Road Trip Through History: Memphis and Music

by pamela on November 24, 2015

Two days in Memphis. Two visits to iconic recording studios.* Two very different experiences.

Just to remind anyone who doesn’t have the history of rock music in their heads: Sun Records, which bills itself as the place where rock and roll was born, was the label that launched Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison–I don’t need to go on do I? Stax Records, founded only seven years later, was home to Otis Redding and other stars of soul, funk, and blues. Between them, these two labels provided a big chunk of the sound track of your life if you are an American baby-boomer, plus or minus a few years. As far as My Own True Love and I were concerned, both were a must-see.

Sun Studio, Memphis

Sun Studio

A visit to Sun Studio is a low-budget, low-tech, highly satisfying experience. A passionate, knowledgeable (and in our experience at least, very funny) docent led our tour group upstairs into an exhibition space (once an informal flophouse for impoverished musicians) where he told the story of how Sam Phillips founded the label in 1952, stopping to play relevant musical clips that had the multinational, multi generation wiggling to the music.  The exhibits had the “run up by loving hands at home” feel of a small town historical society museum.  We moved down into the recording studio itself, where the story and the music continued:  Elvis winning a contract with a last-minute save,** the night  the Million-Dollar Quartet jammed at the studio, the closing of the studio and its subsequent re-use for string of non-music businesses,  and the re-opening of the original studio as a recording space where music notables such as U2 and Bonnie Raitt come to record as an act of pilgrimage.  The tour ends with the opportunity to ham it up with a vintage mike.  Over the course of an hour and a bit I shared an excellent vanilla malt with My Own True Love, got choked up, laughed, and wriggled to the music.  I think it’s fair to say that I was not the only happy human walking out the door. At the end of the tour.

Stax Museum

Stax Museum

On the surface there was every reason to believe that a visit to the home of Stax Records would be just as satisfying.  Like Sun Records, Stax has great music to draw on, an engaging built-from-the-bootstraps story with founders*** who were passionate about what developed into soul music, artists whose own rags-to-riches stories are as appealing as the story of the company, and a history of cooperation across racial lines.  Like Sun Records, Stax has a feel-good second act.   The Soulsville Foundation, which owns and operates the museum in the old movie theater where Stax produced its iconic records, also runs the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School, both of which provide music education to kids. From my perspective, the Stax Museum was a missed opportunity.

Unlike Sun Studio, the Stax Museum is highly produced, using all the tricks of modern museum technology.  It could have been spectacular.  At the purely visual level, it was spectacular.  But they lost the thread of their story.  Instead of using their artists and the music to illustrate the central story, they tried to squeeze all the individual stories into a single exhibit.  Worse, from my perspective, they had music and interviews running continuously so that they ran together into a muddy background of sound.  It was a shame.

When I left Sun Studio, I was bouncing in my bop-around shoes. When I left Stax Records, I felt like I’d been bludgeoned with a recording mike. Luckily, if you are interested in the history of rock, the Stax Museum website does exactly what I had hoped the museum would do and does it really well.  It tells the Stax story clearly,  gives you opportunities to listen to the music and butt-dance in your chair,**** and makes an appeal for support for music and education program in a depressed neighborhood that produced an astonishing number of major musical talents in the mid-20th centuries.

And speaking of dancing around the room…..

* Not mention the Cotton Museum, the Ornamental Metal Museum, a few strolls along Beale Street, and some fabulous BBQ.

**Phillips turned him down twice.

***Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton.  St + Ax= Stax.  A minor revelation.  I had always assumed that Stax referred to a stack of 45 singles waiting to drop onto the turntable of a small record player like this one:

[If you’re reading this in your email, you may not be able to see the record player.  Click the post title and it will take you to the browser, where all will be revealed.]

****Or get up and dance around the room. Always a good idea in my opinion.


“Sun Studio, Memphis” by David Jones – Sun Studio, Memphis. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Staxmuseum2005” by No machine-readable author provided. Wisekwai assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.


The Eastern Question

by pamela on November 20, 2015

eastern question

In the weeks after 9/11, self-described “scholar-printer” Ted Danforth struggled to understand why the attacks occurred. He found his first clue in Osama bin Laden’s statement that the attacks were revenge for the Ottoman Empire’s dismemberment after World War I and Islam’s subsequent humiliation at the hands of the West. That statement led Danforth to look at 9/11 as a “continuation of patterns woven into the warp of historical time” rather than as an individual event. In The Eastern Question: A Geopolitical History in 108 Maps and Drawings, Danforth traces those patterns from ancient Mesopotamia to the modern day.

The format of the book is deceptively simple: a brief essay opposite a map or illustration drawn in a naive style reminiscent of the maps in fantasy novels. In fact, Danforth’s work is neither simple nor naive. In his pursuit of answers to “the eastern question,”* he considers topics as diverse as ancient and modern geopolitical theories, the inherent conflict between nomadic and settled peoples, the differing uses of time and space in churches and mosques, and the nature of empires. There are some errors of fact in the text, but the illustrations are consistently illuminating, whether Danforth is demonstrating the parallel development of Russia and the United States in the nineteenth century or the historical influence of Greek language and literature.

What begins as a history of fourteen hundred years of conflict between Islam and the West broadens into a charming and ambitious history of the world.


*A term initially used by European diplomats, journalists, etc to describe Europe’s relationship with the Ottoman empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.


This review previously appeared (sans asterisk) in Shelf Awareness for Readers


Road Trip Through History: Memphis and Cotton

by pamela on November 17, 2015

Memphis Cotton Exchange


Our first stop on the Great River Road was Memphis–a long day’s drive from Chicago.

As we drove into town, My Own True Love and I were still discussing whether we wanted to go to Graceland. Everyone we talked to said it was worth it–even people who weren’t rabid Elvis fans. But we planned to spend only two days in Memphis. We had other things we knew we wanted to see.* We continued to weigh the pros and cons as we worked our way through downtown Memphis toward our hotel and Beale Street. Then a sign caught my eye: Cotton Museum. Graceland was toast.

The Cotton Museum is located in the former home of the Memphis cotton exchange, once a center of the global cotton trade.** The museum is set up to reflect the exchange in the 1930s–complete with giant chalk boards listing cotton prices, “markers” who changed the prices on the board as quickly as new info arrived, a Western Union office, a row of telephones, and a cluster of fedora-wearing men making deals. The cotton exchange was an all-male enclave–the first woman to pass its doors was a Farm Security Administration photographer, Marion Post Wolcott. (According to our docent, the men who were there that day grumbled about it for the rest of their lives.) When the exchange officially closed for the day, they settled in to drink bourbon, smoke cigars, and play cut-throat games of dominoes. (Yes, dominoes. I do not make this stuff up.)

The museum was a fascinating combination of the natural history of cotton, the social history of cotton farming from slavery to mechanization (later than you think), the business of cotton, “king cotton” festivals in Memphis, and the relationship of cotton to American music. (When you’re in Memphis, music is never far from the discussion. )The physical exhibits are interesting, but the heart of the museum is a series of videos, including a recreation of the operation of the floor in 1939 based on Wolcott’s photos and starring current members of the Memphis cotton exchange, which still operates in modern offices upstairs. Some of my takeaways:

  • That fluffy white cotton boll is preceded by a short-lived beautiful pink flower, similar to hibiscus, to which cotton is in fact related.
  • The gin in cotton gin is short for engine.
  • Cotton is “classed” by color, length of the fibers and cleanliness. During the heyday of the exchange, classing was done on the top floor on the buildings on Front Street, known as “Cotton Row”, under north facing skylights. It could only be classed in full sunlight.
  • Holding a seat on the cotton exchange wasn’t cheap: $17,000 in 1939 (roughly $230,000 in today’s money). Cotton merchants were Memphis’ elite.

This was not our last look at cotton. Stayed tuned.


*Does it tell you everything you need to know about the depths of our nerdiness that we were uncertain about Graceland but determined to go to the Ornamental Metal Museum?

**Surprised? Me, too.


From The Archives: Tough Broads of the Civil War

by pamela on November 10, 2015

Just to prove that I’ve been thinking about nurses and other women who played a role in the American Civil War for a while now, here’s a post that first appeared in the Margins in 2011:

I’ve said it before:  If you hang out in Popular History Land, or even Book World these days, it’s impossible to ignore the American Civil War and its sesquicentennial. Civil War references are everywhere.

The most recent bit of Civil War “stuff” to start my brain churning was a review of a new book by historian David S. Reynolds:  Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America. Reynolds’ book looks fascinating.  I’ve added it to my ever-growing To-Be-Read list.  But I’m not sure it will have as much impact on me as the first book I ever read on Harriet Beecher Stowe.

When I was in the fifth or sixth grade, our school library got a handful of biographies on American women in history.  I’m not sure now if they were a series or separate biographies pulled together by a school librarian with a bee in her bonnet.  Either way, I loved the books and read them as often as I was allowed before they circulated on to another school.  Although each woman’s story was different, they held a common theme:  a smart tomboy (or at least a not-very-girly girl) has trouble as a child but grows up to do Something Important.  They were balm to my nerdy, not-very-girly soul.  They also left me with the abiding impression that the Civil War was a period when women were kicking down doors and doing things they’d never done before.

Turns out that impression was right.   Look at the roster:

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin inflamed the North on the subject of slavery.  To quote Abraham Lincoln (via Carl Sandburg), “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”
  • Julia Ward Howe provided the North with a soundtrack for the war: a little ditty called The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
  • Clara Barton, “the soldier’s friend”, charmed and kicked men in high places until they allowed her to provide comforts and medical care to “her boys” on the battlefield.  When the need for her services in the field diminished, she helped the families of missing soldiers locate their fathers, sons, and brothers.  After the war, she started a little group called the American Red Cross.  Maybe you’ve heard of it?
  • Hundreds of women in both the North and South took the unheard of step of volunteering in military hospitals.   (If you want a lively first hand account of one young woman’s Civil War nursing experience, check out Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches.)
  • Most amazing of all, women cut their hair, disguised themselves as men, and enlisted to fight.*  Some followed their husbands or fiancés. Others enlisted out of a sense of patriotism or adventure.  For obvious reasons, we don’t know how many women fought disguised as men, but an article in the National Archives estimates 250 women fought for the Confederacy and almost 400 for the Union.  Most were not discovered until they were wounded or died.  At least one woman, discovered and discharged for the official reason of “incompatibility of sex” (The fact that there was an official term of discharge tells you everything you need to know.), suited up and joined a new regiment.

Tough broads indeed.

Who’s your favorite tough broad of the Civil War?

*If you want to read a take on this general topic that’s hysterical rather than historical, check out  Monstrous Regiment by one of my favorite novelists, Terry Pratchett.  It will make you both laugh and think.  I promise.


The Great River Road–Take 2

by pamela on November 6, 2015

Great River Road

As some of you may remember, last year My Own True Love and I planned and abandoned a road trip on the grand scale: driving along the Mississippi from Minnesota to Louisiana on the Great River Road*–or at least as far as we could get in three weeks.

I’m pleased to tell you, we’re doing it! By the time you read this, we’ll have been on the road for almost a week. The plan is a little different this year. Instead of starting in Minnesota,** we began by headed south. Two days in Memphis. Three days in New Orleans.*** Then back up the river, stopping anywhere that takes our fancy, until we run out of time. (Marginites may want to start a blog-reader pool, betting on how far north we get before we run out of time.) Roots music! Regional food! Historical sites! More historical sites! Not to mention blog posts.

If you have suggestions, we’d love to hear them. Must see historical sites–famous or obscure? Widely heralded sites that are duds? A little town with a great restaurant, bakery, farmers’ market or music venue? Let me know.

*Like the Silk Road, the Great River Road isn’t actually a single road. It’s a conglomeration of local and state roads that cross back and forth across the river.

**Many of the places we want to see in Minnesota close for the winter. I can’t imagine why.

***Thanks to Bart Ingraldi‘s suggestion last year, we plan on spending two of those days at the World War II Museum

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“Our Army Nurses”

by pamela on November 3, 2015

Civil War nurses outside Fredericksburg, 1864

Nurses and doctors at Fredericksburg after the Battle of the Wilderness, 1864

About a million years ago, I wrote a study guide to Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage for a reference book called The Literature of War. In the course of my research, I was introduced to the flood of material produced about the American Civil War some twenty or thirty years after it ended: regimental histories, general histories, poetry, pamphlets, biographies, lightly edited diaries and, most of all, memoirs by war veterans. Many war memoirs were small privately printed works distributed to friends and family. At the other end of the spectrum, The Personal Memoirs of US Grant (1885) was one of the best selling American books of the nineteenth century.* It was a fascinating view of warfare, and useful context for writing about Crane. When I was done, I tucked it away in the back of my brain with all the other miscellaneous bits of information I collect as a writer of popular history and moved on to my next assignment.

I didn’t think about the specialized narrative of the Civil War memoir again until I got the call about writing The Heroines of Mercy Street** It had never occurred to me that Civil War nurses also wrote memoirs–it didn’t come up in the course of my research on Crane. (Women are largely invisible in traditional military history and its spin-offs. Something I want to help change.) Boy did they ever! The first to appear, and probably the best known at the time, was Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches, a lightly fictionalized account of Alcott’s brief stint as a Civil War nurse that was published in 1863 while the war was still in progress. But she was by no means alone. After the war, women in the North and South wrote their memoirs and edited their letters for publication, with titles like Ministering Angel, An Army Nurse in Two Wars, The Lady Nurse of Ward E, Hospital Pencillings, etc. Others wrote out their story for family members.

One of my favorite Civil War nursing memoirs will probably never be reprinted: Our Army Nurses. Interesting Sketches, Addresses and Photographs of nearly One Hundred of the Noble Women Who Served in Hospitals and on Battlefields during Our Civil War, compiled by Mary A. Gardner Holland. The book is exactly what it sounds like: one hundred short accounts by written by Civil War nurses roughly thirty years after the fact. Holland took on the task of tracking down as many former nurses as possible and asking them to contribute. She received more letters and photographs in response than she could include. Some of them are beautifully written–most notably Holland’s own essay. (I suspect her desire to write her story inspired the project.) Some of them suggest that their authors seldom picked up a pen for any purpose other than labeling jars of piccalili and chow chow at the end of the summer’s canning. All of them display pride in their service. And well they should.

Nurse’s memoirs are easier to get hold of than they used to be. When the study of women’s history began to gain solid ground in the 1980s and 1990s, many of these works were reprinted, along with previously unprinted collections of letters. I am now the owner of a small collection of well-thumbed reprints; some with scholarly introductions and footnotes, others as naked of scholarly apparatus as the day they first left the printers. Charming, funny, heartbreaking–they’re worth reading if you are interested in different perspective on the Civil War.

*Thanks in part to a clever marketing campaign devised by its publisher, Mark Twain. Grant finished the book only a few days before he died. Twain sent 10,000 sales agents across the North, many of them Civil War veterans dressed in their old uniforms. They sold the two-volume memoir by subscription, using a script written by Twain himself, which was designed to appeal to veterans mourning Grant’s death. Twain described the work this way: “this is the simple soldier, who, all untaught of the silken phrase-makers, linked words together with an art surpassing the art of the schools and put into them a something which will still bring to American ears, as long as America shall last, the roll of his vanished drums and the tread of his marching hosts.” Some of Twain’s praise may be sales puffery, but Grant’s work remains highly regarded for its shrewd and intelligent depiction of the war.

**I did warn you there would be a certain amount of “my book, my book!” over the next few months.



by pamela on October 30, 2015

Copperheads, aka Peace Democrats

When we write the history of national conflicts, we tend to assume that “our” side stood united in monolithic opposition to “them”. It’s a simple and enjoyable version of history, but it simply isn’t true. Sympathizers with the “other side”* are a fact of war. Sometimes they engage in fifth column activities.** Sometimes they simply gather with like-minded folk and grumble into their martini glasses. Sometimes, if they live in a place with freedom of speech, they are vocal in their objections and express them through established public channels. There were Nazi sympathizers in Britain and the United States in World War II. There were British loyalists in the American Revolution. And in the American Civil War, Southern sympathizers in the North were known as Copperheads.***

Copperheads opposed the war and advocated the restoration of the Union through a negotiated peace settlement with the South. Many Copperheads were from Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, where many families had southern roots and agrarian interests resented the growing power of the industrialized northern cities. The movement was also prominent in New York City, where many merchants and workers were dependent on the cotton trade. (Demonstrating that there is more than one path to any given political position.) Others were opposed to the draft, abolition, Lincoln’s abrogation of civil liberties, the Republican party, or all of the above. Some just wanted the bloodshed of the war to end.

The New York Tribune first used the term in July 20, 1861,**** comparing southern sympathizers to the poisonous snake that strikes without giving its victims the courtesy of a warning rattle. The implication was that southern sympathizers would, by definition, engage in treason given half a chance. In practice, they were more inclined to fight the war at the level of local elections and on the floor of state legislatures.

Peace Democrats embraced the name: “copperhead” was also the slang term for a penny, which at the time had an image of Lady Liberty on one side. They saw themselves as defending the Constitution and civil liberties against presidential incursions.  I leave you to draw parallels to current political positions and note the resultant ironies for yourselves.


*NOT the same thing as pacifists.

**When such people fight the “other side” for “us”, they are called the resistance. You can see how quickly this gets complicated.

***And before anyone raises their hand to protest: I am not saying that British Tories were the moral equivalent of Nazis. Southern sympathizers are a gray area. Quite frankly, many Northerners who supported the war effort were not pro-abolition and even abolitionists were often racist in ways that shock a modern reader.

****For those of you who have not spent recent months living and breathing the Civil War, that was the day before the the first major battle of the war occurred: the First Battle of Bull Run aka the Battle of Manassas aka the Great Skedaddle (depending on where you hang your hat).



Déjà Vu All Over Again: Crowdsourcing

by pamela on October 27, 2015

Earlier this year I watched fellow history buff Sarah Towles run a Kickstarter campaign for her innovative digital history projects at Time Traveler Tours and Tales. As far as I can tell, she ran a model campaign, combining the precision of Bismarck and the charm of Wellington. She’s still doing a great job at making her contributors feel like part of the process. If the day ever comes when I want to run my own Kickstarter campaign, she will be my model.*

Crowdsourcing is a wonderful new model for funding projects that takes advantage of our new ability to find our people and make them part of the process. It is innovative, exciting, and looks amazingly like what authors, printmakers and publishers from the earliest days of printing through the nineteenth century knew as selling things “by subscription.”

Back in the days when publishers were glorified printers and there was no mass distribution system for books, works that didn’t already have a guaranteed market** were often sold by subscription, which meant that people paid up front for a book, which didn’t get published unless enough people ponied up. John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, and many of the novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were sold by subscription. Mark Twain was a big fan of the business model. He claimed that “Anything but subscription publication is printing for private circulation.” As late as 1926, T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) offered the very expensive first edition of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by private subscription.

Lawrence’s experience points up the hazards of the model, then and now. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom was expensive, but not expensive enough. The sales price covered only one-third of the production costs. Crowdsourcing does not absolve you from doing the math.

*And, no, that is not a hint. There is no such plan on the horizon. The mere thought makes me want to go lie down. Preferably with a large whiskey in my hand.
**i.e. almost everything


Just so you know, this is what I spent the last ten weeks doing:

Heroines of Mercy Street

It’s the companion volume to a new PBS historical drama about nurses in the Civil War. The PBS series uses a real Civil War hospital as the setting for a fictionalized (and quite gorgeous) drama. (Check out some of promotional pieces on YouTube here.) My book uses the same Civil War hospital to look at the stories of historical nurses.

Between now and February, when the book comes out, you can expect some Civil War posts (because I have great stuff I couldn’t use), some nursing posts (ditto), and a certain amount of “my book! my book!” (because, “my book! my book!).

Now if you’ll excuse, I have a date with fifteenth century Portugal.

Don’t touch that dial.


This Isn’t a Blog Post.

by pamela on October 20, 2015

It’s a link to a website I discovered when I was procrastinating on my Really Big Project.*  Global Middle Ages is the home site for a group of  projects that began with a teaching experiment at the University of Texas.  The charge was “to see the world whole in a large swathe of time—as a network of spaces braided into relationship by trade and travel, mobile stories, cosmopolitan religions, global cities, cultural borrowings, traveling technologies, international languages, and even pandemics, climate, and wars. ”  As anyone who had spent any time here at the Margins knows, this kind of thing is catnip as far as I’m concerned.

So, go poke around, cheer them on, find something fascinating.



*If you’re friends with interesting people on Facebook, you see interesting stuff.  Actually, this is also true outside of Facebook. Perhaps I need to walk away from my computer more often.