Last week I wrote two separate essays here and here on the British songwriter Paul Kennerley’s 1978 country music concept album White Mansions. I originally intended to stop with two posts, but alas, I have a few more final thoughts to add about this album.
I think the cultural historian Christian McWirther’s description of White Mansions in the comments section of my last post really gets to the heart of my own feelings about it: he suggested that the album “flirted with a more complicated view of the Confederacy but inevitably defaulted to a Lost Cause narrative.” That’s a perfect description in my view. For example, the song “No One Would Believe A Summer Could Be So Cold” highlights a vocal secessionist’s changing attitudes towards the Civil War and his role in it. Whereas Matthew’s ideological passion for Confederate secession and the preservation of his “way of life” sustain him in the beginning of the conflict, his words by 1863 suggest that all of the talk surrounding valor, glory, and heroism are meaningless to him upon the sight and smell of dead, rotting bodies around him. Matthew doesn’t explicitly question his earlier political views in the song, but it’s clear that he is physically and emotionally affected by the consequences of war. I also like how Kennerley acknowledges in numerous songs at the beginning of the album that the defense and expansion of slavery was a central motivation for Confederate secession, a point that is not always appreciated by listeners of White Mansions today, as we will soon see.
The lyrics towards the end of the album, however, fall into predictable Lost Cause talking points by suggesting that the Confederacy never had a chance of achieving victory because of the Union’s superior manpower and resources; that General William Sherman’s men were the sole perpetrators of violence and destruction during the March to the Sea; that the United States government and military were wholly responsible for bringing on and perpetuating a violent war of aggression; and that the postwar Reconstruction years were marked by oppressive misrule of the South by hateful Northern carpetbaggers and their black allies. Although historians like W.E.B. Du Bois and Kenneth Stampp had already published marginally popular studies challenging this traditional Reconstruction narrative by the time White Mansions was released, the story of “Carpetbagger and Negro misrule” remained the consensus view in the 1970s and was uncritically embraced in this album. Later revisionist works by Eric Foner, Thomas Holt, Steven Hahn, and Brooks Simpson in the 1980s and 1990s further questioned the accuracy of this consensus view, but it still remains popular today in some quarters.
Time and space are also important factors for placing White Mansions within the cultural context of 1970s and 80s music. White Mansions was released at the same time Confederate iconography and identity more explicitly embedded itself within popular music. From Lynyrd Synyrd hanging the Confederate flag on their stage during concerts, to Tom Petty’s album Southern Accents, to Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” and Confederate Flag guitar, this period of rock music saw many instances in which Confederate identity was appropriated to symbolize rebellion and independence in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. While this identity never fully shed its complicated past of slavery, secession, and resistance to Civil Rights, the 1970s and 80s saw new meanings attached to that identity and a general acceptance of its expression through popular music. White Mansions never reached the popularity level of a Skynrd album or other concept albums by bands like The Who and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, but it is nevertheless reflective of those cultural forces at play in popular music. And it is hard to imagine a concept album like White Mansions–an album that explores and even celebrates white Confederate identity–gaining much popularity or enjoying commercial success without controversy today.
Paul Kennerley’s British background is also significant because it speaks to the popularity of the Lost Cause throughout the world. I would love to learn about the books Kennerley relied on to inform his interpretation of Civil War history when composing White Mansions. I would guess it probably wasn’t too different than the sorts of books students were reading in American history classrooms and buying at National Park gift shops at the time. Kennerley’s background also reminds me of a recent feature in Vice of a Brazilian town called Americana that was settled by Confederate defectors 150 years ago and where an annual festival called the “Fraternidade Descendência Americana” celebrating the Confederacy continues today.
Finally, I take note of YouTube’s role in perpetuating the memory of White Mansions, which now also acts as a gathering place for users to express their pride in Confederate identity and share their memories of listening to the album during their youth. On a video of the entire album commenters remarked that:
“I have not heard this record since about 1982. It is a pleasure to find an ‘old friend.”
“This is one of my favorite albums. Beautiful and haunting.”
“I’m too excited, I just ordered it off of Amazon. Can’t wait. I first heard this album in the early 80s with my brother. I had the cassette.”
And on another video of the song “The Southland’s Bleeding” (sung by Waylon Jennings and nearing 100,000 views today) YouTube users over the past month have left a range of comments expressing love for the Confederacy and concerns about efforts to “erase” Confederate history:
“Still fighting to honor the Confederate army and Dixie-land in 2015. But the Liberals want to erase them and (us) from history. Southern pride.”
“The southland is bleeding again this week. God help the south.”
“I live in ‘enemy territory’, but I still run up my beloved ‘Stars and Bars’ and bring it in every night. Down with the eagle, up with the cross!”
“Today some folks object to the Southern flag. This flag isn’t about race. This flag is about state’s rights. California has rights concerning immigration that the feds wont touch. Our states have rights that the feds wont touc” [sic]
“The Stars and Bars of the Confederacy, the Southern Cross, or St. Andrews Southern Cross did in no way have anything to do with slavery or what started the Civil War. It signified to the Confederate Soldier their opposition to what was considered an illegal levying of unfair and overburdening taxation by the Federal government on the Southern States and the products they produced.”
That people would take the time to find songs from White Mansions on YouTube and then comment on those songs demonstrates the ways YouTube has become a cultural medium for expressing historical memories and prideful statements about personal identity. It also shows how people seamlessly weave their understanding of history into their interpretation of current events. Whether or not these comments are accurate from a historical perspective is one question scholars can and should address when analyzing public memories, but the fact that people go through the trouble of expressing themselves this way in the first place is another question worth examining more closely.