I am finding the value in this period of my life rests in the constant exposure to non-historically thinking folks. I seek out friends and colleagues to exercise my historical thinking and interpretive practice, but my day-to-day does not naturally include these things. So when anything, and I mean anything, related to history pops up, I get excited. Recently, I attended a broadcasting and taping of a Music City Roots show. The weekly show hosts bluegrass, Americana, country, folk, and other assorted genres. I went knowing two of the artists, interested in a third. I left blown away by all of the acts. What does that have to do with history? Well, the first band opened the entire show with this song:
If you haven't already, the Westbound Rangers are definitely worth checking out for their other non-history songs, too.
Catchy as hell, it got the audience tapping toes and clapping hands. "There stands Jackson like a stone wall standing, like a stone wall standing like a stone wall standing..." Did you see that? I can't even enjoy a lovely, music-filled evening without reminiscences of the American Civil War echoing. Oh, wait. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening AND the song. It did, however, get me thinking of how people connect to the past. (Because even though I admitted earlier to not feeling adequate because of my lack of "real" history in my life, I can't just turn off my natural tendencies and past trainings).
This rowdy bunch connected to the past by writing a song about it, although they are certainly not the first to write or record a song about Stonewall Jackson (standing like a stonewall standing like a stonewall standing). In fact, it isn't even the first time somebody wrote a catchy tune about the past. I don't know their motivation for the subject matter, but obviously they had to at least read up on the subject. I don't know if that song inspired anybody to go out and read a book about Stonewall Jackson (standing like a stonewall standing like a stonewall standing), but they had to at least activate that part of the brain that was likely filled in fifth grade. "Stonewall Jackson... that's the Civil War... oh, right and the Mexican War..." And the audience had this history slipped into their expected music-filled evenings.
As I thought of the Westbound Rangers and their catchy, historically-based song, I remembered another modern song involving the Civil War. The staff at Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia exposed me to this song. Now, the thing that seemingly detracts from this song is the fact that the members of Quiet Hounds wear masks. To clarify, that is more or less the band's "thing" or identity; they don't mean any disrespect. But they visited Andersonville National Historic Site in order to learn more of what they knew was a horrific part of American history. They then created a song and video that both reflects the history and adds layers of interpretation:
Some of the neatest shots are of the park. [Note: The band filmed according to park regulations.]
These musicians were moved by the stories they heard of the place. They understood the significance of the place. In their own way, they contributed to the preservation of the place by creating awareness of the history and the site while humanizing the story. Folks listening to this band may not naturally think "I think I will visit a local site of historical conscience today"but possibly after watching the video (and reading some of the descriptions), they may decide to make a trip to Andersonville. Or read about the place. Or heck, just run a quick Google search and allow twenty seconds of thought to filter through their budy lives.
In either case, people made their own connections with the past and then created something they could share with others. The spark that ignited them to create is what I consider the essence of "interpretation."
*I don't want to take away from the marvelous staff at Andersonville. I believe they could share the story of the development and depth of the "Beacon Sun" song and video better than I. The masks worn by the band tend to turn folks off from what the band was trying to do, but there is weight to the song.