Sam Burnham, Curator
I was watching the latest episode of TrueSouth the other night. I’ve gone back to that episode a few times to revisit a scene that has stuck with me. I’ve thought long on it. I’ve pondered it. Something needs to be said.
John T. Edge was sitting at a table with Martha Goodard, owner of the 14th Street Grill in Phenix City, Alabama. She was reluctant to talk. He made the comment that “She feared we were there to pry, maybe even poke fun. But we weren’t.” That’s where the beauty of the show really stood out. John T has a gift. He can walk into a small town dive and connect with the people there. He can win their trust, not by trickery but by sincerity. That’s how he told half the story of that episode.
You can’t really blame Martha Goodard. She’s running a hot dog joint in a town still known for its wild past. Even I’ve heard a first hand account of “Sin City” in its heyday. So when a bunch of strangers roll into town with cameras asking questions she, understandably, suspected evil intent.
When she finally opened up, she told a story that’s all too familiar with Southerners her age. She spent years working on her daddy’s farm as well as in the cotton mill. Her hands know what work feels like. She has a grit that comes from such a life. But it’s that grit that has kept her restaurant going through the pandemic. It’s honorable. It’s dignified.
But this is also a way of life that is frequently maligned in certain segments of the media. There are camera wielding crews that would turn Ms. Goodard and her restaurant into a punchline for a laugh or perhaps to prove some political point. If you’ve lived in The South long enough you’ve seen it. Perhaps you’ve even been the target.
This is one of those phenomena that hits places like Atlanta’s West End and the town of West Point quite equally. It’s true in Phenix City or the big city. Poor urban blacks and poor rural whites both know marginalization. They both know exploitation. Their experiences are what fuel their distrust of media. Their experiences are what put them on the defensive. Understanding how someone votes, how they relate to the rest of the world, how they choose to open up or shut down, all depends on understanding exploitation and marginalization. It all comes down to trust and that is earned.
When a corporation or a politician exploit someone it is usually private. The anguish is around the dinner table, making a family budget, or losing sleep over making ends meet. When someone with a camera or perhaps a column in The New Yorker exploits someone, it’s very public. It’s humiliating and it drives stereotypes and creates more exploitation.
That’s precisely what makes what John T did so powerful. He took the time and connected with Martha Goodard. He used his camera to show her humanity. Instead of some linthead turned hot dog maker, she was more accurately cast as a hardworking entrepreneur who is running a business while caring about the well-being of her employees and meeting the needs of her customers. On TrueSouth she didn’t become a punchline. She became a hero.
That is the power of media. It can be wielded to show the world the truth about The South. It can be used to tell the stories of the marginalized, the abused, the ridiculed. It has the power to celebrate and honor just as much as it can humiliate or exploit.
There is a lot of talk of unity and healing in the various outlets of the media of late. There are a few ways that this could go. I want to look at two.
The first is the now defunct Jeep Super Bowl ad. Bruce Springsteen (who is temporarily 'problematic' at the moment) extolling the virtues of "the middle" and all the ways that we can come together in some sort of peaceful and harmonious ideal. In this scenario we get a cinematic utopia of the rural landscape of the American Heartland. The little chapel, the flying flag, the passing train, and The Boss riding in his Jeep pull at our heartstrings. It is a beautifully made ad. But it is just that. It is just an ad. It puts a pleasant thought in our minds and maybe even makes us want to reach for unity. But Bruce isn't really one to lecture us on unity and meeting in the middle.
On the other hand, I know some of John T's beliefs on politics and culture. There are things I know he and I disagree on. I can promise you there are things he and Martha Goodard disagree on. Yet there he sat at a table in her restaurant patiently connecting with her and telling he story to his audience. He portrays her as a responsible employer who cares for her employees and her customers. He tells us that her life and her experiences are important, that they matter to the culture of The South. He went out of his way to make this connection, to earn her trust. He did not have to do this. He could have ridden around Phenix City in a Jeep and gave stirring narration. But he got out of the car. He met Martha Goodard where she was. He didn't just pontificate about unity. He actually practiced it. In the process he made a beautiful story and he made the world a little bit better.
That is how we will find unity.
Sam Burnham, Curator
“...kind of a mistake. It’s a song that should have never been a hit single.” Michael Stipe
”Think about it. You’ve got a five minute song with no discernible chorus and the lead instrument is a mandolin. Why would anyone play that on the radio?” - Mike Mills
This is how two members of REM introduce a show featuring the creation of their 1991 single Losing My Religion. Yet this is the song that, after it was recorded, was the band’s consensus choice for the first single from their album Out of Time.
The new Netflix series Song Exploder offers a look behind the scenes into how these four men created one of the greatest songs ever released by a Georgia band. Seeing the magic of the creative process just added to the greatness and the mystique of the song.
Peter Buck teaching himself to play the mandolin and just building that iconic riff in the process booked the band a date with destiny. From there the show meanders through the creativity of Stipe, Mills, Buck, and Berry as each one made their mark. REM collectively decided to do something different. That’s what they did. It was different than anything they had done before and much different than anything else in the radio at that time. Stipe choosing an old Southern phrase is indicative of Georgia as an anchor for the music.
One of the greatest parts of the show is to see how they talk about the band and each other. So many bands out there that have the years together that these men have are burned out or even hate each other. These four are still very much friends and obviously love each other the way long time friends should. It’s refreshing.
I remember this song so vividly. Even on such a great album this one stood out to me. It was one that I listened to over and over. For me in 1991 that meant rewinding a cassette over and over, which I did. Whether it was on my stereo in my room or on my Walkman on the bus headed to a football road game, this song was never far away. In 2020, I find it just as enjoyable as I did in 1991. In fact, I’ve been through it 6 or 7 times while writing this piece.
I would have thought that the samples, those that were singled out in the show would have been detrimental. Such a mechanical separation of vocals, or percussion, or strings should peel back some of the magic and cost the song it’s soul. But it didn’t. It gave me chills, made me take notice. It proved to me, even more than I already knew, that this is just a truly great song.
If you are a fan of REM or even just enjoyed Losing My Religion then this is 25 minutes well spent. It is well worth your time.
Sam Burnham, Curator
A trusted Carolinian put me on film. I had never heard on the film or the filmmaker before. My friend spoke with ease and familiarity about both which left me thinking I had missed something major. So I searched it down and had a late night screening of the 2003 Ross McElwee film Bright Leaves.
In the opening scene McElwee tells of a dream of leaves. These aren’t your typical leaves that you rake from your lawn. His description is of some monstrous plants from the age of dinosaurs or something. He and his wife come to an agreement that is his Southern homeland calling for him. She tells him the South is in his blood and that he has been looking a bit anemic lately. McElwee is a Southern expat in New England and Carolina requested his presence. The South does that to her wayward children.
The film put me in a similar mindset as the Errol Morris documentary Vernon, Florida. McElwee went out and found ordinary North Carolinians to create the documentary. The cast of characters is not nearly as quirky or odd as the residents of Vernon but it still makes for an authentic homegrown experience. It tells a story or people progressing though history. There are villains and victims, traditions, memories, legends - dubious and factual.
At the center of it all is the old rivalry between the McElwee family and the Duke family - North Carolina's tobacco barons. The Dukes are well known for their tobacco empire, Duke University, Duke Health, Duke Energy, you know, Duke. The McElwees are known very little these days. Through this film we see evidence that John Harvey McElwee, Ross McElwee's great-grandfather, developed the Durham Bull brand of smoking tobacco and that his foreman stole and then sold the formula to the Dukes. The Dukes then allegedly released the product reflagged as the Bull Durham brand which made them wildly successful. The Duke family remains wealthy in treasure and legacy. McElwee died bankrupt and obscure.
What impacted me most about the film is the contrast, the contradictions, that Southern duality that runs throughout the film. It is best represented in Ross McElwee's explanation that he has all the guilt of the effects tobacco has had on the lives of people while enjoying none of the financial benefits of being an heir to the inventor of one of the most successful brands. He sees himself as both a perpetrator and a victim. You just don't get any more Southern than that.
Going through Southern History is noticing centuries of this duality. Southerners committed the crime of slavery and were the victims of the crime of Sherman's March. They committed the Indian Removal and then suffered the invasion of the Carpetbaggers. They have grown tobacco and distilled whiskey and suffered the side effects.
Now faced with the choice of halting tobacco production or preserving a way of life, people are indecisive. Tobacco isn’t just economics to them. It’s history, it’s aesthetics, it’s their identity. How do you just eliminate such a part of your very self?
That duality is a part of our existence. Slavery and Jim Crow will never be not wrong. Sherman's March will never be justified. The evils of our past, both given and received, are magnified by a culture that so reveres and bathes in the past. Everything we see today came through all those evils and we know it. It is personified in both this film and the filmmaker.
But the film goes further, just as our culture has. McElwee questions his subjects about their tobacco habits. He highlights smokers and his inquiries on their intentions to quit or continue. He highlights the efforts of the Duke empire to ameliorate the illnesses attributed to tobacco use. He covers the 50th Annual Tobacco Festival of Clarkton. It was the last year of it by that name. The "Farmer's Day" moniker was to be adopted the next year. That blatant attempt to cleanse and add something more "acceptable" to the culture has become an everyday occurrence. The South finds itself in a struggle between those who would remove "problematic" elements of our culture and those who would preserve the culture. This struggle is based in that victim/perpetrator duality that no amount of scrubbing will ever eliminate. Regardless of the efforts, The South endures.
And so I can confidently finish with recommendation for this gritty and wonderful film. It highlights this corner of The South with stark reality delivered with McElwee's soft-spoken narration. Let it take you for a ride. Let it make you think. Go where it leads you and find yourself in a familiar place.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire