Entries by Brian Halpin

Frontier Philology

  The Cornett surname is attached to Appalachia and frontier-era America as certainly as bubble-gum to the underside of a roadside diner table. The fact is, no one really knows the deep origins of these Cornett folks.  The name itself can be found in France, Belgium, and many other places, including Scotland, where it arrived […]

God, Mammon, and Race Politics

  A kingpin of commercial American evangelicalism named Pat Robertson died this month. People born after the Boomer generation can probably not imagine a time before tele-evangelism, and its unholy trinity of The Bible, money, and politics. The reason for churches being exempt from various taxes goes back to ancient times, and stems from the […]

Unreliable Narrators

  Those of you who’ve been following the Before We Were White podcast for a while will have noticed by now a thread running through almost every episode. That “thread” is a contention that in America, perhaps more than in any other place, our surnames are NOT reliable indicators of our actual family history. And […]

North to Alaska (remaster)

  By the end of the short-lived Klondike and Alaskan Gold Rushes of the late 1890s, the far northwest of the North American continent had been changed irrevocably. Over 100,000 prospectors had swarmed like a plague of locusts over the Yukon Territory and Alaska, bringing everything from pack animals to industrial river dredging machinery with […]

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, […]