From the Archives: The Blackbird Sings

Sometimes life makes it impossible to write blog posts on a dependable basis.  This is one of the those times.  For the next little while, I'm going to run pieces from September and October in years past.  I hope you enjoy them, and I'll be back as soon as I can.

Next up, a post from September 2017:

Several weeks ago My Own True Love and I had the pleasure of hearing a musician* play the oud and talk about its role in the multi-cultural mixing pot that was Islamic Spain. I sat and nodded my head in agreement as he talked about the spread of the oud through the Islamic world, and the transformation of oud first to lute then to guitar.** When he mentioned Ziryab, one of my favorite figures from the golden age of Islam, my head nodded even faster. This is the way blog posts are born.

Ziryab, nicknamed "the Blackbird" because of his sweet voice and dark complexion, was a trendsetter and fashion arbiter in the ninth century--the medieval Islamic equivalent of Beau Brummel.***

He was a freed slave who began his career as the talented student of a prominent Baghdad musician and composer, Ishaq al-Mawsili. Ziryab was so successful that many preferred the student to the teacher. Al-Mawsili appears to have been unaware of his student's popularity until the caliph, Harun al-Rashid,**** asked if him if he had any particularly promising students. The teacher proudly introduced Ziryab, saying he might be a famous musician one day. The caliph was so taken with Ziryab's music that al-Mawsili decided Baghdad wasn't big enough for the two of them. He gave Ziryab two choices: leave town immediately (at al-Mawsili's expense) or suffer his teacher's enmity.

Ziryab chose the all-expenses paid tour of the Islamic world.

In 822 CE, he arrived at the Islamic court of Cordoba, the capital of Muslim Spain. He brought with him the latest styles from Baghdad, which was the political and cultural center of the civilized world.

The ruler of Cordoba, 'Abd al-Rahman III, was determined to bring Muslim Spain into the ninth century. He welcomed Ziryab to his court, and gave him an official position as court musician, unofficial influence, a handsome salary, and furnished mansion.

In his role as court musician, Ziryab introduced the oud, turned it into the lute, founded a music conservatory and wrote songs that were performed in Andalusia for generations. He introduced new instruments and new forms of musical composition.

In his role as cultural ambassador from Baghdad, he changed the way Spain lived. He introduced the idea of wearing different fabrics in different seasons. He transformed personal hygiene, introducing soap, toothpaste, and better ways to clean clothes. (All already familiar in Baghdad.) He introduced new dishes, including asparagus, the idea of serving meals in courses, and the concept of the tablecloth. He is even given credit for bringing the game of chess to Spain.

Ziryab died in 857 CE, after 35 years of helping Cordoba (and ultimately Europe as a whole) clean up its act.

*His name is Ronnie Malley. If you're in the Chicago area and interested in world music, he's worth keeping an eye on. I'll make it easy:
**In all fairness, not all musicologists agree that the guitar had its roots in Muslim Spain. I find their arguments unconvincing. But then, I would.
***For those of you who haven't spent a lot of time, in Regency England, Beau Brummell was for a brief time the undisputed ruler of high society as a result of his impeccable taste in clothing, his biting wit, and his friendship with the Prince of Wales, the actual ruler.
****I first encountered Harun al-Raschid while reading the Arabian Nights as a nerdy child. In many of the stories, he disguised himself and wandered about his city at night, and then trapped his subjects with the information he learned while incognito. As a child I was indignant at the unfairness of his justice, even while acknowledging that it was, in fact, just. (Children understand abuse of power even when they don't know the term.) Imagine my surprise when I learned that he was a real, much-admired, historical figure.

From the Archives: A Splendid Savage-An Interview with Steve Kemper

Sometimes life makes it impossible to write blog posts on a dependable basis.  This is one of the those times.  For the next little while, I'm going to run pieces from September and October in years past.  I hope you enjoy them, and I'll be back as soon as I can.

Next up, a post from September, 2016:

I'm a Steve Kemper fan. Four years ago, I read his A Labyrinth of Kingdoms with the sort of all encompassing fascination I brought to Gone with the Wind when I was thirteen. I've been eagerly awaiting his newest book, A Splendid Savage: The Restless Life of Frederick Russell Burnham, for at least two years.* Maybe longer. It did not disappoint.

a-splendid-savageA Splendid Savage tells the story of Frederick Russell Burnham (1861-1947), sometimes known as "the American scout"--a story with the dash of an H. Rider Haggard novel and a Saturday matinee thriller combined. The story of how he learned his astonishing woodcraft reads like a story from a boy's magazine of the nineteenth century. His career as a scout and prospector carried him to every frontier and mining boom in the second half of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth--serving as a lens for looking at the larger stories of American expansion westward and Europe's scramble for Africa.

Kemper successfully pieces together Burnham's life from limited (and sometimes controversial) resources--a challenge that he never tries to gloss over, but that he handles with such skill that it is easy to forget . He sets his splendid savage firmly in historical contexts that include Indian wars and range feuds in the American Southwest, the Anglo-Boer wars, mining camps in south Africa, the Mexican sierras and the Yukon, Wall Street booms and busts, and London high society.

As Kemper says in the prologue, "Other men of his era had a few such adventures, but Burnham had them all.'" If you like real life historical adventure with a complicated, larger-than-life hero, A Splendid Savage will be your cup of bush tea.

And now, welcome Steve Kemper:

Burnham was a well-known figure in his lifetime, but is largely forgotten today. What led you to Burnham?

I was researching a magazine story about hyenas and came across a remark by the African hunter and explorer Frederick Courteney Selous, who said that he had never met anyone who knew as much woodcraft as the famous American scout Frederick Russell Burnham. I’ve been fascinated by American scouts and frontiersmen since boyhood, but Burnham’s name was new to me. A famous scout? In Africa? And he knew more woodcraft than the celebrated Selous?

Naturally I Googled him, and naturally he had a Wikipedia entry. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I tracked down his two memoirs. Reading them encouraged me to keep digging, including a visit to the rich Burnham archive at Yale. It seemed incredible that no one had written his biography. I felt a bit like Barbara Tuchman after she stumbled across “Czar Reed” in her research for The Proud Tower. Reed was so “writable,” she said in her essay “Biography as a Prism of History,” that it seemed impossible no one had written about him, and she started worrying that another writer might beat her to the punch. I understood the feeling.

Your titles are always wonderful. Can you tell me where you got the title A Splendid Savage?

It’s from a letter Burnham wrote to his mother in October 1903 as he was about to leave colonial East Africa for Britain. The letter sounds like a farewell both to Africa and to the frontier way of life that he loved. Here’s a portion:

The wildest and sweetest land I have ever seen. It is I fear passing from me forever. Sometimes I wish I had never learned to read or form any conception of duty, civilization, religion, for I would have been and am at heart a splendid savage, nothing more, and now I am to return to London—to swallowtails, the club, soft carpets, soft food, soft life, soft men and women.

One of the things that fascinated me most about the book was Burnham's relationship with his wife, Blanche. They clearly loved each other, but her life as his wife could not have been easy.** You made the unusual and, to me at least, very appealing decision to include her experiences even when they were apart, instead of simply using her as a source for details about his life. What led you to make this choice?

Blanch was enormously important to Burnham, so their love story became a strong element in the book. Burnham was incapable of resting peacefully in domestic life, yet he depended on Blanche’s support and admiration. She was his partner, his psychological ballast, and his dream-catcher.

She was also an eyewitness to Burnham’s story. Her hundreds of letters to Burnham and other family members gave me invaluable intimate material.

Blanche was also fascinating in her own right. She enthusiastically accompanied Burnham to start new lives in rough places. She was strong, tough, and feminine, as adept with a pistol as with a decorative peacock feather. She was often deeply lonely because of Burnham’s prolonged absences. Her experiences and perspective let me illuminate Burnham from a different angle and illustrate the emotional costs of attaching oneself to a human whirlwind.

It seems like Burnham spent time at every frontier that opened in the second half of the nineteenth century, sometimes as a scout, sometimes as a prospector. What would you say was the driving force in his "restless life"?

No single force can explain his drive, but I think there were three main ones: a desire for risky action, for the possibility of financial fortune, and for the chance to influence the direction of history. Burnham loved frontiers because they offered the prospect of all three.

You deal very well with one of the hardest aspects of writing about nineteenth century travelers, adventurers, etc.: the question of racial attitudes. Could you talk a little bit about the complexity of Burnham's position on race, and how you decided to deal with it?

As I got deeper into the research and learned more about Burnham, this worried me, not only because many of his racial attitudes now strike us as deplorable, but also because I wasn’t sure I could do justice to both this explosive issue and to Burnham. In other words, I had to figure out a way to be honest about Burnham’s racial attitudes without reducing him to them or having them overshadow everything else about him.

Wrestling with this forced me to expand my views and my understanding of the past, and to acknowledge the deep connections between Burnham’s time and ours. We’re still arguing about how to do this—witness the recent demonstrations at various universities about Cecil Rhodes, Woodrow Wilson, and John C. Calhoun.

I found a quotation from the historical novelist Hillary Mantel that helped: ''Learn to tolerate strange worldviews. Don't pervert the values of the past. Women in former eras were downtrodden and frequently assented to it. Generally speaking, our ancestors were not tolerant, liberal or democratic. Your characters probably did not read The Guardian, and very likely believed in hellfire, beating children and hanging malefactors. Can you live with that?''

I could. My solution was to describe the forces that shaped Burnham within his historical context, while always keeping in mind that those forces had consequences for both good and ill, often simultaneously. I wrote an op-ed about this dilemma that might interest your readers:


*One of the benefits of knowing other writers is that you learn about books long before they come out. Of course, then you have to wait.

** In her own words: "It seems as though two tragedies and three wars were enough for any poor woman to bear."


Steve KemperSteve Kemper is also the author of A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa and Code Name Ginger. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut.









From the Archives: Dorothy Sayers, Black Cat Cigarettes, and WWI

Sometimes life makes it impossible to write blog posts on a dependable basis.  This is one of the those times.  For the next little while, I'm going to run pieces from September and October in years past.  I hope you enjoy them, and I'll be back as soon as I can.

Next up, a post from September, 2017:

My second favorite novel by British mystery author Dorothy Sayers is Murder Must Advertise,* in which her dashing sleuth Lord Peter Whimsey goes undercover as an entry level copy writer at an advertising agency where evil is afoot. He solves the murder of course, because that's the way these things happen. But he also gets caught up in the advertising business and creates the idea for an advertising campaign for a cigarette company called Whifflets that takes off in a big way: people collected coupons and used them first to travel and later to collect all manner of worldly goods.  Except coffins, it not being "admitted that any Whiffler could ever require such an article."

The campaign, and the clever language in which Sayers describes it, always amuses me. So imagine my amazement when I discovered something similar on a smaller scale in the form of Black Cat cigarettes while tracking down a factoid for my latest article for MHQ:The Journal of Military History.

Black Cat cigarettes were first introduced in 1904. The company began to use their cigarette packages as a vehicle for promotion almost immediately. At various points in the years prior to World War I they offered a program similar to S & H Green Stamps,** the Black Cat Library of Short Stories (a series of forty adventure tales), and a popular coupon program not unlike Whimsey's Whifflet promotion.

If that was all Black Cat did, I would have just enjoyed the moment when fiction and history collided, but in the First World War, Black Cat stepped up. The company sent gift packages to British troops, with French phrase books inside the Black Cat cigarette packs. In 1914, they offered miniature cardboard Allied flags. And in 1916 they produced the first cigarette cards--similar to baseball cards in bubblegum packs.*** These cards didn't celebrate anything as innocent as the national pastime--they were produced in alliance with the British wartime propaganda effort. The first set of cards was a series of 140 political cartoons by Dutch cartoonist Louis Raemaekers, with the motto "Lest we forget" on the reverse. But it was the second set that caught my fancy: a series of fifty cards illustrating "Women on War Work." Each card showed a smiling woman doing a job that women would not have done before the war, including ambulance driver, postal carrier, tram conductor, and furnace stoker. The reverse of each card described the work involved.

A small and engaging illustration (literally) of women's history.

*My absolute favorite is Gaudy Night. This does not make me unique.
**For those of you too young to remember Green Stamps, you can look it up here:
***I assume those of you who are too young to remember this can figure it out.