Entries by Brian Halpin

Francis Scott Key and Taking the Knee

  What is represented by kneeling? Subservience?  Obedience?  Humility?  Religiosity?  Divisiveness? It all depends on the witness, of course, and their angle of observation. What is the meaning of a clenched fist salute? Pride?  Solidarity?  Defiance?  Triumphalism?  Black anger? In America, as ever, meaning is only inferred and attached to gestures and symbols after checking […]

Abraham Lincoln: The Early Years

  Photo of a certain lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, perhaps 35 years of age. About the year 1846. At the time, about 1 in 50 residents of Sangamon County, Illinois were enumerated on US census forms as “free people of color”. The ratio of those enumerated as “free colored” – as opposed to “white” – […]

Sing and Swing

  The two earliest distinctly American music forms – country music and the blues – are usually presumed to be a clear evolution of “white” and “black” musical traditions. In other words, country music is presumed to find its ultimate origins in European music, while the blues are presumed to be rooted in African culture. […]

Social Media and Before We Were White

  In light of the ongoing deterioration in the corporate-owned social media landscape, Before We Were White blog and podcast has: 1)  Shut down its Twitter account altogether 2) Begun a winding-down of activity on Facebook 3) Begun adding podcast audio and bonus content to the Before We Were White YouTube channel 4) Established a […]

Lisa Marie Presley and Ghosts of the Past

  Thinking about the untimely demise of Lisa Marie Presley has brought to mind all of the speculation found online over many years regarding the ethnic origins of her famous father. Elvis has at various times been said to have had Cherokee, English, Choctaw, Jewish, German, Romani, Scottish, French, Dutch, or Danish roots. This broad […]

Music Without A Color

In the Pines, an American folk song first recorded in 1926 by Doctor Coble “Dock” Walsh, old-time banjo player from North Carolina. Most folks agree that this song (also known as Where Did You Sleep Last Night) is a mash-up of at least two or three older ballads including Black Girl and The Longest Train, […]

No One Gets Out of Here With Clean Hands

  The Cherokee of Southern Appalachia (well, some of the Cherokee), made a deal with The Devil, and lost. I have already written elsewhere that history is a dance between our unwritten stories, our handed-down folklore, and the things people actually wrote down at the time events were unfolding. The “art” of history is the […]

Surfing the Waves of Immigration

  I read it once somewhere that Steven Spielberg spent quite some time finding a suitable cast for Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg was diligent enough in his research to note that the faces of American soldiers during WWII were more clearly “ethnic” than most members of the US military at the time of filming in […]

The Silence of the Femmes

  It is often said that the USA is the land of reinvention. Identity in America has been malleable and saleable for centuries, whether it be fake preachers and prophets, or incoming congressmen claiming to be the progeny of Holocaust survivors. Yet nowhere allows, indeed encourages, self-reinvention like Hollywood. Since the earliest days of silent […]

Yes Virginia, There is an American Culture

Repeat an idea often enough within a cultural space, and people will eventually assume it must be true. In Southern Appalachia, the pre-eminence ascribed to “Scots-Irish” cultural influence – especially as regards music – has been repeated so often that people have come to take it “as Gospel”. These constantly repeated American assumptions have even […]