Thursday, October 2, 2008

Wilentz's "Rise of American Democracy"

I just finished reading Sean Wilentz's mammoth book "The Rise of American Democracy: From Jefferson to Lincoln." It's quite a work, incredibly dense and detailed. It gets bogged down, in my opinion, during the dicussion of Jackson's two terms and much of the debate over the Second Bank of the United States but overall it was an enjoyable read. Be forewarend though, it's a serious scholarly work and is written as such. There's very little color or flare and Wilentz lacks the ability of some of the more popular historians to really drive a compelling narrative. 

Random aside from the book - as a fan of Americana music one passage I came across last night interested me quite a bit, 

On the evening of March 4, 1859, at New York’s Mechanics’ Hall, Dan Emmett, a five string banjo player for the enormously popular blackface Bryant Minstrels, introduced a catchy new “walk-around” song about an adulterous weaver named Willum. A native of central Ohio, Emmett was an accomplished songwriter – credited with, among other compositions, “Turkey in the Straw” and “Ol’ Dan Tucker” – and he was an expert performer in the googly-eyed, part-contemptuous, part-envious blackface style that set young northern workingmen to roaring. Emmett had kept the tune in his suitcase for years, and some writers have speculated that he first picked it up from free black musicians. The song’s hastily written lyrics – with the refrain, “In Dixie Land I’ll took my stamd/To lob and die in Dixie” – were an unexceptional mixture of nonsense and contrived nostalgia typical of the northern minstrel genre. What made the song special, like all of Emmett’s best work, was its rousing melody. Thus, from a corked-up Yankee pretending to be a slave – singing about a “gay deceiver” before a New York audience of “greasy mechanics” – came what was destined to be filched and transformed, to Dan Emmett’s horror, into the best known pro-slavery nationalist anthem.

 Sean Wilentz “the Rise of American Democracy” pages 725-726

No comments: