Flashpoints: An American History Tour

The following is the second in a series of three guest posts by Music Division Archivist Anita M. Weber. See Part One, “Let’s Get Away From It All: Natural Wonders.”

Not everyone likes a vacation filled with the grandeur of the American west—or scenery of any sort. They’d rather take in historic sites. So this trip is for them. Unlike music that evokes sights and sounds, these songs tell stories of our country’s oft-times violent past. On this journey we’ll travel to several less well-known historic sites and cover some 150 years of history.

Photo of battle monument in Chalmette from about 1900

Battle monument, Chalmette, c. 1900, Prints and Photographs Division.

Our history tour starts at the Chalmette Battlefield just south of New Orleans.

In 1959, singer Jimmy Horton had a hit with a lively and fanciful retelling of the “Battle of New Orleans,” a brief coda to the War of 1812. In the telling of composer Jimmy Driftwood (an Arkansas high school principal with an interest in history) “Colonel” Jackson and his troops went for a day of sport and met General Edward Pakenham’s hundreds of troops:

 

 

 

 

Battle of New Orleans by Jimmy Driftwood

Jimmy Driftwood, “Battle of New Orleans,” 1957, copyright deposit, EP 13336, Music Division.

In 1814 we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And we caught the bloody British the town of New Orleans.

We fired our guns and the British kept a comin’
but there wuzn’t nigh as many as there wuz a while ago.
We fired once more and they began to runnin’
on down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.”

While the battle on January 8, 1815, fought after the treaty of Ghent was signed, lasted a mere thirty minutes and resulted in 2,000 British casualties, it wasn’t a one day romp. Instead, the battle was the culmination of eighteen days of skirmishes and naval maneuvering.[1]

America’s labor history is rife with strikes as workers fought for increased wages and improved working conditions. Let’s head 100 years forward in time to Keweenaw National Historical Park to learn a bit of that history.

Woody Guthrie's 1913 Massacre

Woody Guthrie, “1913 Massacre,” 1961, copyright deposit EU 657236, Music Division.

In 1913 the Western Federation of Miners called a general strike in Michigan’s copper range on the Keweenaw Peninsula. On Christmas Eve 1913, actions by unknown perpetrators resulted in what became known as the Italian Hall Disaster that left 74 people dead, over half of them children.

Woody Guthrie memorialized this event in his searing “1913 Massacre.” In ten succinct verses he takes us from the fun of gathering with friends:

 

 

 

 

 

Italian Hall in Calumet, Michigan

Kevin Harrington, Italian Hall, Calumet, Michigan, 1975; Historic American Buildings Survey, HABS MI-425, Prints and Photographs Division.

I will take you in a door and up a high stairs,

Singing and dancing is heard everywhere,
I will let you shake hands with the people you see,
And watch the kids dance around the big Christmas tree.

To the mayhem and fear:

The copper boss’ thugs stuck their heads in the door,
One of them yelled and he screamed, ‘there’s a fire.’
A lady she hollered, ‘there’s no such a thing.
Keep on with your party, there’s no such thing.’

A man grabbed his daughter and carried her down,
But the thugs held the door and he could not get out.

And then others followed, a hundred or more,
But most everybody remained on the floor,
The gun thugs they laughed at their murderous joke,
While the children were smothered on the stairs by the door.”

Guthrie, for all the vividness of his tale, never went to the Keweenaw Peninsula. His facts, like Driftwood’s, leave something to be desired as he places unproven blame for events on “copper boss thugs.” But like the best history songs, “1913 Massacre” has an immediacy that puts the listener right there in the Italian Hall where the fear of the party-goers becomes palpable.

Kent State University

Thomas J. O’Halloran, [Kent State University], May 26, 1971, U.S. News & World Report magazine photograph collection, LC-U9-24490- 19A/20, Prints and Photographs Division.

We’ll end our tour over 50 years later, in 1970 at a recently named National Historic Landmark in Kent, Ohio.

Turmoil and death came to the small college town on May 4, 1970. On the campus of Kent State University, National Guardsmen opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam War. Four were killed and nine injured. Neil Young immediately turned his reaction to the event into a song that was released just seventeen days after the shooting.

His song “Ohio,” performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young captured the horror of unarmed college students being shot for protesting the Cambodian incursion announced by President Richard Nixon on April 30.

The now iconic rock song has but two verses. Repetition of “what if you knew her and found her dead on the ground” personalizes the events, raising the stakes for listeners. With the closing call and response between Young and the band…

Sheet music cover for Ohio by Neil Young

Neil Young, “Ohio,” 1970, M1630.2.Y, Music Division.

Four dead in Ohio (Four dead)
Four dead in Ohio (Four)
Four dead in Ohio (How many?)
Four dead in Ohio (How many more?)
Four dead in Ohio (Why?)
Four dead in Ohio (Oh!)
Four dead in Ohio (Four)
Four dead in Ohio (Why?)
Four dead in Ohio (Why?)”

…the question of how we came to this pass is left echoing in our mind.

In 1990 Kent State University created the May 4 Memorial to the shooting Site, in 2012 a Visitors Center opened to tell the history of the events, and in 2016 the May 4, 1970 Shootings Site became a National Historic Landmark.

 

 

[1] To learn more about the Battle of New Orleans and hear the “January the 8” fiddle tune on which “Battle of New Orleans” is based, visit this Today in History post.