Category Archives: History

Sincerely and most ardently yours (Why don’t they write!?)

I am writing today to lament the tragic and rapid disappearance of a very classic and elegant form of expression: the love letter. The love letter (or note if someone was pressed for time) has been in existence since written forms of languages were developed. Love is one of the fundamental emotions felt by humans, and for thousands of years we have been trying with and without success to effectively put it into words. Love letter writing was once a very serious undertaking. Manuals on how to accomplish such a task date back as far as the sixteenth century. We take for granted today how easy it is to be physically near our partners and how much alone time unmarried couples are allowed now in the western world. Without the means of modern transportation and the often heavy supervision of chaperones often the love letter was the only way (provided the couple found a discrete and trusty means for delivery) that a pair of lovers could earnestly express their affections for one another. It was even considered acceptable as late as the Victorian period for gentlemen to propose marriage through letters. I think that’s a fact most people today might find a little off-putting when so much emphasis tends to be placed on the act of “popping the question” these days. This was not so in the past when a young man might be too bashful or overcome with intense emotion that he could not effectively express his intentions verbally. The Victorians, as they were wont to do, of course took love letter writing to a whole new level. They often used scented inks, gaudily decorated stationary, and flowery language. Penmanship was a skill cultivated by the more affluent classes. Judgements were passed on the quality of a person based on this fact alone. In other words a great deal of thought went into letter writing and it was governed by a score of precise rules that did not really loosen until the twentieth century.

One of the beauties of the love letter is that, provided it is looked after, there is forever a record of the very intimate exchanges of two people. So many love letters from famous individuals survive today and have provided great insight into their lives. I personally love reading these sort of exchanges between such individuals. I think a great deal can be gathered about a person by the way he or she expresses him or herself to his or her partner.

I love the eighteenth century example found in the letters of John and Abigail Adams. Not only were they very much in love which is clearly evident, but John also considered Abigail his intellectual equal and elicited his “Diana’s” advice and opinion on political matters. John was often taken far away by his involvement in forging a new nation so letter writing gave the couple their only means of keeping close and the couple took great advantage of this exchanging well over 1,000 letters that we know about today. You probably don’t really think cute when you think of John Adams, but this little letter he sent Abigail in 1762 might change your mind:

“By the same Token that the Bearer hereof satt up with you last night I hereby order you to give him, as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company after 9 O’Clock as he shall please to Demand and charge them to my Account: This Order, or Requisition call it which you will is in Consideration of a similar order Upon Aurelia for the like favour, and I presume I have good Right to draw upon you for the Kisses as I have given two or three Millions at least, when one has been received, and of Consequence the Account between us is immensely in favour of yours.”

There is a great book of their letters called My Dearest Friend, which is an excellent way to experience one of the greatest American love stories.

I am a known fan of Keats. Pretty much any guy who quoted his words to me could easily capture my affections. However, there was the one poor idiot who once tried to pass Shakespeare’s famous rose line from Romeo and Juliet off as Keats to me at a bar. Suffice it to say he was left quite embarrassed and without my phone number. Anyway, Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne in their tragically sad love affair are interesting and tenderly melancholy, which appeals to me. God love a poet, they’ll break your heart, but they can certainly woo:

“I never knew before, what such a love as you have made me feel, was; I did not believe in it; my Fancy was afraid of it, lest it should burn me up. But if you will fully love me, though there may be some fire, ’twill not be more than we can bear when moistened and bedewed with Pleasures.”

Often those of us today make the mistake of assuming those in the past were somehow all more prudish and straight-laced than we are today. While outwardly this might have been how things appeared, not everyone kept their love letters as prim as one would think. Take for example this rather juicy excerpt from a letter written by Gustave Flaubert to his lover Louise Colet in 1846:

“I will cover you with love when next I see you, with caresses, with ecstasy. I want to gorge yu [sic] with all the joys of the flesh, so that you faint and die. I want you to be amazed by me, and to confess to yourself that you had never even dreamed of such transports… When you are old, I want you to recall those few hours, I want your dry bones to quiver with joy when you think of them.”

It sounds like ol’ Gustave knew how to show Louise a good time. But if you really want to read some steamy (and quite frankly, graphic) examples of love letters look no further than the early twentieth century example of those written by James Joyce to Nora Barnacle. I’m afraid I do not even have the courage to excerpt them here. Trust me, though, if you aren’t faint of heart or easily offended, they are quite the interesting read. See, letter writing can be fun!

Letter writing lived on with only a slightly diminished vigor post-telephone it seems until the birth of the internet. I love the internet. It’s great in many ways. However, I really blame it and cellphones for the decline of letter writing and proper communication skills in general. Very few of my generation (the 20s set) seem to write any form of letters at all. We text, email, Facebook, etc. For some things, though, like love letters, these forms of communication simply aren’t a good substitute. There is something to be said about receiving a letter from a loved one in the mail. It means something for someone to take the time out of their day to pen thoughts specifically designed for another. I love the intimacy of that act. I try to write letters as much as I can. I was raised by parents who wrote and write letters still from time to time. I had pen pals as a child years before I learned to use the internet. I have written love letters as well. I find satisfaction in it. I wish more people my age would get back into the habit of posting their thoughts to one another. Yes, speed and efficiency are sacrificed, but sometimes speed and efficiency are overrated. I guarantee, from personal experience, it would be very hard to find a young lady (or man for that matter) who would not enjoy receiving the written expression of their significant other’s affections folded into a lovely handwritten letter. Speaking of which, all you guys out there should really consider taking a look at “The Art of Manliness'” post about letter writing. It’s actually good advice if you’re looking to woo a special lady especially one with a romantic soul. The same goes for ladies too looking for a special way to charm a young man. Stamps really aren’t that expensive. Why not give it a try?

I hope one day we’ll return to letter writing, but I’m afraid it would take some sort of post-apocalyptic situation the likes of which were seen in that bizarre Kevin Costner film The Postman. In the mean time, though, I’ll keep doing my part by writing letters as often as I can, and faithfully checking my letter box. Happy writing, everyone!


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Filed under History, Miscellany

(Good) changes abound

After more than a month of not posting, I’m back. If I may write frankly, the time period from about the time I last posted at the end of May to the present has been a transformative one. It has been filled with both endings and beginnings that have brought a lot of pain but a lot of positivity and peace of mind as well. I have always believed that there is no such thing as the black and white concept of good and bad/good and evil. I think all things have both a dark and a light side to them, I guess sort of like the Chinese philosophical principal of yin and yang. The universe, though we may not be able to believe it when we are knee deep in some situation, will always even itself out. Nothing really is ever purely wonderful or truly terrible. I think that is the biggest concept I’ve had reaffirmed for me this past month. When I was thinking that the past year was simply terrible, being in the wrong place, attaching myself or being forced onto the wrong people, and dealing with some pretty wicked inner demons, it wasn’t ever all bad. I’m also one of those people who, although I don’t choose to believe in a higher deity, chooses to believe that most things happen for a reason. In my own life, all the bad stuff over the past year has happened for reasons that, oddly enough, have only become clear over the past week or so. It’s an amazing feeling too when you realize you’ve been walking around in a pretty dense fog, and that fog suddenly lifts, putting you back on the main road.

One of the most enlightening experiences I’ve had thus far this summer is getting an opportunity to intern at the museum. I am very disappointed to say that I let the past several months or so beat the passion and love I once felt for the museum field out of me. I got fairly lost in the what-do-I-want-to-do-with-my-life department and gave up almost entirely, something I have never done willingly in my life. I let myself go from being a very driven, vibrant young person to someone who just didn’t care or, rather, didn’t know how to care anymore. This is the attitude I had coming into the museum this summer. However, in dealing with the turmoil extant in my subsurface, I neglected to realize there was something deeper, waiting patiently, keeping warm in the glow of the fire in the core of my being as the storm raged overhead. This was an old childhood friend, a true friend, the kind that never really abandons you even when you act like a complete idiot or you lose touch for a while. This friend was my love of history. I had seen it peek out every now and then over the last months when I would get a rare chance to discuss public history in my classes or if I had a moment to read a good history book in my spare time. Then something would inevitably go off to the contrary and it would scurry back down to its hiding place. One of the strongest moments like this, though, occurred this past spring and very nearly helped pull me back into the boat.

I took a cultural history class last semester. It was pretty good as far as history seminars go. Somehow by a very fortuitous coincidence one of my favorite historians of all time, Peter H. Wood, came to visit my school. As a freshman in undergrad I read his seminal work Black Majority, and it was one of the largest contributing factors that made me want to become a history major. I remember thinking his rice thesis was the most brilliant idea I had ever encountered. The book, pardon the cliche, changed my life. We read his recent work Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War in the seminar and discussed it the week before he came. It was a short but interesting read. Our professor wished us to go to the public lecture Dr. Wood was giving and also to the private informal talk reserved for those in the history department. Unfortunately a very inopportune shift at work kept me from the evening lecture, but I had the absolute pleasure of attending the talk earlier that day. As an outsider I sat towards the back wall while the more senior history grads controlled the conversation. Most of them were interested in the future of historians in the academia, of which he did not have the most positive words for the future. I gave up my idea of going into that arena long ago so my interest wasn’t really peaked until he began discussing the possibilities of public history and how promising that avenue was looking for young historians. He lamented the gap that exists between academia and the museum and historic site. He echoed the words I had had rattling in my mind without a forum for expression for months and months. My heart felt light and when the talk was over it was all I could do to keep from running up and hugging him. For the record, Dr. Wood is an incredibly effervescent and kind individual. Instead I resolutely marched up to the front of the room, pushing past the history grads who all looked at me like a foreigner and introduced myself to him. I told him my situation, how glad I was to hear what he had to say about public history, how I had been racking my brain over the problems that exist, and how passionate I was about trying to fix them. He was warm and encouraging and genuinely wished me luck on my path. I then asked him with a shy smile if he’d sign my book, and he did so gladly. I thanked him profusely and quickly scooted out giddy as could be. When I got back to my apartment I eagerly opened the book and found this inscription:


It felt great reading that. Unfortunately, I was still scratching my head trying to figure out how I could do that. Well, like I said, being at the museum revived my desire to do this, and I believe it has helped put me back on the track on which I need to accomplish it.

There are many changes beginning personally and professionally/academically now. I’m not sure what the months ahead will bring, but I am sure about my newly minted plans and resolve. I care again. I’m going to make history museums stronger because I am the face of a change in tides and a representative of a new generation, that contrary to popular belief, does give a damn about our past. No one and nothing will ever take that away from me.

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Filed under History, Just Me

How could I not weigh in?

Well, today is Valentine’s Day, a day when, according to Time, people in the United States will spend approximately $126.03 per person on candy, jewelry, flowers, lingerie, stuffed bears that exclaim “I looooooove you!” in tinny voices. I’m not great with math, but considering that there are over 3 million of us, that’s a lot of dough.

Today, I am laid up in bed with a very wicked stomach virus my personal valentine, who is pretty pitiful right now as well, gave me, and I thought that while I rested I would meditate the holiday. We all know what Valentine’s Day has become as evidenced by the first paragraph of this post, but, being the history lover I am, I find the history (or jumble of histories, really) of the holiday much more fascinating and romantic than the swirl of consumerism that consumes our country every mid February. Here, then, is the quick and dirty history of  Valentine’s Day.

Like many holidays on our modern calendar, Valentine’s Day has pagan origins that extend beyond its Catholic ones. Each February 15, Roman’s would celebrate the festival of Lupercalia in honor of the god Faunus and Romulus and Remus. A goat would be sacrificed at the cave where the twins were believed to have been nursed by the wolf Lupa. The goat hide was then removed and cut into strips and dipped in the goat’s blood. Men would take the blood dipped strips around the city gently slapping women in order to ensure fertility for the coming year. If you know your Shakespeare, you’ll recognize this ritual in the first act of Julius Caesar. After the run the young ladies of the city would toss their names into an urn and the young men would fetch them out. Whoever got your name was essentially your new boyfriend or girlfriend for the coming year. It saves time and fuss, I can kind of see the appeal.

As Christianity spread in the Roman empire new origins for the holiday emerged. Many believe the Catholic Church adopted the date for the old festival of Lupercalia for the Feast of Saint Valentine in order to further convert the Roman people to Catholicism. As far as Saint Valentine’s involvement in the story is concerned, there are two major versions of the story. At this point it is also important to note that the Church recognizes multiple St. Valentines. They were all martyred as well. Hey, we’re talking Romans and the Catholic Church here. I didn’t promise it wouldn’t get convoluted. Anyway, one story alleges that a priest named Valentine helped young men marry their sweethearts secretly under the reign of Claudius II who wanted his soldiers minds on vanquishing the foes of the Roman Empire and not on their honeys back home. Valentine was discovered and put to death.

The second story, and perhaps the lesser known of the two, is of a Valentine who helped Christians escape Roman persecution. He, surprise, surprise, was caught as well and locked up himself. Apparently he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, and, as legend goes, sent her the first valentine in the form of a love letter signed “From your Valentine,” before he was also put to death. We know how much the Church loved to celebrate its martyrs with feasts back in the day so thus the Feast of St. Valentine was put in place to celebrate one or both of these guys.

Eventually this day of St. Valentine was moved to February 14th in the Middle Ages (because that’s apparently when scientific minds of the time believed birds started getting it on for the year). While some Medieval lovers chose to exchange tokens around this time, Valentine’s day did not become my widespread in it’s celebration until the seventeenth century. Europeans brought the holiday with them to the New World and there are reports of Valentine’s Day exchanges in the Americas dating to the 1700s. For those, like myself on occasion who bemoan the commercialism of the holiday, well, you have “the mother of the American Valentine,” Esther A. Howland to thank. She is the originator of the original mass-produced Valentine’s Day card. The daughter of a successful stationery store owner from Massachusetts began making her own gaudy, lacey, god awfully ornate versions of the English valentines (oh those Victorians) and pitched them to the American public with overwhelming success. The rest is history…

It’s pretty amazing to contemplate how the holiday has changed over the years. I’ve never been one much for celebrating it. I always looked on in disgust when I was in school at all of the flowers, candy boxes, balloons etc. that my fellow students received during the school day. It was an ostentatious display of over consumption, and to this day the Valentine’s Day aisles that appear pretty much right after the Christmas aisles are dismantled in major chain stores make me wish to vomit. I’ve also been part of that not-so-enthusiastic portion of the population that finds itself without valentines with which to celebrate the day. I know firsthand the desire to just get through the day without taking scissors to teddies’ necks or pins to balloons and wake up with the general haze of puppy love cleared from the air on February 15. However, looking back on the somewhat murky but really kind of romantic and sexy origins of the Day, I think I might have come to a civil truce with it. I think, when you truly love and care about your partner, there is nothing wrong with taking a day out of an otherwise overly jammed and distracted year to tell them and show them how much they mean to you. Yes, this should be done year round, but, let’s face it, sometimes we can get caught up in the insanity of our twenty-first century lifestyles, and we forget to do so. While I prefer the more handmade, thoughtful, original, and private approach, some people really feel that the only way to do it properly is the opposite. That’s cool, if that’s your thing. We all just need to remember, it’s not about what’s in the box, card, or bouquet, but instead it’s about why you’re giving that to your special someone.

Now that I’ve given my treatise on Valentine’s Day, I will finally shut up, and leave you all with something that I feel is essential for a perfect celebration of the day, good love poetry. This one is by my favorite poet Carl Sandburg and is coincidentally the one I’m exchanging with my valentine this year.

“I Love You” by Carl Sandburg

I love you for what you are,
but I love you yet more for what
you are going to be.
I love you not so much for your realities
as for your ideals.
I pray for your desires that they may be great,
rather than for your satisfactions,
which may be so hazardously little.
A satisfied flower is one whose petals are about to fall.
The most beautiful rose is one hardly more than a bud
Where in the pangs and ecstasies of desire
are working for a larger and finer growth.
Not always shall you be what you are now.
You are going forward toward something great.
I am on the way with you and
therefore I love you.

I wish love and happiness to you all today and for the days to come.

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Filed under History, Just Me

Back to wet plating

I’m sorry I haven’t gotten around to posting these earlier. Last weekend I finally got back in the dark room and studio. Some good friends came out to the house to visit us and I was able to convince them to sit for me. It was a welcome difference from inanimate objects and my parents, not that I don’t enjoy working with either. It’s just nice to have some different subjects with which to work every now and then.

My best friend since freshman year of high school, Heather, came out Friday. She obligingly let me dress her in strange (well not that strange I guess) outfits, wigs, and make up. She was my first human subject to shoot in the newly converted studio, which get’s lovely light as I’ve discovered. The only downside is that extended exposures are needed at the current time, which can sometimes make it hard for the subject to keep still. In hindsight, I should’ve used the posing stand, but was too caught up in trying to make as many plates as possible in the fleeting light I had (there were storms on the way) and spending time with an old friend I haven’t seen in over half a year. All in all, though, I was pleased with the efforts. Even the plates where she moved came out looking cool. I’ve learned that this is not an exact science. There are far too many variables, and there is no such thing as the perfect image, and one can like an image that isn’t necessarily spot on.

Here are the plates I made with Heather:

Ambrotype made with our Anthony Bellows, "Mumford." I like how I do much closer work with its portrait lens and give portraits a nice soft look. I know sharpness is desired for most wet plate shots, but it's my work and I like it how I like it. As long as I'm not being commissioned, I don't give a damn what others think.

Ferrotype taken with Mumford. I really like the sheen on her hair in this one.

Ferrotype taken with my English daguerreotype camera, Lorena. Thank you again, Heather, for letting me attack you with all that stuff. You looked smashing in it. Anyway, I'd like to think of this one as an homage to Louise Brooks.

Ferrotype taken with Lorena. The facial movement is far more detectable in this one than the Brooksie one, unfortunately. I still think it's neat, though. She looks nervous and a little off. It's eerie, and I like it.

Saturday our lovely family friends Robin and Jerry came to share a low country boil and peach cheesecake with us. Robin also sat for me. Unfortunately Jerry didn’t make it over until yet another storm was moving in and the light was quite disappeared. Out of four shots, I got two of Robin that pleased me. It was also great to spend time with the two of them and their lovely pup, Flash.

This is Flash. He is a most delightful dog.

I’m lucky that I’ll get to see Robin again on Wednesday as well as one of my other favorite friends, Laura, when we go see the Death Cab show in Nashvegas. I am very much looking forward to that as a last hurrah before school starts back up.

Ambrotype taken with Mumford

Ferrotype taken with Lorena

Today I got back in the studio to play a little bit. I didn’t do much but did turn out a couple of interesting images. At least, I think they’re interesting.

Ambrotype taken with Mumford. I never title my work unless forced. I am leaving for school in less than a week. Consider this a tribute to the end of summer. A bit obvious, yes, but screw it.

Seems as if my amounts of this are ever more fleeting. Ferrotype taken with Mumford.

So there’s my latest work. I’m afraid this is the only place aside from my Flickr account (I would post the link but it’s a bit of a work in progress at the moment) or my house where they can be viewed. I don’t post on Facebook because they claim the rights to photos. I can’t have that.

I also wanted to take the time here, while I’m in this vein, to discuss a little artistic dilemma I’ve been having lately. A bit of a politically themed squabble on a Facebook group for wet plate photographers I am part of prompted me to finally set these feelings down. It’s not really related to what was going on there, but my thought processes as a result took me back to this problem I’ve been wrestling with for a while now. I own a business that, as of now, makes its most revenue through Civil War reenactment wet plate work in large part so that I may afford to do the artistic wet plate work that I want to do on my own time. I don’t see what I do at events as artistic. It’s mostly a novelty for people, and is not challenging or particularly innovative for me as an artist. This carries some issues itself, but the main one I struggle with is the fact that through my business, I am pulled into a community that I am not so sure I want to be associated with. Unfortunately, a small group within the larger group have given the whole a bad taste in certain circles mouths. Some of those circles are ones of which I count myself a member.

When I work CW events, I’m there for two reasons. The first is to educate the public  something about which I am deeply deeply passionate. I love the history of photography. I love it so much, I want to find a way to devote my professional life to it. The second reason I am there is, as much as it pains my bohemian spirit to say, make money. I know everyone’s money spends the same, and I know that at the end of the day if I’ve imparted one bit of knowledge about the subject that I love in the mind of one person I’ve done a good day’s work, but sometimes, especially in the climate our country is in right now, it is hard to see that surrounding myself in a subculture which so often seems to clash with my own ideals is worth it. I know not every reenactor holds political views diametrically opposed to mine. I really do, and I know personally that I am not trying to recreate a time that seems better than the one we’re in for whatever reason. In fact, I agree with my favorite history professor from undergrad who thinks that that time was just as politically crazy and fucked up as our current time. Maybe it’s enough that I know that, and maybe I shouldn’t care if people wrongfully place me in the same group as those with whom I do not agree.

As I said I am conflicted, and most of this probably does not make sense to those outside of my own head. I certainly do not mean to offend anyone. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs whatever they maybe, and I have always respected that. I just don’t want to be pegged as something I am not because of what I choose to do professionally in such insane times especially. Unfortunately, politics worms its way into everything including, as several on that Facebook posting noted, art. Maybe I’m being paranoid and feeling like I’ve sold out when I really haven’t. Or maybe this is a legitimate worry. Being an artist is never easy no matter what your leanings concerning anything are, and maybe when it’s all said and done all that matters is what you know is you, down in your core, your essence, your soul, and fuck what anyone else thinks.

I need to think on this more…

Also, one final note: Looking back over this post prior to publishing and thinking back to previous posts, I realize I use, erm, less than ladylike language sometimes. I really am sorry if this puts anyone off. However, there is a reason. Since this is a semi-personal blog, I write how I speak, and my speech usually contains an obscenity now and then. I don’t believe in censoring myself, and, well, if it bothers someone too much, they can stop reading. I just thought I would explain my reasoning behind my choice of language for anyone who wondered.

Goodnight, all.


Filed under Art, History, Just Me, Photography

Memphis Day 2: American Royalty?

Well, I last left you in front of Memphis Slim’s house after a full day of rocking out and getting down. Unfortunately, as I said, I became rather ill by the time we reached Stax and our visit was abbreviated. We went back to the house and I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening trying to recoup while my mother and aunt visited their aunt, who had just gone through surgery that day, and cousins in the hospital. My cousins Molly and Clark took exceptional care of me, and I was feeling much better that night. Clark and I watched the American version of Let the Right One in. He reminds me much of myself at that age, and we both have a penchant for the macabre. He then introduced me to an animated Batman film and he expounded on the virtues of Harley Quinn and the virtues of the darker Batman stories. They were both topics about which I do not have an extensive knowledge, but it’s always nice to talk to intelligent kids who have interests outside of their cell phones and crappy MTV reality shows. He’s very bright, and we’ve always gotten on very well. It’s hard to believe he’s about to enter high school, and I swear he grew a foot since I saw him last summer. I’m starting to become painfully aware of how fleeting time actually is.

Enough about my family, though. You really want to read about my adventures at the home of the King himself, Graceland, don’t you? Yes, that’s what I thought.

We all started the morning off in the car singing this. However, I think Paul saw something much more appealing in the experience of Graceland than I. Although, I’m sure the Graceland of his song is much more a theoretical concept than the actual physical place (tourist trap *cough cough*) that is Graceland. I think he meant the area and atmosphere of Memphis as the starting point for the Mississippi Delta. I’ve always found the fascination held by those far removed from the Delta with the Delta very interesting. I understand it completely (see my post about the first day), but I still find it interesting. I had a professor this past year from Washington state who I’m pretty sure knew more about the Blues than any other person in the world and has made many a pilgrimage down South in search of the greats and their haunts. He’s actually just released a book about Son House called Preachin’ the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House, which is a great read for anyone interested in American music history. I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed Prof Beaumont’s class on the Blues, for that matter, but not everyone can study under him at Rochester unfortunately.

Wow, so I’ve really gone of course already. I suppose I should be honest. I’m not an Elvis fan. This could very well be the reason I seem to be veering off  so easily when I should be talking about a trip to his famous home. Let me be immaculately clear. I can appreciate Elvis’ importance, and I find a few of his early, early songs before Sam Phillips sold his contract enjoyable. He was a rebel who revolutionized music, Elvis I mean, because that description fits Phillips as well. I do think Elvis is one of the biggest (maybe even the original) sell-out stories, though. His music post contract sell was awful and his Hollywood career was groan-worthy, oh, and don’t get me started on Vegas. I never had a desire to go to Graceland. You’ve seen one bad 1970s decorating job, you’ve seen them all in my opinion. However, our dear cousin kindly arranged for us to go with comp tickets, so we thought what the hell. At least then we can say we’ve been,  and we never have to go back, and let me tell you, I never will.

With all that said, let me give you my take on Graceland. We received the mid-level tickets which allow you a tour of the “mansion,” a tour of his two airplanes, access to view his car collection, and access to four exhibits which to me just appeared to be a bunch of film clips and rhinestone-studded jumpsuits. The house was first, and it was another one of those damn headset tours. I couldn’t stand the set to wear it so I didn’t actually learn much going through the house other than Elvis liked shag carpeting and ceramic monkeys apparently.

I apologize a head of time for the rather appalling quality of my photos. It was crowded, we couldn’t use flash, and they push you through pretty quickly.

Can't remember the significance of the peacocks, but they were definitely placed prominently.

This room was very yellow. (Notice the monkey.)

Oh yeah, he liked folded fabric on strange surfaces as well.

The pool room, again I apologize for the quality.

More monkeys in "the Jungle Room"

The house itself isn’t very big by today’s celebrity standards. It was owned by a physician prior to Elvis’ purchase. Interestingly enough, when my grandfather called on our drive over that morning, he told us that he and my grandmother had eaten dinner at the private residence there as guests the week of their wedding. This of course was before Elvis bought it.

The house

The tour takes you through the bottom two levels of the house. The top level is permanently closed to the public. It also takes you through his father’s office, the hall of fame with all of his gold records and awards, the racquet ball court holding a bunch of other commemorative records and jumpsuits, and the garden where Elvis and his parents are buried, as my uncle so cleverly quipped, “Like a hamster in the back yard.”

I am very convinced that the 70s were a dark, dark time globally just by viewing some of the surviving fashions of the era.

Because god forbid Americans actually possess enough intelligence to follow a foot path and a moving crowd without instructions from a headset.

Bit harsh? Maybe, but I can say that because I am American. Isn’t that what the rule book says?

The throng waiting to pay their respects to America's royal family (of sorts)

As we walked to the shuttle stop beyond the burial site, my cousins and I agreed that the whole atmosphere was incredibly surreal and strange, the adulation and near worship expressed by many of our fellow visitors were very off-putting, and we had seen just about all we cared to. So, lunch and air conditioning was in order, right? Ha ha, no, that’s where you’d be wrong! We were going to hit all six other stops on our tickets come hell or high water according to my uncle. I will admit, the car exhibit was pretty cool, but who doesn’t like looking at awesome classic cars, but after that and being dumped into the madness of about millionth gifts shop, I really was done. Guess what, Memphis is hot in July, hotter than blazes, if you’ll pardon the very southern colloquialism, but by golly we had every last tab on those tickets torn off by the time we left.

I do really want this car.

Mom in front of the Lisa Marie.

All right, so here’s my final assessment. Graceland did not change my life. I think I could have lived undisturbed for the rest of it by not visiting, but then again, I’m not an Elvis fan. There were so many people around us who were into it and soaking up every last fiber of acrylic mucous-green shag carpeting. That’s great. If you’re into that, then please go by all means. It was an experience. I personally am not sure what kind, but it was an experience nonetheless.

Clark expressing our overwhelming excitement to be at the home of the King. I should take this opportunity to mention our family's incredibly dominant sarcasm gene.

I will say this, though, the entire trip, even Graceland, was wonderful if just for the fact that we got to spend quality time adventuring as a family. I don’t get to see them as often as I like, and any chance I do get, I relish. I’ve begun making the ever clearer revelation that we are growing up, and times like these are harder to come by with each passing year due to busy schedules and increasing distance. It took me a while to realize the importance of family, but I’m getting there.

If nothing else, your family has to love you no matter how foolish you are, and sometimes, if you're lucky, they love you enough to join in as well.


Filed under History, Music

And who says you can never go home?

I just got back from a whirlwind trip to my hometown. I was born in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and spent my first few years living in Norris Dam State Park where my dad was a park ranger. Norris Dam is right down the road from Oak Ridge. It’s a rather small but very beautiful park nestled in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains. It’s named for the Tennessee Valley Authority dam that was built there in the 1930s. Coincidentally, one of my great grandfathers was a worker that helped build the dam. There is a nice lake, a museum, an 18th century grist mill and a threshing barn among other things.

Mom and I made the trip to go visit our dear friend Mark who is the park manager there. Mark is one of the only people other than family who has known me since birth and remained actively involved in my life. Whenever I tell anyone about Mark, who frequently sends me batches of his famous chocolate chip cookies and postcards when I’m away at school, I always refer to him as “Uncle Mark” because he’s really been more of an uncle to me than the ones I actually have. He’s a great guy, and it’s always good to see him. There’s also something very comforting in the fact that we always go back to the same place to visit him. I love going back to that area. Some of our happiest years as a family (though my memories from it are precious few) were spent living in Norris.

As we were driving through Oak Ridge on our way in and passed the hospital where I was born, I remarked to my mom about how for some strange reason coming back to Norris always feels like a homecoming although we haven’t lived there for nearly twenty years. The little community of Norris which welcomed us, was a good fit for our quirky family as many of its residents were highly intelligent and interesting northern transplants via TVA. Like I said, it was a happy time.

We left after my little brother died for reasons that are and are not so obvious, I suppose. We’ve all at one point or another wondered what our lives would have been like if we’d stayed and if Seamus had lived. I guess things worked out how they were going to, but while it’s a happy occasion when we get to go back, those visits will always be tinged with a little sadness, and that’s just the way it is.

Anyway, we spent the evening Monday with Mark after we got in, which was nice. It was great to catch up. The next morning we got up and headed out pretty early and stopped at the grist mill where I had spent many a happy hour splashing in the creek and watching the big wheel do its thing. It’s always nice to take a moment to reflect on happy times like that.

The Grist Mill

Afterwards we struck out with a mind to hit the Starbucks in Oak Ridge for real coffee and oatmeal. (I still cannot understand how Oak Ridge got one and the town we live in now only got a horrid Dunkin’ Donuts). The Sturbs proved to be slightly elusive, but we found it eventually. Fortified with caffeine, we visited the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton. I had never been, and I am never one to turn down an opportunity to visit a museum. The man who created the museum, John Rice Irwin, traveled across Appalachia gathering artifacts, stories, and buildings, yep you read that right-buildings, in an effort to preserve a slowly fading way of life. He brought them all back to the museum he founded in the late 1960s. It is a huge complex with a wide array of original buildings from important figures in East Tennessee history and it is run to some extent as a working farm with livestock including a multitude of peacocks. It’s an interesting place, though, it can be hard to keep from looking at places like that, very much products of their time stuck in that time, without the critical eye of a budding museum professional. I appreciate Irwin’s intent, but the place could use some updating and a little more organization.

Fisk Burial Case

Very cool old hearse

Samuel Clemens

I love peacocks.

This guy kept wanting to put on a show.

One thing did strike me as I walked through “The Hall of Fame” which was chocked full of, well, everything, an entire side of my family lived an existence like those featured in that museum. That’s my stock, and roughly five or possibly even four generations from them, I couldn’t feel further removed with my city ways and slick New York education. I couldn’t tell you how to plant corn or butcher a hog. Hell, I don’t even eat pork! It’s weird, not bad, just weird.

We hit the road after that, only stopping to visit the Wheat Community African Burial Ground since we’d only ever driven past it, and Mom was tired of wondering what it was. It is the site of some ninety to one hundred graves of enslaved persons from local plantations. The graves are unmarked and the identities of those interred there are unfortunately lost to the ages. It was a sad place, but I’m glad it has been recognized and commemorated.

The monument dedicated to African enslaved persons in America down the path from the actual burial ground

It was another nice mini road trip, but I’m glad to be back home with Irving and the dogs after all the traveling I’ve done in the past few days.


Filed under History, Just Me

Memphis Day 1: The birth of rock and soul OR how Betsy nearly collapsed from multiple musical nerdgasms

I am a self-admitted music nerd. I gathered many hours at university in music history courses covering everything from the Delta blues to the Beatles. In May my parents and I stopped at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland on our way home from graduation. That was a really cool experience, by the way, even with 400 kindergarteners running around the museum. Who takes kindergarteners to a rock museum? Anyway, I decided that in light of our detour there, it seemed appropriate that we finally make the Memphis music trip. Memphis is extremely important in the history of American music, in case you hadn’t heard. The pulsing veins that carry the very lifeblood of three towering genres run straight through the heart of that city and continue to make Memphis a very relevant town in that respect.

My maternal grandmother’s family is from Memphis going back several generations, and much of our family continues to live there to this day. We go to visit my aunt and her family at least once a year usually, but we have never visited any of the multitude of important historical sites in the city. My younger cousin just graduated from high school in May, and we very much wished to see her before she leaves for college next month. We finally decided to be smart and kill two birds with one stone and make the music pilgrimage (at least for me) while seeing our family. Luckily my mother has a cousin with pretty amazing contacts in the Memphis tourism world, and our cousin generously made some phone calls and swung us tickets to Sun Studio, The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Stax, and Graceland, and my aunt, uncle, mom, two of my cousins, and I made a two day mini-vacation out of it.

To be honest, there was only one site I knew I had to see or the entire trip would be a waste: Sun Studio, the famous birthplace of rock and roll. I have read countless pages and watched countless hours of documentary film recounting the stories and importance of that building. Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, discovered and recorded many of artists who became household names and legends in music including Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, oh yeah, and a guy you might have heard of. Um, Elvis Presley ring any bells? While I disparage my home state quite often and am not choosing to continue my life within its borders, I have always been proud of the musical heritage of the state. From the peaks of the Smokies in the east to the rolling hills and rivers of the mid-state to the flat cotton and soy bean fields of the west, music has always risen and permeated everything here and then gone on to touch the world in the most spectacular ways.

I started my personal music pilgrimage at Sun Studio. There’s something in the air around that little building on Union Avenue. I’m not sure what it is, but it feels electric, magical even. As I walked down the alley from the parking lot and passed the images of the founding fathers of rock ‘n roll posted on the side of the building and looked up to see the giant Gibson hanging over the door, I couldn’t help but get goosebumps. As I opened the door everything else melted away, my family, the tourists around me, the sounds of the street outside. I was in the highest spiritual meditation at the altar of my religion’s most holy and ancient of temples.

The tour consisted of a trip into a small gallery containing photographs, memorabilia, and recording artifacts from the golden days. Our tour guide, Eldorado, was fabulous and came complete with slicked back hair, mutton chops, browlines, and rolled up Levis. He told us the story of Sun and Sam Phillips (which I realized I knew just as well as he did and could probably get a job as a tour guide there myself), played some music, and then took us down to the actual studio. It has been kept exactly as Sam had it fitted all those years ago. The only thing that’s changed are the pictures on the walls and most of the instruments. There are still some original pieces in there, though, such as…

...this microphone. This is the one they let you pose with for pictures. We were also told that one woman on a tour chose to lick it. To each her own, I suppose.

Oh, by the way, Howlin’ Wolf is probably my favorite of all the Sun artists from the early days. Here is the insane “Moanin’ at Midnight.”

It was a surreal feeling, standing in that space hearing clips of the recording sessions of the Million Dollar Quartet (Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins) and the stories of rock’s own creation myth. I almost had a Hesiod moment. Not only had my idols of the early days of rock stood where I was standing creating the Lexington and Concord of popular music, but scads of my modern rock idols like Tom Petty and U2 had also stood there soaking in the history to make their own amazing works at Sun. Yes, Sun is still a working studio. Tours are given during the day and bands, such as our lovely tour guide’s (Eldorado and the Ruckus), record at night. It’s a living, breathing place not just a dusty box of old vinyl memories. I wish I could properly do the place justice, but no amount of images or fluttery descriptions can. Please, please, please, if you love rock and roll, go to Sun Studio on Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee.

My cousin Mols working the mic

Our guide. I'm afraid it was so crowded that this was the best picture I could snap of him. He truly was fantastic, though.

After Sun, we went downtown (and walked down the world renowned Beale St.) to visit the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum which was very well done and told the story of those two genres more specifically as they related to Memphis and Nashville as well. I will say that I did not like the fact that they are set up on a self-guided audio tour system. That’s just a personal preference issue on my part, though. I’m old fashioned and would rather read panels for myself or listen to a guide. I don’t dig wearing a headset. They did have stations where you could stop and listen to songs, though, which was pretty cool. The museum’s main exhibit was actually designed by the Smithsonian (the only one out there that has been other than the actual Smithsonian, by the way) so it was VERY well done. The number and quality of artifacts was jaw-dropping. Everything from Ike Turner’s first piano to Sam the Sham’s motorcycle. I recommend you all go there as well. Right now they have a special exhibit called “The Beatles Hidden Gallery” which showcases Paul Berriff’s photographs from the Beatles last tour in 1966 when they played Memphis. For those who know their Beatles history, this was shortly after Lennon’s misquoted God comment that sparked many a Beatles merch bonfire party across the American South. The pictures in the exhibit are great.

Beale Street (taken standing next to B.B. King's)

The microphone into which Carl Perkins sang and recorded "Blue Suede Shoes" at Sun

Can you guess from the headstock which important bluesman donated that little beauty? I'll give you a hint: his name's there in gold.

The final stop we made on our outing that day was to Stax the record company so famous for producing soul music from Otis Redding to Issac Hayes. Unfortunately, after Stax went under in the mid 70s, the original building was torn down, but thanks to those who realize the importance of preserving history, a new building was built on the original site and a Stax museum was opened in 2003. It really is a lovely museum filled with amazing memorabilia (hello Issac Hayes’ Cadillac!) and music. Unfortunately, though, I became rather violently ill right as we began our tour and we had to rush through, which really did break my heart. I definitely would have lingered much longer if I could. A visit there is also recommended.

The fine folks at Stax didn’t stop at just a museum, however. On site is also Stax Academy and Soulsville Charter School, which give local young people the opportunity to shine and meet their absolute highest potential both musically and academically fostering the continuation of a great legacy that goes so far beyond the gold records. Now how cool is that?

Unfortunately, they don't let you take photos inside the museum, so this will have to do.

Also, on an interesting but completely related side note, as we were walking to the museum door we spied this across the street:

I’m glad to see someone recognized the importance of that place and is doing something with it because it needs some major TLC. Memphis Slim, for those who don’t know, was an incredible blues piano player from Memphis. Here he is playing his own (very, very famous) song “Everyday I Have the Blues.”

So that was day one. Rather than wax poetic or gush anymore since I’m pretty sure I overflowed quite a ways back, I have a better idea for summing up. I will do it quite appropriately with song, one by Frank Turner to be exact. A friend of mine recently turned me on to him, and his song “I Still Believe” seems to fit the nature and themes of this post astonishingly well. I think it also shows how important the people, places, and events I got a brief glimpse of this past week were and how they extended so far beyond Memphis and continue to have this brilliant snowball effect across the world and generations, but I’ll stop there. Listen to Frank (an Englishman, in case you couldn’t tell). He gets it.


Filed under History, Music