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


Where Have All the Good Girls Gone?

Hazel Dickens was a West Virginia girl, with deep roots in the mountains there.

During much of the 20th century, urban and suburban America mocked the “hillbillies” of Southern Appalachia, while simultaneously benefiting from cheap Appalachian coal.

And while much of the USA laughed or stared aghast at fare such as “The Beverly Hillbillies” or “Deliverance“, leather tough mountain women were trying to raise families left fatherless by black lung disease, and entire mountain communities were left with a “choice” between starvation poverty, or just poverty – earning a pittance while Big Business ripped the entire tops off the mountains for the enrichment of energy company shareholders.

A lot of mountain folks stood up against the rapacious coal companies, trusting in their unions to do right by them.

As if fighting the bought politicians and coal companies wasn’t hard enough, many mining families were soon introduced to the corruption of certain union bosses.

Bosses so corrupt that they would order murder hits on honest political opponents, AND THEIR FAMILIES, without blinking an eye.

So in the age of Nixon, Woodstock, Kent State, hippies, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, “laughable” mountain folks had to rely on the voices and songs of their own people.

Voices like that of Hazel Dickens, who only left this world in 2011.

If I were in the trenches, I’d take one woman like this over ten or two dozen January 6th wannabe American heroes.




Clarksville, Pennsylvania is not too far from here
Coal miners were hoping for a brighter New Year
But for Jock Yablonski, his daughter, and wife
The New Year brought an ending to their precious lives

Well it’s cold blooded murder friends, I’m talking about
Now who’s gonna stand up and who’s gonna fight?
You better clean up that union, put it on solid ground
Get rid of that dirty trash, that keeps a working man down

Well death bells were ringing, Jock knew very well
That’s stolen union money, and Jock just had to tell
‘Cause he wouldn’t take part in their dirty plans
So he paid with his life to help all mining men

Well Jock Yablonski was a coal miner’s friend
He fought for the rights of the working man
He begged the law to protect him, but they turned him down
Now Jock, his wife and daughter all lay beneath the ground

Oh Lord the poor miner, will his fight never end?
They’ll abuse even murder him to further their plans
Oh where is his victory how will it stand?
It’ll stand when poor working men all join hands


Modern Attitudes and “Back Then”

Woman in Saxon garb near ruins of Romanesque abbey

Woman in Saxon garb near ruins of Romanesque abbey


Ever since the advent of farming and urban civilisation around 10,000 years ago, some people have tried to make themselves the master of others.

The list of reasons these people invent to justify their dominance over others could fill a library.

Eventually the people who use others for self-enrichment may even come to believe the nonsense they’ve concocted.

“They deserve it.”

“God decreed it should be so.”

“They aren’t actually humans.”

“They aren’t educated enough to rule themselves.”

“The world needs order, and only my people are clever enough for such a monumentally complex task.”

“They would not be poor if they weren’t lazy.”

“They wouldn’t be slaves if they weren’t stupid.”




Æthelflæd of Damerham was the eldest daughter of Ælfgar the Ealdorman, and should not be confused with Æthelflæd of the Mercians (daughter of Alfred the Great).

Æthelflæd was the second wife of Eadmund I, King of the English, whose short reign ended in 946 after only six and a half years.

Æthelflæd herself was Queen Consort for just two years (944-946) until Eadmund was stabbed to death in a brawl while trying to protect one of his stewards.

Æthelflæd was outlived by her brother-in-law Byrhtnoth “of the swan-white hair”, who died in combat with Viking raiders at the Battle of Maldon in 991.

Approaching her death, Æthelflæd wrote a will.

In this will, she was adamant in stipulating that all slaves held by her house should be freed upon her demise.

A reminder from the Middle Ages that people have ALWAYS known that slavery is wrong, no matter what some latter-day apologists for the southern Confederacy might say.




Just because servitude and slavery were once widespread does not mean they were ever “normal for the time”, morally acceptable, or correct…

Deference to authority, servitude, patriarchy, child labor, and slavery were only “normal” because ruthlessly greedy people used violence to make those things “seem” normal.

This is why the world has given us the memory of John Brown and Nat Turner, the Sandinistas, Emmeline Pankhurst, Spartacus, Nelson Mandela, striking coal miners, and a million others like them.


#BeforeWeWereWhite #HistoryOfSlavery #Æthelflæd

Appropriate Appropriation?

Archibald Stansfield Belaney aka Grey Owl

Archibald Stansfield Belaney aka “Grey Owl”


Meet “Grey Owl“, born 18 Sep 1888.

A one time fur trapper for Canadian companies, he eventually came to understand the great damage being wrought upon the natural world by unregulated commercial exploitation of natural resources.

During his life, he wrote numerous books, becoming a renowned early spokesperson for the conservation movement.  He was particularly passionate in his arguments for the protection of the North American beaver [Castor canadensis].

Grey Owl had French-Canadian, Mohawk, Ojibwe, and Métis wives and consorts during his relatively short life, and was father to at least 5 children.  His much younger part-Algonquian, part Mohawk wife Anahareo should probably receive credit for first convincing Grey Owl of the evils of commercial fur-trapping.

Grey Owl died aged only 49, his health badly compromised by alcoholism brought on by his experiences during WWI.

After his death in 1938, it was revealed that he was in fact not half-Scottish, half-Apache as he had always claimed.

He was Archibald Stansfield Belaney, of Hastings in Sussex, England.

It is worth considering people like “Grey Owl“, when we argue about cultural and identity appropriation.

Perhaps the motivation of the impostor is more important than the actual identity they assume?

Many, many of us try on new skins as we move through life.  Because our identities usually change incrementally rather than dramatically, it is often only late in life that we recognise our younger self as a complete stranger.

Would the world have listened to a damaged “Archibald Belaney” as he railed against environmental destruction?

Almost certainly not.

So whose crime is bigger?

The crime committed by an impostor with a profound love of indigenous culture and the natural world?

Or the crime committed by people so culturally bankrupt that they can only accept truth when it comes from an “exotic” outside source?

An outsider onto whom we can project our secret dreams and longings for something better?


#BeforeWeWereWhite #CulturalAppropriation #impostors #NatureConservation

American Ethnicities According to Wikipedia

American actress Barbara Hershey at a party in 1966

American actress Barbara Hershey at a party in 1966


As Stephen Stills once wrote for his band Buffalo Springfield in 1966:

“There’s something happening here,
what it is ain’t exactly clear…”

Posts by friends on social media can send this writer down some pretty deep rabbit holes.

Seeing a post about the 1970s film “Billy Jack” got me to thinking about the weird fascination in the USA with martial arts during that era.

This was the age of Bruce Lee.

This was the age of Elvis throwing kung fu moves on stage in a spangled jumpsuit.

This was the age of the TV series “Kung Fu“, with David Carradine wandering the Wild West as a disowned, half-Chinese Shaolin monk, kicking cowboy ass pretty much everywhere along the way.

With that explanation of my weird rabbit-holing thought processes out of the way, let’s press on.

This post isn’t about Kung Fu, nor is it about the Chinese influence on American culture and ethnicity.

Nope, this post is about celebrated American actress Barbara Hershey.  Why?  Because she was lurking just around a dark corner of the rabbit hole, as the ex-partner of actor David Carradine.

Naturally I had to click through.


Ms. Hershey was once considered something of a “kooky” hippy chick, but has grown old gracefully into one of the most respected talents of her generation.

Check out her relatively recent turn in Darren Aronofsky‘s psychological horror film “Black Swan“.

At any rate, as someone who writes about American ethnicities, the dark good looks of Ms. Hershey made me curious.  And yes, upon checking, she is of mixed-ethnicity.

Like most of the other creatives involved in the film “Black Swan” (Aronofsky, Natalie Portman, Winona Ryder, Mila Kunis, etc.) Barbara Hershey has a Jewish background, being born “Barbara Herzstein” in 1948 Hollywood, California.

But once again, this post isn’t about the Jewish influence on the American entertainment industry – a subject which could fill a hundred posts.

This is about Barbara Hershey‘s mother, “Melrose Moore“, an Arkansas girl by birth.

This how Wikipedia describes the ethnic background of Melrose Moore:

“…her [Barbara Hershey’s] mother, a native of Arkansas, was a Presbyterian of Scots-Irish descent.”

Really?  How odd that the two “sources” for this assertion of “Scots-Irish” ancestry are just dead links to old celebrity magazine interviews.  Did Barbara Hershey mention Scots-Irish ancestry to an interviewer?  Who knows?  The sources cited stubbornly refuse to appear in any internet search.

No matter.  When you’ve looked through old historical records for as many years as this old dog, certain things leap out immediately.  Like the relations between certain places and certain surnames.

“Arkansas” and “Moore”, for example.

The Moore surname runs through the underground river of Old Mix American ancestry like a seam of silver ore.

And when we walk a path back upriver, what we find are ancestors of Barbara like the Farrars (don’t ask – worth a post on its own), and early Moores and Goodmans of colonial era North Carolina who migrated into Kentucky.  Not a particular point of interest, if we agree to buy into the “Scots-Irish” history of frontier America and Appalachia.

Except these Moores and Goodmans are enumerated in the earliest census records as “free people of color”.

Not only that.  There is not one single line in the maternal ancestry of Barbara Hershey which can be readily ascertained as “Scots-Irish“.  Not one.

This is not the first, second, or even hundredth time this researcher has seen this “phenomenon”.  It’s ubiquitous online.

Anyone see the film “The Revenant” with Leonardo de Caprio?  Based on the life of frontiersman Hugh Glass?

Some faceless “expert” on Wikipedia has decided that Hugh Glass was “Scots-Irish“.  WITHOUT ONE SOLITARY SHRED OF DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE.

“Glass” is a surname also found among German and Gaelic-speaking Irish immigrants, the latter of whom also often arrived in America from Ulster, although one rarely hears of it.  To presume that anyone arriving in America from Ulster during the 1700s must have been “Scots-Irish” is simply, utterly wrong.

But the point is moot.  No one knows the true origins of Hugh Glass, or if he even came from Northern Ireland…




Trying to keep a lid on “conjured history” would be a full-time job for an army of volunteers willing to play “whack-a-mole”.  Within 10 minutes of this writer’s editing of the Hugh Glass Wikipedia page to reflect actual facts, someone had jumped in and reasserted Glass’s “Scots-Irish” ancestry.

A paranoid or conspiracy-minded person might be forgiven for wondering if white supremacists actively “work” Wikipedia, inserting their preferred ethnic background into the biographies of many more American figures.

So the next time you see the term “Scots-Irish” anywhere in the context of American history, have a care.

As suggested at the start of this post –


“There’s something happening here,
what it is ain’t exactly clear…”


As it’s the Christmas season, I will ask a favor straight up.

This blog and podcast would love to dedicate itself full-time to sharing amazing stories – real stories, not propaganda – from American history, but the huge amount of work and research involved in this enterprise is currently going largely unremunerated, except for the generosity of a very small group of kind souls who have always believed this work is important.

If you regularly enjoy reading our blog posts, or listening to our podcasts, please consider supporting us at: (once-off PayPal donations) (monthly subscription) (once-off contributions)

If you don’t feel able to support this work financially, it cannot be stressed enough how your shares of our posts and podcasts have a real, tangible impact on growing our audience.

Love and peace this Christmas season, and look out for one more podcast episode this month!



#BeforeWeWereWhite #BarbaraHershey #JewishHollywood #ScotsIrish







Johnny Depp and the Gatekeepers

Actor and musician John Christopher "Johnny" Depp

Actor and musician John Christopher “Johnny” Depp


Is it any wonder that most “Old Mix Americans” eventually declared their heritage under simplistic or ridiculous “race” or color labels?

If there was ever any doubt that in the USA, “white” has always been a social category masquerading as a legitimate biological category, consider the following:

Why are Americans who claim mixed ancestry always on the receiving end of vitriolic attacks from all sides?

When public figures such as Senator Elizabeth Warren or Johnny Depp mention, claim, honor (or trade upon?) their ethnically-mixed ancestry, all hell breaks loose.

The American right wing howls, because as the inventors of “identity politics”, their forefathers decreed that the world is divided between Black, Red, Brown or Yellow Asian, and White pseudo-scientific “races”.

In this universe of the far right, to be “Black” means a person must be descended from the slaves of “White Folks”.

This is of course a caste or social rank thing…

To be “White” in this conjured reality, a person needn’t be “White” per se, in the sense of actual skin shade.  Being “White” means “not being provable or seen as descended from slaves“.

To be “Indian” requires a person to be frozen in time, to be a living relic of the frontier era and John Wayne films.  Again, ethnicity is defined in terms related to so-called “White Folks”.  “Indians” are symbols, icons.   Their symbolic meaning resides in their having been “worthy adversaries” for “White Folks” to excel against.

The American left is equally blameworthy, projecting all manner of neo-hippy imaginings and spiritual nature longings upon indigenous peoples.  This is simply an American version of what the great Palestinian writer Edward Said once described as “Orientalism”, in which the West projects its own innermost desires onto other cultures.  Modern “Indians”, at best, are allowed to appear in films, media, and memes always mouthing wise platitudes about “The Great Spirit/The Environment/Mother Earth” and other suspiciously “liberal” concerns.

This tragic deformation of history and culture – and this reductive attitude to ethnicity – makes exceedingly coarse men like Donald Trump call women like Elizabeth Warren “a little Pocahontas“.

This state of play also makes the left (and many American Indians) scream “cultural appropriation”, when anyone seen as “white” claims indigenous ancestry.

This is because as stated at the beginning of this post, “white” is a social category rather than a biological or “racial” category.  Racists only pretend that “race” exists in the scientific realm so they can act as Pontius Pilate, washing their hands of responsibility for the thing they’ve created to justify human wickedness.

Fake science becomes a sort of Deus ex machina. 

“We didn’t invent race!  Nature did.  It’s not our fault nature made some races inferior to others.”


In the USA, Johnny Depp and Elizabeth Warren are both considered pretty much “white”.

BUT BECAUSE IT’S A CULTURAL OR SOCIAL CATEGORY, NOT A GENETIC OR BIOLOGICAL CATEGORY, believers in “blood” race categories get extremely angry.

Consider this from Wikipedia:

<In interviews in 2002 and 2011, Depp claimed to have Native American ancestry, saying: “I guess I have some Native American somewhere down the line. My great-grandmother was quite a bit of Native American. She grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian. Makes sense in terms of coming from Kentucky, which is rife with Cherokee and Creek Indian”.

Depp’s claims came under scrutiny when Indian Country Today wrote that Depp had never inquired about his heritage or been recognized as a member of the Cherokee Nation. This led to criticism from the Native American community, as Depp has no documented Native ancestry, and Native community leaders consider him “a non-Indian” and a “pretendian”.>

What goes unsaid here is that Depp probably made no formal claims or enquiries about his folkloric indigenous ancestry, because he knows that he is not “culturally” Creek or Cherokee.

Are there plenty of “wannabe” Indians in the USA?  Sure.  But the more serious readers of history who note their indigenous ancestry are not the same as “wannabes” who practice a tawdry cultural appropriation.

And if self-appointed gatekeepers decide that “documented” indigenous ancestry is a pre-requisite for mentioning family folk memory, then half of Southern Appalachia will be forced to join the many multi-ethnic fools who claim “Scots-Irish” ethnicity.  And many do.

Depp is correct (even if by accident) in noting the historical fact of a large indigenous presence in Kentucky, even after “White” colonisation.  This writer has no idea whether Depp is aware of the likely “Black DutchCraft/Kraft family in his ancestry – people quite likely descended from German Sinti (Romani Gypsies).  His ancestry is also rife with Baileys and Coopers, families also quite likely to have English Romani roots.  This writer also suspects his Reno (Renaud?) and Whitaker people have roots in early mixed-ethnic Virginia and the Carolinas.

Whatever the facts of his ancestry, and whatever Depp’s motivations, he is quite correct in his assessment of the ethnic makeup of the old families of Eastern Kentucky, and it was the mixed-ethnic brown underclass traders, trappers, longhunters, and earliest squatters arriving in Kentucky and Tennessee from Virginia and the Carolinas who were most likely to intermarry with indigenous peoples.

American history is a mess.  Anyone who wants a simple version wants a bullshit version.


#BeforeWeWereWhite  #JohnnyDepp  #KentuckyHistory