Like many men of my age and geography, I will purchase just about anything Bruce Springsteen sells, and that includes his strange and raucous new release, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, nominally a tribute to octogenerian folksinger Pete Seeger, but more broadly another small piece in Springsteen's ongoing reinterpretation of American culture. The record covers traditional folk material - no originals. It sounds entirely live, recorded with a wide-ranging group of musicians, the errant tuba occasionally reminiscent of Springsteen's whirling, precocious early sound.
Being both a careful producer and a careful liberal, Springsteen is always controlling about both his musical releases and his statements. But this record is sloppy, haphazard. So is the message, but the results are less joyful. Because there in lineup is that old folk warhorse, the Ballad of Jesse James - and because of it, the calliope crashes to the ground.
Everybody knows the song, and perhaps in its inherent long-standing myth, there's an innocence that calls for forgiveness to actual history, at least for aging rock musicians:
Jesse James was a man
And he killed many men
He robbed the Glendale train
And he took from the rich
And he gave that to the poorer
He'd a hand and a heart and a brain
History tells a different tale. Skip the heart - in history, Jesse James had a hand, and a gun, and a brain - that brain belonged to the lost cause of the Confederacy, to race hatred, and to revenge. And the gun belonged to American terrorism.
Jesse James was terrorist who killed without compassion. The record on that is clear. Oh, he wasn't the mastermind of a movement like Osama bin Laden (that honor in the Border Wars belonged to the hate killers Bill Anderson and William Quantrill), but he certainly was of the ilk of killers like Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abdelkarim Hussein Mohammed al-Nasser, and others on the U.S. most wanted list of international terrorists. And the U.S. government, on behalf of its terrorized civilian population in Kansas and Missouri and the midwest, hunted Jesse and his brother Frank and the rest of their gang with at least the relentless passion we now employ against killer hiding in Pakistani provinces.
Author T.J. Stiles wrote a brilliant revisionist book a few years back that tore the cover off the James myth (created largely in the 20th century, long after his death at the hands of bounty hunter Robert Ford). Jesse James : Last Rebel of the Civil War is a terrific page-turner, but it's also terrifying to those who believe in the ancient values of the American heartland, who go for the Disney view of the Civil War's aftermath, western expansion, and the deadly growth pains of our nation. It's surprising that Springsteen hasn't read it, and that musicians like Seeger and Van Morrison (who also prominently covered the ballad) don't have a clue as to the real story.
Under a greater "lost cause" movement led by Quantrill after the Confederacy to punish pro-Union supporters in Missouri, James and his ilk engaged in ritual torture, murder, scalping, dismemberment, attacks on unarmed civilians, destruction of property, and general violent mayhem. They also lined their own pockets. But James is remembered primarily because of his canny use of the media of the day, mainly pro-Southern newspaper publishers who created in him a Robin Hood figure for the lost cause of the South. "In his political consciousness and close alliance with a propagandist and power broker, in his efforts to win media attention with his crimes," wrote Stiles. "Jesse James was a forerunner of the modern terrorist."
There is nothing but religion and modern munitions technology to seperate the Quantrill/James movement of the midwest from the al-Qaeda of today. Yet, when Stiles' book reached the Amazon best-seller list a few years ago, some reviewers attacked it as "anti-southern." In an instant, you could see the distant, historic connection between the defeat of the Confederacy and its violent aftermath and the successful "Southern Strategy" of Ronald Reagan's Republican Party, which leveraged the chip on the South's historic shoulder to provide stunning electoral success - and reward the very political party that Southerners once believed had ravaged their culture forever. Steve Gillard writes about this quite often, under the banner of not letting the GOP off the hook (and I think, under the hope that the strategy is on its last legs in 2006). He has another good post on the traditional Reagan-based Stars and Bars strategem; here's a piece:
There are two Confederacys, one of history and one of imagination.
The one we deal with today is of imagination.
The one of rebel flags and the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the cult of the dead rebels.
It has little to do with reality.
The real Confederacy was closer to Biafra than Nazi Germany. A poor, break away Republic destined to be crushed by the larger neighbor.
The reason you get people like Jim Webb playing cute and George Allen praising the Confederacy has to do with how the Confederacy was resurrected in the postwar period. It was about race and integration, not history.
He is exactly correct. And it's really not such a Southern Strategy any more - as Steve has said, it's a dissatisfied, disenfranchised whites strategy nowadays, going far beyond the borders of the Southern states. But it's showing its age and fraying at the edges as well, mainly because the economic reality for so many middle class white people is so starkly disadvantaged when compared to the wealth of those who actually run the Republican Party. These days, the civil rights battles of the old South make for good tourism in the new South. I've been the Birmingham and Montgomery recently - civil rights history is bringing the tourists in.
Still, this love of Confederate myth - the glorious lost cause - persists. A few years back, I was in Charleston on business and a friend and I took a walking tour of the old part of the city. Fascinating and beautiful. But in the old church downtown, there's a memorial to the martyred sons of "the nation" - and it's ain't the United States they're talking about. My friend was horrified, and vilified the local guide - who calmly described the pre-Civil War Charleston as a city in a golden age when African-American slaves had it pretty good. We passed on the Bobby Lee statues in the gift shop and decided on a self-guided tour from that point on.
Bruce Springsteen should know better. This pining away for the Confederate past and its post-war terrorist followers shouldn't make his latest record - no matter how traditional the tune is. The hero myth should die.
In Kearney, Missouri they still hold their Jesse James Festival every year - paid for partly with municipal funds - and the official history of the town on the Web still rails against the cruelty of "the Federals." A group of citizens gives tours at the nonprofit Jesse James Farm Museum, and raises money to preserve the hallowed ground.
Tourism, I guess - maybe someday there'll be a similar set-up in the mountains of Afghanistan.