SONG OF THE SOUTH

When Belfast City Council voted to break with tradition in 2012 by reducing the flying of the Union Flag atop City Hall from 365 to 18 days a year, the more vociferous wing of the Unionist community greeted the announcement with violent protests. A couple of days ago, marking the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, bonfires were lit across Unionist strongholds of the province, many of which were decorated with photos of prominent Sinn Fein politicians. I only nod to our neighbours over the Irish Sea to make a roundabout point on how the issues that enflame passions on both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland barely register on the mainland; they’re viewed by the rest of the UK (with the possible exception of Glasgow) as parochial concerns unique to Ulster and characteristic of a land with an extremely long memory.

Even with the high profile suddenly afforded the DUP in the wake of Theresa May’s golden handshake, the ‘street politics’ of Northern Ireland rarely attract outsiders to the barricades, something that can’t be said of another divided community from a region with a similarly turbulent history several thousand miles away – Virginia. The dramatic and ugly events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia at the weekend didn’t have their source material in religious divisions, but race – the most contentious of all American issues that just won’t go away. Not even eight years of a black President could sort it.

Virginia was one of the four slave states from the ‘Upper South’ of the US that, along with Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina, joined the original seven Southern secessionist states in the Confederacy during the Civil War. Its history, now so bound-up with the Confederacy and its aftermath, predates that era considerably, with Virginia being the first English colony in the New World, established as far back as 1607. But it was also prominent among the 13 colonies that broke with British rule and has a claim as being the birthplace of the USA; it certainly was the birthplace of eight US Presidents, for one thing.

Like the rest of the states in the South, Virginia had a segregationist policy in place until the civil rights movement of the 1960s gradually led to a repeal of the remaining Jim Crow laws; but its past, like many of its neighbours’ pasts, continues to attract the attention of those for whom integration remains a greater threat to making America great again than the hardware in Kim Jong Un’s toy-box.

Recent attempts to reduce the high visibility of the Confederate Flag in the Southern states have gone hand-in-hand with a concerted programme to remove statues of, and monuments to, Confederate heroes from public places; and these efforts at erasing a history that sits uncomfortably on the shoulders of modern America have served to ignite the ire of white Southern natives proud of their inheritance, as well as white supremacists from different parts of the country who exploit the situation to promote their cause. When Washington belatedly addressed the iniquities and inequality of the South in the 60s by outlawing its segregationist traditions, the white population claimed the rest of the US didn’t understand the South and there’s probably a grain of truth in that. The South was seen as something of an embarrassment that contradicted America’s international reputation as the Land of the Free; the South was a place where the past remained present.

The ongoing contemporary operation to change the perception of the South, not only for outsiders but also for those who live there, has been characterised by the official removal of ‘negative’ symbols relating to its past; though whereas the pulling down of statues during an uprising or revolution tends to come from the emancipated population itself, the policy of removing them that has been taking place across the South of late is a decision of federal government. Many have viewed this decision as symptomatic of rewriting American history, a rewrite that fails to acknowledge aspects of it that don’t complement the image America likes to project of itself. There are also concerns that by erasing the visible legacy of the Confederacy, future generations are being presented with a lopsided story of their country, one without warts and all, and one depriving them of a history they could learn from.

Plans to remove a statue of Robert E Lee, Confederate Civil War general, in Charlottesville led to the town being invaded on Saturday by a ‘Unite the Right’ march, bringing in angry white men from all over America for a rally that was destined to be met with a counter-rally. Whatever valid points had a right to be made didn’t stand a chance of being heard; both sides were infiltrated by those whose intentions were obvious from the start, many of whom had little or nothing to do with the part of the country they headed for.

The relatively liberal college town of Charlottesville was hijacked by opposing sides looking for a battlefield. The far-from spotless ‘Black Lives Matter’ crowd were accompanied by the masked men from ‘antifa’ – an abbreviation of ‘anti-fascist’ – who have a reputation as violent left-wing anarchists; they were the group responsible for the trouble that occurred in Washington on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Those under the Alt-Right banner included neo-Nazis as well as that old mainstay always up for a fight, the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK are almost to the South what the Orangemen are to Ulster, though for all their shared pseudo-Masonic ritualism and shameful record of gerrymandering, the Orangemen are a long way from the Klan when it comes to provoking and stoking hatred in the most sinister manner.

What was already a predictable and unedifying clash on Saturday plumbed especially appalling depths when one lunatic ironically took a leaf out of the Jihadi manual and drove a car directly at protestors; his efforts were responsible for 19 injuries and one death. The white supremacists, who view President Trump as ‘their man’, were gratified that the Donald seemed reluctant to attribute blame for events to them, though the majority of the Alt Right (to whom Trump owes a great debt) probably regard the extremists who descended upon Charlottesville with the same abhorrence as the left views the ‘antifa’. It would certainly suit the narrative of the moment to lump together anyone who questions or challenges the anti-Trump consensus into one hate-fuelled, racist mob; but unfortunately, it’s not quite so…erm…black and white.

© The Editor

ROCKET 56

ElvisSixty years ago the nascent British singles charts were dominated by middle-aged middle-of-the-road balladeers, young middle-of-the-road balladeers, a glut of novelty acts, and American stars who divided their careers between the recording studio and the cinema screen. Sound familiar? The new world of the seven-inch single was just another extension of the Tin Pan Alley franchise, the powerful cartel of record companies, music publishers, Svengalis and hit songwriters that completely controlled the listening habits of the western world; but in a soundscape consisting of Slim Whitman, Ronnie Hilton, Winifred Atwell, Frankie Laine, Jimmy Young (yes, that one), Alma Cogan and Doris Day, something was changing.

The early summer of 1956 saw the UK chart debut of a young American singer from the Deep South called Elvis Presley, singing an unsettling echo-laden song called ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. That Elvis should emanate from a part of the States that the materialistic boomtown of Eisenhower’s America viewed as a shameful embarrassment is significant.

The South was very much the poor relation at the halfway point of the twentieth century, and only the South could have produced a musical form so alien to Hollywood or Broadway sensibilities. For all their cool credentials, both LA and New York were too rooted in showbiz economics to have produced something as dangerously unpredictable as Rock n Roll in the middle of the 1950s. Indeed, the minute they recognised its commercial potential and got their hands on it, they completely castrated it and turned into another inoffensive branch of the entertainment industry.

At the point when Rock n Roll erupted over-ground, the old Confederate States had been officially absorbed back into the Union for 90 years, yet the legacy and grievances of the Civil War had been passed down the generations, particularly that contentious aspect which the 50s American Dream turned a blind eye to, segregation. Segregation was effectively a substitute for the slavery the Southern States had reluctantly surrendered when the white flag was waved in 1865, but for all its undoubted evils, what the policy of segregation did was to create a unique set of circumstances that proved potent in cultural terms.

It’s no coincidence that Rosa Parks should refuse to give up her seat on the bus to a privileged white butt in 1956; the incident that served to set the whole civil rights ball rolling took place the same year as a raw hybrid of the Blues, Bluegrass Country, R&B, Doo-Wop and Gospel emerged into the national spotlight – both pointers to the end of a stagnant system of separating black and white that had reached the end of its unnatural life.

Segregation was based in part on fear; the realisation that white kids were adopting black music as their own sparked paranoia of a possible mixed race union that flew in the face of Southern traditions. As opponents to Rock n Roll declared publicly at the time, this was ‘nigger music’ and its race-crossing popularity was viewed by these same enlightened souls as a conspiracy designed to drag the white man down to the same lowly level as the Negro.

In a mainstream America suddenly obsessed with juvenile delinquency – the rebellion of children born during the War years – portrayals on the big screen by the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean were bad enough; but the prospect of a form of music that dispensed with the smooth orchestrated sheen favoured by the crooners and stripped the sound down to an unrestrained sexualised core posed a threat to the status quo they were determined to silence. That this unwelcome development should crawl out of the No-Man’s Land of the South merely added insult to injury.

Technically, the Blues and R&B, the long-standing sounds of Black America that were too crude to enjoy the mass acceptance of Jazz, were not Rock n Roll; they were component parts. It was the blend of these genres with others already listed that constituted the new sound. And while the likes of Chuck Berry (from St Louis, Missouri) and Little Richard (from Macon, Georgia) were already pursuing a path that would formulate the Rock n Roll template, it took a white man, Bill Haley (a Michigan-born nomad shaped by a Great Depression-scarred childhood), to score the first recognised Rock n Roll hit in the national charts with ‘Rock Around the Clock’ in 1955, four years after the first acknowledged Rock n Roll record, ‘Rocket 88’ by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (a band led by Ike Turner). The sheer size of the USA as a landmass meant that Rock n Roll took time to make an impact beyond the Southern States, but what had been a regional sound slowly gathering pace through the early 50s now had countrywide notoriety.

Tuning-in to exclusively black radio stations was a clandestine obsession of more open-minded white teens in the South, but Elvis Presley’s experience of poverty was an undoubted leveller that made him colour blind when it came to music; the Blues spoke to him and his poor white ilk as much as it did to his black neighbours, so there was no opportunistic exploitation of a black sound where he was concerned. If that came at all, it came when he was signed up by the archetypal Southern showman and shyster ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker.

Elvis’s phenomenal success in 1956/57 may have enabled other white Southerners to gate-crash the musical establishment, such as Buddy Holly (from Texas), Gene Vincent (from Virginia) and Jerry Lee Lewis (from Louisiana); but it also enabled Colonel Parker to sell the product to Hollywood, serving to airbrush its animalistic heart and soul in the process. It’s so easy to overlook the sheer sonic shock of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ sixty years on; but the record’s importance in acting as the opening missive of the cultural revolution that so illuminated the second half of the twentieth century should never be underestimated. When Radio Luxembourg transmitted a show presented by the white Southern DJ Alan Freed (widely credited with creating the term ‘Rock n Roll’) in the late 50s, it had a particular impact where the infamously-bad reception of the station was better than anywhere else in Britain – Liverpool.

© The Editor