The Making of Southern History in Britain
Eric Burdon stoned in Mississippi on the Animal's US tour. Mardi Gras Indians, segregation, 1964!
--The Mekons, "Amnesia"
At the end of 1997, a series of advertisements for a new "One-2-One" mobile telephone service began to appear on televisions and in cinemas around Britain. Most of these adverts took the form of a British celebrity explaining why he or she would especially like the opportunity to have a one-to-one conversation with a particular figure from history. Two of the first three featured icons from the modern South. Supermodel Kate Moss chose a young Elvis Presley, cinematically embalmed in his 1956 pomp. Ian Wright, a black England soccer player at the forefront of a national "Kick It Out" campaign to end racism on the terraces, chose Martin Luther King Jr.
The Wright advertisement was an especially powerful, rather moving piece of work--even if some have questioned the ethics of using the martyred King essentially to sell phones. It cleverly interposed Wright into familiar scenes of black protest and southern white violence from civil rights campaigns in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Memphis. The most poignant moment came when Wright admitted in a voiceover, heard as images of Bull Connor's flesh-peeling fire hoses played across the screen, that what he would most like to have asked King is how he had maintained his commitment to nonviolence amid so much provocation. This had added piquancy--or irony for the more cynical--for British viewers, who know Wright as a brilliant but highly volatile player, as an engaging, effervescent character off the pitch, whose frightening intensity and commitment on it has frequently led him into violent clashes with opponents and officials. Yet, here was Wright embracing King, the nonviolent warrior, as a readily intelligible symbol of the best he would aspire to be.
One of the most striking things about these advertisements is the simple fact that two of the modern South's most celebrated sons, Martin and Elvis, are obviously still such powerful cultural forces in Britain some thirty and twenty years after their respective deaths. Their images immediately conjure up a particular set of resonances, serving as shorthand for a time, a region, a set of values, beliefs, and modes of expression that are marked distinctively southern in British minds. I have seen this phenomenon in my own experience teaching southern history at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Each year, I ask new students, few of whom have previously studied any American history--let alone any specifically southern history--to complete a simple questionnaire testing their knowledge of the region. King routinely gets more than twice as many votes as anyone else in the "famous southern men" category. Presley is the second most frequently nominated figure, a little way ahead of that other famous southern pelvic thruster, Bill Clinton. King and Presley also head the list of figures who these British students believe are heroes or heroines to southerners. Not surprisingly, Elvis is the most often cited "southern artist," followed not too closely by Dolly Parton, Louis Armstrong, country rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd, Garth Brooks, and the group REM. Perhaps even more revealingly, only the Civil War and emancipation are cited more often than the death of Martin Luther King as an event that "decisively shaped southern history."
Now, this spot quiz is possibly one of the least rigorously conducted or statistically reliable public-opinion surveys ever devoted to the South. For example, Bessie Smith's unusually strong showing in the "famous southern women" category one year probably happened because I played a couple of her songs while the students completed their questionnaires, disingenuously introducing the tracks with "this is Bessie Smith, she was a famous female southern blues singer." Nevertheless, the quiz does provide some interesting insights into the origins and nature of contemporary British ideas about the South.
For this generation of students, and an even younger one not yet imbued with the deep sensitivity to the southern way of things American displayed by my fledgling undergraduates, such cultural products as the "One-2-One" advertisements are a vital part of an education about the South that initially takes place almost entirely in the realm of the media and popular culture. Thanks to the steady development of deeply penetrative mass-media and -culture industries in the twentieth century, often dominated by products rooted in the American South--from Coca-Cola to Jack Daniels, from jazz to rock and roll--the British have acquired a keen, but vicarious and highly unreliable, social memory of the region, constructed largely from materials found within the worlds of entertainment and advertising.
This, of course, is a decidedly shaky foundation on which to build a particularly sound or nuanced understanding of the South and its history. I have certainly spent much of my professional life seeking to disabuse myself and my students of the stereotypes and misconceptions that this sort of media-based introduction to the South can produce. Although only one person to date on my southern quiz has actually listed "eating squirrel brains" among the four things they associate most readily with the region, there are always quite a few who-- tongues possibly firmly in cheeks--cite "incest," "rednecks," or "backwardness." Deliverance clearly still has a lot to answer for. And yet, it may actually be that instead of fleeing from this admittedly treacherous media-, culture-, and commerce-based introduction to the southern past, British historians of the region should embrace it. British southern-studies teachers might do well to recognize that their students' first taste of southern culture is not only likely to be courtesy of Colonel Sanders's secret recipe, the animated television show King of the Hill, or Sparklehorse's Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot album, but that this fact offers a unique pedagogic opportunity. Moreover, exploiting our personal experience of the ways in which popular culture and the mass media combine to create a shared consciousness of the South may actually offer one hope of moving beyond Tony Badger's characterization of British scholarship on American history as "more meticulous than original"--as worthy, sometimes exceptional, but rarely responsible for shifting the boundaries of historical debate or technique.(1)
But before moving on to such lofty academic matters, I beg leave to sing a little song of myself, or more accurately of my engagement with the South-- even if it is less Walt Whitman than Slim Whitman, and possibly more Slim Pickens than either. I have certainly found it illuminating and salutary to revisit the sources of my own interest in the region and to reconsider the ways in which my early impressions of the South have interacted with more domestic, identifiably British factors to shape my own teaching and scholarship, where race, popular culture, and the mass media loom large and inseparable.
LONG DISTANCE INFORMATION: ME AND MEMPHIS, 1968
The Elvis and Martin "One-2-One" advertisements have a special meaning for me. A self-confessed and unrepentant example of a media-made British southernist, I first became aware of the South as a distinct section of the United States in 1968. More precisely, I became aware of Memphis through two events that marked out much of the terrain I would later explore as a historian. When Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis on 4 April 1968, my father was in the Royal Air Force, and my family had been stationed in Germany for almost three years. In truth, my memories of King's death are hazy, and, although I cannot swear to it, I doubt I had actually thought about, possibly even heard of, King until he was killed.
That same year, another southern king also entered my world via Memphis and the media. Elvis Presley's television "Comeback Special" from Memphis was a major media event in Germany, where Elvis had done his army service and where the show was actually aired before it reached Britain. It was certainly big news in our household where, notwithstanding my dad's love of Bing Crosby and dabblings in the country music of Johnny Cash, or my mum's more classical interests, my own musical education had largely been taken care of by two older brothers before we left England. They had exposed me to many southern sounds, or at least to music derived from blues and rhythm-and-blues styles whose roots could be traced to the region. My eldest brother was a fan of early Presley, although his tastes in the 1960s gravitated towards the Rolling Stones and from there to some of their American blues mentors. My other brother suckled on southern white boys Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison and cut his rock teeth on the Animals and Yardbirds before developing a voracious appetite for the southern soul of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Joe Tex. My sister, the only one of my siblings to make the trip with me and my parents to Germany, had more folk- and pop-oriented tastes. She was also the best history teacher I ever had. It was from her that I learned how the "Comeback Special" marked Elvis's resurrection from the living death of an interminable stream of bland and interchangeable Hollywood movies. By the time it was shown, I was as caught up as everyone else in the romance and expectation that accompanied the King's triumphant return to his tangled musical roots in Memphis.
The show was the earliest televisual experience I can really recall in any detail,and three segments particularly stick in my mind. The first was a sort of extended musical-dance interlude, set notionally in one of the seedier bars in New …