Braver Angels recently hosted a conversation between me and my “Red” friend Greg Smith, a blue-collar Ohian, former police chief, and loyal Trump supporter. Soon after Biden’s inauguration, Greg wrote a facebook post demanding that liberals stop calling him and his friends “racist.” When Greg asked me to engage in a public conversation about this topic, I was terrified. However, the topic–and our friendship–seemed too important for me to say no.
Nashville’s “Confederate Soldiers Monument” will probably not make headlines. It’s not Robert E. Lee astride a horse; it’s not the KKK founder at the State Capitol. One tourist deadpanned her confusion: “Who the hell is Frank Bivouac?” Nevertheless, this young soldier resting on a rock and pedestal, though partially hidden under trees, is clearly a Confederate memorial displayed in Nashville’s historic Centennial Park. And it’s gotten some small attention: I recently found a heated argument about it on my neighborhood’s online discussion group. Unlike arguments I’d been reading in the news, this one surprised me: I’d found most Confederate statue conflicts pretty black and white. But reading through these passionate comments, I couldn’t make up my mind. Sure, some Confederate memorials are clearly veils for modern white supremacy and should be taken down. But maybe this one was really about the “common soldiers” who died “very very painful deaths” and maybe about the universal virtues they had despite their flaws? I decided to better inform myself before jumping in.
More broadly, I wanted to support a sincere discussion about Confederate memorials: currently, we’re fighting over history through shouting matches and violence. Maybe we can learn to have these harder conversations if we start with easier ones? But of course, history is always complicated. Even figuring out what to do with this statue turns out to be difficult.
Why do I care?
I’m moderately obsessed with the Civil War. Admittedly, I don’t walk around in full, historically accurate regalia (but I had an awesome boss who did!). I do, however, fiddle Civil War music (I ran a Civil war music history program at the Smithsonian) and I worked for a Civil War reenactment non-profit. I’ve long been fascinated with how we remember war and have studied war memorials in college and grad school. Much of my original music has explored how our country has dealt with this difficult past (I even made a one-woman hour-long show about the Confederate hit, “Lorena”). Now that I live in Nashville, these battles over Civil War memory surround me and feel even more personal.
Meet the Memorial
This 1909 memorial displays a seated soldier—canteen behind, kepi hat in hand, rifle propped against the ground—reflecting on the sacrifice and heroism of all young soldiers. Staring melancholically (slightly downwards), he retains nearly perfect posture, despite resting on a near natural rock while in military uniform. It looks almost as if, deeply moved by memories of the past, he is about to rise…. Any contemporary would also have identified this soldier as Sam Davis, “Boy Hero of the Confederacy,” who was hanged by Union forces at age 21 in Pulaski, TN. The seated Davis is less than half the monument though. Below the young man is a pedestal, left blank except for a few inscriptions and an enormous plaque. The inscriptions read: “Duty Done Honor Won 1861-1865,” “To the Heroism of the Private Confederate Soldier,” and “Faithful to the End.” The last says “Erected 1909 by” atop a plaque listing all the members of the Frank Cheatham Bivouac #1—a contingent of urban, Nashville veterans established in the 1880s (Simpson 68). From its founding, these men worked to support the Tennessee Confederate Memorial and Historical Association and United Confederate Veterans. They raised funds for monuments, programs for the ill, widowed, and orphans, and also worked “to encourage the preparation of historical accounts of the war that would honor and vindicate Confederate actions” (Tennessee Encyclopedia).
The Argument: What exactly are you trying to say?
What we should do with this sculpture depends on what we think it’s currently doing. I’ve tried to figure this out by researching what it was supposed to mean and what that history reflects about its meaning today. I’ll present my findings and analysis by reviewing specific arguments I’ve heard for why this and other Confederate memorials are worth preserving and evaluating them in light of the history I’ve discovered surrounding this particular monument.
- Art Transcends Politics
Ours could be one of the “beautiful statues” Trump tweeted about, so let’s start simple and look at this sculpture as “Art.” Unlike some of the mass manufactured, prefabricated ordinary soldier memorials spread throughout the country (North and South), ours is an original commission from a distinguished artist (a major city like Nashville could afford quality) (Post).The statue was sculpted by George Julian Zolnay, also called the “sculptor of the Confederacy.” Zolnay is considered one of the most important image makers of Confederate Memory: of these, most were lesser artists than those that made Union monuments and most worked in lesser materials (i.e., like the bronze of our statue). While he’s no Augustus Saint Gaudens, Zolnay made important sculptures for top Confederate officials—including Jefferson Davis, and more famously, his daughter Winnie. While Zolnay was not American, he had top connections with the Confederacy: it was through Zolnay’s friendship with Jefferson Davis’ family that he claims he reached the networks in the South that hired him to work on Nashville’s Centennial Exposition (and later, the Centennial monument in question).
I should also admit upfront: I’m biased towards Zolnay for being a frustrated but passionate fiddler. Apparently once, when asked to speak at a social function, he jumped on a table and started playing violin (Fariello 122). I can’t help but feel he was a true artist…. Overall, our sculpture is not a world class masterpiece, but it isn’t junk either and is certainly significant within the history of Confederate memorials. Nevertheless, over half this monument is a pedestal with names, and in my opinion, the sculpture of the boy isn’t comparable enough to Michelangelo’s David to justify its prominence, so let’s explore some other reasons to preserve it.
- Celebration of the Common Soldier
One of the main arguments posed by my neighbors was that this is not a monument to the “old Confederacy,” but to “the boys:” not leaders and generals, but the young, maybe naïve, everyday Tennesseans doing what they thought was right. After all, the inscription says it’s for the “Private Confederate Soldier” and depicts one young, unpretentious “boy” quietly sitting and thinking. It’s a romantic idea: anyone could have been swept up in these political forces. These boys acted nobly within their limited vision, and lost their lives. We have lots of monuments for generals, but common American folk are deserving of a respect they rarely get. Moreover, the soldier here—Confederate hero Sam Davis—is the perfect representative of the dutiful private. Sam Davis came from a prominent slave-holding family and had an aristocratic upbringing and according to many, demeanor and eloquence. At 21, Davis was caught spying on the Union, but when he defiantly refused to betray his sources, he was hanged. Sam’s willingness to die for his comrades and cause is recognized even today.
Unfortunately, interpreting this sculpture as a “Fanfare for the Common Man” isn’t entirely accurate or innocent. First, let’s look at the names on the plaque. This sculpture was dedicated by the Frank Cheatham Bivouac #1, a branch of the Association of Confederate Soldiers named in honor of Confederate general Benjamin “Frank” Cheatham (1820-1886). Cheatham was “born into two of the finest and prominent families of the middle Tennessee elite of the slave society,” made his living as a planter and gold miner, and as a general, led exploits that both killed many of Sherman’s men, but also contributed to Confederate defeat in Franklin. Despite his highlighted name, he was no common soldier, and his fulfillment of duties in battle was questionable even in his day (Wikipedia). Cheatham’s communication and command failures are partially blamed for letting Union General Schofield escape during the Battle of Spring Hill, contributing to severe Confederate casualties at the next day’s Battle of Franklin (Wikipedia).
Nevertheless, naming veterans associations after Confederate “heroes” was standard practice, and even if this memorial prominently honors the not-totally-honorable Cheatham, it intends to honor the veterans in this chapter, so let’s look at them instead (Simpson 75). While dedicated to the “private soldier,” “the tablet contains the names of major and brigadier generals, colonels, and staff officers” (according to the contemporary “Confederate Veteran” 327). So why did all these upper level staff choose a lowly private to represent them?
This choice is, in fact, not unusual for this time period (and allying yourself with the “common folk” is often a political tactic used by elites). A couple decades after the war, Confederates veterans were fond of glorifying “the common soldier” to make memory of the war serve their own interests. For example, in 1881, Confederate veteran Sam Watkins (from Franklin, TN), wrote articles arguing for recognition of the “high private” and “foot soldier” who “followed his orders and did his duty for his country”(Currey 136). Watkins was part of a greater movement starting around that time to rewrite the history of the Confederacy: not as a fight to defend political or economic interests (like slavery or states rights), but to preserve “traditional” values against the unbeatable, unfeeling forces of modernity (Watkins’ version of this revision was particularly appealing to southerners who had “little to no memory of the struggle”). There was “no shame in military defeat, because the war was lost only because of the industrial might and overwhelming numbers of the North, not because of mistakes [like Cheatham’s in Franklin], lack of bravery, or a false cause” (Mills xviii). Thus, while the North may have won through brute force, the South had a moral power which no amount of violence could defeat. In a time when the South was rapidly industrializing, these memorials justified past behavior and served as a critique of the North’s influence and South’s modernization.
The dutiful, common soldier was the perfect symbol for this new, inaccurate, comforting interpretation. Memorial clubs like Nashville’s United Confederate Veterans Association and Tennessee Confederate Memorial and Historical Association (involved in our monument) began to “portray Confederate soldiers and their leaders as examples of old-fashioned chivalry. … to promote this idea of the Southern gentlemen going to war and only being defeated by the enemy’s superior numbers and equipment” (tn4me). In sculpture, this interpretation often took the form of single soldier memorials. So rather than being rare recognitions of unappreciated folk heroes, monuments to common soldiers were ubiquitous. Moreover, dedications of these soldier monuments peaked between 1903-14, exactly when ours was made (Mills xix). According to art historian Sarah Beetham, “About 2,500 soldier statues were erected in the North and about 500 in the South”) (Washington Post).
In our sculpture, we can see this solitary, sympathetic, dutiful Confederate soldier, but just because he looks humble, doesn’t mean the monument is. “Common soldier” rhetoric, in art or otherwise, wasn’t necessarily about restoring honor to overlooked foot soldiers. Rather, this archetypal soldier served as a source of pride for all defeated Confederates– including the upper level ones who displayed this monument in their name. Here, Sam’s featured sacrifice brings eternal honor to the less honorable Cheatham, as well as to veterans listed below him (who did not die in service). Thus, rewriting the Confederate war as fought by and for dutiful, individual commoners intentionally erased self-serving, racist, and ugly motives and failures, transforming physical defeat into moral victory.
3. The Antigone Argument: humanity transcends politics
My neighbors also argue that this monument does not honor the Confederate cause, but merely the deaths of those who fought for it. While they fought for the wrong ends, even Confederates were human and deserve the basic dignity of a decent burial (Soldiers on both sides had a “common humanity” and “on each end of the rifle we’re the same”). Especially for common soldiers whose bodies were destroyed, lost, and never buried “properly” in a cemetery, this monument can serve as tribute, like a “tomb of the unknown soldier.”
I relate this argument to the famous dilemma in Sophocles’ ancient play Antigone. Antigone’s brother died bringing troops against his own city and had therefore been forbidden proper burial or mourning rites. Nevertheless, his sister chose to bury him anyway out of duty to some higher “divine” law. She decides that despite her brother’s political treason, he was human and her brother, and she still owes him the basic, universal dignity of proper funerary rites. I’ve always sympathized with this idea that you can show respect for the dead without necessarily respecting the cause for which they died. By this logic, even Confederates—who brought war against our current government to protect the institution of slavery—can be worthy of proper burial and remembrance, especially by their remaining family and community. Nevertheless, Antigone’s dilemma would only be relevant if our statue merely honored these soldier’s deaths, separate from the cause for which they died (moreover, Antigone was sentenced to death for breaking this burial law, and likewise, our government has good reason not to allow even non-politicized burials for traitors).
I do believe such Confederate memorials can and should exist, but our soldier monument is not one of them. Our sculpture is not merely honoring deaths: it is honoring the causes for which these soldiers died. In the recent words of Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans:
The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This “cult” had one goal—through monuments and through other means—to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.”—Mitch Landrieu (Time Magazine)
Not only was this rewriting of history explicitly an aim of the veterans group that dedicated our statue, but this larger goal is equally apparent in the figurehead they chose to top this pedestal. Sam Davis was not put here merely as an everyman for all forgotten, nameless soldiers. Rather, he is a symbol for the Confederate cause. From the time our statue was put in place to the present, Sam Davis has been a powerful representative of someone who died for a cause greater than himself: and not just any cause, but the morally just, even divine cause of the Confederacy.
For example, at the dedication of another Zolney/Sam Davis sculpture the same year (one still displayed in front of our state Capitol in Nashville), the then-Governor Patterson gave a speech declaring that: as God gave us “the son of Mary to teach men how to live,” could he not also have “[given] this son of Tennessee to teach men how to die?” (Historic Monuments 329). Back then, Sam was a Christ figure: he achieved immortality by dying on behalf of a divine, noble cause. As the cross “has been the Christian’s sign in every land,” Davis’ image is the sign of his sacrifice and higher cause, and the state is happy to propagate it. Like the cross, Sam’s sculpture teaches new sons of Tennessee to die on behalf of his Confederate cause. And if they follow his example, they too will achieve immortality, through heaven and the eternal fame of ubiquitous, martyrs’ monuments. Thus, Sam’s monumentalized image doesn’t represent the universal tragedy of human mortality, but transforms his and other Confederate soldiers deaths into a divine sacrifice whereby each is granted immortality.
Moreover, Sam Davis remains a rallying symbol for Confederate revisionist history and politics even today. Did you know you can still attend “Sam Davis Youth Camp?” This camp, run by the “Sons of the Confederate Veterans,” teaches children that “The War of Southern Independence” had nothing to do with slavery and that Lincoln was racist. Sam Davis’ name symbolizes the camp’s revisionist, discriminatory agenda (More here). In 1989, members of the Aryan Nation conducted a “Sam Davis Memorial March” in Pulaski, TN: “The racist parade ended at the statue and… Louis Beam led the crowd in a Nazi salute to Davis, shouting ‘Hail Sam Davis! We will fight!'” (The Nashville Scene). While Davis’ image started as a coded message that the South died in pursuit of saving mankind, presumably through secession and preserving slavery, today he is a symbol for another revisionist history used to support white supremacy.
Even if you don’t know this historical or contemporary symbolism, you can tell Sam Davis is more than a tribute to the tragedy of lost youth just by looking at him. Through visuals alone, our statue projects not an attitude of mourning and basic decency, but triumph. Compare our sculpture with a more famous soldier memorial: Kathy Kollwitz “Pieta,” a memorial to her son killed in WWI. Both memorials represent dead soldiers in a Christ-referential language, but Kollwitz shows her young soldier at an earlier moment. She universalizes NOT the glory of resurrection, but Mary’s maternal grief. Kollwitz shows herself reflecting on her son’s limp, nearly fetal body held between her legs. Brought back to his earthy origins, the boy is childlike: crumpled, weak, and destroyed, in all his physical, human mortality. The particular politics of his death stand mute to a mother’s raw, universal grief for her son’s lost life. In contrast, our dead soldier sits erect, in uniform, young and undamaged, thoughtful and strong. Moreover, his eternally active, idealized portrait and body, inspired by those of ancient heroes and gods, is literally placed on a pedestal. In one, a soldier’s death has defeated him and his family. In the other, death has brought everyone immortal honor and even eternal life. One is a tribute to a lost life: the other, a vindication of a “lost cause.”
Thus, Sam Davis has always represented more than just his own and others’ deaths, but also the just cause for which he and others triumphantly died. Our memorial does not put politics aside for a higher purpose: it elevates political ends by heroizing human sacrifice. While the interpretation of the “Confederate cause” changes, putting Davis on a pedestal inevitably puts this cause on a pedestal. If Antigone’s burial rites meant putting her brother’s treasonous cause on a pedestal, the justice of her fate would not be debated to this day. Likewise, contemporary Americans should not be forced to honor the treasonous and immoral Confederate cause that Sam Davis represents.
4. The “Cause” was universal and reconciliatory
Even if Sam Davis represents the triumph of a cause, you could argue that the Confederate cause isn’t emphasized in our particular statue. Rather, our common hero celebrates another cause: duty, patriotism, and self-sacrifice. The figure of Sam Davis personifies and glorifies values we should instill in all Americans. Davis also represents how all these veterans earned memorialization not through virtue towards the Confederacy, but simply virtue. Maybe we can’t all agree on their politics, but can’t we agree on good Character? Isn’t that worth recognizing?
Our statue exemplifies such shared, unifying values in ways common to memorials of its era. After the initial pain of the war had passed and many Americans were no longer in mourning, veterans, wives, and descendants on both sides began rewriting Civil War history as about universal patriotism and virtues, rather than about the specific, dividing issues for which soldiers died. As scholar David Blight has argued, the 20th century saw reconciliationist memorializing spread:
“Racing toward national reunion, the two sides were forced to overlook the specific causes that had torn them apart in the first place. The memory of slavery and emancipation, Blight writes, ‘never fit well into a developing narrative in which the Old and New South were romanticized and welcomed back to a new nationalism, and in which devotion alone made everyone right, and no one truly wrong, in the remembered Civil War.’”—David Blight (Yale Magazine)
Such memorials were a gesture towards contemporary national unity and, in the North and South, granted honor to the nobility of the opponents’ sacrifice rather than gloating over moral or military superiority. It was a way to move on—for everyone except African Americans in the South.
In fact, the same year our statue was dedicated, leaders at Yale University began proposing a Civil War memorial that would radically embody this nationalistic attitude. During the Civil War, Yale had an “overwhelmingly Northern, pro-Lincoln, and anti-slavery student body” (Frick). Nevertheless, nearly 50 years later in 1909, Judge Henry E Howland argued that while before, “it would have been ill-timed to have suggested that sons of the South should have been remembered in such a memorial,” now, “when the passions of that time have died away, it seems an appropriate moment to bring before the alumni of Yale the propriety of commemorating the men of both sides who gave their lives in the great struggle.” In 1915, Yale’s became the first college memorial to recognize soldiers who died on both sides. Not only did it bestow “Love and tears for the Blue / Tears and love for the Gray”—offering compassion for the loss of lives on both side—it also sought to use this shared sacrifice as a model for contemporary character (one inscription encourages men “to continue their patriotic devotion and willingness to die for their country”), just as the world entered WWI (Connecticut’s Civil War Monuments).
The same year Howland argued for a two-sided memorial and that our Sam Davis monument was dedicated, Tennessee’s governor used similar reconciliatory rhetoric at his dedication of our state Capitol’s Sam Davis sculpture. In it, the governor appealed to the veterans present, asking that,
“Those of us… who have put on the armor… dealt and received wounds, now gather at this shrine, forget the petty rivalries which… fetter the pinions of noble aspiration, and at the feet of Sam Davis remember that we too are Tennesseans; that here we meet on common ground, and from this holy precinct Let us go to forgive and forget.”—Governor Patterson (Historic Monuments 330)
The governor calls for a letting go of “petty rivalries,” asking veterans to forget personal divisions to remember something more important. As he concludes, “with [Sam’s] memory and its pervading inspiration, let us… bring to the service of our state and our country a higher measure of responsibility, deeper and truer conceptions of duty” (332). Instead of dividing over past squabbles, the governor asks veterans to use their heroic past to come together in support of “state” and “country by exhibiting the level of responsibility and duty Davis exemplifies.
However, while our sculpture asks veterans to come together by highlighting the universal virtue of “duty,” unlike Yale’s memorial, it does not honor duty exemplified by Union soldiers. Our statue is inscribed to the “Confederate Soldier.” It limits its recognition of duty and its tears of compassion to those who fought for the southern cause. Moreover, Tennessee—unlike Yale—actually had a significant population that fought for the opposing side. Honoring both Confederate and Union soldiers would therefore have been more appropriate and useful towards local reconciliation. This is especially true given the fact that the two active military organizations in Tennessee at that time—Troop A and Company B—were present at our monument’s dedication (Confederate Veteran 332).
Consequently, in this context, the call for “Duty” did not ask present troops for a united loyalty to the United States of America, but rather towards Tennessee and even the Confederate cause. This was more explicit at ex-Governor James D. Porter’s speech at another Confederate soldier memorial dedication nine years before in Paris, TN (I believe this monument still stands). Porter, who served under Frank Cheatham during the war, clarified that it was not merely “duty” that was being celebrated, but “duty” towards preserving white supremacy:
“The people of the south are and were a homogeneous race. A common ancestry … created a brotherhood stronger than the Union of States. So when President Lincoln… inaugurated war… A sense of duty controlled them; their judgments and hearts approved it, and before God and the tribunal we have no apology to offer. We made our history honestly… and we will write it as truthfully as we made it, the protest of the Grand Army of the Republic notwithstanding.” —James D. Porter (Historic Monuments 336)
In the heyday of Jim Crow laws (which lasted 1866-1955), the ex-Governor translates this Confederate soldier memorial as a statement of defiance (Jim Crow). In these public memorializing rites of top politicians and military force, the white power of the South declared itself righteous, united, and strong against the federal government. These new leaders’ loyalties “are and were” to a white, southern brotherhood, not a multiracial nation. And for observers today, these statues left a visual record of their message that the South would continue dutifully defending– militarily and politically–the Confederacy’s cause of racial oppression.
Thus, while at the Capitol’s Sam Davis dedication the governor asked the veterans to forget their small, internal differences, he did so in the name of recalling and strengthening bigger, national political divisions. Likewise, Centennial’s Sam Davis does not aim to “bind up the nation’s wounds… to achieve a just and lasting peace” as Lincoln pleaded, or, in Robert E. Lee’s words, to “[wisely not keep] open the sores of war but to… commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.” Our Confederate soldier does not call for letting go and moving on to higher things. Rather, his monument calls for dutifully holding onto resentful indignation, legalizing racial hatred, and fighting national government. Indeed, one might imagine that’s why he looks like he’s about to rise: to resume the battle.
Moreover, even conceding that this sculpture is about the virtues of sacrifice, duty, and honor, and not necessary for doing so in the name of the Confederacy and its cause, its reconciliatory representation of morally iconic Civil War soldiers remains controversial. As former slave Frederick Douglass declared in 1894, watching both sides “shaking hands over the bloody chasm,”
“I am not indifferent to the claims of a general forgetfulness, but whatever else I may forget, I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery; between those who fought to save the Republic and those who fought to destroy it.” —Frederick Douglass
Douglass knew that forgetting and healing were important. Nevertheless, remembering in this case was more important. The Holocaust was painful, but we remember it anyway because we want to prevent it from happening again. Remembering that our ancestors died to preserve slavery and betrayed their country, that’s painful too. But forgetting is not an option, even it makes us feel better about ourselves. The difference between fighting for liberty or slavery is not trivial. Neither is the difference between duty towards one country versus duty to one’s family and property. However enticing the erasure, we can’t create national unity by sacrificing our country’s basic values. Isn’t that why we fought this war in the first place?
5. “…can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” –Trump
Let’s admit that this statue represents some complicated and disturbing history. Even so, we shouldn’t pretend it never happened. We can’t just whitewash our past so it doesn’t hurt present feelings. Besides, if we destroy this statue, what next? All our so-called heroes have wrinkles if you look closely. Does that mean we have to destroy our valuable cultural myths: stories of great men that teach essential, civic virtues?
Our monument is definitely intended to function as such a pedagogic myth. It was not an accurate representation of the past. It literally whitewashed Confederate memory of its darker motives and actions, creating heroes by ignoring essential facts about past behavior. But it did this not merely to ease consciences at the price of honesty, but also to construct a historical myth that could influence the present, particularly concerning civic values. According to scholar David Currey, many Confederate memorials of this time (1903-1914) depicted a single Confederate soldier at rest on a large, decorated pedestal. Such figures were intended not merely to provide “solace,” but also as a “model—a tool—used by southerners to mold the individual character of a new generation” (Southern Memory 134). Hence, such statues were often placed in public spaces like parks. We know this was the intent for the Sam Davis 1909 Capitol lawn monument because the governor spoke about how “mothers” would “bring their children here to learn the story of [Davis’] young life and triumphant death” (Historic Monuments 329).
Our sculpture was intended, at least in part, to make Sam Davis into a folk hero from whom children could learn civic values. Therefore, while acknowledging how the monument hides its myth-making in the guise of historical truth, I’ll ultimately judge it based on the value of the story it conveys. Compare our situation to telling the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. Everyone knows this story about not telling a lie is a lie. Still, it’s a good story: it teaches honesty. Myths can be worth telling even if they aren’t true. So if we accept this statue as mere storytelling (and we ignore how it appears to speak with the authority of historical accuracy), we should judge it on the value of the lessons it teaches, not their basis in historical fact.
So here’s my question: Does Sam and his monument teach values our current country wants to promote?
Imagine it’s 1957 and you’re one of the governor’s “mothers” walking through Bicentennial park with your young, black son. This is exciting not only because Centennial is beautiful and historic—marking Nashville as the “Athens of the South” with a life-size replica of the Parthenon—but also because, until this year, you weren’t allowed in this park. Centennial was whites-only. However, before you get to the Parthenon, your son sees the heroic Sam Davis—another young boy given his own monument in this incredible park. So when your son asks you why that boy got a statue, you tell him the story of Davis’ “triumphant death.”
You explain how Sam joined the Confederacy before Tennessee seceded. You explain how “duty” meant duty to his family’s “property,” which included over 50 people—black people like him—and later, duty to fellow Confederate soldiers who made war on the federal government. Sam didn’t reveal where he found his Union battle plans, you explain, because he was “faithful” to his Confederate superiors, “faithful” to destroying the United States of America. He was a traitor to his country, but faithful to slavery and the Confederacy, so we celebrate him, here, today. Nearly a century after his death, he’s still honored as a hero. Oh, and he never wavered in his faith: “to the end,” he gave his life to ensure that today, you would be a slave.
You go on to tell your son how it’s because your neighbors continued fighting for the values Sam Davis died defending, it’s because of the inspiration statues like this teach, that when you were a child, you were not allowed in this park. It’s because legislators have protected Davis’ legacy, that two years before, Tennessee passed a law banning your son from marrying someone of another race. And it’s because powerful white southerners made Davis and his fellow Confederates their heroes, that you were never allowed to see or fight the presence of this statue before your son asked you about it.
Is Sam really the model we want for our children? Does this monument represent our civic values?
And if your answer is still yes, you have nothing to worry about. Sam has no lack of memorials. In addition to the two in Nashville I’ve discussed extensively, guess which city made him a monument three years before ours? Pulaski, TN: birthplace of the KKK; home to Sam’s death and resurrection. In Pulaski, Sam’s living legacy in law is broadcast from the courthouse lawn, their defiant version more idealized than ours (Roadside America). Smyrna, TN has another monument to Davis at his gravesite, the location of the “Historic Sam Davis Home” non-profit. According to roadside America, Pulaski also has a
“mausoleum-like Sam Davis Memorial Museum, which opened 87 years to the minute after his execution. The block (marking his place of hanging), still on the same spot, is now inside the museum, as are the leg shackles Davis wore to the gallows. On display are many examples of Sam Davis souvenirs, collectibles, and tributes: plates, coffee mugs, postcards, Christmas ornaments, dozens of books, and a 45 rpm record, “Ballad of Sam Davis.”—Roadside America.
Moreover, there is also no need to fear we’ll forget about Davis’ real history—good or bad—because none of these monuments are really about him. No pictures of Davis survived the war, so all these later monuments had to invent his appearance. The Pulaski monument shows him unrealistically youthful, a young teen who actually died at age 21.
None of these are memorials of Sam Davis, a young man. They are memorials to a political symbol. Our artist Zolnay based his likeness on Davis’ relatives, but also on his imagined character. According to a 1902 New York times reporter, “[Zolney] did not propose to make a physical likeness of Sam. He thought only to embody in his work the spirit of youth and heroism – to create the ideal Sam Davis” (Murfreesboro Post). And in funding this memorial, the veterans wanted to propagate a vision of the hero they imagined and wanted to be themselves. Said the governor of Sam’s appearance, “his presence was suggestive of romance and valorous deeds…. No one with brush or chisel…is able to reach the heights which this boy trod when he gave his innocent life that day… Blind Homer… Milton… Shakespeare… nor all the other masters can nothing add and nothing take from the simple majesty which clothes the death of Davis.” Though Zolney was no master, his monument tried to communicate this “valourous” character through Sam’s unknown face and body. In context, Zolnay’s idealized Sam became a heroic representative of all Confederate soldiers who dutifully risked their lives. To persuade viewers of their own intrinsic nobility, innocence, and heroism, defeated Confederates glorified the memory of Sam Davis.
So in proposing to remove this statue, we’re not talking about erasing history. The statue itself does that. Our sculpture erases the real history of the Confederacy. As articulated by Mississippi’s former governor,
“Removing these memorials and symbols… is not an effort to sanitize our history nor erase some part of our culture. In fact, the myths of “magnolias and moonlight,” of the benevolent slave owner (an oxymoron if there ever was one), the romantic narratives of “The Lost Cause” and the distortions of Reconstruction are the real efforts to sanitize and erase” (Time Magazine).
The monuments are the lies, the fictions, the erasures. They “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy: ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement and the terror that it actually stood for” (New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu). And these sculptures are not merely silent on this context, they are silencing in themselves. They deliberately hide the Confederacy’s evils by painting soldiers as flawless heroes in the image of Christ himself.
That silence and silencing speak loudly to those open to hearing them. I know how I feel when I walk past Confederate tributes: I don’t feel welcome in this city. I don’t feel free to share this type of critical speech. I read these monuments as suggesting our state blindly celebrates its racist past with a threatening stubbornness that makes my multi-racial family refuse to visit me in Nashville. I can’t imagine how African Americans who’ve long called Nashville home feel about these monuments. In Mayor Landrieu’s words, “Asking African Americans—or anyone else—to drive by property that they own, occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd” (nytimes).
By removing these distortions, we don’t shade our eyes from the truth; we open our eyes to new, truer, better stories. We remove outdated fictions that teach children bad values and dangerous historical distortions. We finally start confronting the history we’ve been hiding from for 150 years.
The Solution: what should we do?
Even if we agree there’s a problem with the way our monument is currently displayed, we still have to do decide what to change.
One suggestion is to build counter-monuments. We can better mark and celebrate the presence of African Americans in Centennial Park. We can add a Union soldier memorial (here’s an article about this in the Tennessean). This seems like a good start. I support using public spaces to educate ourselves about America’s full, complicated history. But adding monuments would not only be difficult and expensive, but since ours is not merely a liar by omission—since it distorts even the history it does represent—we can’t fix its problems by adding other historic memorials.
Another solution would be destroying it. We could have a protest that knocks Sam Davis down, or we can have a committee vote to have it removed quietly and peacefully. Protest and violence, in my opinion, undermine the democratic process (but so do committee processes designed to undermine public opinion, as is the case here in Tennessee).
Perhaps we could use it to tell a different story? I’ve shown throughout this essay that this piece illustrates numerous historical movements in Confederate memorializing and could be used to tell many more stories from Nashville’s and America’s past. While I don’t think it should be allowed to educate in the way it was intended, it does have a lot it could teach the American public.
To better enhance its educational value, we could move the statue to a museum (like the nearby, free Tennessee State Museum). However, an easier and maybe better solution would be to add interpretive signage in front of its current location. Given that Centennial Park already has a museum about Nashville history (The Parthenon) and is filled with signage about the Expo and the park’s history, adding historical information in front of our soldier memorial would be relatively easy and contextually appropriate. Observing visitors in the park, I noticed that most walked right past it, some looked sad or confused, two girls used it as a shaded bench, a Parthenon employee misinterpreted it as listing Confederate soldiers who died in the war, while a group of tourists was offended and expressed disdain towards our southern city. Maybe a large, historical sign—large enough to compete with the statue—could instigate a more honest discussion about this monument and what it reflects about our city’s and country’s past.
Whatever we decide, we can’t afford to just leave the monument as is. Centennial is one of our city’s greatest treasures, but this statue is not. If we don’t deal with this history seriously and respectfully, it’s going to make us deal with it, and not in a way we choose or like.
While I started this research with an open mind about this particular statue, I’ve concluded that even the most innocent appearing memorial can valorize and encourage racial hatred and anti-American politics and militancy in the present. Uncovering this history behind this seemingly benign memorial, it’s hard to disagree with former Mississippi Governor Ray Mabus that “every single confederate statue must be removed forever” (Time Magazine).
Of course, you can make up your own mind. I’ve offered my research and analysis, but there’s much more to do on this monument and our city’s other Confederate memorials. Whatever side you choose to take, all I ask is that you try to be sympathetic to the complexity and pain involved on both sides of this issue. This sculpture is not a transcendent work of “Art.” It evokes strong emotions and potentially dangerous ideas in viewers today, and because of that, you should decide whether it’s worth keeping with care and compassion.
Ultimately though, it’s going to be hard to translate our conclusions into real, political action. The Tennessean recently explained how: “Multiple states below the Mason-Dixon Line have put into place formal legal mechanisms that prevent historical monuments on public property from being taken down or altered without great difficulty” (Bliss and Meyer). Tennessee recently responded to calls to remove Forrest’s bust from the Capitol by passing the 2016 “Tennessee Heritage Protection Act,” so only a 2/3 vote by the state historical commission or an act of the General Assembly can remove controversial monuments (Ebert). These new laws make it increasingly difficult to remove a sculpture legally, and make it nearly futile to contact your local representative. They also render good civic discussion—already a rarity—almost powerless.
As legal methods of funneling civic discourse into real action are dissolved, we’ll be left with violence as the only way to resolve our differences. But if it’s any consolation, maybe fighting a new Civil War will be the best way to stop fighting about the old one.
We all want and all need good health care, so let’s make it better together.
Why do I care so much?
I spent much of this year battling my lungs. Less than a month after turning 26 (and losing my parent’s health insurance), I took a huge risk and moved halfway across the country to Nashville, TN where I felt I could best develop personally and professionally. Before leaving, my mother worried about what I’d do in a health emergency. Of course, I shrugged her off. I was 26, totally healthy, and wasn’t going to let fear stop me from growing.
Nine months later, I breathed in a fungus and developed large, painful growths in my lungs. Merely walking outside, I inhaled spores that put my entire life on hold. My lung disease demanded regular appointments and debilitating medications, made full-time work impossible, and got me fired from my regular gig. I wasn’t expecting to need good insurance, but even 26 year olds can get sick. Not everyone can work jobs with benefits (even those with two Ivy League degrees). I was young and unemployed in Tennessee and needed extensive healthcare immediately.
A month later, I managed to get an appropriate plan through the Affordable Care Act (though I barely qualified since Tennessee refused Medicaid expansion). Without it, I probably would have moved back with my parents in Maryland (which accepted ACA’s Medicaid expansion). Without these options, I might have died. I am here because of “Obamacare.”
Obviously, I know our healthcare system isn’t perfect. Having spent so much of this year at hospitals, I’ve experienced its flaws firsthand. Ask me how many times I’ve cried while waiting to hear from my doctor. Ask me about being misdiagnosed with sarcoidosis or lung cancer. Ask me about picking up prescriptions, waiting on hold, tracking down paperwork… But these are details. What ultimately matters is that I’m healthy and won’t be in debt the rest of my life—thanks to my health insurance.
Why should we give up this progress in the name of perfection? If Republicans can improve ACA, I’ll be more grateful than anyone. Universal healthcare has long been bipartisan and compromise is possible. But repealing ACHA will take insurance away from people like me and hurt even those who can find other coverage.
I’m writing this especially for my fellow Tennesseans: Please don’t let us go backwards. I am only still here because of this law. Tennessee is becoming my home, my workplace, my community. I would like to stay here. Please tell our representatives NOT to repeal the Affordable Care Act—for our country’s health and for me.
Finally, I couldn’t help but write a song to accompany my request. I’ve heard many songs lately (from liberals) encouraging solidarity, but only with each other. However, while the topic may be less inspiring, I think it’s equally important that songs encourage compromise. Standing up for ideals is important, but so is standing together to effect real change. In this particular case, the consequences of demanding perfection are literally life and death.
We all want and all need good healthcare, so let’s make it better together.
Electric Violin/Voice/Looping, Music/Lyrics, Music/Video Editing, Animation Design/Execution: Sage Snider
Animation Assistant, Tolerant Bystander: Kevin Pereira
Hand Models: Sage Snider and Kevin Pereira
A proclamation to my Mom and all Mothers:
In honor of my mother—a historian who has raised a like-minded historian—I did some research on “Mother’s Day” history to help me decide how to observe it. Last week, when you visited me in Nashville, you admired the book I’m reading, “The Way We Never Were: American Families and The Nostalgia Trap” by Stephanie Coontz. Using this book and other sources to learn about 19th-century mothers’ celebrations has inspired my non-traditional (but actually more traditional) “Mother’s Day” gift this year.
According to Koontz, the modern “Mother’s Day” originated from local holidays based on women’s organized action in public life: “They wished to celebrate mothers’ social roles as community organizers, honoring women who acted on behalf of the entire future generation rather than simply putting their own children first” (Coontz 152). Some of the most influential of these holidays were started by Anna Reeves Jarvis. In 1858, Anna Reeves organized “Mothers’ Day Work clubs” to “improve health and sanitary conditions” (Wikipedia). Like you, she was an advocate for public and, particularly, children’s health (so I’m sure you already know about her). During the Civil War, these mother clubs expanded to offer health services to soldiers on both sides. After the war, Anna initiated a “Mothers Friendship Day” to help bring together the divided nation.
In fact, throughout the 19th century, many women’s groups led community activities and tried to establish holidays against war. For example, Julia Ward Howe–the famed activist and abolitionist who penned “Battle Hymn of the Republic”–also started an annual observance called “Mother’s Day for Peace” which was “celebrated widely in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and other Eastern States until the turn of the century (152). For this celebration, Howe wrote her (later-named) “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” based on her “conviction that women had a responsibility to shape their societies at the political level” (Wikipedia). Howe’s cause was not a celebration of women’s contributions in the domestic sphere, but their unique ability to effect positive change if they went outside of it: “As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council.” In 1877, there was another unrelated May celebration of mothers: in honor of their public temperance reform work. While not legislatively “official,” these widespread 19th-century mothers’ days recognized women’s work for controversial, political issues on which mothers were considered authorities.
“As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council.“
–Julia Ward Howe
And before I get to the modern, 20th-century holiday, an important grammatical note for my editor mother: all these mother holidays were set in the plural. Now we have “Mother’s Day.” Back then, we had “Mothers’ Day.” Originally, this holiday was a practical “vehicle for organized social and political action by all mothers, not for celebrating the private services of one’s own particular mother” (152). Thus, not only was the holiday an occasion to appreciate the power of multiple mothers to “council” together to effect social change, but it was itself an occasion for them to do that united work.
The “official” national holiday wasn’t established until 1914. After Anna Reeves died in 1907, her daughter Anna Marie scheduled a “Mother’s Day” in honor of all mothers near the anniversary of her mom’s death (in May 1908). In 1910, West Virginia declared the holiday official, and in 1914, Congress passed a national law. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the holiday a day “for American citizens to show the flag in honor of those mothers whose sons had died in war”—recalling the holiday’s roots in mothers’ special authority relating to war (Wikipedia).
Nevertheless, as soon as it became official, “Mother’s Day” was already becoming personalized and commercialized. For example, “speeches proclaiming Mother’s Day in 1914 linked it to celebration of home life and privacy” (153). One anti-suffragist explicitly linked celebrating women’s domestic mothering with repudiating their civic motherly role. Merchants “hung testimonials” to their mothers to encourage customers to buy products expressing their own praise.
Thus, contrary to popular criticism that Mother’s Day has been corrupted from its original focus on women’s domestic and child-rearing family contribution, it is actually this sentimental, personalized focus that is itself the corruption. The singular “Mother’s” Day that encourages gratitude for meals through “breakfast in bed” and symbolic appreciation for unpaid domestic labor through “flowers” is as much a distortion of the holiday’s original spirit as is the commercial culture that exploits these “traditions” for profit (151). Mother’s Day is the third largest holiday in the US for greeting cards (hence your “hand-made” virtual card) (The Guardian). Restaurants, jewelry, clothes, and pampering (e.g., spa treatments) have also made a fortune (National Retail Federation). While profit alone isn’t necessarily cause for criticism, these companies have made money without recognizing the more significant “moral and political” contributions mothers can and do make to our society (154).
Interestingly (and symbolically), Anna Marie, who started Mother’s Day in honor of her social activist mother, was arrested in 1948 for protesting the commercialization of Mother’s Day. Apparently, it had strayed so far from her intentions, she “wished she never would have started the day” (wikipedia). She died that same year (guess where? A sanitarium). One might say modern “Mother’s Day” isn’t about celebrating and encouraging mothers who speak out about controversial, public issues. Now, we value mothers who use their inside voices.
Admittedly, I am grateful for the so-called “traditional” motherly gifts that have been selflessly bestowed on my siblings and me since birth. But considering I have done breakfast in bed, flowers, restaurants, and lotion many times—and that I’m no longer in a proximity to do them in any personal way—I thought I’d take a more traditional (i.e., historically rooted) approach.
Therefore, this year my present is a contribution to your non-profit Start School Later (not my first and not my last). While your own children inspired your awareness and passion for this particular cause, your current work is done in the name of children and the public’s health and safety more generally. Your Ph.D. in the history of public health and your skill in advocacy, organization, and public education—added to your personal experience as a mother—collectively make you a powerful leader in building a better society for all of us.
And of course, you don’t do this alone. You bring together other mothers and community members who similarly defend public health, safety, and education. Moreover, you are part of a long history of women using their expertise as mothers and citizens for social action.
So, for this Mother’s Day, I am expressing my gratitude for your public work. I am so proud that you defend students’ rights to sleep, safety, and an equitable and quality education. I am in awe of the tireless efforts of your fellow Start School Later activists. And I am honored by the labors of your predecessors—which have inspired your work from the very beginning.
Thank you for your passion, your persistence, your sacrifice, and your skill—and Happy “Mothers’ Day.”
Your admiring daughter,
P.S. Mom, please comment with a link to where I can best make my SSL contribution. And if anyone else wants to express their gratitude to these activist mothers, please use the link and add your donation!
P.P.S. Or is it Mother’s’ Day?
P.P.P.S. A song celebrating women in politics, inspired by a conversation with my mother in 4th grade “Great Books” club.
In The Illiad, Achilles is given a choice:
“My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I will not return alive but my name will live for ever (kleos): whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me.” –Achilles
Achilles chooses kleos: a short but glorious life instead of a long but unremembered one.
However, when museums conserve instruments, they usually choose the latter: protecting and preserving objects at the cost of making the music for which they were born.
I make the opposite choice every day, playing my old instruments. While I try to take care of them, use wears things down.
Yes, I’ve made some scratches–with metal music stands, my computer, weather, even my fingers. It has rosin stains–I don’t wipe it regularly. I’m not even showing you the sides. I’m ashamed of the ugly damage I’ve caused to an object that’s given me such beauty.
However, I’ve also discovered museum instruments that challenge this degenerative narrative. Beyond their damaged surface, old instruments can carry experiences of struggle, endurance, rejection, love, even resurrection, and sometimes we can only hear these stories in their silence. In this article, I’ll share a couple of these “dead objects” who offer me hope that, even after instruments have lost their beauty and been silenced in cases, they can find a second life sharing new stories through the voice of museums.
I. Solomon Conn and his Civil War Scratches
In a forgotten, dark corner of the “Price of Freedom” Exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (NMAH), hides a humble fiddle. But unlike the well-lit, mint condition Stradivarius violins the museum features in its instrument collection, this fiddle–scattered among hardtack, canteens, kepis, and other accouterments of a Civil War soldier’s daily life–is covered in scratches. However, it’s these very scratches that make this instrument fascinating, maybe even more so than the 300+-year-old masterpieces to which many visitors flock.
This fiddle belonged to a Civil War soldier named Solomon Conn. And the scratches covering the back were no accident: Conn used his fiddle as a diary. He lists the fiddle’s date of purchase, his military company, and goes on to all the places the fiddle accompanied him and his fellow soldiers as they traveled to various American battles.
In my tutoring work, I recently taught The Things They Carried, a classic book on the various physical and spiritual burdens soldiers carried in Vietnam, through war and the rest of their lives. The fact that Solomon carried this fiddle with him throughout his Civil War travels, used it as a travel diary, and held onto it so his family could later donate it to the museum, proves this portable music device must have been important to him and other soldiers in his regiment.
Maybe this fiddle was never the fanciest or most beautiful, but it still had a full life: it was loved by a soldier and his regiment, it traveled America, it served in the Civil War (you can learn more about the fiddle’s role in Civil War soldiers’ experiences from the program I ran in this exhibit). I don’t know how this fiddle and the story of its past life has inspired others, but I know they’ve inspired me. For example, this fiddle and its story inspired the Civil War soldier character in my play “Fiddlers’ Green.”
Scars might not fit our model of exquisitely crafted, elegant, eternally youthful and innocent violin beauty. Nevertheless, these scratches literally communicate in words, and if scars can tell stories, maybe that’s just as important.
II. “Old Betsy” and the Birth of the Grand Ole Opry
This neatly encased fiddle–named “Old Betsy– probably led a fairly unglamourous life, far removed from the clean, corporate, red-carpeted entertainment empire housing it today.
Betsy belonged to a farmer, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, who in his old age became a touring musician with his wife and lived out of a small house rigged up on the back of his truck (talk about genuine “truck” country). Thompson had been fiddling since the Civil War, but became famous for bringing his 19th-century fiddling expertise to national audiences through the 20th-century medium of radio. When in 1925, announcer George D. Hay transmitted the sound of Thompson’s “Tennessee Waggoner” across the country on his “1,000-watt transmitter,” Hay found himself a new star and a new show: The Grand Ole Opry.*
*Note: I learned most of this history from Charles K. Wolfe’s, “A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry.”
Betsy looks about as authentically down-to-earth as Thompson himself: her scratched up, unpolished surface and geared tuners testifying to his rural, amateur roots. She was probably made in Scotland, and Thompson used to take care of her by inserting “rattlesnake rattles” and “[putting] her to bed” each night with a piece of red flannel” (Wolfe 83). Since we only have four recordings of Thompson’s music (around “a dozen minutes” total), this fiddle is one of this musical patriarch’s only remaining artifacts.
Q: What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin?
A: You don’t spill whiskey on a violin!
Contributing to Betsy’s contemporary “fiddle” appearance was probably her vibrant past life with Uncle Jimmy. Thompson was so famously fond of whiskey, he was known to say he used it to “lubricate his [fiddle] arm!” Consequently, he also had a habit of passing out during broadcasts (the Opry is not so proud of this part of the fiddle’s history. Today, alcohol is banned backstage on show nights). This habit had unfortunate consequences for the legend and his fiddle: Thompson found his Opry career ended merely one year in, after 1926. Even then, the Opry was “becoming much more formal and structured.” Uncle Jimmy’s non-radio oriented, “leisurely 19th century manner of performing”–not to mention his association of fiddling with “drinking, dancing, and having a good time”–turned out to be incompatible with the very show it started (Wolfe 80).
As a former Opry tour guide (forbidden from telling the above story), I know that the Opry is still careful about the stories they’ll let Betsy tell. Like the stories and sounds of her former player, she is usually merely seen and not heard about. This is just my theory, of course, but I believe the Opry wants to maintain a certain wholesome image with which Thompson’s 19th-century behavior and fiddle remain incompatible.
Nevertheless, another story still speaks through Betsy’s mere presence, and it’s this one that makes the Opry proud to show her off.
So what story is it that makes the Opry want people to see this cheap, old fiddle? After all, as a music-maker, this fiddle only left behind 7 recorded tunes and was only on the show for about a year?
My theory is that the explanation for this fiddle’s prominence is similar to why Uncle Jimmy Thompson has been mythologized as the Opry’s first performer from its very beginning. For George D. Hay, the Opry’s first broadcaster and promoter, “the image of a lone fiddler standing out on a stage and attempting to entertain a crowd with nothing more than his fiddle and his skill was a potent symbol for all that the Opry stood for… [Hay] found in Uncle Jimmy Thompson an ideal figure to fill this role as the Opry got started” (Wolfe 100). Likewise today, Thompson’s fiddle symbolizes the Opry’s 19th century, romantic, “pre-industrial,” stringband, rural, amateur roots.
The idea of legitimizing “roots,” real or not, has become essential to the now very modern, urban, corporate Opry. “Traditionalism” is constantly valorized at the Opry today, although most of its signifiers are just for show (e.g., the lit-up red barn, the cowboy hats and boots, the pew-style cushioned auditorium seats).
“Old Betsy” feels authentic. She is a genuine “root” whose value lies less in her past music-making than her current symbolism. Seeing Betsy–next to the General Manager’s Opry office, in the middle of bronze plaques chronologically listing every Opry member, through the Mail Room every country superstar passes to reach the dressing rooms and stage–this old, beat-up, forgotten prop confers on the Opry itself authenticity, legitimacy, and values.
So while she might come from humble roots and look a bit rough around the edges, in her new home, Betsy’s mere presence has become a powerful symbol for the “most famous stage in country music.”
III. A Gibson Gives Rise to Bluegrass
Though I want to believe objects outlive us, I know even the most well-crafted, museum-protected instrument is mortal. However, unlike people, instruments sometimes get a second chance. One such inspiration–that’s died and lived again–is Bill Monroe’s resurrected mandolin, the “most famous mandolin in American music history.”
Unlike Thompson’s “Betsy,” Bill Monroe’s mandolin undoubtedly lived a full, distinguished, first life. Bill found his F-5 Master Model Gibson soulmate in the 1940s and it was his “constant companion” in developing the “aggressive playing style” that brought the mandolin’s sound front and center within the traditional string-band ensemble. Thus, this particular mandolin was instrumental in creating the basis for an entirely new genre of music: bluegrass.
Nevertheless, even a lifetime of musical genius couldn’t protect this Gibson when, in 1985, “an intruder broke into Monroe’s home and smashed the treasured mandolin with a fireplace poker.” Poor Monroe experienced my biggest nightmare: his beloved instrument broken and nearly burned.
But that’s NOT the end: Gibson took the nearly 150 slivers and “painstakingly reconstructed it.” Not only did Monroe and the mandolin continue playing together until Monroe’s death in 1996, but now, Monroe’s mandolin lives beyond him by inspiring terrified young fiddlers like me that there is life after instrument death.
Thus, even without Monroe, this 150-sliver mandolin continues communicating from within its protected glass case. Like Conn’s Civil War fiddle and Thompson’s Betsy, this mandolin has outlived its player and found its own story. Though now silent, the mere visual of its dramatically lit wholeness and beauty, combined with its historical association, testifies to the power of love a musician can have for an instrument. Though the injury seemed hopeless, Monroe stood by his instrument, had it fixed, and used it, up to his dying day. And through this story of love which this instrument tells on its own (with the museum’s help), Monroe’s mandolin has found a new life telling stories even today.
Achilles may have chosen a short life so he could be remembered forever, but through museums, instruments can sometimes choose both old age and a good story. Silent in cases, they may lose the ability to fulfill their natural virtue of making music, but museums can also give instruments new voices that last beyond the transient musical sounds they originally produced.
Remembering this third choice helps me choose to give my instruments a full life. I love my violin, and sometimes my love hurts it. I take my violin to drunken jams, we practice under trees, we travel through foreign countries… I know carrying my violin through the battlefield of my life risks surface and mortal wounds, but I don’t like us being apart. And for every heartbreaking scratch, we’ve written songs, found friends, and made memories.
Therefore, while I hate contributing to my fiddle’s mortality, when I remember all these stories of museum instruments, I’m hopeful that ultimately, loving and living with my violin is what’s best for it. Maybe my violin will die earlier. But then, maybe it will rise again. Either way, it was made to sing, and I’m going to make sure it has a good story to tell.