Sarah Carr, Hope Against Hope

June 15, 2015

This is a profound, beautifully written, intelligent and moving book about the jarring changes in the New Orleans public school system since Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. As you may have heard, our Crescent City is now on the cutting edge of the school privatization/reform/charter movement that has been sweeping the Sarah Carr Hope against Hopenation, and has been cited by Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, as a model for the nation. Those of us who actually live here tend to see things differently; in my own opinion, New orleans becoming a model for the nation would be a tragedy of the first order. In any case, what is really wonderful about Carr’s book is that she avoids the postage-stamp caricatures that both sides in the debate generally make of each others’ points of view. She explores all viewpoints with nuance and compassion, following a freshman at a KIPP high school, a young white teacher at Sci High, and an experienced black woman principal at O. Perry Walker school, through the ups and downs of a whole school year. While doing this she also considers the history of public education in the United States and New Orleans in particular, segregation and integration, No Child Left Behind and the quantification movement, Teach for America, and many other aspects of the subject. There are many books about these issues — I also like Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System — but Hope Against Hope is one of the best out there, a must read for anyone interested in education.


Indexing, cont’d again

June 12, 2015

OK just one more — here’s the entry for New Orleans:New Orleans entry

Indexing, cont’d.

June 9, 2015

Indexing is zen, indexing is calm, focused, thoughtful work. I’m also a big user and appreciator of indexes in other people’s books. So I’m trying to make this one good for all my kindred spirits out there.

Here’s a screen grab of the entry on William C. C. Claiborne, governor of the Orleans Territory and one of the major figures in the book:Claiborne index entry


June 2, 2015

I’m working on the index for Building the Land of Dreams. It’s tedious work; you just read through the book, page by page, listing all the terms, people, places, ideas, events, etc, on each page that are indexable terms, and gradually an index forms. But it’s also satisfying, in a strange geeky way. It’s a great way to think about what the book is about and to get an overview of the mass of content that fills these 400 (or so) pages.

Naturally you can’t do the index until the page proofs are done, because you have to have the actual page numbers to refer to. So it’s traditionally one of the last parts of the process. Some authors get to hire professional indexers, but I didn’t want the money for that coming out of my end, so I’m doing it myself. I’ve been looking at a lot of Indexes lately. There are a surprising number of creative choices to be made while indexing. The index to Sean Wilentz’s Rise of American Democracy (also one of my favorite books, not surprisingly) is truly a masterpiece, an indexing tour de force.

While indexing I’m also proofreading for any last minute changes and errors that have slyly survived until now. I did find one sentence that was an absolute grammatical disaster. I estimate there will be about a dozen changes in the whole book.

Robert Gordon, Respect Yourself

May 6, 2015

This history of Stax Records is simply a fantastic book by any standard. It’s compulsively readable, it’s painstakingly researched, and it is about a wonderful topic. It works very well on two levels: one, the personalities (on both sides of the art/business divide) that make timeless, deeply influential music at Stax from 1958 to 1975; and two, for more serious historians, the parallels between the Stax story in Memphis and the broader regional and national stories of racial oppression, unrest, and the golden years of the Civil Rights movement.

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, by Robert Gordon

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, by Robert Gordon


Stax is often twinned with Motown, which existed at roughly the same time (but lasted longer). Both were hugely important to the history of American music, and both maneuvered in the neutral zone between R&B, pop, rock, and funk to create new kinds of musical experiences that proved irresistibly appealing and surprisingly lasting. But there were many differences too: while black-owned Motown built an assembly line model inspired by its Detroit location, and made a successful business at the occasional expense of its artists, both their income and their creative autonomy, multiracial Stax was an artists’ label first and foremost, where creativity was king — and business often took a back seat. Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, and house band Booker T and the MGs were part of a musical and social family that was all the more incredible for having been born in the heart of ultra-segregated Memphis at the damn of the 1960s. Gordon does not sugarcoat, and there is plenty of dark stuff — payola, drugs, violence, and the tragic plane crash that ended Redding’s life at age 26 — but on the whole, the Stax story is an inspiring one about how a dedicated record company can change both music history and the world itself.

For me there was an extra edge to this having been to Memphis in the 1990s to record $1.99 Romances, my first major label album, and having listened to endless stories of Memphis recording lore — stories that now make sense to me in light of Memphis native Gordon’s deep context. Along with, perhaps, the Jac Holzman/Elektra autobiography, this is probably the best book about a record label ever written.

Jazz fest

May 5, 2015

This is my third year attending the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. It really is enormous and a lot different from the “ordinary” festivals in other places: add in the second lines, the New Orleans food, the party atmosphere, and the simply staggering number of stages and artists. Also the prospect for extreme weather, either in terms of rainfall or scorching sunshine.

Last year we brought both our kids; Millie went off with her friends while Lisa & I dragged the boy to see Bruce Springsteen at the ridiculously overcrowded Acura Stage. This year Lisa and dude stayed home and I took Millie with her friends. I avoided the Acura stage (where Elton John was headlining) and spent most of the time sitting in a folding chair reading Robert Gordon’s book about Stax, listening to a succession of mediocre performers while waiting for Ed Sheeran.

And Ed Sheeran was great. I’m a big fan. It feels real since it’s just him with the loop pedal, he can be a bit unscripted, and he’s got great energy and great tunes. But I realized something at this Jazz Fest, something I’ve kinda known for years, but have been in denial about because, you know, one likes to try to get in the spirit of things. But the fact is this: I hate music festivals. Bad sound, way, way too many people, wars over your little patch of grass, bad overpriced food, long lines for food and bathrooms: what is enjoyable about this? Well, for some people, the music, I suppose. For me it’s not worth it. There, I said it. It seems ungrateful, in a way, since my career for a long time depended on the fact that other people, bless their hearts, enjoy this sort of thing. But it’s not my bag, baby.

Author Photos

April 19, 2015

Taken by the fabulous Cathy Weeks.

Book Jacket

March 29, 2015

Sweet eh?

Faber_Building the Land of Dreams

The Book is Done

December 2, 2014

After spending probably too long on revisions, hunting down a bunch of image permissions, and correcting far too many footnotes, the moment has come: I have SUBMITTED THE FINAL MANUSCRIPT for Building the Land of Dreams.

While there’s still plenty to do (proofreading, index, approving art/design, etc) this feels like a big milestone. Six years of work on this, let’s call it, dating back to when I began to get interested in the subject during my 2nd-year guided readings course with John Murrin on War and Society in Early America. The research paper I wrote for John that winter, which first brought me to some of the major sources I use in the book like Claiborne’s Letter Books and the Territorial Papers volumes, was really the first step in this whole process; parts of that paper survive in Chapter 9 of the finished book.

I think the final version is a major, significant improvement over the dissertation. Its language is more compact and less abstruse, its ideas are clearer, and the conclusion is a lot more thorough. It was a challenge to balance revising the book with a full teaching load this semester. But it’s done and I’m feeling pretty good right now.

Stop saying we ought to let Texas secede

September 19, 2014

OK, so Scottish voters have spoken, and they’re going to stay part of the UK, hassles and all. And I think they made the right decision. But I notice the whole episode brought out a trope that really annoys me: my liberal friends from the Northeast saying things like, “we should let Texas secede, then we can run the country the way we want.” There are many variations — one facebook friend posted that we should allow Texas and Alabama to form Texabama (I don’t see how you could leave out Louisiana and Mississippi in that case, but whatever). Sometimes it’s expressed as, “we should have just let the South go in 1860” (and let slavery continue there too, presumably).

This sentiment peeks through every time a Rick Perry or some other conservative Southern blowhard flirts with the ol’ secession talk. But it came up in conjunction with the Scotland thing for a different reason: a  big reason many progressive Scots voted “yes” was the thought that they could escape political domination by Anglo-Conservatives, that they could make a break with Cameronism and have a nice Social democratic, Labourite state in Scotland (and finance it all with those North Sea oil revenues). And that’s the thought in the minds of many Northeastern liberals: if we could only part ways with the Republican Bible Belt, the most populated and prosperous part of the country could have a nice forward-thinking Democratic Elizabeth Warren regime and never again have to listen to the Tea Party bullshit.

It’s a nice thought, and these are people that I generally agree with, about principles. But it’s wrong.

For one thing, I’ve lived here three years, and there are a lot of intelligent, progressive Southerners who want nothing to do with living in the sort of corporatist theocracy that Texas might become if left to its own devices.

Southern progressives may not have the upper hand right now, but these things have a way of always changing. At the turn of the 20th c. the South was a hotbed of radical Populism. In the 1930s the South was (pretty) solid for FDR’s New Deal (while “liberal” New York was opposed). Louisiana felt the New Deal didn’t go far enough and elected Huey Long, who made Elizabeth Warren look like a corporate shill. LBJ, who gave us Vietnam, yes, but also gave us Civil Rights ’64, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and the NEA (has there ever been more progressive legislation in such a short time?) came not from the liberal Northeast but from the farm-coop culture of rural West Texas.

Of course, since Nixon’s Southern strategy and the rise of the Moral Majority, the South has been going in a very Republican direction, with exceptions in the cities (like New Orleans, and much of Florida). But the point is, this can change. And we should be trying to encourage that change — not trying to kiss the whole region goodbye out of what is, I hate to say this, nothing more than narrow-minded regional prejudice.

The South has problems, yes. A history of slavery and segregation, and a very unequal distribution of wealth. There’s more poverty, more murder, more ignorance here, per capita, than most of the rest of the USA. But these are problems to be solved, not shoved away with a contemptuous feeling of superiority.

And more importantly, in the bigger picture: Union is good. Our nation is big and strong and that works out well for all of us. We might like to believe we’ve entered some postmodern age where national power does not matter, where all nations big or small cooperate equally to solve the world’s problems. But we know that day is a long way off. The world is still a hostile and dangerous place. National power matters. We have it; much of the rest of the world would kill (and sometimes they do) to try to take it away from us. This is what the Scottish yes voters didn’t take into consideration.

Union is good. abraham-lincolnWe figured this out in 1861-1865. After 1865 even most Southerners admitted it. Our union is a good thing, our democracy, though it is fucked up in any number of ways, is still a good thing. Abraham Lincoln and the 365,000 Union troops who died to preserve the Union (and end slavery) were not wrong. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people is a special thing worth fighting for. The architects of the European Union — an idea that also seems to be sliding into disrepair — understood the value of a large union. So did the citizens of the former USSR, who let their federation fall apart in a careless moment in 1991 they’ve regretted ever since. We are so lucky to have what we have.

I know the Rick Perrys of the world are a drag to share this country with. But don’t give up on Texas, Louisiana, the South. Work with us on making them what they can and should be. Separatism in either direction is not a progressive value.

UPDATE: New poll says 23.9% of Americans want their state to secede. It goes up to 34% in Texas, down to 18% in Maine, Massachusetts, etc. But basically the usual maniacs. Scattered through the comments, however, are periodic iterations of the “please, go ahead, let them secede” meme.