Ballads offer insight into America’s past

There’s something special about ballads. The best of them combine lyrics and musical notes in ways generally not seen with other types of songs.

They speak from the heart. They contain emotion and usually a sense of pride. We don’t have to agree with every phrase to get a sense of the singer’s thought process.

One of my favorite vinyl albums in my small collection is the greatest hits of 20th century musician Johnny Horton, who is best know for his song “North to Alaska”. The album has almost a dozen other recorded hits that revolve around themes based on Americana, several of which would be controversial if played in public in 2020.

The most controversial of all would be the tribute to Johnny Reb, a term that applied to all soldiers of the Confederate Army in the Civil War.

Its words, like many Confederate symbols, have for many people come to represent only racial prejudice and oppression. There are reasons for that perspective.

My ancestors from Poland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, England and Sweden all came to the United States because they wanted to be here. It was a choice they made, a willingness to go overseas with nothing but what they could pack into a trunk. They believed the New World held promise for a better way of life.

It’s much different for descendants of slaves. Their ancestors were forcibly abducted, packed into slave ships to be sold at auction upon arrival in a new land.

That legacy continues to cast a shadow over race relations. It’s worsened by statistics that show a gap in wealth between whites and minorities. Have we advanced for enough to say we truly have equal opportunity? It depends on who you ask.

The same sort of involuntary change in ancestral way of life occurred with Native Americans. It affects how today’s public would perceive Horrton’s tribute to American West icon Jim Bridger. He’s spoken of as a friend to indigenous people, a contrast to George Custer and Kit Carson.

There are reasons to make a distinction, but Bridger was still part of the process of introducing tribal cultures to a wealth-driven, property conscious establishment.

It could be said from the standpoint of scholarship that what happened to community oriented minority cultures was part of an ongoing pattern in history. It’s actually a 20th century irony that rural business districts founded on economic aims were later in many ways superseded by larger conglomerate mega-stores.

It’s a hard generalization to accept, however, because of how entire senses of racial identity were altered forever. They weren’t memorialized, at least not right away, Instead the ancestry was completely reinterpreted by an establishment and in some respects totally ignored.

Thankfully not all ballads contain social controversy. In Horton’s case there are examples like “North to Alaska” where the Gold Rush didn’t even come close to taming the Last Frontier. I remember hearing the song at the pool at Legion Field in an era when the Alaska Pipeline was bringing new groups of adventurers northward.

In some cases ballads commemorate conflicts that are still regarded as righteous wars. Three examples from the album are Johnny Freedom about colonial soldiers in the American Revolution, the “Battle of New Orleans” that ended the War of 1812, and “Sink the Bismarck” about overcoming a 20th century German battleship.

Every ballad has a story to tell. As listeners we have to right to like the story or not like it. If we don’t care for all the implications of war, for example, it’s possible to still enjoy the music and to relate it to some of the heroism that’s reflected in the lyrics.

There’s a point when we can’t impose our own present on the past. Even before industrialization, some things came down to “survival of the fittest”.

We can only go forward. If we don’t like some of the results of past historical actions, the best we can do is point out the negative side to the outcomes and try to avoid the same mistakes. A key component is to treat everybody not as parts of certain population groups, but simply as fellow human beings.


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