In this first episode of Liner Notes, we talk with author and historian Megan Kate Nelson.
We discuss the merits of the blue BIC Cristal pen and florescent yellow Sharpie highlighter, writing during a pandemic, and the personalized process of finding one’s writing structures and routines.
In the show, we make reference to John Hughes’ films of the 1980s and our reinterpretation of them. For more, here is an essay by actor Molly Ringwald that goes into more depth on this. But that scene with the Bic pen remains embedded in my memory!
Megan also discusses essays by writer John McPhee on structures and outlines, which you can peruse here and here.
And I am verrrrry new to video editing, so bear with me through any learning curves.
Watch the episode on YouTube or listen to the audio version.
Recorded on January 19, 2021, using riverside.fm.
Music composed with Citizen DJ from the Library of Congress. Contains samples of “Kitten on the keys” by Confrey, Zez, 1895-1971.. Retrieved from Library of Congress, Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division.
Announcing that my video podcast (with an audio version) will launch Friday, February 19, 2021!
I’ve taken a structured approach to the podcast around three central questions.
What’s in your pen case? With this question, I’m asking guests to highlight three of their go-to writing, editing, teaching, or organization tools. Everyone has those things that we continually reach for, or a set of reasons for seeking particular tools. They might change, but tool selection can reveal a lot about our process.
How do you organize your time? This could mean writing time, balancing teaching and research, or adapting to new circumstances (like, I don’t know, a global pandemic). These strategies are personalized, but the problems we face and solutions we turn to reveal a lot about the writing and research process, as well as the many types of tasks we balance as scholars.
What’s a secret you can share to an organized scholarly life? While this questions might sound a little tabloid-y at first, I’m always surprised by how deep and meaningful these answers can be. Guests have a lot of useful ideas, and they all empower each of us to find what works best for our own situations. Sure, there isn’t some vault containing all the secrets to organization somewhere, which if we just had the combination for we would find fame and fortune. Instead, framing this question as a secret to be revealed is about having a conversation about systems, processes, and strategies that as academics and scholars we rarely talk about or draw attention to—and that it’s not about finding that magical system that will solve all our problems, but in talking to each other about the challenges we face and the (maybe sometimes imperfect) ways we go about addressing them.
Throughout this “mixtape,” guests will offer insights into how they take notes on reading, archival materials, build in reminders for tasks and meetings, or structure writing, teaching, and time for life. I’m always surprised about how touching and meaningful a conversation can become by just talking about our favorite pens.
To start off the conversation, the first episode is my discussion with historian and author, Megan Kate Nelson!
I already have two special episodes planned for later this spring, and below you can see a bit of a preview, as I put myself to the questions I ask guests. It’s a little extra on the nerdy…it’s much better when I have a guest! And Tweed decided not to make his usual cameo appearance in the background today, alas. But stay tuned for next week, when I meet with Megan!
Jetpens carries a lot of the Hobonichi products, and I also like ordering directly from Japan because of the adorable boxes they use for shipping (you might have to find the “Life Book” entry and then be able to translate the site — sometimes it’s a little tricky). It’s very much an event. Shipping to the US from Japan is a little wonky because of Covid, but it’s possible.
I’ll be the first to admit it: it looks a little strange. My first book is about southern industrial lobbyists who responded negatively to the New Deal and, in the process, ushered in a new construction of conservative policy and politics that made room for the South. And now, here I am, writing about college radio in the 1980s and 1990s.
The thing is, in my mind, there are strong common interests underlying these two projects. Ultimately, they are both about gatekeepers, constructing ideas about cultural authenticity, and about power.
“Gatekeepers” sounds like a natural fit for a book on college radio—but southern industrialists? Dollars for Dixie began because I was always interested, while growing up, in why my grandparents referred to me as their “Yankee granddaughter.” Yes, I was raised in the Northeast, primarily New England. But I felt strong ties to Tennessee, since my dad was from there and we visited often, maintaining strong ties to middle Tennessee. My other grandmother was from the Florida panhandle, and although I never visited there, I nonetheless recognized her southern roots. Then I went to Vanderbilt University. Yet, somehow, I had no reasonable claim to any southern identity. But where did regional identity gatekeeping come from? Who could lay claim to being southern? How long did I need to live there? What foods did I need to eat? What accent did I need to adopt? Were my politics all wrong?
Dollars for Dixie came out of my investigation of the historical construction of region, identity, and politics. Although it’s a book about right-wing, even extremist, activists seeking to maintain their social and economic power atop the southern caste system by influencing federal policy, it’s also a work of Southern Studies. Even as this group lobbied members of Congress to protect the South from minimum wage and hour legislation, or railed against the measures to promote equality in hiring or allow for collective bargaining, they were engaging in a process of memory and myth making about the South. They transformed ideas about the South as a laggard economy, trying to keep up with the more industrialized North, bringing modern life and work to “substandard” workers recently moved from field to factory. They used that image to try and modify the first New Deal to their liking, but they failed.
When they failed, they shifted tactics. They seized on the language of free enterprise and the “discriminated” South beset by federal interference. In this rendering, they refashioned the South as the nation’s “bulwark of democracy,” defending a herrenvolk conception of national—and southern—identity. The South’s un-unionized work force occurred not because of the newness of its industry or the lack of attention from union organizers, but from some kind of innate cultural preference for freedom. In other words, they set themselves up as gatekeepers of southern identity, in a similar fashion as the Southern Agrarians who abhorred the kind of industry these leaders brought to the region but who nonetheless shared with them a defense of region, of the South as distinct from the nation. These industrialists decided who was Southern, what was Southern, and what policy and political party was Southern. No surprise, by the 1950s they saw that they had more hopes in the Republican Party than the Democratic one, despite its leaders’ defense of segregation and white supremacy, which these industrialists held as a priority above all others, as it preserved the hierarchy that their economic system depended on for profitability.
Ultimately, their idea of what it meant to be Southern proved profoundly malleable, and paved the way for regional partisan realignment in the 1960s, uniting images of the South with conceptions of free enterprise and the broad swath of policy prescriptions aligned under that heading (except when it came to lowered tariff barriers in international trade, that is). But nonetheless, they considered themselves the arbiters of what it meant to be authentically southern. They were not alone in this conception, and the identity remains contested, historically.
Certainly, college radio DJs are a very different kind of gatekeeper, dedicated to very different ideas. But they were also champions of certain visions of culture (and sometimes they were conflicting). Some wanted to influence mainstream popular music, others were more focused on building local music scenes and even defying the capitalist culture industry. They are more sympathetic historical characters, and believe me, a lot more fun to write about than a bunch of industrialists defending paying grandmothers in their mill villages $6 a week for piecework.
But both stories are about advocates promoting a definition or sense of an authentic culture, and about obtaining power to do so. We could certainly debate the relative value of these claims, and whether one was more authentic in actuality or laudable. But both groups attempted to subvert established institutions and brokers of cultural identity. Sometimes they worked within those institutions, be it the Democratic Party or institutions of higher education, and sometimes they defied them. Both confronted questions of policy enacted to disrupt their foundations of power and identity, whether it was New Deal wage policy or FCC license changes pushed by interests such as National Public Radio to stamp out ten-watt educational stations across the country.
And, yes, college radio stations established themselves, or at least had ascribed to them, positions in popular culture as gatekeepers. In the 1980s, industry insiders increasingly looked to what they played for the next hits, seeking evidence of bands that could command a following before signing them to a major-label contract. But college radio gatekeeping went much further than that. College stations were not just of one type, playing alternative rock music. They served communities, they operated with missions to educate listeners–and interpretations of that mission ranged widely. College students and their few professional managers advocated for freedom in programming what they wanted against the encroachment of more full-time staff and fewer on-air opportunities for students, or against ceding time to students for community DJs serving listeners outside of campus or college-affiliated audiences.
Many of these stations also defended the construction of a separate market of independent and local music, away from the power structures of the national and global music industry. They advocated for specific business models and alternative institutions of venues, publications, record stores, and music labels and distribution. Not every DJ considered themselves involved in this struggle, but they nonetheless participated when they reached into the rotation stack and pulled out a record, or dropped the needle on an album they had never heard—and they did so because they perceived cultural value in doing so. The audiences might have been narrow, or the music niche in its appeal, but the influence of college radio, collectively, had wide reach.
And myths were also constructed. As Jennifer Waits of Radio Survivor eloquently explains, college radio was and is always much more about musical discovery, but that image is hard to dislodge. In many cases, college DJs ignored a lot of new music—particularly hip hop. (That’s a whole theme in the book, just wait.) Radio Survivor consistently documents the broad work of college radio and its participants that go far beyond the conception of college radio as either elitist music snobs cuing up the most obscure, independent label releases, or college radio as a source of the most authentic voice of communities and American culture. Many stations maintained a more Top 40 or professional sound, too.
So, in both projects, I’m exploring how certain myths about identities are constructed through business, policy, practice, and via and counter to prevailing institutions and political and cultural hierarchies.
But, I’m not going to lie. It is a relief to talk about DJs who love the Replacements and Stereolab instead of industrialists trying to make sure they didn’t have to pay NRA-mandated wages of $13 per week. In writing, the stakes seem much more fun. Still, the implications can get pretty heavy pretty quickly. Whose voice matters? Whose scene will rise to attention? Whose music gains purchase on the airwaves? Who has access to news, information, or community building platforms in an era of corporate consolidation and deregulation in media? College DJs were often just having fun, I know I was on WRVU-FM from 1997 to 2001—but when that station was closed, participants and observers understood that Nashville lost an important local cultural institution.
I’ve been posting on Twitter randomly recently about my process while outlining a couple of new chapters. I’ll elaborate and make it clearer what is happening. I wrote a whole thread about this, then accidentally deleted it. A blog post is better, anyways.
As I’m researching, writing, I often make notes on stickies about ideas or documents, quotes I come across that I want to make sure I work in somewhere, but I’m not ready to deal with yet. I often have stacks of these around me. I collect them into my research journal, especially those related to the argument or introduction.
I also dump all my research photos, newspaper/magazine articles, transcripts of interviews, notes from archive trips, you name it, into Devonthink, where it gets OCR’d. I try to tag things there with subjects, but I’m not very systematic about it. I do try to get the date into a format that makes it easy to sort documents chronologically, whether they are in the folder view or in a tag. I review anything relevant or noted in my stack of sticky notes, and in Devonthink I tag it all with the Chapter # that I’m working on. (I did this in Zotero, previously, where my tagging system is far more robust).
After that search, I try to categorize what I have. All the sticky notes go onto a page, and I make note of what is in Devonthink (those are the pink notes on the piece of paper, below). These are organized here based on the theme that I think emerges, which will correspond to a section of the chapter. So, basically, a rough, topical outline starts to emerge in this process. But I throw everything that is potentially going to be included, just in case I change my mind, or a narrative develops differently than I envisioned at first.
Next, I rewrite the outline onto one page. Sometimes Tweed helps, or not. In this, I free write a general sense of what the chapter is about, what the big tensions are, and a few ideas. NOT the argument, because there isn’t one yet, at least not on paper and formalized. I have ideas, but I try to put things more in terms of what the documents are telling me, or what they are not addressing, since silences are important, too.
In this process, I’m taking the original sticky note outline drawn from various documents, and making it more formal, with a general sense of distinct sections.
Then, I print out all the documents from Devonthink (or Zotero, for secondary sources that also connect). I take notes, highlight, make sure the date is very clear at the top of each, so I can easily put them in order chronologically.
I pull out key quotes or highlight the theme for the documents, note people that come up frequently, or anything that I might want to reference in a quick glance to identify which document I have.
Then, I gather documents by section. This is the arts-and-crafts phase and where the BIG (8×6) sticky notes come into play. As I read, I make stacks. Mostly, documents from a station stay together, but not always. I note the relationship among the documents, and identify which part of the rough outline they correspond to.
Each stack gets clipped together and put in order. Some sections have sources from many different places. Part I, in this case, is about independent and major label relationships, so I have a bunch of oral histories with label reps, then examples from a few stations. The other two sections focus primarily on one or two stations, with a mix of archival, newspaper, and oral history transcripts.
Now, I have groups of documents to write a narrative from, with a general sense of the theme it contributes to in the chapter and book. But while I’m writing, I try not to worry too much about making those connections. That comes with the editing process. Instead, as I write, I label each narrative section with the station and/or scene, so that if I need to move it around later, it’s easy.
I still need access to Devonthink, Zotero, and other sources as I write, but this stack at least provides me structure as I am writing/drafting, and it helps me see how far I get in each writing session, or where I have holes as I write and need to go back to the drawing board.
In Word’s outline view, I can grab a section by its heading and move it’s location in the document, making that kind of rearranging very easy. Before, when I was drafting, I used Scrivener, which is made for this kind of thing. I’ve moved to Word for ease of sharing drafts, but I transposed that functionality into Word well enough.
So that’s my outlining system, for what it’s worth! Writing a book that is national in scope but based on myriad stations and scenes from all over is a bit of an organizational morass. This is the system that I’ve come up with for overcoming these logistical challenges. It’s not perfect, but it seems to be working okay. The key thing is to get the stories told and the details down, the chronologies sorted, and then the themes and arguments can be strengthened and developed from there, re-organizing and re-outlining as needed.
Early this January I was writing up a section of my book project on college radio about Rice University’s KTRU in the 1980s. KTRU-FM’s records include both paper and sound: their online collection of on-air programming is one of the more extensive in college radio history. I visited the physical archives in June 2019, in a bit of a whirlwind trip, but I have a good collection of photos. (Alas, I somehow overwrote my images of the 1985, 1986, and 1987 “Gripe” book of DJ commentary from the studio—these are amazing to have to capture backchannel conversations that happened in radio stations. The archivists there are helping me get access.)
But much of what went out over KTRU’s airwaves, along with other stations, remains lost. Some playlists or rotation schedules remain in the archives. Some DJs and listeners taped shows, with cassettes stored away in dusty boxes in attics. There are numerous efforts to gather and preserve these, particularly hip hop shows that featured live performances. Some have ended up in institutional archives and made available online.
Copyright issues remain a challenge, however. Live performances are in a gray area, with permission to rebroadcast or allow for listening online remaining with publishers/record labels. Interviews, such as those housed at Rice, are easier.
But what about the sound of college radio? Archivists are uninterested in preserving recordings of student DJs mumbling their way through song announcements. The labor involved in preserving those is more costly than what is gained in preservation. But something is lost: there is a sound and practice of amateur radio. The process of production is important to understanding radio and sound culture, as Shawn VanCour establishes in his book, Making Radio: Early Radio Production and the Rise of Modern Sound Culture. In examining the practices and processes of radio production styles, the development of sound culture emerges through attention to “the professional knowledges and practices that authorize and sustain these productions.”(9) Amateurs often had no desire to join professional networks and reproductions, but many did or were nonetheless conversant with them and contesting their structures and established practices. Sure, they were having fun, but these signals with expanded wattages and presence on the public airwaves still had influence.
During the 1980s, although college radio stations remained mostly run by amateurs and volunteers, they nonetheless participated in the broader development and production of popular culture, and they were sites of conflict over what that culture would sound like and contain. Although we cannot make recordings of radio shows that featured recorded music available in the same way as interviews, and many of the soundcheck and in-between song announcing remains lost, there is still value in exploring the sound of these playlists. Former DJs I’ve interviewed, including those from KTRU in the 1980s, understand that the “college radio sound” often excluded Black artists, similar to MTV. Those notebooks that I need copies of contain extensive debates about that issue, which I’ll explore in more depth in my book on the construction of college radio’s modern sound and reputation, currently titled Live from the Underground: A History of College Radio. But what is clear: this era of college radio production and programming practices revisited and extended longstanding questions about pop culture and its creation, what we could catalog as part of the culture wars of the 1980s but also intricately linked to questions at the center of American culture, cultural production, cultural industries, and cultural fields.
But, doing the work of this history does let us revisit some fantastic music and playlists, as the one that I did here, reconstructed from a playlist found in the archives at KTRU. In it, the frayed pages of the archives come to life—and I continue to work to record oral histories and stories about what went on behind the scenes and sounds of college radio.
Update: I meant to also highlight archival projects ongoing, including at Harvard’s Hip Hop Archive. I’ll save the extensive list for another post, later!
ORGANIZE, verb. (transitive) To arrange in working order.
ORGANIZE, verb. (transitive) To constitute in parts, each having a special function, act, office, or relation; to systematize.
ORGANIZE, verb. (transitive) To furnish with organs; to give an organic structure to; to endow with capacity for the functions of life; as, an organized being; organized matter; — in this sense used chiefly in the past participle.
ORGANIZE, verb. (transitive) (music) To sing in parts.
Do you ever look at your colleagues, peers, and friends and wonder: how exactly do they keep it all organized? When there are so many bits of information, meetings, inspirations, items to research, ideas to capture — how do we remember it all?
For me, it’s my friend Caroline. She’s an inspiration in many regards — she has the sharpest mind, memory, and she’s hilarious. We’ll be talking, and if I mention something that intrigues her or she wants to look up later, she pulls this little notepad out of her bag and jots something down, then stows it away.
The notepad isn’t anything special. I think one time it was a freebie from a hotel.
But there was something special about the process. It was seeing her mind in action, with thought being put to paper, to be developed later. Her process is streamlined and it WORKS. The tools support the thinking, the learning, and the reflection. And it gets to the intended result. She captures the idea with her pen, and she processes it later.
It made me think about my own systems, and how they are constantly changing. If I write a note like that for myself, I have no idea how to find it later. I’ll watch videos on YouTube of planner enthusiasts decorating their Filofaxes, Hobonichis, Erin Condrens, or Happy Planners with beautiful stickers. Mine are never that pretty (but I keep buying stickers, nonetheless). Brush lettering—it will never happen. (Yes, I own some.)
Sometimes I’m intimidated by the tools I select. The pens write so well, the pages are so pristine. Then I mark them with my unremarkable handwriting, which is usually crooked on the page.
After much trial and error, I think I finally have a system that works for me. But it is always a work in progress. Somehow, I’ve managed to stay pretty on top of things, meet my deadlines, get my classes planned and graded on time, and even launch some side projects, like this one.
And in so doing, I’ve created a kind of liner notes for my life. Most of it is mundane, or knowable only to those with certain kinds of inside knowledge. But they reveal the makings of the final products: the books I write, the lectures I give, the feedback on students’ papers, the readings I consult.
I love beautiful office supplies. I am picky about how my pens write. I have strong feelings about what paper I like to write on, and what color my sticky notes should (and should not) be. But how do I make it all come together into a process that helps me:
find the notes I took on that book and footnote it with correct page number,
record that fleeting thought I had about a chapter’s argument,
keep going on that service project I committed to,
read the book in time to submit the review,
or make sure to mention lessons about paper-writing mechanics to my students in class on Tuesday?
(Never mind make sure that my kid gets to gymnastics, the toilet doesn’t get nasty, get my eyebrows waxed before I start looking like my grandfather, and we don’t eat frozen pizza three days in a row).
Although I have a pretty good system now, and the wheels have never *quite* come off the bus, I’ve been pretty fickle. My liner notes now have a certain look to them.
And I’m nosy. I am fascinated by how others select the tools that support their thinking, their day-to-day tasks, and move their work and lives forward. I’m curious how others approach the divide between our analog tools and our digital lives.
To organize is a verb. And, if you examine the list of definitions above, it denotes group interaction. After all, the liner notes on albums are disseminated, and fans are curious about how the album gets made.
So there is my goal: to get together with other scholars, writers, and anyone who is interested in how to turn ideas into creativity and action—and see how they do it, to get a peek into how they create their own liner notes.
This week, I start interviewing guests for my limited video podcast series: The History Mixtapes: Liner Notes. (I hope to do something with this History Mixtapes title later — so Liner Notes is a pilot/subseries. I know, it’s a bit complicated, but it’s a pandemic, people).
I don’t have a process to or system to sell, or even one I think everyone should adopt. I’m just someone who loves pens, paper, and talking about how to take notes and find them later. And, in the end, as my friend Caroline’s system reminded me: it’s all about the ideas.
Gropius came to the United States with his family to revamp Harvard University’s School of Architecture. He was given a housing allowance to build his own house, which he did in Lincoln, MA, completed in 1938. It’s not a large house: just enough room for him, his wife, daughter, and a housekeeper. He also saw clients in the house, hence my ability to see some of his office tools.
The house is quite the sight, tucked in between classic examples of New England colonial homes (mansions) and beautiful forests. I frequently detour on my commute to Fitchburg to just get a glimpse of the modern style.
Since visiting is much harder at the moment, I thought I’d share some of the images I’ve taken during my several visits to the property.
The desk makes me want to throw away everything I own and start fresh. It’s not that it is spare – there are cards, papers, decorations around. But the minimalist function of all the tools, the quality, the heft to them. It is pleasing.
The desk in their daughter’s room displays a rather mod calendar from 1967. She requested her own entrance to the house, which her father granted — hence the spiral staircase on the side of the house. She also has a balcony, with a wall painted in pink, which apparently reduces glare.
At every turn, there is a vignette waiting to be photographed.
I particularly appreciate the textures and designs intended to create shadows and reflect the surrounding environment.
Rather than defying the New England woodland surrounding the house, the design instead honors the nearby architecture and landscape, bringing it into the house and considering it through a new lens. I’m no artist or architectural historian, but I always appreciate visiting.
I hope you enjoyed this brief, virtual visit to Gropius House.
Now that I’m starting the process of launching an interview podcast/video series on the tools that historians use to organize and record their research and teaching, I thought I’d start by highlighting my favorite sources for the tools that I use.
Brick and Mortar Stores
Sometimes you need to try the pens. Or feel the paper. Plus, there is something about strolling through tightly packed aisles of unique notebooks, lab books, manila envelopes, and legal pads. Or you might want to see *exactly* how puffy the stickers are — or stumble across a brand you haven’t heard of, or gaze at the colors of Clairefontaine notebooks. With three small kids and an hour commute to work (and now a pandemic), I don’t get out very much. So forgive my limited range, but here’s where I go if I have a minute.
First up, just a bus ride away from where I live:
Bob Slate Stationer in Harvard Square, Cambridge. I love visiting here in the winter, when it’s 5:15pm and already dark.
There is a timeless quality to this store that makes me think of the tools laid on on Walter Gropius’s desk.
They have a range of notebooks designed for academic study, as well as planners, notecards, diaries, wrapping paper, leather goods, and custom stationery. The store carries Filofax, my previous planner system, as well as Traveler’s Notebook and other Japanese and British paper goods. But there is so much to see here, I’m only scratching the surface in describing it.
Bonus: not too far away are bookstores, including the Harvard Coop, the Harvard Book Store, plus rare book retailers. A recent haul says it all:
While we are here…I’ll include this memory of editing Dollars for Dixie at the now-closed Crema Cafe. Sob.
Next on the list is Black Ink — which used to have a Harvard Square location that is now closed. (A recent visit revealed that an accoutrements store has moved into that space, but I haven’t checked it out yet). But it’s worth going to their Charles St. location in Boston because you can also stop in at Rugg Road Paper, order custom stationery and invitations, and see their range of products. Get off at the Charles/MGH stop, ponder that the prison is now a fancy hotel, and walk toward the Public Garden. Alternatively, park in the lot under the garden.
(For these spots and the next, I don’t have a plethora of images as I do for Bob Slate. This must be rectified!)
This store is one of my favorites to visit because we used to live just up the street: a garden-level apartment complete with a tunnel entrance and an address that was 9 1/2, very evocative of Harry Potter.
Again, winter visits are best for viewing the decor. But May will also yield magnolias, dogwoods, and cherry blossoms, and the Public Garden in autumn is lovely. And there are always bumper stickers to find.
Anyways. Black Ink has toys, books, kitchen wares, umbrellas, useful items, and, for my purposes: stickers and paper fasteners, as well as cards. Visit them online at the Museum of Useful Things.
A bit further afield, but on the way to my favorite vacation spots in Down East Maine, is the delightful Rock, Paper, Scissors, in Wiscasset, located right on Rt. 1.
I mean, really, when you are going to see views like this, you NEED a new notebook.
But Rock, Paper, Scissors has more than notebooks and cards. They have beautiful tableware and linens, books, toys, and various tools and all sorts of bits and bobs tucked away. It’s a great place to stop on Route 1, and I always make a point to when traveling that way. It’s also exactly the right distance from Boston to stop for lunch. Most people go to the famous Red’s Eats down the way for seafood, but we like going to Sarah’s restaurant across the street for fish chowder.
There are also the many retail locations for the Paper Source around here. I often end up at the one in Burlington, but I prefer to visit the Porter Square and Brookline stores, simply because that is where I sourced the material for our DIY wedding invitations.
Boston and the surrounding area has so many places to visit, and my list is growing. There is also the Bromfield Pen Shop near Downtown Crossing, for when I want to invest in a truly fancy pen. Shockingly, I have not yet visited the MUJI store on Newbury Street. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I was on Newbury St., or in any other Boston neighborhood. What year is it? Oh, right, it’s still 2020. Much more to explore in 2021 — but there is always online, to be covered in Part II.
The Hidden Political History of Southern Naming Traditions
I share a middle name with my grandfather and my uncle, James Rye Jewell, Sr., and James Rye Jewell, Jr., a retired commander of the U.S. Navy. My cousin Blythe, Jr.’s daughter, has my Dad’s middle name, so it was only fair that the name swapping tradition continue.
Yet there is an ironic symbolism in my middle name with a connection to the subject of my first book. As I child, I was unaware of its origins in Tennessee politics. At the same time, it is symbolic that though I grew up with little connection to the name’s 1914 origin, I nonetheless gravitated toward the era and issues that prompted its emergence as a family name. The pattern of the invisibility yet simultaneous presence of the past is at the heart of historical inquiry and structures the research questions tasked in Dollars for Dixie.
My grandfather was born in September 1914 in Lebanon, in Wilson County, Tennessee, some thirty miles east of Nashville. That fall, Tom C. Rye won election as Tennessee’s governor. A Democrat from Paris, Tennessee, 100 miles northwest of Nashville, Rye won the nomination after prosecuting bootleggers as Henry County attorney general.
Rye was a reformer and a prohibitionist — ironic given his last name. Running as a “law and order” candidate, he capitalized on prominent Tennessee Democrats’ desire to unite the party, drawing support in the 1914 election from the powerful, Memphis-based Edward H. Crump machine despite his lack of affiliation with party factions. Still, his nomination marked the relative reunification of the party after it divided in the previous decade, leading to the election of a Republican, Ben W. Hooper, for two terms. As southern members of Congress benefited from Virginian Woodrow Wilson’s election in 1912, the taste for reform in Dixie likely helped Rye assume statewide leadership. Moreover, as the southern electorate narrowed and whitened after Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, southern voters were more willing to support reform that would be directed toward largely white communities and interests.
Reform and war-related economic development dominated Rye’s four years in office. As governor, Rye balanced competing interests in state highway building, but also encouraged business progressive policies that would encourage the development of the Alcoa plant at Maryville, taking advantage of the expansion in the industry during World War I. Despite having received support from Crump and Memphis voters, Rye’s strong prohibitionist sentiments, which expanded the efforts of the previous Republican governor, led him to go after the Memphis leader for not enforcing the closure of saloons, resulting in the removal of Crump from office. Rye signed the Elkins Ouster Bill, allowing the state to remove public officials who refused to enforce standing laws. Rye’s actions seemed to stem more from his prohibitionist sentiments than his desire to break up the powerful Crump machine, but the effect was to throw Memphis politics into a state of disarray and thwart Crump’s political ambitions, though he regained control of city politics by 1918. The Jim Crow system in the state persisted and solidified under established legal structures during these years. Along with maintaining the color line, the prohibition issue blurred the lines of party and intra-party factionalism in the state, revealing the power of reform in the state during these years.
The dominance of reform and prohibition politics in Tennessee could have been the reason my grandfather gained the name. My great grandmother, Myrtle Orrand Jewell, was a devout Christian and supported prohibition. None of her other children have names of prominent politicians, which leads me to think that there was something about this governor and the timing of James’s birth that prompted the name. But the true reasons behind the name remain a bit murky. My mother once asked my grandfather where his name had come from, and he replied, “I dunno, the governor,” offering few additional details. Given that my grandfather was born in September 1914, and elections take place in November, was the decision made at his birth to select the name of the Democratic candidate, knowing he would become governor? Or was it selected later, after the election, when they filed for a birth certificate — a process perhaps delayed because of their rural location? (Perhaps I need to dig a bit deeper here into electoral results, campaigning, and the dates of this election, using resources unavailable to me remotely, from Massachusetts). Or was this reflective of larger naming traditions in middle Tennessee, or the South more generally, hearkening back to naming kids after certain generals or other prominent figures? Or does the name, and its subsequent passage along to me, stem from the power of the prohibitionism in Tennessee politics in 1914?
The subjects of my book, mill owners and industrial boosters, would likely have supported the governorship of Tom Rye, though many moved within state Republican circles (many industrialists voted for Taft in 1908 before becoming Hoovercrats in 1928, if not already registered Republicans). Most linked mill building and economic development to social reform, and many supported prohibition. Yet that generation of the Jewell family were no mill owners. My great grandfather moved to town of Lebanon in 1906 to work in a pencil factory. Eventually, he purchased his own mobile sawmill, which my grandfather would help operate at age six. My great grandfather eventually lost his hand in that sawmill and became a janitor at the local high school. My grandfather would leave high school in the depths of the Depression to work in the spinning room at the Lebanon Woolen Mill before becoming part owner of and mechanic at an auto shop after World War II. James Rye Jewell, Sr., was a lifelong Roosevelt Democrat. Perhaps class dynamics and economic development played little role in the story of the name, trumped by the politics of reform in this era, as with the state’s politics overall.
When it came time to publish, I never questioned using my full name. I like the cadence of the three words together. It looks good on a book cover. Yet its use as a family name, imbued with meanings related more to kinship and familial reciprocity than southern identity and Tennessee politics of reform, reveal how the past remains yet is also constantly being reused and reinterpreted. Tennessee’s business progressives and industrial boosters perplexed me, given that their role in shaping the state and region has largely been lost to popular memory.
Much like my middle name, the complexities and sentiments of a previous generation of industrialists bear little weight on the Sunbelt politics and global flows of capital that shape the region today. Still, their effect remains. Historians, looking closely and reconstructing timelines and lineages, can uncover deep continuities that underlie the transformation and persistence of language. In the case of my book, the idea of free enterprise and the South, and the promotion of the South as an “economic hope” of the nation, have roots in the lost politics of reformers in the early twentieth century. As for my name, it will always mark my origins, both familial and scholarly.
 G. Wayne Dowdy, Mayor Crump Don’t Like It: Machine Politics in Memphis, p. 22.
 Dewey Grantham, The Life and Death of the Solid South, p. 44.
 The legal structure of Jim Crow was already largely established in Tennessee by 1914. State statutes segregated streetcars and other public facilities in the early years of the century, followed by legal segregation of schools in the 1920s.
The last two weeks have been difficult ones here in Boston, from the immediate trauma and shock of the bombings, to false reports of arrests, to a manhunt and lockdown, and now to the re-opening of Boylston St. and the resolve of moving forward.
As I look back, I realize that not only are my memories of the actual event hazy and distorted, but my memories from the entire week of April 15 are a jumbled and foggy mess. Last Tuesday at Fitchburg State’s convocation, our Assistant VP of Academic Affairs and former chair of my department (with whom I share an appreciation for Survivor) asked me about the previous week’s episode. If you didn’t see it, it was an exciting one (immunity idols played! A major player blindsided!) At first, when Paul asked me about the episode, I had no memory of having watched it. Intellectually, I knew that I had, but the memories just weren’t coming. A few vague flashes darted through my brain, but that was it. Other similar experiences registered similar memory problems, which various sources explained to me was a symptom of post-trauma and should diminish with time.
Furthermore, as the week went on, the historian began to kick in. I needed details. I needed to find out what actually happened. I needed evidence — and clearly, I needed more evidence than what my memory was providing me.
The process of putting these details together, although they may not make for the most interesting reading, reveal the process by which historians reconstruct the past through evidence. It isn’t pretty, and sources don’t always neatly line up in succession to allow for an easy chronology of details. Here is the process I used, however imperfect. I am not yet at the place where I can put these details into a narrative. This post might be a bit of a mess, but so is the process of doing history. Perhaps outlining is the next step?
So to the sources I went, looking for answers. A few items needed to be clarified regarding my initial account. Things were not adding up in the story I was telling.
First, my location.
In the days afterwards, I told a number of people that we were “two blocks” from the explosion. This didn’t sound correct, but there was a part of me that didn’t want to face how close we were. But with my memories being unreliable, I had to look to evidence to reconstruct my location.
We found a great spot right near the corner of Boylston and Gloucester St. where we could see the 26 mile marker and hang out the sign we had made.
So, near the corner.
We felt the wave of the blast and smelled the smoke…as the crowd began to scream and run, I ran, too, pushing Leo in the stroller.
But close enough to feel and smell the bomb, and far enough from the corner to run straight (for what seemed like forever in the aftermath).
I saw a nondescript door leading to businesses upstairs over Boylston, (I believe it was 883 Boylston St.), and headed for it. Other spectators dove into restaurants, but I didn’t want to be near any glass.
So we were past at least two restaurants, and far enough from 883 Boylston to have to run. Aha, and that photograph I took to document our location. Perhaps other photographs could provide some visual clues as to our exact location.
Photograph 1, taken at 2:29 PM.
At first, I didn’t think there would be much to glean from this photograph about our location. The geotagging placed us across the street in the Prudential Center, so that was unreliable. Then I noticed the brick detail on the building behind my head and the bowed windows.
Using Google maps, I determined that we were in front of the building housing Eastern Mountain Sports and a Bank of America branch. Saturday, on Boylston St., I took this photo to corroborate my location.
As this photo demonstrates, there are only two possible locations in which we could have been standing — either on the far right on the right side of the Bank of America, or on the left, just to the side of the Eastern Mountain Sports sign.
From the following photo it is possible to discern that we were across from the Prudential Center Mall, but Hynes was still visible, suggesting that we were at the left location.
Mapping this location along with the approximate location of the second bomb reveals we were about 1 block, or 400 feet, away. Revisiting Boylston St. also allowed me to confirm that it was not 883 Boylston, but rather 867 Boylston through which we escaped the street.
Second, the time frame.
My blog post is very fuzzy on timing and chronology. Note the lack of detail here:
I saw a nondescript door leading to businesses upstairs over Boylston, (I believe it was 883 Boylston St.), and headed for it. Other spectators dove into restaurants, but I didn’t want to be near any glass. I told Leo that we were going to find a hiding spot. I managed to text my husband and my brother that we were okay.
In the hallway, it was quiet, and I couldn’t get a signal on my phone to figure out what was happening.
I know I told a few people that we were in the hallway hiding for a few minutes, but it seemed like an incredibly long time that we were in there. Other details from my initial post also don’t help in reconstructing the timeline:
Outside people were running and crying. I managed to get a call through to my husband. I told him we were going to cross the Mass Ave bridge, and after a minute the phone service cut out. …As we approached the BU bridge I got cell service back (along with a deluge of text messages). I told my husband that we were headed toward the River Street bridge and that we would meet him on River towards Central Square.
So to my phone records to help reconstruct the timeline.
My phone records didn’t have the call to my husband when I thought of recording these, but his phone still maintained a record of our calls.
I already know from the photograph I took in the alleyway that I emerged into the alley behind Boylston at 2:54 PM. At 2:56, two minutes later, I had a 1 minute conversation with my husband before cell service cut out.
In between this phone call, in which I told him we were going to the Mass Ave Bridge, and the next series of phone calls, I decided not to go over Mass Ave and instead headed for BU.
At 3:11 I began a series of calls to my husband, attempting to tell him that we were no longer going to the Mass Ave. bridge.
My text messages revealed that I managed to get my text (as well as a post onto Facebook) out the few seconds after I came out into the alley way, as well as indicated that it was possible to text even when calls were not possible.
Reconstructing the time line from these texts and calls, I can now see the timing of our walk and the process out of Boston.
2:54PM to 3:11PM: we walked from behind Boylston St., down Gloucester to Beacon St.
3:11 PM: we reached Mass Ave, and after seeing the number of people fleeing across the bridge I decided that using that route was not a wise decision. I then tried to call my husband and let him know that we were going to BU instead, but was unsuccessful.
3:34 PM: Phone service returned and I was able to tell my husband we were going to BU Bridge.
3:40 PM: because Leo wanted to walk on the path by the river we were not able to ascend to the BU Bridge without retracing our steps, and so I texted that we were going to continue to the River St. bridge (which I mistakenly said went towards Harvard in a later text message).
3:58 PM: A text from a friend indicated that text message service was unreliable, and that it was difficult for all messages to get out. Finally a message went through successfully, which also cataloged my location at the time of sending the text, close to the Central Square (River St.) bridge.
4:41 PM: A text message with my brother recorded that I arrived home (along with my text message to him at 2:54PM that we were okay).
Third, with the details emerging of the bombers and their pathway into the event, how close did we come to them, and at what time?
Given that the bombs detonated on the same side of the street we were standing, I knew it was possible that we had come into close proximity of the bombers. Photographs that emerged after the bombers’ capture revealed the truth.
The surveillance footage released showed that both bombers had come up Gloucester St. and walked up Boylston, meaning they had passed right behind us.
Watching CBS Sunday Morning on April 21, I captured this image (working on the proper citations. A close up of this image appears here.).
This image corroborated several of my initial responses, though I was still cloudy on a few details.
The two bombers appear in this photo in front of 867 Boylston, in between two restaurants. A policeman stands in the road, patrolling the barricades. This image is taken west of my position, and time stamps on the surveillance footage reveal the timing to be 2:37 PM, after I took the photo of Leo and myself with our sign that documented our location. The policeman in the photo is the same that stood in front of us when the bombs went off, which also corroborates that the bombers walked right past us as they moved up Boylston St.
I now have a sense of how far I was from the second bomb (my mom walked it with me and counted 250 steps). I now have a clear chronology and time frame for how long it took me to get off of Boylston, and when I made decisions about my route home and how and when I was able to communicate with others. Although it is still difficult to process, I also now have a sense of how close I came to the perpetrators of this terrible event.
What I’m missing are the memories of being on Boylston, of the faces and images of those who ran by me, of the sounds that are only muffled in my ears. I’m missing a sense of how many people were on Mass Ave., if they were upset, or even injured. Why does this matter? Why do I want to remember? Because I had a little boy with me who clearly remembers details about this. “The loud noise broke everything,” he says. “What am I made of that I don’t break” he asked my mom the other day. “What are people made of?” On top of that, there is the sheer disbelief and the enormity. For two weeks, images of something I experienced have been splashed across the news. Thirty seconds out of the hours upon hours that I have spent on Boylston seem to have shifted my world — how is that possible? Being able to talk to others who were there, to hear their experiences, would help make sense — if not sense of the motives or the loss, at least of the experience, that it happened and that others had similar and divergent reactions, all of which are valid.
This leads me to the next step in my process: big data. I have created a Google map on which people who were along the marathon route can record their location and tell their story, as well as post links to pictures. It’s a work in progress, but I hope to generate a crowdsourced database of the experiences of the Boston bombings, to create a historical record, one that can generate a sense of community out of that terrible day. Maybe, together we can find healing.