For Juni Ata to happen, it took ten years and a global pandemic. But it has often been the case that out of great difficulty, great art emerges. Of the ten years themselves, the result was worth the wait.
The first seeds of Jesse Daniel Edwards’ musical life were sewn in a field as rich as it is American. Raised first in a small mountain town in Southern California, his was a deeply religious household headed by a career Navy man that his siblings called “The Captain.” There was daily prayer, the study of Scripture, and as it often goes in such homes, very little popular music — Jesse would not hear his first Bob Dylan song until his early 20s. But it was a home of great musicality all the same, for among the wildflowers and mountain streams of this idyllic California scene, Jesse often sat at the feet of his grandfather, listening in awe as the old man performed the songs of TheSound of Music on a battered ukulele.
During those adolescent years Jesse studied guitar, banjo, mandolin, oboe, saxophone, piano and clarinet. By age ten he had begun composing songs of his own along with his six brothers and sisters, recording some of those efforts in the family’s coal cellar.
Years to come found Jesse living the life of a military brat and moving around the world. After making several home recordings with his family, Jesse formed an acoustic duo with his brother. The group disbanded when Jesse’s brother left to start a family and business and it was then that Jesse began performing solo while working at a summer music camp in the mountains east of Los Angeles. He later moved to Nashville and came under the tutelage of the late Al Bunetta, long-time manager of John Prine. More than a mentor, Bunetta became a close friend and father figure, and was someone who always believed in Jesse’s talent. Al’s death in 2015 was crushing to the musician.
It was also around this time that Jesse’s mother passed away after a sudden illness. And then there was a romantic breakup with a once-in-a-lifetime kind of love. In the swirling events of so much loss, the emotional weather hit hard, never really leaving. “Something snapped and it really broke me,” Jesse said. “It was a combination of losing all those things. I felt like I aged twenty years in one, during 2017. All the songs are about those losses.”
At this time Jesse no longer had designs on a professional music career. He worked in tour management while based in Nashville, spending one five-year stretch on the road with Morrissey, and later working with songwriting icon Lucinda Williams. “Just being able to listen in the corner while these artists divulged the wealth of their experience was such a treat,” he says of his touring jobs. But all this time he continued writing, albeit only for himself. He just didn’t think his music gelled with the currents of mainstream American music. “The industry had changed so much, and I felt like I didn’t really fit anywhere,” Jesse says.
Then something happened. In 2018 Jesse was spending some time in West Virginia with his friend and touring associate Jake Rosswog when the two got drunk together and Rosswog persuaded him to record one of his new songs. “I saw that his writing had really grown in that two or three years,” said Rosswog, who became the galvanizing force behind the whole Juni Ata project.
“I certainly didn’t plan on ever doing anything with those songs,” says Jesse, but it was that one recording that got the ball rolling. When the two friends got back to Nashville, they started hatching plans for a full-length album. Jesse continued to write and polish songs for the effort, and Jake, who helped with some of the songwriting, started focusing on the big picture. As the project’s producer, Jake was able to enlist the support of Steve Cropper, the legendary Stax Records guitarist, who at the time was leasing RCA Studio C and agreed to come aboard for some additional production. “He was writing poetry and his true-life story,” Cropper said of Jesse’s songs.
“I learned so much from working with Steve Cropper,” Jesse says. “He really took the time to listen to what I was doing and weigh in.” From there Jesse and Jake recruited a cast of musicians and settled on Juni Ata as Jesse’s nom d’artiste. Initial tracking was conducted at RCA Studio C in 2018, and there was born the album Saudade, which is a word of Portuguese origin that is loosely translated as a “deep, emotional longing.”
The sound on Saudade is lush; one might even say it’s an organic, acoustic version of Phil Spector’s Wall-of-Sound, and it forms the perfect vehicle for conveying the yearnings within the music. Before recording began, Jesse was thinking that he’d simply perform solo acoustic in the studio, because that is what he’d always done, but Jake had different ideas. “The wall of sound was all Jake’s vision,” says Jesse, “so I could just go in there and focus on the words and the story, and everything else orbited around that.”
The melodies on Saudade are instant earworms, but they are natural and fresh — none of them register as programmatic, though they do come with some radio-ready hooks. If there is any precedent to the sound of Saudade, it might be the work of ’90s bands like Travis and Keane if they were coupled with the melodic dexterity of a singer-songwriter such as Michael Penn.
Opening the album is “Philadelphia,” a song about finding the strength to move on, which sets the tone for the rest of the story. The following track, “Fight Hard, Run Fast,” explores the fight-or-flight instincts that come with the arrival of life-changing events.
Many of the songs deal with downtrodden themes, yet the music is filled with a vibrant buoyancy, coming off like a deep kiss to the possibilities of life. “All My Tomorrows (Are Mondays)” recalls prime-era Ron Sexsmith, while the get-up-and-go of “Good Enough Ain’t Bad” summons the FM radio anthems of Gin Blossoms. “Room With A View of A Room With A View,” which features vocal assists from Matthew Ryan and Madi Diaz, sports a slowly building orchestral crescendo and is one of the many album highlights. “Jesse has a way with words and seems lit by the real roots of music, the true music,” says Matthew Ryan. “With our culture as it is, and how often brand seems to come before soul, it was a good fire to see that. He’s got a bit of a Van Morrison thing about him.”
Saudade was recorded in the fall and winter of 2018 yet there were no initial plans for a release in 2020, and then Covid-19 hit. The entire touring industry was shut down and both Jesse and Jake were stuck at home, and Jake felt this was the perfect time to get Saudade out. He was absolutely right — it is the right album for the moment. After all, it’s an album that reckons with a decade of heartbreak and loss, and yet, it’s not a cry of defeat, for these are spirit songs, full of courage and catharsis, pointing to a better tomorrow.
When people first meet Daniel Donato, they’re not fully braced for this walking tornado of creative energy. “They think there’s something that tips the scale in ways they don’t understand,” says Donato about his over-the-top, slightly manic vibe. “But what actually tips the scale is the amount of thought and analysis I put into my work and art, all of which is taken from the lessons of my life.”
Donato, a 25-year-old Nashville native, has distilled those life lessons into his debut album, A Young Man’s Country, his proper introduction to the general musical audience. Recorded at Nashville’s Sound Emporium in a mere two days and produced by guitar-ace Robben Ford, the record weaves outlaw country, Grateful Dead-style Americana, and first-rate songwriting into a singular form Donato calls “cosmic country for the 21st century.”
It might surprise some that the Telecaster-wielding wunderkind, who at 16 became the youngest musician to regularly play the iconic honky-tonk Robert’s Western World while gigging with the Don Kelley Band, began his musical journey in a purely millennial fashion. Before he ever picked up a guitar, he discovered he had an aptitude for music via the video game Guitar Hero. At the time, he didn’t feel compelled to try his hand at the real thing until one day, about the age of 12, he heard the electric perfection of Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” blast from a set of speakers and his world was changed forever.
“It was the first time I ever had a vision for my life,” says Donato, who was partly drawn to music because he sucked royally at skateboarding. “I then took one of my dad’s old guitars…and I literally fell in love with it.” From then on, Donato lived and breathed music, practicing his chops around the clock. He’d play before school, during his lunch break, and in the evenings at home, sometimes falling asleep with the six-string in his hands.
It wasn’t long before he was busking on lower Broadway in Nashville, playing eight hours a day on weekends for tips. It was after one of those day’s sessions that he got a wild hair and snuck into Robert’s on a night when house act the Don Kelley Band was playing and his wig-dome was blown. “It was the first time I ever saw a band that was that good up close,” Donato said. “So I’m literally watching them play and I’m crying. I decided right then that I wanted to be the best guitar player in the world.”
Donato continued busking outside arenas before John Mayer and Phish concerts and on the streets of Nashville and it was then, while playing on Broadway, that he’d give Don Kelley his business card every Saturday night, hoping for a chance to audition. One day, while still a junior in high school, he got the call to come play. Donato was more than ready, and he delivered the goods in spades. He was so good, in fact, that he became a regular member of the band, performing four nights a week for more than 450 shows with the group.
Playing nightly with the Don Kelley Band was a formidable education for the young musician. Jamming regularly with Nashville’s most seasoned players, stalwart pickers who may have played in Buck Owens’ band, or Dolly Parton’s, or Alan Jackson’s, expanded his musical vocabulary while honing his stage presence. Along the way he was soaking up stories of adventures on the road and learning about the ups and downs of the music business. In short, he was gaining priceless life lessons and a musical education from wells that run deep into the musical history of Nashville.
Around the time he turned 18, one of Donato’s high-school teachers, a serious music lover who had seen his student play at Robert’s, gave him over 200 Grateful Dead live bootlegs and other live series releases. It was another eureka moment for the guitarist. His love for the Dead may have been ignited much earlier by virtue of the fact that his mother was a bona fide Deadhead who followed the group on tour when she was pregnant with the future guitarist, but it was that collection that changed the way he looked at music. “It gave me a tie to all of the classic country gold I’d been working down at the honky-tonks each weekend,” he said. “Grateful Dead and Merle Haggard had always lived in my heart, but now, the link was made, and I had a vision on how to keep it alive for this generation that I am coming from.”
During the days of his Robert’s residency, Donato continued to busk at various locales, even playing the Grand Ole Opry, and it is the sum of all these gigs, experiences any teenage musician would kill for, that inform the sounds on A Young Man’s Country.
“Ain’t Living Long Like This,” one of three covers on the album, is a song by Waylon Jennings, who was recording at the Sound Emporium the day Donato was born. “Angel From Montgomery,” a song Donato learned on the fly while busking for tourists, pays tribute to the late John Prine. Donato recorded his unique take on the tune before Prine’s death. The Grateful Dead’s “Fire On The Mountain” is tacked on to “Meet Me In Dallas,” a tune Donato wrote while on the road with Paul Cauthen. The other seven songs, all originals, showcase the promise of a young songwriter coming into his own, one of the highlights being “Luck of the Draw.”
The message of these songs contains the central tenet of Donato’s “Cosmic Country” ethos, which is about finding the courage to blaze your own path. As such, it is an ethos the artist extends beyond music into the channels of social media, where he’s built up a huge following of devoted “DD Heads,” as his fans call themselves. His podcast, “Daniel Donato’s Lost Highway,” brings together like-minded creatives to get at the heart of what makes artists tick, for which he’s interviewed Brothers Osborne, Brent Cobb, Orville Peck, and Garry Tallent of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.
Incubated to the sounds of the Dead, educated by some of Nashville’s finest players, and having more than 2,000 shows under his belt and a social media presence, Daniel Donato is indeed a millennial whirligig of creative fire. He’s been dabbling in professional music since the age of 14 and yet he’s just getting started. A Young Man’s Country is the portrait of a restless artist as a young man, one whose story is singular and is still in its exciting, early chapters – and as this effort shows, the future is indeed cosmic.
A writer, naturalist, and filmmaker, Ben Raines has been reporting on environmental affairs in Alabama for most of this century. As a former journalist for the Press-Register, he served as our region’s foremost environmental watchdog. Since leaving the paper, he has worked in film, authored books and scientific papers, and served as the executive director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, an environmental non-profit. His 2017 documentary about an ancient underwater cypress forest in the Gulf of Mexico, The Underwater Forest, was broadcast on public television, and other footage he’s shot has appeared on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic TV. In 2018, Raines made history when he discovered the remnants of the Clotilda, the last American slave ship, at the bottom of the Mobile River near Twelve Mile Island.
On December 12, Raines will release his latest offering to the world, Saving America’s Amazon, via New South Books. The book, which includes a foreword by eminent biologist and Mobile native E.O. Wilson, examines the rich biodiversity of the Mobile River Basin (a.k.a. “America’s Amazon”) and the environmental threats it faces as a result of pollution, increased development, and unscrupulous decisions by industry and elected officials. Yet despite a poor environmental record, Alabama still boasts more species per square mile than any other state.
I spoke with Victor Cabas about Postmodern Blues in early 2018, just a few weeks before he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 69. Over Christmas break that year I’d found some of the early chapters he’d given me nearly a decade prior. As I re-read them that winter I found myself still riveted by the story, still laughing out loud, and finally, left wanting more.
“We’ve got to get moving on this thing and get it published,” I told him over the phone. “It’s too good not to be read.” Victor was a great believer in Time, and he moved at his own pace. I felt he needed a kick in the groin.
He seemed excited by my renewed interest, adding that it was basically done and that he’d read over it the past year and still liked it. “I’ll have my secretary send you the rest of it,” he said.
I was working as an editor in magazine publishing at the time, and suggested trying to get an excerpt published somewhere. He seemed open to the idea, but he forgot to send it. Then one day in late February I got a text from a friend telling me he was gone.
Cabas began writing Postmodern Blues sometime in the 1990s, working on it off and on through the following decades with periodic bursts of sustained effort. Then he would leave it alone, for years even, perhaps for nearly a decade in one case. I stopped inquiring about the book during our phone conversations, as I could tell it nagged him that it wasn’t finished. But he was a man of many pursuits. Between teaching, working his cattle farm, playing weekly music gigs, and buying, selling and repairing vintage guitars — lots of them — there wasn’t always time to put pen to paper.
In the summer of 2008 he took a break from teaching summer school at the University of Virginia, and in a burst of output, much of the book was written. I remember him being giddy the day he handed me those first chapters. “It’s gonna be good,” he beamed with a Mephistophelian grin, before pausing. “Well … at least it’ll be funny.”
The novel tells the story of Jack Shock, an English professor who, as the novel opens, is drinking himself to near death in the highlands of Guatemala (where Cabas, in his words, “once got stoned in the biblical sense” by a horde of rock-wielding Mayans in a case of mistaken identity). The rest of the story unfolds in Washington, D.C. and the classrooms and downtown bars of Charlottesville. The main character, and much of the story, cribs from Cabas’s own life, but the two are far from carbon copies of one another.
Postmodern Blues is a book of many hats. On one level, it details a man’s struggle with alcoholism in almost Dostoevskian fashion; the novel’s cast of barflies and ne’er do wells leap off the page in vivid Technicolor and bear the blemished edges of a humanity not yet incised by the self-correction of digital culture. It is also a picaresque romp in the tradition of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, one of Cabas’s favorite books and one that Shock quotes from more than once — “Hide, and if they find you, lie.” For Jack Shock, “they” are the Bernard Vandillinghams, Charlie Bledsoes and Jackson Prileaus of the world.
Thomas Wolfe once observed that all fiction is largely autobiographical. As such, it is no surprise that the character of Shock shares some qualities with the author, but for those who knew him, it’s obvious it’s not a facsimile of the man. The sections in the book that satirize academia recall Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, a work Cabas himself taught in “The Jim Class,” along with Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Huckleberry Finn.
The novel’s apocalyptic pull recalls Joseph Conrad as well as Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano, another tale of rot and exile in Paradise by way of demon rum. But perhaps more than anything else, Postmodern Blues is a love story, shot through with every beautiful and problematic complication our capacity for loving (and loathing) creates.
As for Shock, Cabas said he based him in part on a professor he had while earning his Ph.d in upstate New York. The professor was a Texan of the Rabelaisian sort who dedicated his book on Conrad’s “metaphysics of darkness” to Larry, Moe and Curly — a signature Shock adopts himself. Cabas told me a story years ago about how one afternoon the two were walking to a bar, seeking sanctuary from the brutality of a Buffalo winter, when they passed a strip club that had the portraits of the performers framed in the window, like you sometimes see on Bourbon Street. “She looks pretty good for a stripper,” Cabas remarked offhandedly. “I know,” his mentor deadpanned, “I was married to her.”
Throughout his professional life, Cabas remained suspicious of academics. Like Shock, he abhorred the cynicism of the postmodern ethic, and the idea that the critic is paramount. As Shock tells of his former student Susan Monteith:
I didn’t want to sound like a college professor, not to her, not that I was much of one. Like Susan Monteith, I had pretty much had my fill of academic life. But I didn’t feel like copping an attitude. Academia was no phonier than any other form of corporate self-aggrandizement. It hadn’t always been the moral equivalent of Exxon and somewhere at someplace small it was probably still mostly about teaching. But while I’d been at the University it had almost always had the stink of snake oil.
I first met Cabas as a student at the University of Virginia, when I took his “Mississippi In Song And Story” class, which mostly concerned the novels of William Faulkner and lyrics of bluesman Robert Johnson. He walked into the classroom at Bryan Hall the first day of class wearing dark sunglasses, a straw hat, torn jeans with a star patch over one knee, and Jesus sandals. As he was walking in, he started addressing the class. “If I had taken this class at your age,” he said, “I would’ve dropped it in a New York minute, because you are going to work. I went to summer school at the University of Hawaii, and let me tell you, it ain’t exactly an intellectual powerhouse.” He seemed more Douglas MacArthur than Jerry Garcia, despite the appearance. It turned out to be the best — and most challenging — course I took at UVa. I’ve heard others say the same.
“The saying is, those who can’t do, teach — but it’s a noble profession,” he once said. His students well recall such banter — and how he took teaching seriously. But it always bothered him when professors talked down their students and his humor was an honest balance. He felt that books had transformative power and could change lives, and he seemed to genuinely care for each of them. “Dr. Cabas never had children but often thought of the many students he worked with at the College as his sons,” wrote Kenneth Townsend, a friend and economics professor at Hampden-Sydney, shortly after his passing.
Much like Shock’s, Cabas’ father was an Air Force Brigadier General and renowned war pilot named Victor N. Cabas, who passed away at the age of 98, just six months after his son died. The elder Cabas flew more than 300 missions in World War II before flying combat missions in Korea and Vietnam and was said to have seen more aerial warfare than any man on earth. Born in Newport News, Virginia, the younger Cabas spent much of his youth in South Carolina, where he attended high school and was something of a military brat as a kid, living in England and Hawaii for a spell.
It was at UVa where Cabas encountered Herman Melville’s Moby-Dickfor the first time, and the book made such an impression that it inspired him to become an academic. He was accepted to the University of Virginia School of Law, but after sitting in on classes as an undergraduate, he decided it was like “reading your car manual over and over again.” Instead of pursuing law he accepted a scholarship at State University of New York at Buffalo where he wrote his dissertation on the use of meta-drama in Shakespeare’s plays and earned his doctorate in literature in 1974.
In the mid-70’s he began his academic teaching career in the English department at the University of Virginia. He did not put himself up for tenure and started teaching at Hampden-Sydney shortly thereafter in the Rhetoric department, where in addition to writing, he taught Shakespeare, Melville, Faulkner, the Civil War, American Blues Music, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, as well as other subjects.
However, it was actually music that was Cabas’ foremost love in life, especially the blues of the Mississippi Delta, and in particular the songs and guitar playing of Robert Johnson. Those sentiments are echoed by Shock:
I remember the first time I heard that voice [of Johnson’s]. I was at a party, and I had just taken a hit of reefer. The song was ‘Kind Hearted Woman’ … The counterpoint of voice and guitar, both distorting sound, the voice like a record slowing down, and the triplet A chord on the seventh fret . . . And then soaring above it came that eerie falsetto ‘Oo, baby, my life won’t be the same,’ the sound rising above the forlorn desire of the words themselves.
Cabas was never happier than when he was playing guitar, whether on one of his beloved arch-tops or some obscure electric belted through a vintage tube amp. He knew a great deal about American roots music and as a guitarist he was a respected bottleneck slide player, with a raw, feral style that befitted his personality. According to Townsend, Eric Clapton once called Cabas’ house and asked if he’d be playing a party the Brit was attending in the area. Vic responded, “Eric who?”
In the book, Shock repeatedly filters the events of his life through the prism of old blues lyrics from masters like Johnson, Son House, Bukka White, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Still, the curiousness of this tendency is not lost on him as a Southern white male:
Why did I identify with a black man whose world I could know only in books and records? Maybe it was the car wreck that orphaned me as completely as if my father had died in it too. Or the sick in me that attracted me to a woman like Donna Gordon Prileau.
I heard many stories over the years from Cabas’ bacchanalian, post-divorce drinking days, a time that he recalled fondly. A large section of the book transpires in the bars of Charlottesville’s downtown mall. Back then, Charlottesville’s downtown scene was an orbit of artists, writers and scholarly inebriates. The playwright and actor Sam Shepard lived nearby, raising horses, and could often be found slaking his thirst at Miller’s, a former drugstore turned bar. Cabas was regarded as a man to know in bohemian circles, frequently sought out for mentoring from aspiring artists and musicians. “Charlottesville bartenders. All of them had college degrees. About half of them were English majors,” Shock muses. This was when Charlottesville was still a laid-back Southern college town, quite different from the hedge-fund village and showpiece it would become. Dave Matthews had just started performing in public and would give Cabas his early demos for feedback. Matthews even played the role of a drunken fratboy in a play Cabas wrote that was performed at the local playhouse Live Arts. Shock, it seems, might have known him too:
Sonnybuck and I walked along the bar, past the musician strumming an old Ovation guitar. It was a guy named Dave who had worked there two years ago when he had a Mr. T haircut. Eyes half-closed, he was singing ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ as if everything in his world depended on it.
Even after he quit drinking, Cabas continued to perform on Charlottesville’s downtown mall through the late ’90s, setting up on the street, sometimes solo, sometimes with a small band, and playing for tips. He played and sang through an amp, so you could hear that unmistakable bellow from the other side of the mall. But someone eventually complained, as people are wont to do, saying he was violating the noise ordinance, and that was that. Understandably, the old townie was ticked; he loved playing there, seeing his friends and a cavalcade of former students among the crowd.
As I think back on these elements that were part of Cabas’s world I am reminded of something the novelist James Salter once said: “There comes a time in life, when you realize that everything is a dream; only those things which are written down have any possibility of being real.” For everyone who knew Victor, and his fans were numerous, we’re lucky to have this record from the man. It is not a portrait of his life, but in a way, it does feel real, as real as a visit with an old friend, one who now lives in that undiscovered country from which no traveller returns.
The Black Lives Matter movement has called for the removal of Confederate symbols on public land, making the legacy of the Civil War a hot-button issue for candidates and elected officials in the South.
Black Lives Matter, originally conceived in 2013 as a protest against police brutality toward black Americans, has begun to target other agents of oppression. The recent chapter of the burgeoning movement, ignited by the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, has seen protestors fighting for the removal of Confederate names and monuments from the public sphere. The growing chorus has forced a closer inspection of the South’s “Lost Cause” propaganda campaign, and why the memorials appeared in the first place.
The issue found its way to Capitol Hill on June 11, when the Senate’s Republican-led Armed Services Committee heeded the call of Black Lives Matter, voting to rechristen the names of all U.S. military bases and installations named after Confederate generals within the next three years, setting up the potential for a Senate vote on the bill this year. President Trump said on Twitter that he would not consider renaming any of the military bases.
On June 13, the committee’s vote became a flashpoint issue in Alabama’s senate campaign when former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a candidate for the Republican nomination, launched a Twitter attack against incumbent Democratic Senator Doug Jones. Sessions accused Jones of dishonoring the memory of Confederate soldiers by voting to change the names, arguing that he was catering to the “woke mob” in “an insane attempt to erase history.” In his official press statement, Sessions said, “Naming U.S. bases for those who fought for the South was seen as an act of respect and reconciliation towards those who were called to duty by the States.”
Jones responded by telling Sessions to “delete his account,” adding, “I know it’s tough for you to be on the right side of history when it comes to the Confederacy, but you should give it a try.”
Fort Bragg, which is in North Carolina, is considered the largest military base in the world, with some 50,000 active duty soldiers. It is one of ten military bases currently named after Confederate generals. Established in 1918, the fort was named after North Carolina native Braxton Bragg, a Confederate general and West Point graduate who also fought in the Mexican-American War. According to William Sturkey, a professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the local chamber of commerce named it after Bragg because he was the only general from North Carolina during the Civil War, rather than as an effort toward reconciliation between North and South.
Sessions’ concern for the memory of Confederate soldiers doesn’t appear to jibe with the feelings of some U.S. veterans. A report in the New York Times on June 14 featured comments from black military veterans about being stationed at Confederate-named bases, with one veteran calling it a “slap in the face.”
In cities across the South, Confederate monuments have been toppled by Black Lives Matter protestors; foremost among them the Jefferson Davis statue on the fabled Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. According to a 2019 report by The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights legal advocacy organization, 783 Confederate statues remain standing on public ground in the U.S.
On the night of June 14, the statue of Robert E. Lee, also on Monument Avenue, was tagged with the Black Lives Matter slogan and painted in the rainbow bars of the LGBT-Pride flag. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (a Democrat who came under fire last year when a 1984 photograph surfaced of him pictured in blackface) has said the Lee statue, along with the four other Confederate monuments on the street, would be removed. (Property owners on Monument Avenue have filed suit against the City of Richmond seeking to block removal.) On June 16, the Monument Avenue statue of Arthur Ashe, a champion black tennis player from Richmond, was vandalized and spray-painted with the tag “White Lives Matter.” The Ashe statue is one of six that line Monument Avenue, and the only one of a black Virginian. It stirred controversy in Richmond when it was unveiled in 1996.
Sessions, who was first elected to the Senate in 1997, is currently locked in a close race in the Republican primary with former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville. The two will meet in a runoff on July 14. Tuberville, who refuses to debate Sessions, has castigated his opponent for abandoning Trump during the Department of Justice investigation into the possibility of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Sessions has been harangued by Trump on social media for recusing himself in the investigation, but he still maintains support for the president, campaigning on the idea that he was the first prominent sitting politician to embrace the Trump movement. As of June 20, Trump will hold a rally for Tuberville at Mobile’s Ladd Stadium, sometime in July, according to national media reports.
Instead of only focusing on Tuberville, whose campaign has been marked by cheesy football metaphors and blind fealty to Trump, Sessions has targeted Jones, his would-be Republican opponent in November, for his vote on the Confederate-named bases. A former attorney, Jones won the Senate seat in a 2017 special election that pitted him against former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, a Republican evangelical who was accused of inappropriate sexual and social conduct by nine women during the course of the campaign, including one who claimed she was sexually assaulted by Moore at age 14. Jones, who was considered an underdog in the race, was vaulted into office after receiving overwhelming support from the state’s female black voters.
As of June 19, Tuberville had not weighed in on the issue of Confederate-named bases, and could not be reached for comment as of this writing. When Tuberville was head football coach at Ole Miss, he was instrumental in banning the Confederate battle flag at Ole Miss games in Oxford, Mississippi. Early in his tenure as coach, Tuberville said he faced obstacles in his effort to recruit black players as a result of the flag’s presence at games. The effort to remove the flag was met with protest from a portion of the student body and some Ole Miss alumni, so, in a diplomatic sleight of hand, the school’s president issued a ban on “sticks” at games.
When the issue of Confederate monuments comes up for debate, historians often note that Lee was opposed to the erecting of Confederate statues after the war. Lee’s objections were ignored during the advent of the Lost Cause movement, a century-and-a-half propaganda campaign which advanced the theory that the Civil War was fought over the issue of “states’ rights,” a viewpoint a plurality of Americans adhered to as recently as 2011, according to a Pew research poll.
Upon close inspection, the states’ rights argument withers when one considers that the Confederate States Constitution, established in 1861, did not grant the individual states in the Confederacy the sovereign right to decide the question of slavery [Constitution of the Confederate States, Article 1, Section 9:4], though the document’s preamble says each state was acting in its “sovereign and independent character” when the new government was formed.
The Lost Cause idea, which was first promoted in an 1866 book by Virginian Robert A. Pollard, deified numerous figures in the Confederacy, none more so than General Robert E. Lee, whose characterization was emphasized as that of the chivalric man who could not take up arms against his home state of Virginia. Lee and his soldiers fought heroically on the field of battle, but were grossly outmatched in military size and industrial strength and defeated for this reason (and not because of strategic mistakes), the Lost Cause asserts.
Some historical accounts paint Lee the man in a much less honorable light. Writing in The Atlantic in 2010, Ta-Nehisi Coates relates the tale of a black man who says Lee ordered his slaves to be washed with brine after they had been flogged. Lee at times called slavery a moral and political evil, adding that it was God’s will and the duty of the white man to nurture the black population until it had evolved to the point where it could live freely (a common refrain among Southern preachers then). Lee’s sentiments partly echoed those of Alexander H. Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy, in his notorious “Cornerstone Speech,” a virulently racist tract which claimed that “slavery subordination to the superior race is his [the black man’s] natural and normal condition.” In his speech, Stephens also rebukes the founding fathers’ notion that slavery was inherently evil, making his views on race retrograde to those ofGeorge Washington, whose statue in Portland, Oregon was toppled by protestors on the night of June 18.
On “The Jeff Poor Show,” a conservative radio program broadcast in Alabama, Sessions said the current movement to eradicate Confederate monuments jettisons any opportunity for debate. “It’s a demonizing of anybody who was not perfect,” Sessions told Poor. “The great [scholar] Shelby Steele talks about this and it was clear in the 1980s, the radicals of the ’60s and ’70s and coming into the ’80s — but, they judged America by a standard of perfection. And, of course, we fall short. Good Americans will say to the radicals, ‘We hear you. We want to get better. We want to have better racial relations. We want to have a better justice system. We want to have a better economic system.’”
James Longstreet, Lee’s right-hand man and most trusted general during the Civil War, was not honored by the Lost Cause. A cool-headed officer from South Carolina that Lee called “my old warhorse,” Longstreet was often blamed by Lost Cause ideologues for the defeat at Gettysburg and consequently the loss of the war. But it was Longstreet, along with other subordinate officers, who cautioned Lee against Pickett’s Charge, a crippling psychic and physical blow to the Confederacy. Gettysburg National Military Park contains a statue of Longstreet, but there was never one erected in the South. After the war, Longstreet joined the Republican Party in support of Reconstruction and was branded a scalawag by most Southerners. Though he owned slaves before the war, he is also remembered for helping lead a black militia in a fight against white supremacists in New Orleans in 1874.
Gary Gallagher, a Civil War historian and professor at the University of Virginia, explained the rationale for the Lost Cause movement on “The Civil War in American Memory” podcast in 2011. “They knew they were out of step with the great tide of Western civilization,” Gallagher said. “They knew they would not be received well if they played it straight on how important slavery had been.”
It’s certainly no myth that the Confederate army performed valiantly on the field of battle (as was also the case for the Union). Take the 15th Alabama Infantry Regiment, for instance, whose members were said to range in age from 13 to 70. At the start of the war, the regiment, which consisted of soldiers from southeastern Alabama, contained 1,958 men. After seeing action in 15 major engagements, including horrific bloodbaths like Gettysburg (where they famously charged the 20th Maine on Little Round Top), Antietam and Chickamauga, not to mention dealing with the onslaught of disease in consistently deplorable conditions, the regiment contained only 170 soldiers by the end of the war.
In his Twitter thread June 13, Sessions writes: “Make no mistake, this [Jones’ vote] is not a little matter. It reveals a profound deficit in his understanding of what it means to be AL’s Senator. Doug Jones’ vote seeks to erase AL’s & America’s history and thousands of Alabamians for doing what they considered to be their duty at the time.”
While many volunteered to fight for the South, a great portion were forced to by law. After having trouble attracting volunteers to fight in the early days of the war, the Confederate Congress passed its first Conscription Act, or draft, in 1862, making all white males ages 18 to 35 available for service for three years. By early 1864, the age limit had been increased to 50 years old. Wealthy Southerners also had the right to purchase “substitutes” to fight in their stead, a common practice. Historical estimates of the number of “substitutes” range from 50,000 to 150,000. There were also parts of Alabama that did not fully support the Confederate cause. In Winston County, where plantation life was largely non-existent due to the non-arable soil, pro-Union sentiment was strong enough to generate a legend that the county had seceded from Alabama.
At the start of the war, nearly one-third of Southern families owned slaves, according to the 1860 census. Many of those who fought in the Confederate army, whether voluntarily or through conscription, were objects of derision among the slaveholding class. Like so many American military conflicts, the Civil War could be viewed as a rich man’s war fought by poor boys. In the case of the Confederacy, the South’s ruling class had to secede in order to ensure the preservation of an economy that was fueled by a slave-labor state.
For the North, preserving the Union was paramount at the start of the conflict. In August 1862, President Abraham Lincoln wrote to the New York Tribune, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, an executive order, it was done to punish the Southern states who had rebelled against the U.S. It was a strategic decision on Lincoln’s part as much as anything else. Regardless, abolition had now moved to the forefront of the Union cause.
Alabama, of course, is no stranger to racial politics. The Yellowhammer State was one of the main stages of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. And now, in 2020, Alabama finds itself grappling with the legacy of the Civil War in a prominent political campaign. In his Twitter thread, Sessions says the issue of Confederate names on bases is not about slavery, arguing that the issue was “settled by the war.” Sessions went on to label Jones as a member of the “radical left” who would advocate for the demolition of the Jefferson memorial and Washington Monument, presumably because these figures owned slaves. But it’s worth noting that the men of the Confederacy did fight a war against the United States.
As an argument, the defense of Confederate symbolism on public land is a tough sell, as quixotic as the doomed Pickett’s Charge, when Lee ordered some 12,500 Confederate infantry to march for three-quarters of a mile across an open field in the face of enemy artillery and rifle fire that was being directed from behind a fortified stone wall. In his 1948 novel Intruder In The Dust, William Faulkner reimagines the scene leading up to Pickett’s Charge, writing that “for every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863 …” The historical record, as many are learning, suggests that Confederate hagiography is itself a fantasy, a nostalgia for a past that never was, the defense of which is, indeed, a lost cause.
I wonder if anyone in Richmond has considered erecting a statue in memory of Black Dog. This near-mythical, dread-locked stray canine roamed the streets of Richmond’s West End neighborhood for nearly fifteen years, some say, eluding animal control the entire time. A woman once claimed he saved her from a mugging, such was his legend. Some Richmonders built dog houses and left food out for him, hoping to adopt and domesticate him (he never let humans get too close), but that is not how outlaws roll.
In the two years I lived in Richmond I saw him three or four times. He would sometimes come out of hiding and walk the perimeter of the park near Mary Munford Elementary in the mid-afternoon, when the kids were being let out of school. I looked for him every day for a year before first clapping eyes on him. When I did finally catch a glimpse, it was as if I had just seen Bigfoot. One afternoon, my toy poodle at the time got loose on a walk and, to my horror, approached him, as if to say, “Hey buddy, wanna play?” He declined the offer, but was cool about it.
His longevity was such that some speculated it was “Son of Black Dog” they were seeing in those later years. But they underestimated the indomitable old lion.
Mark Holmberg, a celebrated Richmond journalist who penned several columns about the stray, said it best when he wrote: “It’s important to remember how much Black Dog reminds us it’s okay to be independent, to be free, to be scruffy, and to be hungry every once and a while.”
Black Dog has been gone for nearly a decade. It’s high time the city of Richmond commemorates his legend.
On April 4, 1865, two days after Union forces had taken Richmond, Abraham Lincoln arrived in the fallen Confederate capital with his son Tad. The city’s black residents gave the president a hero’s welcome, while the city’s white population greeted him coldly.
Lee surrendered at Appomattox five days after the Richmond visit; Lincoln would be killed less than a week after that. I was always struck by the fact that Lincoln took Tad with him to Richmond. He had to have known there was a risk of assassination (he only had a few sailors with him for protection), but there was something there that he wanted his son to see, and for him it was, perhaps, worth the risk.
Today, a bronze statue of the two, which was unveiled in 2003, sits at the Richmond National Battlefield Park Civil War Visitor Center. The president has his arm wrapped around his 12-year-old boy. Behind him, etched in stone, are the words: “To bind up the nation’s wounds.” The phrase is taken from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered in March 1865. #blacklivesmatter
Beneath the veneer of his country-rock stylings, the early work of Steve Earle is shot through with moving descriptions of working-class life. His stirring debut album from 1986, Guitar Town, is haunted by characters hopelessly mired in small-town and rural America, barely scraping by in landscapes that are as bleak spiritually as they are impoverished. On the title track, Earle writes about his own life, with a deft nod to Hank Williams: “Nothin’ ever happened ‘round my hometown/And I ain’t the kind to just hang around/But I heard somethin’ callin’ my name one day/And I followed that voice down a lost highway.” It’s a nod, of course, to Williams’ classic “Lost Highway,” a song written by Leon Payne.
This image of small-town life and the urgency to leave it behind is as blue-collar as it is timeless Americana. But Earle’s characters are not so much conquered by fate as embattled by the forces of culture and economics — and he returns to these subjects for his latest project, Ghosts of West Virginia, out Friday. In these early works, there is the distance between aspiration and reality, and it is here where the struggle to survive with some semblance of meaning intact is maintained. On the song “Someday,” a Springsteen-esque anthem from Guitar Town, Earle relates the tale of a young man who pumps gas by the interstate yet yearns to know “what’s over that rainbow.” In “No. 29,” a tune from Earle’s sophomore album Exit O, a middle-aged man is sustained by little more than his glory days on the gridiron, which he relives every Friday night when he watches the town’s star tailback, wearing the narrator’s old jersey number, play at the local high school. Early Steve Earle was country music, all right: songs about the frustrated working man and the tender mercies that keep him going through hard times. But in Earle’s case, it is country music written by someone who knows the city just as well.
The latest album from the Strokes ends with a song called “Ode to the Mets,” an affecting closer that has me thinking about one of Shea Stadium’s forgotten sons.
That son would be Mackey Sasser, a Georgia country boy who, after replacing Gary Carter behind the plate in 1990, became the first Mets catcher to hit over .300. Sasser, who played for Pittsburgh before finding his home in New York, had a loping, old-timey sort of swing, with the ability to hit for power as well as average. He had a cannon for an arm and was the first Met to throw out speedster Cardinal Vince Coleman on the base path.
Mackey married my first cousin’s childhood best friend, and my brothers and I got to visit him at his home in Lynn Haven, Florida, just outside of Panama City. His dog was named “Mookie,” after Mets centerfielder Mookie Wilson. We hung out, tossed the ball, and hoped some of that big-league pixie dust would settle on us.
Not long after our summit, Mackey’s career took a dark turn. Midway through the ’90 season, Sasser began to have trouble throwing the ball back to the pitcher from home plate. Without fail, he would double-clutch the ball in his mitt – a malady that would come to be known as “Mackey Sasser Disease” – allowing opposing runners to execute delayed steals. Sasser eventually lost his starting gig and became the subject of much ridicule. Daryl Strawberry, no stranger to confrontation and the ringleader of the team’s wild boys faction, taunted Sasser about it one night and the two came to bloody blows.
Today, Sasser says the problem began during AAA ball when he injured his right shoulder after getting hit with a foul tip. To make matters worse, his coach would fine him every time he double-clutched, adding insult to injury. Mackey overcame the problem, but the demon returned after a home-plate collision with the Braves’ Jim Presley during the ’90 season.
Today, Sasser coaches baseball at his alma mater, Wallace Community College, in Dothan, Alabama. Whenever I hear “Ode to the Mets,” I’ll forever think of the Georgia boy who wore the cursed No. 2., a former boy-prince of Queens who gave Met fans some real fireworks for a time.