Francis Scott Key and Taking the Knee

Colin Kaepernick kneeling with San Francisco 49ers team-mates during the national anthem

Colin Kaepernick kneeling with San Francisco 49ers team-mates during the national anthem


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 the ethnicity and skin colour of the person using them.

“Respect the flag” and “Respect the national anthem” are phrases used ad nauseum by a certain American sub-culture, a sub-culture which has loaded their own meaning onto a piece of cloth and a tortured melody.

“Respect the flag” and “Respect the national anthem” actually mean “See what I see, feel what I feel, believe what I believe”.

People who wrap themselves in the red, white, and blue do not want to allow others to ascribe their own meanings to the symbols around them, because such free-thinking might leave the back door ajar to the storm raging outside the cosy confines of the home kitchen.

This national anthem now so deeply-imbued with patriotic meaning only became the “national anthem” in the formal sense in 1931.

Most American schoolchildren know that the words to the song now called The Star-Spangled Banner were written by a certain Francis Scott Key, after he witnessed the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry near Baltimore, Maryland in 1814, following the British overnight bombardment of the fort during the War of 1812.

Francis Scott Key.  Patriot.  End of lesson.

But wait.  “Angles of observation”, and all that.

What do many “white” Christian nationalist flag-wavers claim to loathe the most?  Liberal East Coast elites?  High-falutin’ lawyer types?

When it comes to Francis Scott Key, they can start ticking those boxes.

The music to this “sacred” anthem was actually lifted from a drinking song once popular in fancy English gentlemen’s clubs.

And Francis Scott Key would have been plenty familiar with “fancy” things, as he was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth into a well-to-do East Coast planter family.  Mr. Key enjoyed his excellent view of Fort McHenry not from inside the fort alongside the soldiers, but from the deck of a British warship where he had been enjoying the finest of wines while negotiating the exchange of some prisoners, including a physician friend.  In fairness, Key had already done a brief stint with a local militia, but common soldiering wasn’t really his thing.

Francis Scott Key was a lawyer.  And a slaveholder.  And much like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, two elitist hypocrites from the generation preceding him, Mr. Key often expressed his dislike of the cruelties perpetrated within the institution of slavery.

But Key didn’t actually disapprove of slavery, he merely disapproved of slaveholders who were less benevolent than himself.  Mr. Key often represented (at no cost) abused slaves petitioning for their freedom.  But his benevolent “great white father” hand-wringing did not stop his law practice from helping so-called “good” slaveholders to reclaim their “property”.  Mr. Key used the niceties of American law to help bring runaway slaves to “justice” – that is to say, back into their legally sanctioned condition of lifelong servitude.

A law firm’s books must be balanced, of course.  Fine wine isn’t cheap.

While he was outwardly a devoutly religious man, Francis Scott Key fought strenuously against the abolitionist sentiment taking root within his religious circles.

Mr. Key would have been able to accept the end of slavery, BUT ONLY IF ALL FREED SLAVES WERE ABLE TO BE EXPEDITED OUT OF AMERICA AND “BACK” TO AFRICA.

By the end of his life, Francis Scott Key‘s vociferous opposition to abolition was so pronounced that he was actually perceived as a dangerous sympathiser with the southern cause.  And while we cannot pick our relatives, it is interesting to note that Mr. Key’s sister Anne married a certain Roger Brooke Taney in 1806 – the man who would go on to be the Chief Justice who penned the infamous “Dred Scott” decision of 1857 which helped to hasten the start of the Civil War.

Here are his words:

“It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted; but the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…”

In other words, supporters of slavery, while claiming to be Constitutional “originalists”, felt that the Constitution should be interpreted in light of contemporary attitudes and views.

This also shows that social conservatives can, in fact, be weirdly “progressive” in their interpretation of the Constitution – when it suits them.

Put even more clearly, the US Supreme Court ruled that since the majority of voting Americans had decided over time that African-Americans were “not quite human”, it was therefore constitutionally legal to withhold any “human rights”.

I have no idea whether the foregoing has informed the men and women “taking the knee” during the national anthem in recent years.  Probably not.




But one thing is certain.  Symbols are powerful, and symbols are loaded with dreams, presumptions, and yes, hatreds.

Why should Colin Kaepernick and others like him be expected to “respect the flag”, or to “respect the anthem”?  Why?  When did this flag and this anthem really begin to represent ALL Americans?

1865?  1964?  Yesterday?  Ever?

The American flag and national anthem are symbols often most beloved by those who do not respect Mr. Kaepernick, his community, or his community’s right to social justice, free speech and legitimate protest.

The biggest flag-wavers of all believe THEY are entitled to storm and vandalise the nation’s capitol on the basis of fake grievances, knowing their “champion” is prepared to pardon their violence.

Meanwhile, a silent minute or two on bended knee to highlight real social injustice causes spittle-flecked rage.

But hey.

Betsy Ross sewed a flag.

And Francis Scott Key was a patriot.

End of lesson.


#TakingTheKnee  #FrancisScottKey  #BlackLivesMatter

Abraham Lincoln: The Early Years

Abraham Lincoln, circa 1846

Abraham Lincoln, circa 1846


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” – in these 19th century census returns tells only a small part of a broader ethnic story.

Only a fraction of families with members who were mixed-ethnic, or “people of color” at this point in American history were actually enumerated as such.

If the head of household was seen as “acting white” (voting, paying taxes, serving on juries, owning property, attending church), local census enumerators were unlikely to insist on noting the brown complexion of a man or his wife.

Or the particularly dark skin of three of his eight children…

Many of these mixed-ethnic families living in places like southern Illinois had moved north during the early and mid 1800s to avoid the increasingly repressive laws being passed in states like Tennessee – laws intended to disenfranchise mixed-ethnic voters.

It is very common today among apologists for “The Southern Cause” to claim that Abraham Lincoln only signed the Emancipation Proclamation reluctantly, as a tactical move in order to weaken The South, and that his only real interest was in preserving The Union.

This is forgetting that Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer before he was a politician.  He was not stupid.

This smart lawyer from Kentucky, earning a crust in Sangamon County, Illinois, had a clear feel for The Long Game.

Those who have listened to our recent podcast episode How Lovely Are Thy Branches, will have learned a little bit about Abraham Lincoln‘s complicated ethnic back story.

Mr. Lincoln used his razor-sharp awareness of the subtleties of case law to help some of these multi-ethnic Illinois citizens avoid legal troubles in the years just before the Civil War.

Trouble which arrived because certain racist Illinois citizens and lawmakers began to find creative ways around the state’s 1848 anti-slavery constitution.

This “trouble” involved attempts to strip all civil rights from free persons of color – the right to own property, the right to attend schools, the right to vote, the right to state citizenship.

Even more terrifying for free people of color was the constant fear of violence or being kidnapped outright by thugs and sold “down the river” into slavery.

If Lincoln moved with legislative caution as president (as regards slavery and the rights of people of color), it was not due to any latent racism or lack of empathy on his part.

Lincoln was himself part of Old Mix America, and he knew it.

And as a man trained and experienced in law, while proceeding with compassion and steady wisdom, he also had an acute awareness of the practical limitations of power.

A saint?  No.

The mass hanging of Dakota prisoners of war the day after Christmas 1862 was an outrage, and a permanent stain on American history.

Lincoln could have refused to sign the order.

But it is likely that Euro-American coloniser militias would have then promptly withdrawn political support for Lincoln in the middle of a Civil War, and probably launched their own local war seeking the outright extermination of every Indian in Minnesota.

I’m not wise enough to know whether, on balance, Lincoln’s presidency made the world a better or worse place.  But in his youth at least, he did seem to advocate for some of those being chewed-up by a white supremacist Manifest Destiny.

No, Lincoln was not a saint.  But then, who is?

Was he about as good as the USA is ever likely to get from a leader?



#BeforeWeWereWhite #AbrahamLincoln #SystemicRacism

Sing and Swing

Big Chief Henry's Indian String Band, 1920s

Big Chief Henry’s Indian String Band, 1920s


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.

Regarding country music in particular, some people go even further, and attempt to pin its origins in specifically in the Protestant communities of 1700s Northern Ireland.

I’ve already written elsewhere and at length as to why this is a belief without foundation, so we’ll skip that argument for now.

Today, let’s throw another cat among the pigeons.

What if the blues didn’t originate in Africa at all?

Before anyone spits out their coffee, thinking it might be my intention to rob the blues from the early African-American musicians and singers who played and sang it, catch a breath and read on…


Let’s travel back in time to 1920s America, after the First World War, but before the Great Wall Street Crash of ’29.

The recording industry was still in its infancy, but showing signs of the boom to come.

Ethno-musicologists began to traipse into the mountains, swamps, and other rural places of America in order to document and collect old-time American folk music before it could be drowned under the oncoming tidal wave of record industry-produced “popular music”.

This was the golden age of field recording, and it was the first time that many of America’s city dwellers got to hear “Old Time” or “Blues” records, instead of marching bands and la-la-la songbirds and nasal crooners.

It is an old truism that people tend to see and notice the things they are looking for in the first place.  I have often said that Buddhists do not tend to see the face of Jesus on burnt toast.

The same could be said of music history.  People hear what they are expecting to hear.

Some of these early field recorders (like Alan Lomax), were magpies, eager to record and collect just about anything.

Other early field recorders of American folk music came looking to “collect” specific things.

Recorders like Cecil Sharp were specifically looking for connections between Southern Appalachian ballads and traditional English folk songs, hoping to draw a line of cultural continuity between musical traditions largely disappeared from an industrialised England, and a living tradition still clinging-on in rural Appalachia.

These folk historians, field recorders, and music enthusiasts did not say “Let’s just record everything we hear, and let others figure out where it came from”.

Even the most enlightened and sympathetic musicologists carried certain presumptions about the origins of the music they were documenting in the 1920s – whether it was the music being played and sung by “white” mountain folks, or by African-Americans.

Most of these early recorders and collectors of “black music” in particular just presumed that African-American musical traditions could – and should – be traceable back along a river with its ultimate source in Africa.

So these early recorders and collectors of “negro music” tended to focus on collecting music which THEY perceived as being distinctly “African-American music”, BECAUSE THEY HAD NO OTHER REFERENCE POINT FOR IT.

This act of unconscious “curation on the hoof” is why old-time ballads were more often recorded in Appalachian homes, and the blues were more often recorded in the Deep South.

This is also how “old-time” or “hillbilly” music (later called “country” music) came to be seen solely as “white” music, with the blues seen solely as “black” music.

If early field recorders of American folk music had chosen to simply record EVERYTHING being sung by “black”, “white”, and “brown” folks, a different picture might have emerged – one in which the lines between musical genres were far more fluid and blurred, with multiple styles being sung and played by all ethnic groups.

America being America – a nation built on capitalism and a racial caste system – music soon became a marketable and controllable commodity, and musical forms had to be slotted into “racial” categories in order to be marketed to their “target audience”.

Under the American binary race system, the music of the rural hinterlands and heartlands had to be clearly divisible into a European tradition, and an African tradition.

But that’s not how music works, and has never been how music works.


Let’s set aside for the time being the old-time ballads and blues laments which were being sung into a can for field recorders, and ask ourselves a question.

What would any of us – black, white, or other – sing or play into a microphone for a stranger who came asking for an old song today?

Would we sing the oldest one we knew?  Our favorite?  The one best suited to our own voice?  The one we remembered all the verses to?  The one our old fingers could pick on a banjo or guitar without stumbling?

As a child of the 60s and 70s, most of the songs I might be able to belt out today at a drunken karaoke night were written or performed by people like Sam Cooke, Waylon Jennings, or Simon and Garfunkel.

Does this say anything concrete about my ethnic background?

Of course, I have had access to far more musical variety than rural dwellers of the 1920s, but still.  Did the choice of music played and sung by people – even then – really say anything concrete about their ancestry?

So let’s leave aside “party pieces”, and ask what was actually happening on the ground during the 1920s – at county fairs, at medicine shows, in dancehalls and roadhouses…

What was being played and recorded in the 1920s by less self-conscious rural people when they felt unconstrained by ethnographers or researchers?

The answer would be mostly folk songs, ballads, gospel music, blues, rag and ragtime, swing, and early jazz.

And if we look back now – again with no agenda – and ask which ethnic groups were playing and recording all this music during the 1920s, what would the answer be?

The answer would be EVERYBODY.  Black, white, brown, or red.

Now, I can hear some people already saying “Okay, sure.  But you’re still talking about a mix of “black” and “white” musical traditions.  Blues music is still a “black” tradition, and country music is still a “white” tradition.”

Not so fast.

Ask yourself this.

Does the western swing music of Bob Wills or the yodelling of Jimmie Rodgers REALLY have any parallel in the ballad and folk traditions of the British Isles?

Can anyone, anywhere, actually demonstrate a clear similarity between southern blues and any traditional musical forms of West Africa?

Maybe, just maybe, the thing which nudged both African and European musical traditions into a distinctly “American” space was the 400-year-long influence of indigenous American music.

Chants.  Call and response.  Was the “chicka-ching” of indigenous dance the inspiration for swing?  And if it was, the very essence of jazz is “swing”…


This is not the place to recount the decades in which Euro-Americans shared a common physical and cultural space with the Cherokee, Choctaw, and other tribes in North Carolina, East Tennessee, Mississippi and North Georgia.

The decades before “The Trail of Tears” and wider Indian removal to reservations.

This is also not the place to explain how the Creek, Cherokee, and Choctaw (often as slaveholders), left an indelible cultural and genetic imprint on African-American peoples for centuries.

But this IS the place for asking why almost no one remembers that early blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf (born Chester Arthur Burnett) were part-descended from Choctaw people.

It is also a good place to mention that musicians like Howlin’ Wolf thoroughly idolised singers like Jimmie Rodgers.

Finally, it is a good place to ask why Choctaw Indian musical groups like Big Chief Henry’s Indian String Band were making proto-western swing music in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, years before Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys made the genre famous…


#BeforeWeWereWhite  #history  #ethnomusicology  #swing  #jazz  #folk  #CountryMusic  #IndigenousMusic

Social Media and Before We Were White

Mastodon logo, large

Mastodon logo


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 profile and presence on the Mastodon open-source micro-blogging network


The problems with Twitter since its takeover by Elon Musk are well-documented.  Those interested in a deeper understanding of moral hazard and Facebook might consider reading this essay by multi-award-winning journalist Carole Cadwalladr.

At any rate, thank you in the first instance for being here, on this website.

You can also find us on Mastodon at this link:


Looking forward to hearing from you soon!



Lisa Marie Presley and Ghosts of the Past

Lisa Marie Presley in 1990, and members of her father's Smith and Mansell family

Lisa Marie Presley in 1990, and members of her father’s Smith and Mansell family


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 range of purported ethnicities reflects the difficulty in trying to untangle the genealogy of anyone with deep ancestry among the American underclasses.

A few people have pulled me up in the past regarding the use of the term “underclasses”, perhaps believing that the term carries some sort of value judgment.

This is not the case.

“Underclasses” refers to those people who, often through no fault of their own, struggled to gain a foothold in society – whether in terms of education, economic success, social acceptance, or access to the various levers of power.

One thing in American history was always a stone cold fact.

Being seen as anything outside “respectable white Christian” society was a ticket to nowhere.

The climb from “white trash”, “colored”, or “mulatto” into respectability was often a generations-long project.

The very first step in this project always began with religion.

Many evangelical Americans like to believe that America has always been a devout Christian nation, yet large swathes of its “white” underclasses share early roots among communities who practiced a myriad of religious faiths.   We are speaking primarily, but not exclusively, of indigenous and “black” communities here.

Think about it.

For people of color, a profession of Christian faith was the absolute bare minimum required in order to even be considered human.

For dirt-poor “white folks”, a profession of Christian faith cost no money, and instantly elevated a person into a position among “a more decent class of folks”.

The long – and not always successful – journey towards self-respect, education, and economic security could now begin…

The raw charisma and talent of Elvis Presley allowed him to leapfrog the generations it usually took most people of his background to reach “respectability”.

Maybe the jump from poor Mississippi underclass to international stardom was simply too much for a simple man to process.  Maybe trans-generational troubles caught-up with his daughter, too.

This is all just musing, because no one can be inside another person’s head.

But one thing is certain.

Having indigenous American, Romani Gypsy, African-American, Jewish, or any other “non-white” ancestry in early American history was not a good starting point for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

#BeforeWeWereWhite #LisaMariePresley #ElvisPresley #RagsToRiches

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, both thought to have been written sometime around the 1870s.

Probably made most famous by Lead Belly in the 1940s, the song has also been notably performed by bands such as Nirvana, during their MTV Unplugged session in 1993.

This song and recording is particularly interesting, because it was recorded before record companies had split old time music into genres, in order to market it to specific audiences – with some music identified as being “by whites” and “for whites”, and other music identified as being intrinsically “black”.

Before the Great Depression, there were no clear lines separating folk songs, blues songs, dance tunes, murder ballads, western swing, or songs of the Gospel and salvation, and the rural poor who enjoyed this music came from all ethnic groups – including American Indian peoples.

The music of Huddie William Ledbetter, aka Lead Belly, is a case in point.  For much of his career, Lead Belly would have been heard singing folk songs – the same folk songs which would later be marketed as “hillbilly” music, and even later, as “country music”.  Between marketing and the tastes of later music enthusiasts, people in the 1960s and 1970s came to see singers like Lead Belly primarily as blues singers.  English rock bands of the 1960s – who were huge fans of American blues recordings – had a huge hand in this, often citing artists such as Lead Belly and Howlin’ Wolf among their influences.

So much so, that when Kurt Cobain introduced this song during Nirvana‘s unplugged session, he wrongly credited Lead Belly as its writer, presuming the song to be a vintage blues number.

The ballad has been variously interpreted as being a song about infidelity, retribution, tragic death, or brutal lynching – its opacity probably part of what makes it so haunting.


In the pines, in the pines where the sun never shined
And I shivered when the cold wind blow

Oh, if I minded what Grandma said, oh were would I’ve been tonight
I’d’ve been in the pines where the sun never shined, and then shiverin’ when the cold wind blows

The longest train I ever saw went down the Georgia line
The engine, it stopped at a six-mile post, the cabin never left the town

Now darling, now darling, don’t tell me no lie. Where did you stay last night?
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shined and I shivered when the cold winds blow

The prettiest little girl that I ever saw was walking down the line
Her hair, it was of a curly type, her cheeks were rosy red

Now darling, now darling, don’t tell me no lie. Where did you stay last night?
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shines and I shivered when the cold winds blow

The train run back one mile from town and killed my girl, you know
Her head was caught in the driver wheel, her body I never could find

Now darling, now darling, don’t tell me no lie. Where did you stay last night?
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shine and I shivered when the cold winds blow

The best of friends has to part some time, then why not you and I

Now darling, oh darling, don’t tell me no lie. Where did you stay last night?
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shine and I shivered when the cold winds blow

Oh, a transfer station has brought me here, take a-money for to carry me away

Now darling, now darling, don’t tell me no lie. Where did you stay last night?
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shine and I shivered when the cold winds blow


#ethnomusicology #DockWalsh #LeadBelly #Nirvana


No One Gets Out of Here With Clean Hands

Still visible ruts from wagons on the Trail of Tears, Cross County, Arkansas

Still visible ruts from wagons on the Trail of Tears, Cross County, Arkansas


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 way we choose to interpret these sources, and how much weight we choose to give one source over another.

I am almost 60, have read voraciously every day since the age of five, and have yet to find any group of people anywhere who are fully truthful about their past.  This applies especially to peoples who have regularly engaged in warfare, and even more especially to peoples who have engaged in colonialism or the slave trade.

Over 6,000 years ago, people were already fiddling with the historical record, trying to make their monuments look older than they actually were.


An attempt to legitimise their occupation of land.

A way to claim that “We have a RIGHT to be here. Look! Our ancestors have ALWAYS been here.”

It is vanishingly rare for any group to simply steal another’s land, or take another’s freedom, without trying to concoct some outlandish justification.

This is of course proof that bad people know, have always known, that what they do is wrong.




Seeing indigenous Americans through our post-modern neo-hippy eyeglasses reveals nothing to us about real history.

The tribes and nations of North America before European contact were not some monolith.  They were not all living peacefully in a state of grace with their neighbors and Mother Nature.  They made war, and they made mistakes, as humans do.  They were as varied as people anywhere else in the world at the time, much as the culture of medieval England was utterly different to that of medieval Greece.

And the Algonquian peoples of Eastern North America were utterly different to, say, the Comanche of the American plains.  The former did not torture or rape female war captives.  The latter did.

Which is to say, ultimately, that American Indians were not childlike innocents living in some universal social utopia, nor were they simply victims lacking any personal or communal agency.   Like the Britons facing the Romans, the Romano-Britons facing the Saxons, or the Saxons facing the Vikings, the peoples of pre-European America had to make some serious decisions…

Back to the Cherokee.  While some groups of Cherokee like the Chickamauga battled European encroachers throughout the late 1700s and early 1800s, right to the bitter end, others read the runes of the future, and decided that in order to survive as a people, they would need to abandon many of their old ways.  Because they were already a semi-settled farming people, these Cherokee sought to integrate their culture, at least partly, to the culture of the incoming “whites”.

Part of this deal with The Devil included embracing the institution of color-based slavery.

Having embraced (or at least accepted) much of European-American culture, and with intermarriage between both communities widespread, the Cherokee had perhaps some cause to feel some optimism for their future as a people.

Their optimism was misplaced.  Human greed is endless, and the excuses for greed are infinite.

Colonisers wanted land.  Cheap land, free land.

The concocted racist justifications which let American colonisers get rich off the labor of African slaves were employed again, this time to rob the Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Cherokee of their homes.

It’s very odd how flag-waving “patriots” and humans in general conveniently forget the ugly details of colonisation.  People have a silly, vague idea that “roaming Indians” were just somehow “moved on”.  Nothing is said of brutal, often drunken US militia kicking down doors, burning down houses, driving the elderly, women and children (often of mixed ethnicity) into squalid, disease-ridden, overcrowded wooden stockades, like cattle, to be held in what can only be called concentration camps.  No one ever mentions that the Cherokee were not cleared from a “wilderness”.  They were removed from actual houses, in towns with shops and schools, and the usurpers got to move onto well-tended Cherokee farmland, and into their actual houses.




Mainstream history does usually mention this illegal removal of Indian tribes from their ancestral homelands in the Deep South and Southern Appalachia during the late 1830s.

But it is worth noting that this removal of people to less desirable lands, mainly in Oklahoma, was illegal.

And by illegal, we don’t just mean “immoral” – we mean ILLEGAL, as in US Supreme Court ILLEGAL.

Most have heard of this “Trail of Tears“, and most see it rightly as a foul blot on American history.

The Cherokee dealt with The Devil and lost.

But even the Cherokee never lost as much as the African-American slaves of the Creek and Cherokee, who were made to trudge that same “Trail of Tears”.

Funny how THAT tragedy is almost univerally forgotten…


#BeforeWeWereWhite #TrailOfTears #cherokee #HistoryOfSlavery

Surfing the Waves of Immigration

Nancy Jane Edwards and husband Kennedy "Canada" Freeman, circa 1920, probably Clay County, Kentucky

Nancy Jane Edwards and husband Kennedy “Canada” Freeman, circa 1920, probably Clay County, Kentucky


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 1997.

This would have been due to the huge waves of immigration to the USA which had taken place in the decades before the war, with Eastern Europeans and Italians in particular adding to the American mosaic.

Two or three generations of inter-ethnic mixing since then have blurred the old ethnic edges somewhat.




But this same process has been ongoing, occurring again and again in the USA and the wider Americas, since the 1500s.

The actor Edward Norton learned this week that his 12th great-grandmother was Matoaka aka “Pocahontas“, a genealogical story which made headlines around the world.

And yet this is only so surprising because Pocahontas and Edward Norton both have “name recognition” in the American canon of celebrity.

I remarked on this aspect of US celebrity culture to a friend – it seems doubtful we’ll ever read about less famous “white” people pleased to be descended from “an African slave woman called Hulda” or a “Catawba washerwoman/sex slave called Sally”, even though the descendants of such couplings are almost innumerable in America…

I suppose part of the surprise regarding Edward Norton lies in the fact that any sharp edges of Powhatan ethnicity have been blurred to such an extent, that had he ever dared to claim indigenous ancestry, he would have been roundly dismissed or even jeered by the majority of Americans.

This levelling-out of ethnic appearance (DNA shuffle) has happened at different speeds in different places.  People “level-out” most quickly in urban environments, more slowly in rural settings, and even slower still in the most remote mountains, hills, hollers, and swamps.

So when we look at photos from 19th and early 20th century Appalachia, for example, and see clear signs of “non-white” ethnicity in the faces of her people, it would be wrong to think we have stumbled upon some mysterious “lost race”.

What we are seeing are the real faces of an earlier “Old Mix” multi-ethnic America, where only some strands looked like Tom Hanks or Grace Kelly.


#BeforeWeWereWhite #EdwardNorton #Pocahontas #StevenSpielberg #SavingPrivateRyan #AppalachianHistory

The Silence of the Femmes

Silent screen stars Pola Negri, left, and Araminta Durfee, right

Publicity shots of Pola Negri, left, and Araminta Durfee, right


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 film, cinema goers had been obsessed by their imaginings of the sights, sounds, and scents of the Orient – a dreamland far from the rapidly industrialising USA.

Because there was no sound to give away a person’s accent in the 1920s, film-makers could pluck a person from any background and portray them as just about anything…

Most people are still at least vaguely aware of early screen legends like English-born Charlie Chaplin and Italian heart-throb Rudolph Valentino, both of whose level of stardom back in the 1920s is hard to exaggerate.  Adjusted for inflation, Chaplin would have been roughly as wealthy as someone like Tom Cruise or George Clooney today – with a net worth approaching 500 million dollars.

Strangely, the lovers and leading ladies of these men seem largely forgotten.

During the silent screen era, when a producer or director needed an actress to radiate and exude a sense of the exotic, they could draw on a roster of talent…

Pola Negri, a Polish immigrant girl whose Slovak Romani father had been transported to Siberia.  Born Apolonia Chalupec, she counted both Valentino and Chaplin among her lovers (Chaplin himself is believed by many to have had English Romani ancestry).

Theda Bara was also the daughter of recent immigrants – in this case a Polish Jewish father and a Swiss mother.  Ms. Bara played roles such as Cleopatra, and her revealing costumes led in part to the introduction of the Hayes Code by conservative America.  Theda’s real name?  Theodosia Burr Goodman.  Yes, that’s right. An Ohio girl named after a US vice-president famous for killing US Founding Father Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

Valentino’s greatest love, though, was the mysteriously named “Natacha Rambova“, dancer, erstwhile actress and extremely gifted set and costume designer, and later, a published scholar of Egyptology.  A woman born in Salt Lake City, Utah, whose real name was in fact Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy.   Daughter of a New York Irishman and his Mormon wife, Winifred Kimball, a woman whose grandfather was one of the so-called “Twelve Apostles” of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon sect.

As an actor and director, Charlie Chaplin‘s first leading lady was Araminta Durfee, a young woman married for a time to the scandal-haunted comic actor and director “Fatty” Arbuckle.  With her suitably foreign-sounding name – at least to city ears – Ms. Durfee’s “exotic” pedigree in fact stretched back to colonial Rhode Island and the Adkins people from the hills of Eastern Kentucky.

As to the complex origins of the Durfee and Adkins families?  That’s a long story for another day…


#BeforeWeWereWhite #Hollywood #SilentScreen #CharlieChaplin #RudolphValentino #AramintaDurfee #PolaNegri







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 created a “feedback loop”, in which modern Northern Irish Protestants take it as given that their culture is “Ground Zero” for the culture and music of Appalachia.

This “Scots-Irish equals Appalachia” nexus is simply untrue.

The music played in the inns, taverns, ordinarys, public houses, and indeed the brothels, of colonial America was largely the product of 17th and 18th century English and Scottish broadsheet balladry.

A song like this – I Wish My Baby Was Born – used in the soundtrack to the Civil War-era film Cold Mountain (and thus seen as exemplary of “old-timey” mountain music) has clear roots in early 17th century English ballads about girls in English ports lamenting their sailor sweethearts who “love ’em and leave ’em”.

This Northern English and Scottish music would of course have informed and influenced the music of Northern Ireland – after all, 17th century Ulster was being colonised by Englishmen, Scots, and Welshmen.

But to see this music as quintessentially “Scots-Irish” is a nonsense.

A song perhaps first heard in a dockside tavern in Bristol, England way back in 1630 might have travelled along many, many tracks and byroads before ending-up in the hills along the North Carolina/Virginia border. The song could have reached America via sailors from any port in England, Ireland, Wales, or Scotland (and probably arrived via multiple routes).

So just because one Appalachian family claiming “Scots-Irish” ancestry was known to play a certain old folk song or fiddle tune, does not in any way make that song or fiddle tune particularly “Scots-Irish“.

17th century fiddle tunes and popular ballads were quite literally the pop charts of their day – not some ancient “proof of ethnicity”, fossilised in amber.

The Ulster Irish were just one of many ethnic groups bringing the same “pop music” with them on their colonialist voyage along the American frontier…

The Gaelic still spoken by some Highland Scots – to this very day – DID actually originate in Northern Ireland (Dalriada) during the Middle Ages, but no one would dream of calling the traditional culture and music of today’s Scottish Highlanders “Irish”.

The idea of profoundly mixed-ethnic Appalachians citing one or two remote ancestors from three centuries ago (along with a 17th and 18th century musical style which spanned the entire British Isles) as evidence of a clear present-day “Scots-Irish” ethnicity, is simply ridiculous.

Music, food, and language change to suit their surroundings, much in the way St. Nicholas has been transformed over centuries to match the needs of Slavs, Germans, French, English, Dutch, and Americans.

Sometimes it really is correct to just call some things “American”, and accept the multi-ethnic history which goes with it.

If there has to be an original wellspring for old time music, it will be found closer to Knoxville than Belfast.

#BeforeWeWereWhite #OldTimeMusic #ethnomusicology