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Friday, April 12 • 3:45pm - 5:45pm
Death Narratives and Undead Mythologies

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  • Ginger Dellenbaugh – “25 Minutes to Go: Voices of the Disciplined and Punished”
Since the ruling of Gregg v. Georgia in 1976, which ended the brief, ten year hiatus on capital punishment in the United States, 1,400 people have been executed across the country. Currently, there are 2,743 inmates on death row.

Just as civil rights organizations have been demanding the abolishment of the death penalty for decades, there is a long tradition of death row balladry as protest in not only American, but European, popular music. Stemming from the broadside tradition in the United Kingdom, the “Bänkelgesang” in Germany, and French “complainte canard,” songs like Jimmy Minor's Death Row, Johnny Cash's 25 Minutes to Go, or the Böhse Onkels'Es ist soweit focus this trope on the last minutes of life, countering the public exercise of disciplinary power with an externalization of an imagined, private, inner-voice.

In contrast to the engaging energy of the collective protest song, the death row confessional is direct and intimate. Its politics are not of action, but of affect. The use of 1st person address, as well as harmonic repetition and narrative evasion, lend these ballads a kind of quiet resistance. Some end abruptly, some drift off in dream-like haze, but they evade the final cadence. In a penal system that silences, these imagined voices slip the rope. 

  • Greil Marcus – “Love and Death in the American Rock ‘n’ Roll Novel”
From Harlan Ellison's 1961 "Spider Kiss" on down--but especially after the figurative death of the Beatles in 1970 and the literal death of Elvis Presley in 1977, death (and sometimes faked deaths) have been coded in the rock 'n' roll novel. Themes of the star as succubus or demon, fans as a devouring horde, the music business as a slaughterhouse, course through Nik Cohn's "King Death," Jim Dodge's "Not Fade Away," P. F. Kluge's "Eddie and the Cruisers," Cathi Unsworth's "The Singer" (she's from London, but the American story has to have at least a token English person), and dozens more I can't reference here because I'm 2000 miles away from my shelf of classics and forgotten pulps. Some are tragic, some are comic, many are comic in spite of themselves, but the theme is coded in rock 'n' roll itself--since almost as soon as people discovered what rock 'n' roll was, others were saying what people have never ceased to say: "Rock 'n' roll is dead."

  • DeWayne Moore – “The Death of the Myth of the Blues Savant”
On the first page of Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow's book King of the Delta Blues, we read a story about H.C. Speir receiving a letter from Charley Patton and driving up to Dockery Farm to listen to Patton audition for him.  The rest of the book tells us that Speir drove around to small towns all over the South looking for talent to send to the major record labels.  No one has ever so much as questioned the claims of Speir, and Patrick Huber and Brian Ward point out the highly fantastic nature of Speir's tales in the recent book A&R Pioneers.  Yet, the two authors are way too astonished at the “willingness of commentators to accept the notion that he was some kind iconoclastic blues savant.”   They simply could not believe that other music scholars swallowed so wholly the fantastic story of HC Speir.  Huber and Ward, therefore, are oblivious to the fact that it was not Speir’s story at all.  There were serious problems with the interviews conducted by Gayle Dean Wardlow, who, in fact, invented the myth of the “blues savant." He constructed portions of the mythic biography for H.C. Speir that reflected his own adventures as a record collector.  In fact, Speir never even discovered Charley Patton and sent him to record for Paramount Records.  It never happened.  And my presentation will demonstrate that Wardlow manipulated interviews to discredit other talent scouts who lived and worked in the Delta and ascribe the discovery of Charley Patton to H.C. Speir.  The center of the recording world in Mississippi was not Jackson, but rather a little town in the woods called Itta Bena, and the central figure in the recording world in 1920s Mississippi was an Italian immigrant named Raffaele Lembo.  My presentation will include audio and visual elements and make the persuasive case that talent scouts did not go around hunting down artists in the 1920s. They were businessmen who operated stores and bought advertisements inviting musicians to visit their stores.  Lembo rarely left the confines of his music stores to discover talent in 1920s Mississippi.  

  • Joseph Thompson – “Undead and Unreconstructed: The ‘Good Old Rebel’ and the Ghosts of the Confederacy in Popular Song”
As recent protests and violence surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments remind us, the ghosts of the Civil War continue to haunt our present. Sometimes those ghosts show up in the form of a marble monument, and sometimes they show up in popular songs, from early string band renditions of “Dixie” to Hank Williams Jr.’s “If the South Woulda Won.” And while the Confederacy will never rise again, its ghosts, its symbols, and its ideologies of white supremacy refuse to die.
This paper traces how that undead Confederate past has haunted the living through the 150-year history of a song called “I’m a Good Old Rebel.” Initially written as a joke in 1866, the “Good Old Rebel” delivers the first-person point of view of a Confederate veteran who laments his side’s loss with violent language like, “I hate the Yankee Nation / And everything they do; / I hate the Declaration / Of Independence, too.” The narrator then spends six verses raging in the dialect of a poor white southerner and claiming to hate the Constitution, the Union, and the U. S. flag before concluding, “I won’t be reconstructed / And I don’t care a damn.”
By following the “Good Old Rebel” from a joke through its publication in southern newspapers, its inclusion in folksong collections, and its recordings on country albums, this paper explores the song’s impact on historical memory and constructions of white supremacy across the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. More recently, racist activists have adopted the “Good Old Rebel” as an anthem for white supremacist communities on the internet. This usage has provided a new chance for the ghosts of the past to inform those who ascribe to anti-statist and white power ideologies in our current moment.


Oliver Wang

BioOliver Wang is a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach and the author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the former editor of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. He produces and co-hosts the music appreciation podcast... Read More →


Ginger Dellenbaugh

BioGinger Dellenbaugh is a musician and historian who has written and lectured on music and politics, the pedal steel guitar, and the cultural history of the voice. A trained opera singer, she performed for over a decade in Europe and the United States. Ginger is currently completing... Read More →

DeWayne Moore

BioDr. DeWayne Moore is a historian of African American and Public History and executive director of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund. Since, 2014, he has been responsible for the memorials to musicians T-Model Ford, Henry “Son” Simms, Frank Stokes, Eddie Cusic, Mamie “Galore” Davis... Read More →

Joseph Thompson

BioJoseph M. Thompson is a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow and a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia. His dissertation, “Sounding Southern: Music, Militarism, and the Making of the Sunbelt,” traces the economic and symbolic connections between the country... Read More →

Friday April 12, 2019 3:45pm - 5:45pm PDT
Sky Church