Earl Scruggs, 1924-2012

Musician Earl Scruggs has died. Scruggs was fortunate to see the musical style he helped create return to its rightful place in our culture not once but twice in his lifetime. Bluegrass had been overtaken by rock ‘n’ roll by the late 1950s when young, white kids began listening to the music of the 1920s and 1930s in suburban ranch houses and college dormitories across the United States. Thus the Folk-Blues Revival was born. Those country, folk, and blues musicians fortunate enough to be alive to see the renaissance suddenly found an audience they never previously enjoyed, or at least had not enjoyed for decades. When George Wein produced the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959 he made certain Scruggs and his band were on the bill.

The beatniks listening in the coffee shops of Greenwich Village, and their younger siblings still at home playing Leadbelly records on their hi fi’s, were going by a false premise. Mistakenly, the coming-of-age baby boomers believed they were returning to more pure and authentic musical styles. In reality, the songs of the Depression and the Roaring Twenties had been written, recorded, and marketed to the public with a great deal of thought and sophistication. The middle-aged bluesmen and folk singers were probably a little bemused by the whole thing, but there is something to be said for letting people believe what the want to believe.

The Second Coming came in 2000 after the release of the Coen Brothers’s O Brother, Where Art Though? The critically and commercially successful film brought bluegrass to yet another generation. Suddenly, Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, and others were again in the public eye. In part, it is what we have to thank for the popularity of such acts as Gillian Welch. That duo is itself a testament to the institutionalization of the music. David Rawlings is a New Englander from Rhode Island, and Welch herself grew up in California where her parents were staff writers on the Carol Burnett Show. The two met when studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Though its antecedents go back further, bluegrass itself dates to the mid-twentieth century. The term itself comes from the name for Bill Monroe’s ensemble, the Blue Grass Boys. Scruggs was one of the hundreds of musicians who passed through the temperamental, occasionally violent, and often angry Monroe’s band over the decades, and he was easily one of the most influential. He and Monroe alumnus Lester Flatt left the band in 1948 and founded the Foggy Mountain Boys. Scruggs did not create the famous three-finger style of banjo playing, but he did perfect it. Bluegrass is an astonishingly versatile music that is doing well today in the twenty-first century in large part thanks to Earl Scruggs and his colleagues. Thankfully, he lived to see it.

The Civil War in Georgia

The Civil War Monitor is a new, quarterly magazine that began publication in the fall of 2011. I became an early subscriber and cannot recommend the periodical highly enough. CWM also has a vibrant web presence, and recently Book Review Editor Matthew C. Hulbert gave me the privilege of reviewing The Civil War in Georgia, edited by John C. Inscoe. Enjoy.

A museum weekend

Hey everybody, wherever you happen to be this weekend I hope the weather is as fine as here in the Big Apple. By accident more than design, I am having a museum weekend.

Today a friend and I went to the Grolier Club for  “Torn in Two: the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War.” The exhibit is on loan from the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center of the Boston Public Library. The show did an excellent job of explaining the role of cartography in the war. A faulty map was often the case between victory or defeat on the battlefield. (See: Ball’s Bluff.)

Especially poignant were the maps in the section the exhibit’s creators called The Living Room War. A century before Vietnam brought another war into American homes via television, Americans in large numbers purchased maps printed specially for the purpose of following the movements of loved ones on far away battlefields. (Franklin Delano Roosevelt did the same thing during World War 2, encouraging citizens to purchase maps so they could follow along during his fireside chats.) Keep in mind that the mid-nineteenth century was a time when many Americans, North and South, had never traveled more than fifty miles from their homes. One map from 1861 had a portrait of Elmer Ellsworth in the upper left hand corner and Benjamin Butler in the upper right. I was greatly moved by one front page article, accompanied with a simple sketch of Sharpsburg and the Antietam battlefield, published in Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune just days after the battle.

Also on display was “Panorama of the Seat of War.” Looking at it, one understands the geographical advantages enjoyed by the Confederacy in the Eastern theater. The mountains and waterways intersecting the entire area created formidable challenges for the Army of the Potomac. As a ranger friend at Antietam National Battlefield points out to visitors during his orientations, soldiers at the time had no GPS devices in 1862. Oddly, this is something people today often have difficulty imagining.

Panorama of the Seat of War, John Bachmann, 1861

Also on display were these famous lithographs. It is always special to see the originals. Again, note the map motif.

General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan

Pro-McClellan 1864 political cartoon

Not everything in the show was from the Civil War era. On display was a detail from “Freedom’s Tracks: A Map of the Underground Railroad,” a map produced by the McElfresh Map Company in 2005 showing the routes runaways slaves used to escape bondage. Alas, I have no picture to show. In order to see it you will have to travel to the Upper East Side yourself. “Torn in Two” will be open to the public through April 28, 2012.

A while ago I got a last minute call from another friend asking if I would like to venture to Queens tomorrow to visit the Noguchi Museum. The outdoor sculptures should be especially beautiful with the cherry blossoms in full bloom.

It is so good getting out of the house after the winter, even the mild winter, we had. Enjoy your weekend.

(images/Library of Congress)

A new freedom trail?

People are often unaware of the rich history of New York City. Part of this is due to the nature of life here, which for centuries has been to tear down the old and build anew. (A friend visiting from out of town last week was mortified when we entered the current Penn Station for a train ride to Long Island; she was expecting something akin to the original.) Nowhere is this truer than in Lower Manhattan, which is the part of the city settled the longest by European inhabitants. Every day millions of people arrive from New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York itself, taking mass transit to the steel and glass office towers and hurrying home at 5:00 pm. About the only major tourist activity in the area is the site where the World Trade Center once stood. The Harlem Historical Society is hoping to change this by creating a Freedom Trail similar to the one in Boston. The trail would focus on abolitionist and nineteenth century civil rights activity in New York City. When people think of New York and African Americans the first thing that jumps to mind is the Great Migration that brought people to Harlem in the twentieth century. The story is deeper than that. Hopefully the Freedom Trail will become a reality in the near future and more people will be aware of this history. The local community board has signed off. Funding from disparate sources will hopefully come next.

Above: Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York State in 1797 and lived in Lower Manhattan in the late 1820s and early 1830s.

(image/Wright’s New York Gallery (MI), Cowan’s Auctions)

Sarna speaking

I have not yet had a chance to read his new book, but a colleague and I are going to Baruch College tomorrow afternoon to hear Dr. Jonathan Sarna discuss his new book When Grant Expelled the Jews. The just released book recounts the story of Grant’s General Order 11 that expelled Jews “as a class” from the territory under Grant’s jurisdiction in December 1862. Lincoln rescinded the order a few weeks later. From what I understand Sarna tells the story with restraint, letting the facts speak for themselves and then explaining how Grant tried to atone for his mistake.

Last night to get ready I again watched Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray, the award winning documentary released last year chronicling the the 10,000 Jews who fought on both sides of the conflict. Most histories of the Civil War that discuss the role of the Jews in the war, if they do that, mention Judah Benjamin and stop there. I am looking forward to hearing Sarna tomorrow and reading the book in the next few weeks. To be continued.

The restoration of Richard Theodore Greener

(Hat tip David Jensen)

I have written before of my appreciation for the recovery of Long Lost Items. The stories are exciting precisely because of their unexpectedness. You are reading the newspaper one day and learn, for instance,  that a WW2 German U-boat has been discovered off the coast of New Jersey, as actually happened about a decade ago. The other day a friend forwarded me this piece about the discovery of a cache of personal effects once belonging to Richard T. Greener. That many readers might not know who Greener was is unfortunate, because he was very much the equal of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and even W.E.B DuBois. Greener was the first African American graduate of Harvard College, entering that institution in September 1865 as a member of the first class to enroll after the Civil War’s end that April. In the early 1870s Greener was the principal of the Male Department in the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth. He soon took a similar post at a school in Washington DC. Eventually Greener earned his law degree from the University of South Carolina. While studying there he traveled through the heart of the fire eating Palmetto State preaching the gospel of racial equality, often under considerable threat of violence. Wisely, Greener left South Carolina as Reconstruction was ending. He moved back to Washington where he served as Dean of Howard University’s Law School, but left after a few years to open his own highly successful practice on T Street. Greener was a Republican and a close friend of U.S. Grant’s. He was secretary of the Grant Monument Association and was thus largely responsible for the creation of Grant’s Tomb. He even procured funds from African nations such as Sierra Leone for this endeavor. Later he served in India, China, and Russia in the McKinley and Roosevelt Administrations. (It is always surprising to read/hear of Americans serving in such far flung regions in the nineteenth century.)

Richard T. Greener

In the earlier twenthieth century Greener had fallen into obscurity, eventually moving to Chicago. That so few know who Richard T. Greener is today is partly because his family was not there to protect his legacy. Many had changed their name to Greene and lived their lives passing in White America. Greener died in 1922.

The documents that came to light the other day were found in a derelict house in a rough neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. A construction worker found them in a trunk in 2009 and saved them by stuffing them in a paper bag. Included are Greener’s Harvard diploma and his personal correspondence with President Grant. How these items came to be found in  a derelict home open to drug addicts is one of the story’s great mysteries. Time will tell where these items will eventually settle. Wherever they do end up, we can only hope they restore Greener to his rightful place in the pantheon of Great Americans.

(image/J.H. Cunningham for The Colored American, 1890)


Hey everybody, it is Sunday afternoon. A good friend of ours was here from Texas this week. We visited Ellis Island yesterday, in addition to  a number of other things over the course of the week. I took copious notes and photographs and intend to post them in the coming days. She went back this morning, and now we are getting ready for another busy work week. A little while ago I went to Green-Wood Cemetery for a quick walk before the gates closed. While there I took a few snaps on my cell phone.

A few families had come this weekend to visit family members in observance of St. Patrick’s Day. Such observances are not uncommon and are a reminder that Green-Wood is very much a “living” cemetery. Seeing such things always touches me.

Yesterday I posted a photograph of the headstone placed in memory of Thomas Francis Meagher. The “In Memory” was because the leader of the Irish Brigade is not interred at Green-Wood, though his family is. The general’s remains were lost when he fell off a boat and drowned in 1867. Today I happened up General Thomas William Sweeny. Sweeny was born in Cork, Ireland in 1820 and fought in the Mexican-American and Civil Wars. Note the American and Irish flags.

In the old days visitors to Green-Wood tethered their horses to these posts when visiting their loved ones. Objects like these are tangible manifestations of the past and always make me feel closer to the people who came before us.

The calendar says there are two days left in winter, but as you can see spring has arrived in New York City.

Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.