My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Saturday, July 30, 2022

July 30-31, 2022: July 2022 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]

July 4: 4th of July Contexts: Slavery and the Declaration: A series for the 4th kicks off with important historical contexts for the Declaration’s frustrations, and why they remain nevertheless.

July 5: 4th of July Contexts: The Adams Letters: The series continues with the myths and realities of the Revolution reveals in the Adams letters.

July 6: 4th of July Contexts: Fireworks: The histories, symbolisms, and limitations of an American tradition, as the series celebrates on.

July 7: 4th of July Contexts: Born on the 4th of July: Three cultural evolutions of a classic, complex American phrase.

July 8: 4th of July Contexts: “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?”: The series concludes with the stunning speech that challenges us just as much today as it did 170 years ago.

July 9-10: 4th of July Contexts: Patriotism in 2022 America: A special weekend post thinking about three of the types of patriotism I explored in my most recent book!

July 11: Investigative Journalists: Fanny Fern: For Ida B. Wells’ birthday, a journalism series kicks off with a series that isn’t perfect but is pretty darn impressive nonetheless.

July 12: Investigative Journalists: Nellie Bly: The series continues with a rightly famous work of investigative journalism and one that should be.

July 13: Investigative Journalists: Ida Tarbell and Muckraking: Why muckraking exemplifies investigative journalism at its best, as the series writes on.

July 14: Investigative Journalists: David Halberstam in Vietnam: A moment of genuine courage that reflects a broader role of wartime journalists.

July 15: Investigative Journalists: A.C. Thompson and ProPublica: The series concludes with a fictional character who helps us recognize one of our best current journalists and institutions.

July 16-17: Investigative Journalists: Ida B. Wells: On Wells’ bday, a special tribute post that highlights my favorite of her many impressive and inspiring moments.

July 18: UtahStudying: Indigenous Utah: For Salt Lake City’s anniversary, a UtahStudying series kicks off with three of the many indigenous communities that have called the region home.

July 19: UtahStudying: National Parks: The series continues with striking stories and histories behind a few of the state’s stunning landscapes.

July 20: UtahStudying: The Golden Spike: Promontory Point, propaganda photos, and the power of posterity, as the series rolls on.

July 21: UtahStudying: SLC Punk!: An underrated indie film’s sociological studies, and whether they’re specific to this week’s focal subject.

July 22: UtahStudying: Sports Franchises: The series concludes with ambiguities in sports, Utah, and America revealed by three beloved teams.

July 23-24: UtahStudying: The Founding Mormons: On SLC’s anniversary, a special weekend post on a few complex contexts for that founding community.

July 25: Christmas (Songs) in July: Fraught Favorites: To commemorate the release of “White Christmas,” a holiday hits series kicks off with what’s lurking beneath the cheery lessons of some favs.

July 26: Christmas (Songs) in July: “Winter Wonderland” and “Jingle Bells”: The series continues with two versions of the holiday revealed by two 1930s hits.

July 27: Christmas (Songs) in July: Mariah and Marketing Christmas: An authentically wonderful holiday ballad that inaugurated a frustrating tradition, as the series sings on.

July 28: Christmas (Songs) in July: Hanukkah Songs: A handful of classics and newer hits to help celebrate the Festival of Lights.

July 29: Christmas (Songs) in July: “White Christmas”: For the anniversary of the best-selling single of all time (!), a couple reasons for the smash song’s enduring success.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, July 29, 2022

July 29, 2022: Christmas (Songs) in July: “White Christmas”

[On July 30, 1942, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was released. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Crosby’s classic and other Christmas and holiday songs, for a little flavor of the season here in mid-summer!]

On a couple reasons for the enduring success of one of history’s biggest songs.

You could probably win a lot of trivia contests with this knowledge (I certainly didn’t know it before researching this post), but Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” is the best-selling single of all time, having sold more than 50 million copies worldwide (and again, that’s just of Crosby’s version; when you add in the many covers over the subsequent eight decades the song has sold well above 100 million). Written by one of the 20th century’s greatest songwriters, Irving Berlin, for the 1942 musical film Holiday Inn (starring Crosby and Fred Astaire), the song was first performed live by Crosby on an NBC radio show on Christmas Day, 1941, recorded by Crosby and the Ken Darby Singers in May 1942, and then officially released on July 30, 1942 as part of six records’ worth of music from the film (with “White Christmas” eventually winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song). Berlin seems to have known he had something special from the jump, supposedly telling his secretary after penning the song in 1940, “I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.”

I don’t want to disagree with the great Irving B., and I certainly think “White Christmas” is an excellent song; but to my mind, there have to be other explanations besides simple quality for what made and has continued to make this particular Christmas tune so stunningly popular. Here I’ll consider two, one textual and one contextual. Textually, I think “White Christmas” offers a particularly succinct, unique, and potent expression of an emotion about which I’ve written many times before in this space: nostalgia. From its opening lines, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas/Just like the ones I used to know,” the song taps into that kind of nostalgia for childhood ideals (to which of course Christmas and all holidays always already connect). In that same verse Berlin implicitly connects that nostalgia to other Christmas carols like the ones I wrote about on Tuesday, with the lines “and children listen/To hear sleigh bells in the snow.” But at the same time, much of the rest of the song is overtly forward-looking and hopeful, linking the act of writing Christmas cards to a holiday wish that “all” the audience’s (for those cards and of the song alike) “days” will “be merry and bright.” That hopeful nostalgia, that forward-looking wistfulness, is to my mind quite unique, and makes this Christmas classic stand out in that crowded field to be sure.

Since “White Christmas” has remained so enduringly popular for 80 years, and across so many covers, clearly there is something in those lyrics (as well as the tune) that has hit audiences from many different periods and places. But of course it had to get popular initially as well, and on that note I would say that there’s a particular early 1940s in America context that helps explain why “White Christmas” hit so hard: World War II. When Crosby first performed the song on Christmas Day 1941, it was less than 3 weeks after the Pearl Harbor bombings; when the song and film formally debuted in 1942, the US had entered the war in both the Pacific and European fronts. Neither the film nor the song makes any overt reference to the war, although since filming was ongoing when Pearl Harbor was attacked a July 4th scene in the movie was expanded to include a more overt tribute to the military. But in such a fraught and threatened historical moment, I’d say that the aforementioned emotional combination at the heart of “White Christmas”—nostalgia for better and more peaceful days, and a hope for a brighter future that can echo them—offered a potent salve to American audiences indeed. In any case, a good reminder that Christmas and holiday songs are never limited in their effects and meanings to that season.

July Recap this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other holiday songs you’d analyze?

Thursday, July 28, 2022

July 28, 2022: Christmas (Songs) in July: Hanukkah Songs

[On July 30, 1942, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was released. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Crosby’s classic and other Christmas and holiday songs, for a little flavor of the season here in mid-summer!]

On a handful of classics, old and new, to celebrate the Festival of Lights.

1)      I Have a Little Dreidel” (1927, maybe): As with some of the classic Christmas songs about which I’ve written in this series, this canonical Hanukkah song likely goes back to traditional melodies well before the 20th century. But the first known version in English was written by Samuel Grossman (lyrics) and Samuel Goldfarb (music) in 1927, a moment that reflects the expanding cultural and social voices and roles of Jewish American artists throughout the first decades of the 20th century. And who doesn’t like to play the dreidel?!

2)      Light One Candle” (1982): The next song in my list is considered the first modern American Hanukkah song (in part because its singer framed it with the dearth of such songs), but the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary have it beat by more than a decade. They wrote and started performing in concert “Light One Candle” in 1982, in response to that year’s Lebanon War, and then recorded it on their 1986 album No Easy Walk to Freedom. Pulling together traditional stories with current events would become one main thread for Hanukkah songs, and PPM seem to have inaugurated that tradition too.

3)      The Chanukah Song” (1994): PPM’s Hanukkah song was certainly popular, but there’s no doubt that the first modern one to really hit and stay in the cultural zeitgeist was Adam Sandler’s, first debuted in that hyperlinked performance on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. Partly that’s due to SNL, partly to Sandler’s rapidly rising star at the time, and partly to the song’s undeniable combination of humor and shock value (“O.J. Simpson…not a Jew!”). But I would say that Sandler’s opening statement, about growing up Jewish and only having Christmas carols to sing in school, is a serious and thoughtful take on multicultural America—and a nice rejoinder to the whole “War on Christmas” nonsense to boot.

4)      Miracle” (2011): I’ve written elsewhere in this space about the Jewish American rapper and reggae artist Matisyahu, a consistent and truly thoughtful commenter on both current events and questions of identity. “Miracle” is one of a couple Hanukkah songs he’s released, along with the following year’s more fun and low-key “Happy Hanukkah” (2012). What I particularly like about “Miracle” is how it pulls together threads I’ve highlighted with the other songs here: engagement with current and world events, representations of Jewish American and multicultural identity, and a sense of Hanukkah’s traditions and meanings. Like everything Matisyahu puts out, it’s a great song that transcends any individual occasion—but it’s worth a listen every Hanukkah for sure.

5)      8 Days (of Hanukkah)” (2015): Former corrections officer turned Gospel singer turned leader of the soul and funk band Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Sharon Jones was a singular force in 21st century American music, one taken from us much too soon (yet another thing to add to the list of horrific effects of Donald Trump’s presidency). The band’s last album released while Jones was alive was 2015’s It’s a Holiday Soul Party, and as any 21st century holiday album should, it included a wonderful Hanukkah track. In Jones’ honor, just as much as to celebrate the Festival of Lights, turn this one way up, here in July and all year long.

Last holiday song tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other holiday songs you’d analyze?

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

July 27, 2022: Christmas (Songs) in July: Mariah and Marketing Christmas

[On July 30, 1942, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was released. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Crosby’s classic and other Christmas and holiday songs, for a little flavor of the season here in mid-summer!]

On an authentically wonderful holiday ballad, and the frustrating tradition it helped create.

First things first, lest I call down the wrath of the Lambs upon me: I wrote in my Valentine’s series a few years back about how much I had come to appreciate and enjoy the music, and especially the songwriting skills, of Ms. Mariah Carey. Before I get to her perennially chart-topping Christmas classic, I’d ask you to check out that post for my overall thoughts on Carey’s impressive talents and career.

Welcome back! In 1994, with her career still relatively young but her place on the music scene already well-established, Carey decided to make her fourth studio album a Christmas album, with the lead single a new holiday classic. That album became Merry Christmas (1994) and the song, recorded in August but released as a single on October 29th, was “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” While it had been a while since there had been a truly smash new Christmas track—probably dating back a decade earlier, to Wham!’s “Last Christmas” (1984)—the idea of popular artists recording such songs was obviously not new (cf. the 1940s Bing Crosby classic that’s the reason for this seasonal series). And Carey’s Christmas song blended perfectly her signature sound and vocals with classic Christmas carol vibes, making it, as The New Yorker would later put it, “one of the few worthy modern additions to the holiday canon.” And canonical it has certainly become—there’s a running joke that the Christmas season truly begins each year when Carey’s song is first played, and it’s no joke how much it dominates the charts late in the year every year.

It is likely quite difficult to understand today how much of a risk Carey was taking with this music; as her longtime songwriting partner Walter Afanasieff later noted, “Back then, you didn’t have a lot of artists with Christmas albums. It wasn’t a known science at all back then.” Thanks in no small measure to the massive success of Carey’s song and album—indeed, I would argue thanks almost entirely to that—the opposite has become true over the subsequent quarter-century: now, countless artists put out Christmas songs if not entire Christmas albums every year, following a very well-established and –trodden formula, a known science if there can be ever such a thing for hit records. Again, popular musicians and bands have put out Christmas and holiday songs for at least a century, so each and every one of these individual artists has every right to do so as well. But the cumulative effect has been to so thoroughly saturate the market that not only do none of the individual songs or albums stand out, but the very idea of a Christmas carol or a holiday anthem, of a song written to celebrate this particular occasion, feels that it’s become just another part of the music industry machine. And that is most definitely not all I want for Christmas.

Next holiday song tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other holiday songs you’d analyze?

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

July 26, 2022: Christmas (Songs) in July: “Winter Wonderland” and “Jingle Bells”

[On July 30, 1942, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was released. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Crosby’s classic and other Christmas and holiday songs, for a little flavor of the season here in mid-summer!]

On the two versions of the holiday revealed by two 1930s hits.

Pinning down the “first” version of classic Christmas songs can sometimes be an exercise in historical ambiguity to be sure. While jazz legend Benny Goodman and his orchestra put out a very early and justifiably famous recording of “Jingle Bells” in 1935, for example, the lyrics to that classic carol go back much further, at least to James Lord Pierpont’s 1857 song “The One Horse Open Sleigh” (that Pierpoint was sufficiently dreaming of a white Christmas that he would go on to serve in and write marching songs for the Confederate army is just one of those profoundly American ironies). But nonetheless, Goodman’s recording is an important milestone in the song’s development into an American holiday anthem—and that 1935 timing coincidentally locates “Jingle Bells” in close proximity to a Christmas classic with timing that we can pin down much more concretely: “Winter Wonderland,” which was written in 1934 by composer Felix Bernard and lyricist Richard B. Smith and recorded that same year by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians.

Moreover, the two songs are connected by more than just that close chronological proximity. “Wonderland” opens with the lines “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?/In the lane, snow is glistening,” locating its speaker and audience in very much the same world as the “we” who in “Jingle Bells” are “Dashing through the snow/In a one-horse open sleigh” with its “bells on bobtails ring[ing].” Given that “Wonderland” was written in the 1930s, a time when automobile horns were much more likely to be heard on most American lanes than sleigh bells—even in more rural America, the dominance of the car had certainly arrived by this time—that opening reference would seem to be a purposeful anachronism, a throwback to a 19th century world when it was most likely a horse-drawn sleigh that would carry us to holiday gatherings. Neither Bernard (born in 1897) nor Smith (born in 1901) had necessarily experienced that world, at least not in its prime, so it’s fair to say that the “beautiful sight” of that opening chorus (repeated in the song’s final chorus) is in their mind’s eye, this imagined version of the wintry holiday world of “Jingle Bells” and its ilk.

While they thus start in a very similar place, however, “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland” ultimately take very different tacks, reflecting two distinct cultural meanings of the holiday. “Jingle Bells” stays entirely in its present moment—it’s not only “fun to ride and sing/A sleighing song tonight,” but the song itself metatextually (perhaps the first time that word has ever been applied to “Jingle Bells”; that’s why they pay me the big bucks) and thoroughly locates its listeners within that nighttime sleigh ride. This is a celebration of the holiday’s relaxing and rejoicing qualities, of how living in the moment can “mak[e] spirits bright.” “Winter Wonderland,” on the other hand, starts with its two lovebirds “happy tonight” as well, but it soon and consistently makes clear that it is the future about which they are most excited, particularly in the song’s best verse: “Later on, we’ll conspire/As we dream by the fire/To face unafraid/The plans we have made/Walking in a winter wonderland.” This is the version of the holidays where, as one year ends and another begins, we can reflect on where we’ve been (“the bluebird”), greet what’s to come (“a new bird”), and walk together into a new year that just might be better than the last.

Next holiday song tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other holiday songs you’d analyze?

Monday, July 25, 2022

July 25, 2022: Christmas (Songs) in July: Fraught Favorites

[On July 30, 1942, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was released. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Crosby’s classic and other Christmas and holiday songs, for a little flavor of the season here in mid-summer!]

On what’s lurking beneath the cheery lessons of our holiday favs.

Rudolph isn’t like the other reindeer, but that shouldn’t make him an outcast or a pariah. That’s a pretty positive and important message, and I’d be very happy if my boys’ childhood favorite holiday tune were subtly teaching them that lesson every time they warbled through its lyrics. And I suppose it is, kinda sorta. But the problem for me—and when it comes to music I am, perhaps not surprisingly, obsessively analytical about lyrics; this must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the post I am going to write—is that, while Rudolph’s status in his community does change when his peers’ perspectives on his identity and distinctiveness are likewise transformed, that transformation is itself caused by a very specific and troubling factor: the recognition of Rudolph’s usefulness to said community. It’s a foggy night, Santa needs some extra guidance, and then how the reindeer loved him, then they shouted out with glee that he’d go down in history. The end result is, again, a more inclusive and tolerant North Pole community, and I’m all for that, but I sure do wish it could get that way because of the inherent goodness of those values, and not because Rudolph happened to prove his practical worth.

The dual communities constructed in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” on the other hand, are flawed precisely because of the extreme imbalance in their respective contributions to the happy occasion (caroling, wassailing, whatever term you prefer) upon which they meet. The song’s speakers admit, in the opening verse, that what they bring to this occasion amounts to nothing more than “good tidings … to you and your kin, / good tidings for Christmas and a happy New Year.” It’s always nice to be wished well, of course, and I’m sure that I can speak for my kin in returning the good tidings. But the speakers will not be satisfied with such an exchange, demanding in the second verse—repeating the demand three consecutive times, no less—that we “bring [them] a figgy pudding,” and even adding “a cup of good cheer” to the demands in the third repetition. And lest we mistake this demand for a simple request, the speakers then threaten us with the consequences of refusal, noting (again three times for emphasis) that they “won’t go until [they] get some,” and so we had better “bring some out here.” I’m all for giving, as yesterday’s post hopefully made clear, but this is coercion at its worst, and all because of some good tidings that, I am forced to imagine, are likewise contingent on me and my kin giving in to these culinary demands.

Speaking of those kin, and coming back around to my boys, I was a big fan of any and all mechanisms through which I can help—okay, fine, coerce, but with good intentions—their mischievous youthful selves to behave well, and Santa Claus proved to be one of the most successful such disciplinary devices. To that end, I think that the bulk of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” expresses with admirable clarity and conciseness the need for children to watch out, not to cry or pout, and generally to be good (not, it must be admitted, actually for goodness’ sake, but for the sake of self-interest and future present-receiving, which is a more compelling argument to be sure) if they hope to stay on the nice list and have a merry Christmas morning. But then there’s the start of the final verse: “He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake.” Why? Why, in the name of all that is ho ho ho-ly, does Santa need to see and know those things? Why has he suddenly transformed here into an “Every Breath You Take”-like stalker, attending to my children’s every move, 24 hours a day? And how am I supposed to sleep on Christmas Eve now, knowing that this Big Brother wannabe with his ominously shaking belly will be descending down my chimney at any moment?

And don’t even get me started on Frosty. Next holiday song tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other holiday songs you’d analyze?

Saturday, July 23, 2022

July 23-24, 2022: UtahStudying: The Founding Mormons

[On July 24, 1847, a weary group of about 150 migrants founded Salt Lake City. So for the city’s 175th birthday, this week I’ve AmericanStudied Utah histories, leading up to this special weekend post on that founding community!]

On three telling historical details about that founding white community (remembering always the subject of Monday’s post, the many indigenous communities that long predated the Mormons and remained present in the region in and long after 1847).

1)      A Mexican Refuge: The story of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the Mormon church and community’s origins and exodus from the United States is a much broader and longer one, and would need its own post (or weeklong series) to do justice. Having fled the United States due to the persecution they faced there and/or their desire to find a place where they could freely practice their extreme religion (sound familiar, Massachusetts?), the migrant Mormons ended up in Mexican territory. When they came to the Great Salt Lake Valley and Young and others found it ideal as a place to set up their community, they thus should have gotten the permission of the Mexican government to do so—while of course the territory would be ceded to the US a year later in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, they had no way of knowing that in July 1847. There’s more to say about those complexities than this brief paragraph, but I have to admit loving the basic but (for many Americans) mind-blowing idea that the Utah Mormons truly began as a Mexican community.

2)      Slavery: Another factors in the Mormon exodus from New York State and the United States was that the community were slaveowners; the migrants who founded Salt Lake City had three enslaved African Americans—Green Flake, Hark Lay, and Oscar Crosby—with them when they did so. They immediately began purchasing enslaved Native Americans as well, leading to a count of 26 enslaved people in the community as of 1850. The question of slavery’s extension into western territories was of course ubiquitous throughout the decade, indeed perhaps the single most defining American issue of the 1850s. But the fact that it was an overall issue doesn’t in any way absolve individual communities of responsibility for their own actions, and I think it’s deeply telling that this small community of refugees, fleeing persecution and seeking freedom (in their own framing at least), were at the same time practicing enslavement and forcing these enslaved people to come with them into this hugely unfamiliar setting.

3)      US Conflicts: That practice wasn’t what got the new communities of Great Salt Lake City and Deseret in trouble with the US government, however. The earliest such conflict seems to have come in 1849, when the community petitioned the government for formal recognition of the State of Deseret; Congress refused to grant it, and in 1850 established instead the Utah Territory, moving the territorial capital to Fillmore in the process (it would move back to Salt Lake City in 1856). That power struggle was unquestionably connected to the broader and ongoing conflicts over polygamy, which was illegal in the rest of the United States but a central tenet of that founding Mormon community. And it came to a head in 1857 with the so-called Utah War, when Brigham Young refused to step down as governor and President Buchanan sent in federal troops (who remained in the area through the start of the Civil War). Salt Lake City and Utah have always occupied a unique and uneasy place on the larger American landscape, for all these reasons and the others I’ve traced this week.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Other Utah histories or stories you’d highlight?

Friday, July 22, 2022

July 22, 2022: UtahStudying: Sports Franchises

[On July 24, 1847, a weary group of about 150 migrants founded Salt Lake City. So for the city’s 175th birthday, this week I’ll AmericanStudy Utah histories, leading up to a special weekend post on that founding community!]

On ambiguities in both sports and the state revealed by three of its most beloved teams.

1)      Real Salt Lake (RSL): In many ways, the MLS franchise RSL reveals some of the fundamental complexities of how soccer has developed in America. Even the name is an echo of a famous Spanish team, but (presumably) pronounced by most fans and commentators with the English version of the first word, making the whole thing sound a little silly. And of course the overarching idea of a professional soccer team in one of the whitest states in the US is itself a reflection of the sport’s complex relationship to many local communities. But at the same time, the franchise has over its 15+ years in existence been fully embraced by that community, as embodied by the team anthem “Believe,” written by the drummer for the band Rancid as a fan tribute and now played before every game. Soccer might not ever fully be the national pastime, but it can most definitely be on the short list, as RSL nicely illustrates.

2)      The Utah Jazz: The Jazz present an interestingly similar ambiguity to RSL, one that reminds us that the fraught sides of sports aren’t limited to soccer by any means. The franchise started in New Orleans as an expansion team in the 1974-75 season, and of course the team name makes all the sense in the world for a team in the Big Easy. When original owner Sam Battistone decided to move them to Salt Lake City after the 1978-79 season (due to financial struggles but also, as usual when teams move, greed for a better deal), he wanted to change the name as well, but there was not time before the new season started. So the Jazz they remained (keeping the team’s Mardi Gras-themed colors in the process), and the Jazz they’ve been ever since, in a city and state that could not be less associated with jazz music. But as with soccer in the city and state, the past and existing associations can’t and shouldn’t limit how communities evolve—and the Utah Jazz have certainly become a Salt Lake City landmark, name and all.

3)      The University of Utah Utes: To a significant degree this most popular college sports program in the state—and certainly the most popular football team as well, since there’s no professional franchise—bleeds into the subject for my weekend post, as the University of Utah was founded by the Mormon church as the University of Desert in 1850 (just three years after Salt Lake City’s founding) and has been influenced by that powerful entity (probably the most powerful in the state still) ever since. But at the same time, the University of Utah is a public institution of higher education, and so those enduring Mormon influences, present as they undeniably are, are overtly opposed by both public funding and ideas of academic freedom and diversity. I can’t speak to what that combination might mean for either athletes on or fans of the Utes, but they’re undoubtedly there, one more sports and state ambiguity.

Special post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other Utah histories or stories you’d highlight?

Thursday, July 21, 2022

July 21, 2022: UtahStudying: SLC Punk!

[On July 24, 1847, a weary group of about 150 migrants founded Salt Lake City. So for the city’s 175th birthday, this week I’ll AmericanStudy Utah histories, leading up to a special weekend post on that founding community!]

On the independent film’s sociological studies, and whether they’re specific to this week’s subject.

If the 1990s were a golden age for auteur-created independent films (and I think the Kevin Smiths and Quentin Tarantinos and Richard Linklaters of the world would argue that they were such a high point, although of course they have heavy competition from the 1970s), then an often-overlooked but unique and interesting late entry in that decade-long trend would have to be 1998’s SLC Punk! Written and directed by James Merendino, based in part on his own experiences growing up in Salt Lake City in the late 1970s and 1980s, the film stars Matthew Lillard and Michael Goorjian [SPOILERS for the film’s climactic events in that clip] as (as the trailer puts it) “the only two punks in Salt Lake City.” It was chosen as the opening night feature at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival (perhaps the crowning achievement for 1990s independent films and their auteurs), and became influential and enduring enough that it spawned a successfully crowd-funded 2016 sequel, Punk’s Dead: SLC Punk 2 (once again written and directed by Merendino and featuring much of the same cast as the first, although Lillard did not appear in the sequel).

SLC Punk! is first and foremost the story of Stevo and Bob, Lillard and Goorjian’s young punks, and their lifelong and ultimately tragic friendship. But Merendino’s screenplay is also quite interested in broader sociological questions, and he explores them through an interesting conceit: describing (or rather having Stevo and to a lesser degree the other characters and the film’s narration/perspective overall describe) the city’s various teen cohorts as “tribes,” with distinct traits and characteristics, clothing and appearance, behaviors and customs, and so on. As the title suggests the punks are our central focus throughout, but as that hyperlinked scene above illustrates we also meet examples of five other tribes: the Mods (yuppie-types), the Rednecks (duh), the Neo-Nazis (double duh), the Heavy Metal Guys (triple duh), and the New Wavers (the most passive and peaceful tribe, and thus the most preyed-upon by all the others). Preyed-upon is a purposeful turn of phrase, because the film presents these “tribes” as not just warring communities of young people, but really as animalistic adversaries in an ecosystem that can feel very much like an urban jungle.

But does this particular urban space matter? Would the basic categories and dynamics hold if it were NYC Punk!, for example? To a degree I imagine they would, especially in the film’s specific time period of the 1980s (when both Mods and New Wavers were prominent youthful groups around the country to be sure). But there are also specific aspects of Salt Lake City and Utah that do matter, and not just because it’s a Red State (to use a more recent term) that thus has a more significant quota of a category like Rednecks. No, as that above trailer comments on overtly, the conservativism of Salt Lake and Mormon Utah runs far deeper than just the “Red State” identity, and is really one defined even more fully by another c-word: conformity. As I’ll talk a bit more about in the weekend post, the Mormon community is centrally connected to a very elaborate set of rules, and to the idea that young people especially have to conform closely to them to pass the community’s legacies along. So while 80s Punks! everywhere might well have things that speak to them in this film, I’d say SLC Punks! have a particular context and connection that Merendino’s film explores thoughtfully.

Last Utah history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Utah histories or stories you’d highlight?

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

July 20, 2022: UtahStudying: The Golden Spike

[On July 24, 1847, a weary group of about 150 migrants founded Salt Lake City. So for the city’s 175th birthday, this week I’ll AmericanStudy Utah histories, leading up to a special weekend post on that founding community!]

On Promontory Point, propaganda photos, and the power of posterity.

On May 10th, 1869, after more than six years of extensive work from multiple directions, the nation’s First Transcontinental Railroad was formally completed at a ceremony at Utah’s Promontory Point (or Summit, as apparently the Point is a nearby but different spot; I couldn’t resist the alliteration in my topic sentence above, natch). Located in northwestern Utah, not far from the Idaho border, this spot was centrally located between the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines, which thanks to tens of thousands of workers had been throughout these half-dozen years of construction gradually extending toward it from Sacramento, California and Council Bluffs, Iowa, respectively. Both the ceremony and the spot were of course far more symbolic than truly distinctive, as the entire point of the railroad was its transcontinental span and connection, not any one location (and certainly not any one spike or railroad tie along those thousands of miles). But the symbolic setting came to represent this impressive and influential achievement as a whole, and so became an important part of the evolving history and identity of Utah as well.

That symbolism wasn’t simply geographic, of course—it was also and most importantly staged. Both the May 10th ceremony and the famous A.J. Russell photograph that captured the event were extensively and elaborately planned and choreographed. They were the brainchild of a few prominent individuals, including San Francisco immigrant turned construction titan David Hewes, shopkeeper and railroad magnate Leland Stanford, and other directors of the Central Pacific Railroad in particular (which seems to have been in charge of organizing the ceremony). They brought together a great deal of materials and men, including two locomotives to “meet” symbolically and thousands of railroad workers and officials to witness the event and constitute that crowded photo opportunity. The ceremony itself featured a number of Chinese American workers, not only because of the overall central role they had played in the Central Pacific construction, but also because a few handpicked workers laid the final rails for that line not long before the ceremony. An A.J. Russell stereoview of the laying features a few of those workers; but in the more overtly posed and staged photograph, that Chinese American community is significantly minimized and absent, especially compared to their white peers.

Those inclusions and exclusions remind us of just how much the ceremony and photo were propaganda—not only for the railroad lines and companies, but for particular visions of the West and the United States. But if an individual ceremony and photograph exist at a specific moment in time, history itself is far more evolving, reflecting our memories, narratives, and understandings at least as much as those particular events and details. When it comes to Russell’s photograph, for example, researchers with (ironically enough) Stanford University’s “Chinese Railroad Workers in North America” project have identified at least two Chinese American workers present in the photo. And when it comes to the ceremony as a whole, there’s the truly wonderful 2019 ceremony, right back at Promontory Summit, which brought together descendants of Chinese American railroad workers to take a new picture and more fully commemorate their vital role in this project and these histories. That’s one of my favorite 21st century American events, and one that, like its predecessor 150 years prior, took place symbolically but significantly in Utah.

Next Utah history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Utah histories or stories you’d highlight?

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

July 19, 2022: UtahStudying: National Parks

[On July 24, 1847, a weary group of about 150 migrants founded Salt Lake City. So for the city’s 175th birthday, this week I’ll AmericanStudy Utah histories, leading up to a special weekend post on that founding community!]

On striking stories behind a few of the state’s truly stunning landscapes.

1)      Arches: While it’s vital to note (apropos of yesterday’s post) that no white arrivals “discovered” the amazing natural wonders that would become Arches National Park, the story of how the region came to the attention of the National Park Service is still strikingly representative of early 20th century Western US histories. It’s a story that features a railroad executive (Frank Wadleigh), a photographer (George Beam), a Hungarian immigrant turned prospector (Alexander Ringhoffer), a grad student in geology and future Arctic explorer (Laurence Gould), and a local doctor (J.W. “Doc” Williams), without every one of whom it’s quite possible the site would not have been designated a National Monument in 1929. If that ain’t a miniseries waiting to happen, I don’t know what is.

2)      Bryce Canyon: When my family took our Southwestern National Parks trip in the spring of 1990, we weren’t able to make it to Arches, but we did get to visit the other two parks I’ll highlight in this post. Everything we saw on that trip was quite literally awesome to me, but definitely a highlight were the hoodoos of Bryce, one of the more spectacular natural wonders I’ve ever been around. But that’s apparently not what the park’s namesake felt—Scottish immigrant farmer Ebenezer Bryce, who was sent by the Mormons with his wife to initially settle the area, supposedly said of the hoodoo amphitheaters that they were “a helluva place to lose a cow.” I’ve often been struck by the image of a teenage Ben Franklin tending his family’s cows on Boston Common, but I think that Ebenezer Bryce frustratedly searching for a cow amidst the grandeur of the hoodoos might be even more striking still.

3)      Zion: Zion and Bryce are close together, at least for the incredibly wide-open spaces of the Southwest, and share similar natural formations as well as some parallel Mormon histories. But Zion’s name developed much less organically, and reflects a frustrating reality underlying pretty much all of America’s National Parks (and certainly all those in the west). When President Taft designated the area a National Monument in 1909 (making it Utah’s first such site), it was known as Mukuntuweap, after explorer John Wesley Powell’s tribute to the Paiute people and their language. But in 1919, National Park Service Director Horace Albright designated the site a National Park and changed the name to Zion in the process, ostensibly because it was the Mormon term for the region but also because it would be more palatable to white tourists. We can’t tell the story of Utah’s parks, no more than any others, without recognizing their fraught and too often destructive relationship to native communities and voices.

Next Utah history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Utah histories or stories you’d highlight?

Monday, July 18, 2022

July 18, 2022: UtahStudying: Indigenous Utah

[On July 24, 1847, a weary group of about 150 migrants founded Salt Lake City. So for the city’s 175th birthday, this week I’ll AmericanStudy Utah histories, leading up to a special weekend post on that founding community!]

On just a few of the many communities and stories of indigenous Utah.

1)      The Paiute: That particular hyperlinked Paiute history comes from the branch of the tribe located in modern-day Oregon—but it features one of my all-time favorite Americans, Sarah Winnemucca, who was the daughter and granddaughter of chiefs and who became not just a vital spokesperson and activist for the tribe, but one of the most inspiring 19th century Americans from any community. And while the tribe, like most in the US, did spread out across a region that encompasses multiple states, it was indeed particularly part of modern-day Utah, including fraught and violent encounters with Mormon migrants in the mid-19th century that have to be front and center in any story of the state’s history. 

2)      The Goshute: It was the Goshute who had the most consistent such encounters with Mormons and other white settlers to Utah, however, as a significant portion of the tribe were native to the desert region right around Great Salt Lake. As a result of that proximity the federal government began attempts to remove the Goshutes to a reservation as early as the late 1850s, but the tribe successfully resisted those attempts for more than half a century; when they finally gave in to removal in 1912, it was to the Skull Valley Reservation, only about 50 miles from their ancestral homelands. Every tribe’s experience of histories of removal and the reservation system is distinct and worth full collective memory, but the Goshute in particular offer a crucial reminder of that system’s frustratingly arbitrary nature.

3)      The Ute: The Ute reservation, located about 150 miles east of Salt Lake City, is the nation’s second-largest and a complex and multi-layered setting in its own right. But of course indigenous communities are in no way defined by the histories and aftermaths of their relationships with white communities, and despite this series’ overall subject I don’t want to focus only on those dynamics in this post either. Instead, I’ll note here the Ute’s close association with two elements of Utah’s stunning landscapes (on which more in tomorrow’s post): their longstanding connection to the buttes which in 2016 became the basis of the Bears Ears National Monument, a site managed by members of the tribe among other indigenous communities; and the centuries-old Ute petroglyphs near Arches National Park (on which more tomorrow as well). Indigenous Utah long predates white settlement, and remains as present on the landscape as its communities are in the state in 2022.

Next Utah history tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Utah histories or stories you’d highlight?

Saturday, July 16, 2022

July 16-17, 2022: Investigative Journalists: Ida B. Wells

[This weekend we celebrate the 160th birthday of one of my favorite Americans, Ida B. Wells. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of fellow investigative journalists, leading up to this special tribute to the inimitable Wells!]

On one of my favorite inspiring moments in a life absolutely overflowing with them.

I’ve written a lot about Ida B. Wells in this space and elsewhere, from her vital investigative journalism on the lynching epidemic to her crucial commentary on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition to her righteous protest within a protest at the 1914 Suffrage March in Washington. I’ve also singled out in a separate post the particularly courageous 1892 moment that I would put on the very short list, and maybe at the top of that list, of the most inspiring in American history. And I haven’t even had the chance to talk at length yet about her crucial and far too often downplayed role in co-founding the NAACP, or the groundbreaking women’s organization she founded in Chicago, or the equally groundbreaking Black Settlement House she and her husband created, or the time she ran for statewide political office just a year before she passed away, or…

So yeah, no shortage of incredible and inspiring moments in the life of one of my top-two favorite Americans. But in this tribute post I wanted to highlight a moment I only learned about recently, one that pulls together multiple sides of Wells’ identity and life as she so often managed to, one that really represents the grassroots yet groundbreaking community activism at the heart of all that Wells did, and one that’s just damn beautiful (among many other adjectives): her 1897 founding of a kindergarten in the basement of Chicago’s Bethel AME Church. That moment is traced in this NPR piece on Wells’ many legacies in Chicago, with much of the information (throughout the piece and for this particular section) provided by Wells’ great-granddaughter Michelle Duster. Duster’s book Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells (2021) should be required reading for all Americans, and mostly I want to say a) read both of those hyperlinked pieces and then b) pick up the book!

But I do want to say one thing more about why I love this particular moment so much. Wells was inspired to create the kindergarten not just out of a sense of communal need (although yes, as always), but also because of her own role as a young parent, her perspective on what her own growing children needed for their own best chance at happiness and success. I know it can be difficult enough to get us to better remember historical figures at all, but when we do, far too often it’s through a pretty narrow or simplistic lens, a focus on one particular side of their work or identity (such as Wells’ anti-lynching investigative journalism, which was indeed exemplary and vital but just one slice of this incredibly multi-layered person). When in truth, historical figures like Wells are as three-dimensional as all people—and moreover, I would argue that a main thing which makes our best figures so impressive and inspiring is the way in which their vital work extends into every arena, of their identities and lives and of our communities and society alike. So for her 160th birthday, I can think of few better ways to pay tribute to the inspiring greatness of Ida B. Wells than to remember that time she founded a kindergarten.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Other investigative journalists you’d highlight?

Friday, July 15, 2022

July 15, 2022: Investigative Journalists: A.C. Thompson and ProPublica

[This coming weekend we’ll celebrate the 160th birthday of one of my favorite Americans, Ida B. Wells. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of fellow investigative journalists, leading up to a special tribute to the inimitable Wells!]

On a fictional character who helps us recognize one of our most vital current journalistic institutions.

I’ve written quite a bit about Treme in this space (and rightfully so, as it just might be my favorite TV show and at least is very high on the list), but interestingly have only mentioned one of my favorite characters from that show, Chris Coy’s reporter L.P. Everett, in this post on Coy’s character on a different David Simon show, The Deuce. Partly that’s because Treme is full to bursting with great characters, played by equally great actors, and I could easily write a post about each and every one of them. And partly it’s because of a strength of Coy’s performance—he effortlessly and thoroughly blends into the role of this seemingly unobtrusive but dogged and determined investigative journalist, making his scenes and plotlines far more about the people being interviewed, the clues being tracked down, the hard-won revelations being discovered. It’s one of the better representations of a fictional journalist I’ve seen on either the small or the big screen, and one I’d point to if I wanted to illustrate to an audience what investigative journalism is and should be.

In creating such a character, Simon and Eric Overmyer were also paying tribute to a real such investigative reporter, A.C. Thompson. Thompson was sent to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by ProPublica, for whom he has worked for many years as both an investigative journalist and a staff reporter. His extensive investigations and reporting on the shootings of civilians by New Orleans police, among other related topics, won him the 2013 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for investigative journalism. In the speech he delivered upon receiving that award, Thompson talks particularly movingly and powerfully about a story of official corruption and brutality in Pincohet’s Chile that he remembered from when he was young, and that had at least partly been his inspiration for moving into a career in journalism. He ends by linking the main story he investigated in New Orleans, that of the police murder of Henry Glover and its corrupt cover-up, to that Chilean story, and notes, “I was sickened by how similar they seemed. That’s what I have to share with you.”

That’s a profoundly sobering thought, and one that rings even truer in 2022 America than it did in 2013 when Thompson delivered his speech. But it’s also perhaps the best possible argument for why we need investigative journalists, in 21st century America as in every nation and era. And I don’t know of any journalistic organization or institution that has done and is doing thoughtful and vital 21st century American investigative journalism better than ProPublica. I don’t want to suggest that it’d be impossible for our more traditional print or TV media to produce such journalism, and they certainly have at times (I almost dedicated a post in this series to Woodward and Bernstein, for example). But it’s worth noting that one thing which links all the folks about whom I’ve written in this series is that they took significant risks to pursue their investigations and the truth, and it seems to me that risk-taking is a trait often found more in the realm of independent media and voices. And in any case, there’s nobody around taking more risks, and doing more vital work, these days than the folks at ProPublica.

Tribute post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other investigative journalists you’d highlight?

Thursday, July 14, 2022

July 14, 2022: Investigative Journalists: David Halberstam in Vietnam

[This coming weekend we’ll celebrate the 160th birthday of one of my favorite Americans, Ida B. Wells. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of fellow investigative journalists, leading up to a special tribute to the inimitable Wells!]

On a moment of genuine courage that reflects a broader role of wartime journalists.

In this very early post, I wrote about a David Halberstam speech to a graduating journalism class where he told a striking story from his days as a Vietnam War reporter; the link in that post no longer works, but the speech is also quoted at length here (in a post by a journalist on whom I have soured greatly since 2011, Glenn Greenwald). I want to quote from it at length as well, as Halberstam puts the moment perfectly:

“Probably the moment I am proudest of in my career is this: By the fall of 1963, I was one of a small group of reporters in Saigon -- we had enraged Washington and Saigon by filing pessimistic dispatches on the war. In particular, my young colleague, Neil Sheehan, and I were considered the enemy. The president of the United States, JFK, had already asked the publisher to pull me.

On day that fall, there was a major battle in the Delta (the Americans were not yet in a full combat role; they were in an advising and support role). MACV -- the American military command -- tried to keep out all reporters so they could control the information. Neil and I spent the day pushing hard to get there -- calling everyone, including Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and General Paul Harkins. With no luck, of course.

In those days, the military had a daily late afternoon briefing given by a major or a captain, called the Five O'clock Follies, because of the generally low value of the information.

On this particular day, the briefing was different, given not by a major but by a Major General, Dick Stilwell, the smoothest young general in Saigon. It was in a different room and every general and every bird colonel in the country was there. Picture if you will rather small room, about the size of a classroom, with about 10 or 12 reporters there in the center of the room. And in the back, and outside, some 40 military officers, all of them big time brass. It was clearly an attempt to intimidate us.

General Stilwell tried to take the intimidation a step further. He began by saying that Neil and I had bothered General Harkins and Ambassador Lodge and other VIPs, and we were not to do it again. Period.

And I stood up, my heart beating wildly -- and told him that we were not his corporals or privates, that we worked for The New York Times and UP and AP and Newsweek, not for the Department of Defense.

I said that we knew that 30 American helicopters and perhaps 150 American soldiers had gone into battle, and the American people had a right to know what happened. I went on to say that we would continue to press to go on missions and call Ambassador Lodge and General Harkins, but he could, if he chose, write to our editors telling them that we were being too aggressive, and were pushing much too hard to go into battle. That was certainly his right.

So: Never let them intimidate you. Never. If someone tries, do me a favor and work just a little harder on your story. Do two or three more interviews. Make your story a little better.”

That striking story speaks for itself, I’m sure. But I want to add this: investigative, adversarial, and activist journalism can and should be present in every arena of society, including—indeed, especially—those like war where we might see “unity” as a more desirable goal. I understand the phrase “politics stops at the water’s edge,” and would largely agree that we shouldn’t be playing politics with the lives of American servicepeople. But investigative journalism isn’t politics—it’s a vital effort to discover and share the truth, and that effort is not only still important when it comes to fraught situations like war, it’s doubly important in those moments.

Last journalist tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other investigative journalists you’d highlight?