry the pulsing beat, and modern traditionalists like Junior Brown carry on this approach.  

Indeed, we can even define the earliest rock’n’roll by whites like Carl Perkins and Elvis  by its use of full drum sets.  The genre’s critics were percussophobes who worried about white kids being subjected to the “savage beats” of bass drums and tomtoms, and thus put on an irreversible path toward promiscuous sex, satanism, and communism.  Even in my own personal experience, last year we had a funeral service for my grandfather in a Mormon chapel.  One of his longstanding wishes had always been that we have a Dixieland style musical rendition at his funeral, but when we brought out the instruments for this, we were informed that drums and trumpets (that barbaric Ottoman combination!) were forbidden in LDS chapels, because of their “less worshipful sound.”  We channelled the spirit of Bob Wills, and brought in the devil’s instruments anyway.


And this brings us back to the 1970s.  We can see how in one sense, Charlie Daniels was pushing the limits by even playing a bluegrass-styled song with electric guitars and drum backings, let alone bringing in the 16-bar funk break.  But at the same time, we cannot escape the fact that this guy was tying the music of Black Power to the Devil.  The historical background of racially tinged percussophobia becomes even more profound when we take into account the overall state of the nation in the late 1970s.  Daniels, that long-haired  social conservative, released this song fifteen years after the Civil Rights Act, as the white South was still reeling from the trauma of forced integration, at the dawn of the Reagan revolution, and the rise of the sunbelt.  In Daniels’s and Johnny’s Georgia, multicultural, percussive funk loses to heartland bluegrass, and the White South most definitely rises again.

Place, Growth, and Pragmatism in “The Book of Mormon” Musical

*WARNING: I am trying to serve intellectual analysis first and foremost in this post, but it will nonetheless be very offensive to active Mormons, Christians, or frog aficionados for that matter.  Offense is the whole point of the work that I am reviewing here.  You’ve been warned!*

One of the things that struck me about Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park, from the moment I first saw it as an awkward 18 year old recently returned from a summer job in rural desert Southern Utah, was the series’ strong sense of regionalism and place.  South Park the town was an isolated Colorado Mountain community; something I could relate to as someone who lived in and loved the rural intermountain West.  There were local quirky characters who were undeniably western (redneck hunter Uncle Jimbo comes to mind).  They had a local “Cow Days” festival (just like Richmond, UT has a Black and White Days!).  The town’s insular but tight sense of community was most evident looking down its Main Street: a small bar, bizarre local businesses like “Tom’s Rhinoplasty,” and perhaps the single, local police figure, Officer Barbrady.  This cartoon location was not a vaguely Midwestern Anytown, USA, as the Simpsons’ Springfield is, and certainly not one of the stock northeastern or West Coast locations that most series, animated or live, rely upon.  It was WESTERN.  Intermountain, frontier, autonomous, peripheral, isolated.  Take away the fart jokes, and Stegner or Turner would be proud.

jimbo and ned

You see, Ned, our sense of place and rugged frontier individualism is key to preserving American Democracy!

But this changed over time from the late 1990s to the 2010s.  Like so many main streets in the rural West, South Park’s became more like the rest of the United States.  Whether as a conscious commentary, or out of Parker’s and Stone’s need for more material, South Park gradually got strip malls, Walmarts, Apple Stores, racial diversity,franchise restaurants, late-model Suburus, film festivals, and 4g coverage.  The single town policeman was replaced by a full force of gritty, urban, vaguely Irish cops.  South Park as an Island Community was no more.

This transition from the quaintly insular toward mainstream integration in the West is not just evident in small western towns like South Park.  It is one of the broad stories of a strongly regional religion a few mountain ranges to South Park’s west: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).  In a process that continues to fascinate and perplex me, an early 19th century millenarian separatist cult has, via very rough road at times, made the journey to being a more mainstream, center-right “Family Values”-type religion, that tries to retain relevance (but also distinction) in the globalized 21st century.

Mormonism has been a recurring topic in the satirical art of Stone and Parker: their first musical, Cannibal: The Musical featured Mormon settlers briefly, their film Orgazmo told the story of a Mormon missionary-turned pornstar, and the faith appeared occasionally in South Park (heaven is populated by bike-helmet wearing missionaries obsessed with arts and crafts, and later an entire episode is devoted to a Mormon family that moves to town).  I wondered early on if Parker or Stone had been raised Mormon; they certainly had enough of a grasp of both theological and cultural quirks to have been.  It turns out that, no, neither had been Mormon, but they had grown up with quite a few.

So, it was unsurprising when the duo created their magnum opus, the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.  It is touring off-broadway right now– seriously, go see it.  This Tony-winning work has been analyzed and reviewed into the ground by this point, and, along with the candidacy of Mitt Romney in 2012, has been perhaps the most significant pop cultural force bringing Mormonism to national attention since the Osmonds.  It is brutal in its satire, and makes no qualms that the premises of Mormonism’s unique scripture, The Book of Mormon, are utterly ridiculous.  But at the same time, the musical manages somehow to be polite, and nice to the religion.


The LDS Church responded with civility to the musical’s success: they initiated an ad campaign inviting people to visit their website (there are even LDS ads in the musical’s playbill); devout members politely made comments about how the musical was misunderstanding their culture.  But that was about the extent of controversy.  In today’s age of religious extremism, many media commentators noted that, had a musical about the origins of Islam been written, the religious response would have been much less polite, and probably violent.  Of course this is true.  Fewer people noted that, had a musical taken similar lighthearted aim at, say, Southern Evangelical Christians, the religious response would have also been vitriolic and possibly violent.

The broad underlying theme of the whole musical are the ways in which it shows the problems of Mormonism’s transition (and attempts at transition) from peripheral to integrated, from regional to international, insular to all-encompassing; just as South Park moved from Main Street to franchises.  So much of this is tied to the fact that Mormonism is not simply a religion.  In Utah, it is a distinct culture.  What happens when a distinct and very provincial culture that is so tied to place (the intermountain West), originated in a specific and recent time (Second Great Awakening and Jacksonian America), and was based off of some VERY bizarre and specific “prophecies” attempts to become universal, say, by sending Utahn missionaries to early 21st century Uganda?  This is the theme of The Book of Mormon musical. (note: through this essay, I’l be referring to both the musical and the Mormon scripture as italicized Book of Mormon, but I will specify when referring to the musical.  Pay attention.)

I’ll start with some minor points.

The musical certainly contains plenty of jabs at Mormon culture, all of which I thought were quite apt.  One of the opening numbers features naïve 19 year old males at the MTC (Missionary Training Center), accepting their various mission assignments with blissful joy– “Norway?  Home of Gnomes!”  “Uganda?  Like the Lion King!”  With the  odd-couple pairing of the two protagonists– standout golden boy Elder Price, and overweight, compulsive liar Elder Cunningham, we even get a great look into how the Mormon social hierarchy works.  Price sings about how the pair is going to do great things, but “mostly me!” while Cunningham happily accepts his inferior status as a sidekick.  This hit close to home for me, as I recalled so many church talks on how every member was valuable and important, but that the Lord had ordained natural leaders who were “blessed” with “the spirit” to call the shots just a bit more than the rest.  These natural leaders, coincidently enough, were usually the tall, the blonde, the beardless, the athletic. They would be troop patrol leaders in boy scouts, seminary council members in the church education system, and go on to serve as Bishops and Stake Presidents in their adulthood.  The “Mostly Me” song nailed this subtle hierarchical paradox, in which all adult males  hold “the priesthood,” but only the business-like, clean-shaven, republican, upper-middle class types would move up the ranks of the lay clergy.  It is clear: Price has it, Cunningham does not.  (Mitt Romney also has, or had it)

The highpoint of the musical’s first half was the song and dance number “Turn it off,” in which the Greek Chorus of missionaries instructs the newcomers Cunningham and Price to simply ignore the bad stuff of sub-Saharan African– “turn it off, like a light switch!”  This starts of in reference to a murder by a warlord that the missionaries witnessed, but we all know what the “turn it off” mentality is really directed to (it’s THE GAY!), as various missionaries sing their testimonials of lusty same-sex attraction (or for that matter opposite sex attraction), and then end by saying “I turned it off!”  The irony of seeing a sharply dressed, tightly choreographed troupe of oh-so-gay actors dressed as missionaries sing this was over-the-top awesome, but again, at the root this stuff hit home.  You want to know how deep this “turn it off” mentality goes?  Just read Apostle Mark Peterson’s advice to young boys dealing with the evil temptation of masturbation.

Beyond some of these cultural references to provincial sexual repression, the musical most definitely points at some of the most obvious logical and historical problems with Mormonism’s origins and the Book of Mormon scripture.  Again, Parker and Stone have long been very adept at showcasing the ridiculous nature of Mormonism’s origins as perceived by outsiders– see South Park’s treatment of the Martin and Lucy Harris story for a great pre-musical example.  But, in both South Park and in The Book of Mormon, Parker and Stone are less concerned with the detailed logical problems of early Mormonism (no golden plates were ever seen, Joseph Smith gave multiple versions of his “first vision” story, and so on and so forth), and more with the ways in which ridiculous beliefs can help people do very good things.

It is in this theme that the pathological liar, Elder Cunningham, really shines forth.  Upon thinking (or realizing) that the traditional missionary discussions from his Provo training are simply not engaging his Ugandan flock, Cunningham simply starts making stuff up.  He combines Mormon cosmology and canon into a pop culture mashup of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings,  and frog-fucking (bear with me here), ultimately empowering the Ugandans to join the Church and overthrow their oppressive warlord.

One exchange between Cunningham and a villager who wishes to copulate with a baby to cure his AIDS goes like this:

Uhhh, Behold! The LORD said to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, “You shall NOT have sex with that infant!” And lo Joseph said, “Why not, LORD? Huh? Why not?” And the LORD said, “if you lay with that infant, you shall” [makes an explosive sound] burn in the fiery pits of- Mordor!  … A baby cannot cure your illness, Joseph Smith. I shall give unto you a… a FROG.” And thus, Joseph laid with the frog, and his AIDS was no more!

(full transcript of the musical is available here)

In this sense, Cunningham is very much a mirror of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith.  As the genius Smith put together the epic narrative of the Book of Mormon (this time the Mormon scripture, not the musical), elements of his own time and place made their way into the story.  Smith did not draw upon Tolkien or Star Wars, but he did slip references to paranoia about freemasonry into his story of the “Gadianton Robbers” and their “secret combination” hand signals (see Faun Brodie’s No Man Knows My History for more details on this).

More broadly, the entire Book of Mormon responded to a pressing cultural need of Americans that other religions had thus far ignored: if America was the greatest, most God-blessed nation on earth, and if the Bible was the literal and comprehensive word of God, why did the Bible not mention America?  Smith responded with perhaps one of the earliest occasions of “fan fiction” in America– “You like the Bible?  Then you’ll LOVE the Book of Mormon!  There are biblical Israelites, but in AMERICA!”  Or, in the slightly more restrained words of Smith biographer and Mormon elder Richard Bushman, Smith gave “America scriptural legitimacy.”

So, by this point in my narrative of amphibious copulation and sociopathic lying,  all devout Mormon readers are probably thoroughly disgusted.  But here’s the thing: When Cunningham threatens the villagers with eternal damnation into the pits of Mordor, or makes up a story of Bobba Fett turning frog fuckers into frogs themselves, he has departed from traditional Mormonism, but also responds to the concerns and needs of the Ugandans with sensational, epic stories that are not entirely his, but that are packaged by his raw talent and charisma.  When his missionary leaders find out about his shenanigans, they are horrified at this perversion of their faith and harshly chastise him.

Similarly, Smith’s own scriptures and religion– with later tenets such as Adam-God Doctrine, Blood Atonement, and most of all polygamy– were a radical departure from traditional Christianity as well, which nonetheless appealed to many Americans, not least because of Smith’s creativity and charisma.  But, here is the most important point: mainstream Protestant Christians of the early to mid-19th century were just as horrified at what Smith was saying about polygamy as modern Mormons would be at Cunningham preaching about Smith fucking a frog.

What Parker and Stone are saying is, “yes, Smith may have been a sociopath, sexual predator, and a liar, but he created a faith and culture that helped people feel good about themselves.  So what?”  A variation of this statement also occasionally appears in South Park episodes, both in the aforementioned Mormon show, and in a later one that asserts in its conclusion: “Who cares if Jesus ever existed or not?  He has influenced more people than most other REAL historical characters!”  Ultimately, Parker and Stone have come to the same conclusion that William James came to in his pragmatist work The Varieties of Religious Experience: religion is valuable for its psychological benefit to the individual and the community.  Whether it is “true” or not is irrelevant, and not even really that interesting.

Furthermore, Stone and Parker’s particular brand of satirical humor strives to mock those things in life that are difficult to mock; they do not shoot fish in barrels.  They transcend the tired divides of today’s culture wars– secular vs. religious, conservative vs. liberal.  It would be very easy– too easy for Parker and Stone– to take the smug, Richard Dawkins-styled approach of “haha, these people are stupid for believing that Indians are descended from Hebrews who were cursed with red skin for wickedness!”  Instead, Parker and Stone have long taken it a further step, mocked religion, and then turned around and mocked Dawkins (as well as all other smug liberals).  In this sense, they are very much a continuation of the sort of non-partisan, libertarian satire that Frank Zappa began fifty years ago when he attacked both the stupidity of both religious conservatives and stoned out hippies.


There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.  

–Frank Zappa

But I digress.  There are problems with Parker and Stone’s pragmatist view of religion being valuable for its individual psychological benefit to its members, and especially in the case of Mormonism.  As it began, and as it continues to be, Mormonism (and especially Smith) has always been unusually focused on the literal and the material, and averse to the symbolic and the metaphor.  Smith claimed to have translated his scripture from LITERAL plates of gold, rather than simply have it revealed to him as Allah supposedly did to Muhammad.  The Garden of Eden was LITERALLY located in Missouri.  Heaven was not an otherly realm or dimension, but LITERALLY another planet.  Salvation was less spiritual and ethereal– your soul was not redeemed after death, but you LITERALLY regained a body of “flesh and bone.”  When you converted to Mormonism, your blood would LITERALLY turn to that of an Israelite.  God had once LITERALLY been a man, and LITERALLY had sex with his plural wives to create little spirit babies, including Jesus and Lucifer, who were LITERAL brothers.  Do we see a pattern here?

But the problem is that once you hinge your beliefs on the true and the material, rather than the spiritual or the metaphorical, they become vulnerable to scrutiny and being disproved.  This has been Mormonism’s major challenge as it has moved from 19th century Utah into the 20th and 21st century globalized world.  Most of the above doctrines, while not officially abandoned (you can’t ever fully abandon something that a prophet has said), have been  gradually ignored and de-emphasized.  As former church President Gordon B. Hinckley vaguely said in response to an interview question about Mormon men eventually becoming gods, “I don’t know that we teach that anymore.”

But there is one literal “truth” that no good Mormon can publicly deny or even sweep under the rug (though I suspect that many have their private doubts), despite its obvious archaeological, historical, and now genetic weakness to any casual outsider: the literal and unqualified veracity of the Book of Mormon’s story of Israelites living in the Americas from around 800 BCE to 300 CE.  As all devout Mormons state every time they “bear their testimony”– “I KNOW (“know,” not “believe”) that the Book of Mormon is true.”  Literally true.  Similar to fundamentalist Christians who base their faith on the unquestionable truth of the Bible (which, ironically enough, Mormons only believe “as far as it is translated correctly,” part of being a good Mormon is a belief in the 100% truth of the entire Book of Mormon.

This is where the true strength of the Book of Mormon musical lies.  It presents “truths” that are obviously ridiculous, impossible to defend, and rolls with them.  At the end of the musical, the Ugandan villagers state, “of course we know that the stories of Joseph Smith frog-fucking are ridiculous!  What, do you think we are morons?”  It is ridiculous to believe that fucking a frog cures AIDS, just as it is ridiculous to believe that white-skinned Israelites populated the New World, or that your family’s eternal salvation rests upon dressing in silly garments and performing variations of Masonic rituals behind the closed doors of temples.

Yet, they have found strength in these “false” stories.  The movement from the literal to the metaphorical is even seen in the realization that they may never make it to the Promised Land of Salt Lake City (or, as the Ugandans call it, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”).  The land of Milk and Honey in Salt Lake City is eventually seen as less an actual place, and more a state of mind, not unlike Augustine’s much earlier declaration that the City of God dwells in all of us, rather than being a specific place.

In other words, the ridiculous can be used for the greater good, and The Book of Mormon manages in this way to steer clear of attacking Mormonism for the sake of vitriol or smugness.  As Mormonism, which touts itself as one of the world’s “fastest growing religions” (this may be true for the US, but internationally, Mormon growth pales to Muslim birthrates) continues to try to become global while retaining its regional roots, it is going to have to keep dismissing, ignoring, de-emphasizing, but not disavowing or condemning many of its bizarre theological origins (Mormon beliefs about all African blood being cursed, which were finally changed as LDS missions began moving into Brazil are the most obvious example).  The greatest paradox, however, is that all religions exist to provide templates of human behavior that are seen as timeless, constant, and unchanging, but they can only stay relevant if they change, and evolve according to culture and place.

But let’s just all agree not to do this, though, ok?

Jefferson and Hemings, Race and Gender

I teach colonial and American Revolution classes to students at a private liberal arts college.  Recently, in my American Revolution course, we did something I’ve wanted to do for years– devote a whole class to the saga of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

Most of us know the basics: Thomas Jefferson had a decades-long sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings (who, as a result of Jefferson’s father-in-law sleeping with his own slave, her mother, was also Jefferson’s deceased wife’s half-sister.  Confused yet?).


This largely undocumented relationship resulted in six children, a mud-slinging presidential campaign in 1800, and controversy that exists to this day as we delve into the sex life of one of our “founding fathers.”  Although family stories passed down through Hemings’s descendents, and circumstantial evidence have supported the fact of this relationship for over a century, only recently did genetics conclusively close the book on this controversy.  Historian Annette Gordon-Reed has documented all of the subtleties of this story in several books, and I recommend them all.

The issue of Jefferson and Hemings is also is a great lens for analyzing the state of race, gender, and sex in our nation’s early history, as we gradually transitioned from colonies, to republic, to democracy, and as old social hierarchies broke down, and newer ones rose up.  There are plenty of questions, too.  Was this relationship consensual?  Did Jefferson and Hemings love each other?  Above all, what on earth was Jefferson thinking?

This is the guy who wrote “All Men Are Created Equal,” then turned around with “blacks… are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”  This is the guy who built Monticello with a series of dumbwaiters and passages so that he could entertain abolitionist French philosophes without them ever seeing a black person. This is the guy who vehemently supported every revolution of his era (America, France, Latin America), but was disgusted at the Haitian Revolution, seeing it as a mere slave uprising, rather than a proper revolution.  To call him conflicted is an understatement.

The story of his and Hemings’s relationship is also hazy and conflicting; today we can hear some polemicists call it a case of psychological coercion and rape, while apologists either continue to deny that it happened, or failing that, point out that this was a decades-long, stable, monogamous affair.  No matter what, when we try to impose today’s values and assumptions on this story, it gets complex, fast.

For starters, our modern sensibilities get uncomfortable when we realize just how young Sally was when she first began sleeping with Jefferson (and quickly became pregnant).  When she arrived as a servant for Jefferson’s daughter in Paris in 1787, where he was serving as a diplomat, Hemings was around 14.  Jefferson was in his mid-forties.  Definitely statutory by today’s standards.  But, it was not uncommon in aristocratic society for young white girls to be bargained and traded off for marriage, with no concern for their consent.  In particular, Jefferson’s home of Virginia had some of the largest age gaps in marriage of any of the American colonies; elite males tended to get married around the age of 30; women around 19.  This was a marked contrast from, say, New England, where marriage actually tended more among couples of the same age, and also more consensual by our modern standards.

Speaking of consent, was Hemings a victim of rape?  This was truly a gut-wrenching tragedy, because as a slave, by the legal standards of her time, she could neither give nor refuse consent.  She (and the 500,000 other slaves in America at this time) could not consent to sex, to freedom of movement, to marry whom she wanted, none of that.  Their fates were tied to their masters’ wishes.  By the standards of the day, she could not be raped, and most certainly not by her master, Jefferson.



Here’s an interesting word game: ask anyone on the street today, “what is the opposite of slavery?”  You will almost certainly get a one word answer:  “freedom.”  Makes sense, right?  It’s actually a very American sentiment.  Slaves could do nothing without the consent of their master, whereas free American men (yes, men) could do whatever they wanted within the bounds of the law; they had no master.  But, this slavery/freedom dichotomy ONLY arose in the relatively new paradigm of universal white male freedom, which certainly had not yet fully developed at the time that Jefferson began sleeping with Hemings.

However, under the older, British paradigm in which freedom and liberty were a tiered scale, and not binary, “the opposite of slavery” would have been this:


Think about that.

Slaves had no rights, no freedoms, whereas masters had the rights and freedoms to impose their will upon their slaves.  Landowners could impose their will on their tenants; Nobles on their serfs; craftsmen on their apprentices; the king on everybody.  Under this old, complex hierarchy, everybody except slaves had some liberties, and everybody except the king was subservient to someone.

In this hierarchy, which the gentleman cavalier culture of Virginia and other British Plantation economies thrived upon, it was a masters’ privilege to do whatever he wanted to his slaves.  The island of Barbados had only one law regarding masters’ treatment of slaves: they had to be clothed.  The law said nothing about regulating torture, protecting families, or requiring conversion to Christianity.  In the British view, excessive laws were for more despotic cultures like France or Spain, both of which had very complex slave codes influenced by Catholic law, and enforced by strong monarchical bureaucracies.  Part of being a free Englishman or American was the freedom to treat your slaves as you saw fit, and the Anglo world was proud of this.



 Where laws did not tread, however, an unwritten code of gentlemanly conduct dating well back into medieval feudalism existed for British Planters, at least in theory.  It was seen as lowly and trashy to do things like beat your slaves too much, clothe them in rags, or refuse to give them holidays off.  But at the same time, it was also seen as offensive and intrusive to have laws specifically prohibiting these things.

 Sex was tightly, though informally, regulated this way.  If a master purchased a slave girl solely for sex, kept her tied up in a shack, and raped her daily, that would have been an abuse of his noble station.  If word of this got out to his peers, he would lose status, connections, and become a social pariah.  But, the same thing would happen if a master fell in blissful love with a slave girl, taught her to read, freed her, and then moved to Pennsylvania where they both became Quakers and got married.  Both extremes would have been a transgression of this gentleman’s code.

In fact, one of the main points that Harriet Beecher Stowe made much later in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) was that American (as opposed to British) slavery made it too easy for un-gentlemanly types to own slaves, and that low-class, white trash men with nothing but money could own another life, but had no gentlemanly code of conduct, no sense of noble obligation, to keep their violent, sexual whims in check.  Upper-class slave owners in the novel are all benevolent, well-intentioned, and thoroughly non-predatory to the point of asexuality.

So, in the British, Virginian, and “honorable” Old Southern models of mastery, gentlemen masters were supposed to know how to exercise their dominance over their slaves in a restrained, reasonable, and civilized fashion.  But, plenty of them were still having sex with their slaves.  We know very little about this, because part of their gentlemen’s privilege was the freedom to sleep with slaves, and not have it gossiped or written about.


Painting by an unknown artist, circa 1800.

But let’s get back to Jefferson and Hemings.  She had been raised from birth to see her entire world as revolving around her master, to devoting herself to his every need, just as her own mother had devoted herself to her master John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law.  Quite likely she would have been told as a child, “Someday, if you really carry yourself properly, Mr. Jefferson might choose to sleep with you.  This is a good thing.”  A term like “Stockholm Syndrome” cannot begin to describe this relationship.

The point is, Jefferson’s status as a gentleman meant that he did not have to physically coerce Hemings when he chose to sleep with her.  That would have been beneath him.  But, she could not say no, either.  In this sense, it was rape, regardless of whether they loved each other (they probably did), that they stayed together for decades, that Hemings was at Jefferson’s deathbed, or that he freed all of his children by her.  They were operating under a very old slave/master dynamic that, at least in theory, the American Revolution and Jefferson’s own declaration had sought to destroy.



But we can take this further, into the experiences of all women in the early American or British colonial world.  Hemings could not say no, because she was the property of Jefferson.  But very few married women could say no to their husbands either, because in many ways, they were also possessions.  Law designated a married woman as feme covert– literally a “covered female” who could not legally own property, broker transactions, sign contracts, or testify in court.  All of these rights flowed through the husband.

It was not until the early 1970s that the feminist movement finally prompted many states to make the radical declaration that, “YES, rape can occur within marriage, and it should be illegal!”  Beneath this is the age old assumption that rape is less an assault on a woman, and more an assault on the honor of that woman’s father, brother, or husband.  This was reflected both in law, and in the abstract, unwritten “gentleman’s code” that I’ve already alluded to.  This was unusually so in the case of Virginia’s laws and traditions of gender hierarchies, since this was the colony most tied to neo-feudal myths of chivalry, gentility, and noble obligation.  However, not all British colonies were operating under these assumptions.

Quaker and Puritan societies farther north were in some ways more modern in their views of how men and women related to one another.  Marriage in Puritan New England was seen only as a social contract between two people who loved each other (though the man was still very much head of the family).  It was not a church sacrament– they believed that religiously-instituted marriage minimized one’s devotion to God.  Women could retain their own property, and both men and women could file for divorce for equally diverse reasons.

Adultery was punished harshly (torture and mutilations, in addition to scarlet letters and public shamings), but the punishments were dealt out equally to men and women.  The few slaveholding New Englanders could also be charged with adultery and punished for it if they raped their slaves.  Puritan diaries and letters indicate significant numbers of couples who loved each other in a much more egalitarian sense than their neighbors to the South did.  Most Puritans even believed that, in order for conception to occur, both man and woman had to orgasm during sex (this sounds nice in terms of sensitive lovers, but less nice when we consider that this is tied to Todd Akin’s recent moronic comments about “legitimate rape” and pregnancies, but that’s another topic altogether).

Contrast that with the more hierarchical views of gender and sex that Jefferson’s homeland of Virginia held.  Women tended to be married off at young ages, as chattel to secure property transfers and inheritances; more than one Virginia gentleman referred to the fine “stock” that his wife would produce, and even white, upper class women were frequently referred to as “breeders.”  The laws of femes covertes stipulated that, while a woman could inherit her father’s property (provided that there was no male to do so), her position as an unmarried adult woman was precarious; she could not testify in a court of law, and could not sign contracts; she needed a husband to do all of these things for her.  As soon as she married, all property went to her new husband.  This happened when Martha Wayles inherited her father’s property, then married Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson became owner of all her property, including the Hemings family.



 Rape laws were very light in colonial Virginia; it was essentially a misdemeanor.  This is not to say that rape could not be very serious, but it was tied more to the elaborate neo-feudal system of racial and class hierarchies than it was to protection of women.  Enforcement for transgressions was done informally, not legally.  Young aristocratic men (as well as older ones, if you read the secret diary of William Byrd) were socially encouraged to attack “unprotected” women.  But who were unprotected women?  Those who lacked honorable husbands to defend them.  While legally, rape was not serious, if a man seduced, raped, or otherwise had sex (it is not clear that they distinguished between all these) with a woman of honor, the dueling code or the mob would take care of him, not the law.

 Confused?  Here are a few scenarios which Virginia “cavaliers” would have been familiar with:

Sex with a young virgin from a wealthy family?  This was a big deal, since the cavalier would have stolen assured paternity from any future suitors, and also stolen the honor of her father and brothers.  If she was of the same social status as the cavalier, he would probably be forced to marry her, with threat of a duel if he refused.  If she was of significantly higher status, than the young man would not be granted the gentleman’s honor of a duel; he would probably be beaten, castrated, and possibly killed by the deflowered girl’s male relatives.

Sex with a young virgin from a poorer family?  Not a big deal, depending on the social status of that girl’s father.  If this was on the Appalachian frontier, and the girl was from a poor, but independent farming family, a duel still might be in order, since social hierarchies tended to be less pronounced on the fringes of the colony.  A vigilante raid by the “common folk” against the cavalier might even happen in some circumstances.  At the very least, they could charge him with the legal misdemeanor.  If a young aristocrat deflowered the virgin daughter of a poor farmer who rented land from a gentleman, the grievance process might be more complex, as the dishonored farmer might be able to appeal to his landlord.  Of course, this did not help if it was the landlord who did the raping, which was common; law even allowed landlords to add a few years to the indentures of servant women who became pregnant.

Sex with non-virgins?  In the case of well-off, property holding widows, she would probably not be able to sue in a court of law, but might entice the cavalier into marriage, which, given the fact that he would now hold her wealth, was a good deal for him.  Sex with another man’s wife?  Not surprisingly, if the two men were of similar gentlemanly social standing, a duel would be in order.  If the dishonored husband was of lower social status, he might not be able to do anything beyond sue in a court of law, although the rapist’s gentlemanly honor might be called into question.

Sex with young, poor, single mothers who had no males to protect them?  Virtually no consequences whatsoever.  Unwed mothers were fined heavily under Virginia law, and essentially made social pariahs.  The rapist had obviously not stolen any assured paternity from anyone, since she was not a virgin.  Furthermore, given the aforementioned notion that conception required a female climax, the assumption was that this woman was a whore who had “asked” for her pregnancy, and thus wanted all future sexual contact with whomever attacked her.  She had no honor, had no honorable males to protect her honor, probably never would, and thus was a de facto prostitute, unable to consent for the rest of her life.

The point of this elaborate system is, once again, that rape in Virginia ONLY mattered if it threatened a man’s honor, whether it was the honor of blood (fathers and brothers), or by legal marriage (husbands).  If no males’ honor was threatened, predatory sex was a semi-socially condoned activity for virile young males, on par with fencing, boxing, or horseracing.

Now, on to slave women…

By definition, slaves (and, quite frequently, the few free blacks who lived in Virginia) had no honor.  Black women were assumed to be lascivious vixens who were constantly craving sex, and thus would and could never say “no.”  White men from William Byrd in the colonial period, to Jefferson during the Revolution, to Clarence King during the Gilded Age all wrote at great length about how black women were more passionate, emotional, and nurturing than white women. What they meant was that it was more socially permissible to sleep with black women than white women: black women wanted it.

Furthermore, black men could not legally marry, which both prevented husbands from defending their wives, and even made it legally impossible for fathers or brothers to prove that they were, in fact, related to their female relatives.  So, if a young Virginia cavalier raped a slave woman, he was only dishonoring her master; not her husband, not her father, not her brother, and most certainly not herself.  If he was the master, he was dishonoring no one.

Indeed, even the very fact that African slavery eventually became an inheritable condition in the 1600s was tied to masters sleeping with their slaves.  An old colonial law stated that, if a slave or servant woman gave birth while “bonded,” that baby would be sentenced to 30+ years of servitude.  In fact, if a free white woman gave birth to a black baby, that child would also be sentenced to the same term.  In turn, if that enslaved child was female, and became pregnant within the period of her servitude (usually by the master), her baby would suffer the same fate.  At a time when life expectancy of underclasses was barely 30, this was very much a life sentence, and it was all tied to the rape of servile women.



 Now we return to the case of Sally and TJ.  The point that I’m trying to make (and to break from academic language), is that this whole saga is, from our modern perspective, unabashedly dysfunctional and fucked up in ways that we cannot begin to comprehend.  It was also not that unusual for its time.  However, we simply cannot use modern terms or phrases– rape, consent, love, Stockholm Syndrome, force– to describe what was going on here.

Hemings was unfree– legally, socially, psychologically.  By 21st century standards she was coerced and raped by one of our Founding Fathers, who abused his status as a guardian, employer, and half-brother-in-law.  But by 18th century standards, Jefferson was NOT a guardian, employer, and certainly not her kin.  He was a master.  This dynamic was a fact of life, and was not limited to slave women.  ALL women, especially those in Virginia, were to some degree unfree, and NONE, regardless of their social class could ever legally say “no” to their master, whether that master was a plantation owner or a husband.

But Hemings had it unusually bad.  Not as bad as many other slave women, or even as bad as many poor white single mothers, but she was still more vulnerable than any legally married female.  Here is why: at any point in their decades-long relationship, whether as a scared, pregnant 15 year old, or an aging grandmother, Jefferson would have been within his legal rights to sell her, ensuring that she would never see her mother, sisters, children or grandchildren again.  This was a hanging axe that concerned few legally married white women in Virginia; most white women did not even need to worry about abandonment.  Divorce was difficult and costly in Virginia (and much rarer than in New England).  Part of the age-old agreement that white women entered into when they gave up their property and sexual freedom to their husbands was that they received security.  Sally (and thousands of other slave girls) did not even have that.

Or did she?  A fascinating scenario, undocumented but still plausible, is presented by Hemings biographer Annette Gordon-Reed, in which Hemings may have secured her future as much as any slave girl could.  1780s Paris was one of the world’s hotbeds for the emerging abolition movement, and most Parisians found slavery detestable.  Technically, slavery was illegal within the city. Jefferson– that Enlightenment celebrity whose words about universal human dignity and equality would soon spark the French Revolution– was incredibly stupid to have brought Hemings and her brother John into this city.  At any point in time, either of these slaves could have simply walked into any courthouse and pled for asylum– this happened not infrequently in Paris.  They could have gained their freedom, and made Jefferson and the new United States look very bad in the process.

But Hemings did not do this.  Perhaps it is because she preferred secure slavery to the prospect of being a teen mother in a French poorhouse.  However, it is very likely that the teenage Hemings approached Jefferson, and laid her cards on the table:

“Mr. Jefferson, I have the potential to destroy you, but I am pregnant and scared.  I will promise to accompany you back to Virginia, on the condition that you provide for me and our children, send my brother to culinary school, get him a job, and promise to free our children after our deaths.”

This is what happened through the rest of their lives.  Hemings’s entire existence depended on a promise from Jefferson, but he was a gentleman (both in the dysfunctional, male privileged sense that I’ve discussed here, but also in the nice, storybook fashion that most people think of when they hear the word.), and his promise was enough.  Though very few written records detail it, they lived a long life together, they probably loved each other, they continued to have a lot of sex, and Hemings wound up better off than nearly any other slave, and most underclass white women.

But unfortunately, this was not the case for millions of other women in the new United States, slave or free.  Jefferson’s idea of “All MEN Created Equal” gradually congealed into uniform constitutional law, universal white male suffrage, and democracy; social tiers collapsed, mastery ceased to be the opposite of slavery, as all white men reveled in their new freedom, their new mastery.  But they had merely traded the older, complex British hierarchy of tiered freedom, privilege, and social class for a more brutal, binary hierarchy of race and gender.  By the early 1800s, egalitarian Puritan and Quaker gender laws (women could vote in New Jersey from 1776-1807) had been subsumed by national standards of exclusive male suffrage and property ownership.  As the U.S. spread into the French Mississippi Valley, Spanish Southwest, and over dozens of Indian cultures, all of which had their own traditions of more permissive female property ownership and even sexuality, those ended, too.

And for slavery, part of the exuberance of this new nation was that any man, regardless of social status, could make his way in this new democratic capitalism.  This meant that slavery was no longer limited to outdated British concepts of gentlemanly conduct and noble obligation; it opened the doors for characters such as Stowe’s fictional Simon Legree, a tobacco chewing, barely literate clod who nonetheless had the privilege and right to buy black lives for profit, brutality and sex.  Jefferson’s revolution may very well have made stories such as his own and Hemmings’s less likely to occur.

Reflections on the 2012 Presidential Election

December, 2012

Throughout the past few weeks, I’ve been keeping up on political developments perhaps a bit too much, while simultaneously giving lectures to my bored freshmen students about the rise of political parties in Jacksonian America: the expansion of the franchise to most white males; the buildup of both Whig and Democratic voting blocks from the 1820s to the 1850s; the resulting social and political revolutions concerning federalism, regionalism, and slavery, which led to the breakup of both parties, the rise of another, and ultimately a war that claimed the lives of over a half a million Americans.

I’m not going to get too much into comparative history here, or a comprehensive overview of how political parties have “packaged” different factions, planks, and interest groups into their platforms, but here’s my observation (which plenty of other bloggers have noted as well):  this election, more than 2008, or 2006, signaled the breakup of the old Nixon-Reagan coalition, the “Silent Majority” (Sarah Palin’s “Real America”), which has been the backbone of the Republican party for past forty years or so.

What do I mean by the Nixon-Reagan coalition?  Brief history: in the late 1960s,  American politics was messy, messier than usual.  Vietnam, counterculture, New Left, LBJ’s rapid fall, etc.  Socially and culturally, there was an opening and pluralization of American society on all fronts: more racial empowerment, more open sexuality (hetero and homo), more open recreational drug use, more calls for gender equality.  This opening was evident not just in overt political protest movements, but in pop culture and media: cinema, art, music, and just the general abstract social conversation.  Ok, most of us are aware of this.  Sex, Drugs, and Rock’n’Roll, we got it.

Up until about this point, the Republican party had been a bit fractured.  It was mostly a consensus of Rockefeller/Eisenhower types, operating under New Deal-inspired liberal government, but drawing legislation slightly to the right in terms of deregulation, lower taxes, etc.  There were extremists: aggressive anti-communists, war hawks, John Birchers; but for the most part they were peripheralized as a result of mass backlash against 1950s McCarthyism.  White southerners, working class, and rural Americans were not a reliable block for the party; many still voted as New Deal Democrats.  Social conservatives, evangelical and/or fundamentalist Christians, and “values voters” were not on the radar for either party (See Allan Lichtman’s White Protestant Nation for a fascinating history of the conservative movement from 1920 onward).

This changed in the early 1970s, as Nixon strategists such as Kevin Phillips speculated that the aforementioned demographics were essentially “up for grabs”– disillusioned with the Democratic party for its ineptitude in Vietnam, its embrace of Civil Rights, and with American society’s pluralization and opening in general.  Beginning with Nixon, and reaching its crest with Reagan, Republican politicians began speaking in language that catered to this demographic of white, working class, religious, and rural or suburban voters– the “Silent Majority.”  It shaped our modern political discourse.

The 1970s saw the republican party associate itself with a pro-gun agenda, and saw the NRA move from being an apolitical hunting club to its current incarnation as a protector of gun rights for self defense.  As Jill Lepore showed in a recent New Yorker article, 1960s Black Panthers were some of the first to advocate for gun rights as a means of self-defense, but by the 1970s, white American had seized this.  On a related note, Nixon aggressively touted being “tough on crime.”  In a pluralized, post-Civil Rights Act America, overtly racist language by most was dead.  But, if “tough on crime” politicians could drop hints about normal, decent Americans being afraid of crime and violence in the cities, the racial overtones could not be missed.  The new, self-defense-inspired drive for 2nd Amendment Rights played into this, for whites, and not Black Panthers.

Increasingly draconian drug laws were also a key part of this new tough stance on crime.  Marijuana, after being outlawed federally immediately following the repeal of Prohibition, was aggressively prosecuted during the McCarthy era (communists are corrupting our youth with drugs!), but under JFK and LBJ, had been essentially decriminalized.  With Nixon, and even more with Reagan-era “War on Drugs,” mandatory minimum sentences, Nancy’s “Just Say No” movement, and the DARE program, drugs (and particularly marijuana) became a moral and legal issue more than ever before.  And, once again, drug laws affected minorities disproportionately, enough so that coded language of “being tough on crime” could very much appeal to older opponents of Civil Rights, who could no longer overtly speak their racist views in public.  (see Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness).

The new coalition’s backlash against the sexual revolution was perhaps the most profound.  After the passage of Roe v. Wade, Republicans realized that, more than any other social issue, opposition to abortion could unite and galvanize devout Protestants and Catholics under a single cause as never before.  While the institutional Catholic Church had obviously long forbade abortion (as well as “unnatural” birth control), Protestant denominations had not.  As Leslie Reagan (no relation to The Gipper) has shown in When Abortion was a Crime, it was not unheard of for Protestant pastors in the mid-1900s to refer girls “in trouble” to friendly doctors to “get them back to normal.”  Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement also overtly stated that increased access to birth control could further what we would call today a “Pro-Life” agenda, by preventing abortions.  This changed in the 1970s.  The anti-choice language of Nixon, and even more notably Reagan and George W. Bush was intended to punish women who engaged in pre-marital sex under the sexual revolution’s new paradigm (no major Pro-Life organizations today support increasing women’s access to birth control).  Roe v. Wade became the modern evangelical movement’s (which Tom Wolfe in the 1970s coined the “Third Great Awakening”) Alamo, and arguably the most primary single issue cause for conservative Christian voters for the final third of the 20th century.

This new coalition of voters also was strongly regionalized in the South and West.  Phillips coined the term “Sun Belt,” referring to the Southern half of the United States, a region whose population had been gradually rising since the invention of central air conditioning and the later decline of northeastern “Rust Belt” manufacturing industries.  Western conservative libertarians of the Goldwater tradition, family and business-oriented Mormons in the intermountain West, combined with white southerners, all formed this new block; it essentially marginalized a formerly dominant northeast, which was now labeled as overly elitist, “pinheadedly” intellectual, and “out of touch.”  (see Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason)  It is significant that, between JFK and Obama, no president was elected who identified strongly with the quadrant of the United States east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line.


 All of this is largely domestic in scope; I’m not going to get into issues of international relations, or fiscal matters (although Reagan surely racialized fiscal conservatism whenever he railed against out-of-control government spending by invoking “welfare queens” in the inner city).  But here’s what began changing a few days ago:

Washington, Maryland, and Maine approved same-sex marriage, not through judicial action, but by popular vote.  Washington and Colorado legalized the recreational use of cannabis.  Two senate candidates who had adopted hard-line stances opposing abortion even in cases of rape, Todd Akin (“the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down”) of Missouri, and Richard Mourdoch (“rape is a gift from God”) of Indiana, were both resoundingly defeated.  The formerly reliable coalition is falling apart.

The republican party has officially adopted a stance that marriage is between “one man and one woman,” as a plank.  George W. Bush even pushed for a constitutional amendment (going against the “small government” faction’s philosophy within his party) declaring this on a federal level.  But by this point in American society, it is clear that equal rights for all consenting adults has been gaining momentum exponentially.  In the age of “Glee,”  “Modern Family,” and the “It Gets Better” project, the burden has shifted upon opponents of marriage equality to explain their stance, rather than the other way around.  Tolerance is no longer anomalous as it was during my undergrad years., and as more Americans have friends and family who come out of the closet, acceptance will increase.  There is no conceivable way that the republican party will continue to be relevant until it supports marriage equality.  I predict that, by the next presidential election, they will have dropped the “one man and one woman” plank.

The cannabis issue is also a reaction against Nixon and Reagan-era drug laws and a failed War on Drugs that has resulted in record incarceration rates for non-violent offenders in the US, and contributed to a bloody failing state in Northern Mexico.  Furthermore, this may be seen as a “states rights” issue as well, traditionally a bastion for small government republicanism.  The stigma of the 1960s hippie era has held for decades, and Eric Schlosser has pointed out that, during the 1990s, the few politicians who supported decriminalization of cannabis were republicans, precisely because most democrats (“I didn’t inhale”) felt too closely tainted by the “hippie” label.  But this stigma has passed; just as “Modern family” and “Glee” have mainstreamed acceptance of gay life to America, “Weeds” and “Breaking Bad” have shown the ridiculousness of the war on drugs’ neo-Prohibition.  Today, even conservative friends and family of mine consider the criminalization of cannabis to be contradictory and unjust.  The War on Drugs faction of the old coalition is becoming irrelevant ( at least for marijuana).

This brings us to the “rape” gaffes of Akin and Mourdoch.  The abortion debate is not going away, and there is not a large-scale societal shift to a pro-choice stance in the same way that we are becoming more tolerant of cannabis or same-sex couples.  There are serious ethical concerns in playing off the constitutional rights of the unborn against the constitutional rights of women who have long been peripheralized and subservient in American life and politics.  But the debate has changed; it changed from the right.


Historical parallel:

During the sectional crisis of the 1850s, as the Whig and later the Democrat parties imploded over the slavery debate, Southern slavery supporters gradually became more blatant, unapologetic, and up-front for their peculiar institution.  This was something new.  In 1776 the Continental Congress removed a reference to slavery that Jefferson had wanted to include in the original Declaration of Independence.  The 1787 US Constitution could not mention slavery by name.  The Missouri Compromise of 1820 tried to sweep it under the table, and Manifest Destiny’s 1840s myths of a unified citizenry marching westward ignored slavery completely.  This fundamental contradiction of Americanness COULD NOT BE NAMED.  However, as our nation carried on its collision course to secession, and as abolition gained ground, slavery supporters became more aggressive, radical, and outspoken, until by the late 1850s and early 1860s, the Supreme Court had overtly declared that blacks (not slaves) had no rights that a white was “bound to respect,” and the Vice President of the Confederacy stated that “Our new government is founded upon the opposite idea of ‘All Men Created Equal… the negro is not equal to the white man… slavery is his natural and normal condition.’”

We saw have seen a similar, albeit smaller-scale, parallel with the abortion debate.  Throughout the 1990s, pro-life forces for the most part operated on the consensus of opposing abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to a woman’s life.  This changed during the Bush administration, as the entire anti-abortion movement moved towards a more fundamentalist, black-and-white intolerance of all abortions, until eventually some opponents such as Akin and Mourdoch (with Mitt Romney’s implicit support) reached the breaking point, arguing for its prohibition even in the case of rape, and alienating female voters.

This growing extremism was mirrored in the right’s entire reaction to the Obama presidency, as the most vocal and extremist republicans dug their heels in, and moderates mostly stayed silent.  The subtle, coded racialization of the Nixon/Reagan coalition reacted to a black president irrationally.  Tea Partiers attacked debt and spending that had been ignored during the Bush years, they attacked a compromised health care bill that originally had been a conservative (Heritage Foundation) creation, and since the election they have filibustered obstructed Obama nominees at unprecedented levels.  Historian James McPherson wrote that the Confederate South had  “attempted a political revolution in order to stave off the inevitable social revolution” (paraphrase).  I think we can see that the Tea party movement of 2010, as well as the recent hatred that pundits such as Bill O’Reilly are directing towards non-white populations who may have swayed this election, is a similar tactic.

In retrospect, the Nixon-Reagan coalition has been crumbling for several years.  We’ve seen this with the social issues mentioned previously, but in many ways, it was evident even by the geography of this election’s presidential candidates.  The South and West have dominated the White House for a generation; in 2008 McCain and especially Palin were both exemplars of the romanticized Western individualism that formed part of the coalition.  But this election, there were no westerners in the running for president or Vice President (though one could make the case for Romney being a cultural westerner).  No southerners.  And no evangelicals (Ryan and Biden are both working-class background Catholics, and the only Protestant was Obama).  The Rust Belt had risen once again over the Sun Belt.

Romney was not a bad candidate.  He could not have run the gauntlet of the primaries, and then appealed to the general vote without “flip-flopping” and changing his stances as he did.  Rather, the Republican party itself for the past four years has been a terrible political party.  It painted itself into a corner by appealing mostly to a shrinking population of older, white males (and the females to whom they are married), who retained the phobias to pluralism, promiscuity, and disorder that defined Nixon’s Silent Majority for the past 40 years.  This baby-boomer demographic was very much a product of their time and politics, as much so as the New Deal coalition “Greatest Generation” that preceded them.  The Greatest Generation was born in economic turmoil, and shaped by a war of essentiality, in which nearly everyone volunteered (the average age of a WWII soldier was 26), and which united us.  Baby Boomers were born in affluence, grew up during the greatest period of real economic growth the United States has ever seen, and were shaped by an unnecessary war, fought by coerced soldiers drawn from society’s peripheries (the average age of a Vietnam soldier was 19), and which divided us politically and socially.  I think that these contrasts perhaps tell the story of the rise and fall of this coalition most cogently.

We need a two party system.  As our nation gradually falls from the economic dominance of the post-WWII period, a dominance and affluence that we built our entire economic structure around, we need rational, fact-driven debates.  We even need fiscal conservatism.  But we do not need the red herring issues, the anti-pragmatism, and the ideological ignorance that cynical political strategists pushed into the mainstream in the early 1970s.