Feeling Contrary

Last week I traveled to Kentucky to participate in a conference sponsored by The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington. While I might comment at some other moment on some of my conference experiences, including sitting in sessions with Silas House and Fenton Johnson and hearing Wendell Berry read an unpublished Port William story, the week was a delight for many other reasons. For example, I got to share meals and times with several friends, including Ed McClanahan, Guy Mendes, Jay Denham, Ryan Cheong, Laura Chandler, Brian Vickers, Jamie Bartek, Mandy and Matt Higgins, and David Shields at places like Heine Brothers Coffee, Holly Hill Inn, Smithtown Seafood, Country Boy Brewing, and Joella’s Hot Chicken. Who could complain about such a week? I mean, seriously, who? And why?

Halfway through the week, however, I did receive some sad news, which made me have contrary feelings about the week. On Monday, May 31, 2016, the farmer and writer Gene Logsdon passed away. Contrary, though, seems the proper response. You see, Gene published much of his work online for nearly the last decade under the guise of the Contrary Farmer.

Wendell Berry introduced me to Gene Logsdon. Or rather Wendell’s writings introduced me to Gene’s writings. Getting to know Gene’s writings (especially his agricultural essays) led to a trip to Gene’s beautiful farm in north central Ohio with a friend, Paul House, to talk with Gene and Carol, his wife, about his fiction, as well as his friendship with Berry. In preparing for that weekend trip, I read most, though not all, of Gene’s nonfiction work, including but not limited to The Contrary FarmerHoly ShitAll Flesh is GrassThe Mother of All Arts, and Good Spirits. I only read Gene’s fiction (The Lords of Folly, The Last of the Husbandmen, The Man Who Created Paradise, and Pope Mary & the Church of Almighty Good Food) following our visit as Paul and I prepared to write our essay. For about a week, I devoured those four titles, reflecting on the conversation we had shared with Gene and Carol (both before and after she poured he and I some of his beloved Woodford Reserve). I even set aside some of his nonfiction to do so. One of those set-aside volumes was his Gene Everlasting: A Contrary Farmer’s Thoughts on Living Forever (2014). Gene wrote this collection of essays documenting some of his reflections about life and death after he “became a cancer survivor” (vii). Since it was cancer that ultimately claimed his life, I did not hesitate to pick up Gene Everlasting when I returned home to Buffalo. I am not certain how I would have read it in the days prior to his death, but the ideas of permanence and immortality with which he wrestles certainly take on new meanings in these days after his death.

Allow me to encourage you to visit Gene’s website. Read his essays there. Then order a few of his many books. Regardless of whether you farm or agree with all his philosophical leanings, you will nearly certainly learn from his nonfiction. I did. His contrariness will likely challenge you. It did me. As you turn to his fiction (and please do so), you will find lively characters who live their lives completely—much like Gene did. Maybe as a precursor to his fiction, read the short essay, “Contrary Fiction,” Paul and I published in The Draft Horse Journal (Winter 2014-2015).

I am grateful to have known Gene even in the small way and for the short length of time that I did. I learned quite a few things from him and his work, including the one I put off reading until these past few days where he advised:

Only through change is permanence achieved. Be still, frantic human. To understand immortality, embrace mortality (171).


The Art of Biographies

Perhaps the main goal for my sabbatical is to further the research for several projects on which I am currently working. While these several projects overlap considerably in their content, one of them is much grander in its scope. While I don’t view it as a biography in the strictest terms, it is close enough to one to cause more than a little bit of trepidation. To alleviate some of these concerns, I am intentionally making time over the next several weeks to read several biographies I have picked up in the last year or so of bookstore browsing. I am hopeful that I will learn quite a bit about how to approach such a task by seeing how other scholars have tackled their own similar projects. Over the last few days, then, I have spent time with the first of the volumes from that ever-growing stack—Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Harvard University Press, 2014).

I started here because Wacker does not attempt a conventional biography of Graham. Rather, he delves into how and why Graham played such major roles in American life and culture of the last several decades, demonstrating ultimately that Graham “posessed an uncanny ability to speak both for and to the times” (316). All in all, Wacker maintains a useful distance from his subject, despite clearly admiring that man and his work. Given my own similar admiration for the most of the life and work of the subject of my current research, I definitely leave this book with some useful takeaways on how to proceed.

Next up: Joel Williamson’s Elvis Presley: A Southern Life (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Tuesday Tunes (9/8 Edition)

Since I know you are waiting for this to help your Tuesday roll on in a meaningful way, let me share this week’s playlist.

September 8 Spotify Playlist

  • Alabama Shakes, You Ain’t Alone
  • Bob Dylan, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
  • Carolina Chocolate Drops,, Kissin’ and Cussin’
  • David Mayfield, The Man I’m Trying to Be
  • Johnny Cash, A Boy Named Sue
  • The Head and the Heart, These Days Are Numbered
  • Merle Haggard, I Think I’ll Just Stay and Drink
  • The Avett Brothers, Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise
  • Over the Rhine, Fairpoint Diary
  • Jason Isbell, Outfit

Remembering the Death of Emmett Louis Till


Earlier today, my friend and fellow historian Matthew Hall reminded me over on twitter (you can follow him there @MatthewJHall) that today is the sixtieth anniversary of the savage lynching of the barely fourteen-year-old child, Emmett Louis Till in Money, Mississippi. Such a murder serves as a chilling reminder of the truth that even in 1950 much of America failed to recognize that #BlackLivesMatter.

In his tweet, Matt encouraged people to make time today to listen to Bob Dylan’s “The Death of Emmett Till,” which can be found here on the Bob Dylan website.  I tend to use this song as one of the many that introduces each day of class in my course “Race: The History of an Idea in America.” Read the lyrics below as you listen to one of America’s greatest songwriters recount the tragic episode from sixty years ago today.

The Death of Emmett Till

’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago

When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door

This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well

The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till
Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up

They said they had a reason, but I can’t remember what

They tortured him and did some things too evil to repeat

There were screaming sounds inside the barn, there was laughing sounds

out on the street
Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a bloody red rain

And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain

The reason that they killed him there, and I’m sure it ain’t no lie

Was just for the fun of killin’ him and to watch him slowly die
And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial

Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till

But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this

awful crime

And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind
I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see

The smiling brothers walkin’ down the courthouse stairs

For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free

While Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea
If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust

Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust

Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood

it must refuse to flow

For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!
This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man

That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan

But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give

We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live
Copyright © 1963, 1968 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1996 by Special Rider Music

Read more: http://www.bobdylan.com/us/songs/death-emmett-till#ixzz3k8fONs6h

Kicking Off Another Academic Year

It’s that time of year again. Faculty frantically finishing syllabi (or close enough). Bookstores sending out reminders that textbook orders still need to be submitted. At my own institution, freshmen arrive on campus today, preparing for orientation, tearful farewells, and the start of their new adventures. For the first time since I started teaching fulltime at the University of Kentucky in Fall 2006, I find myself greeting this new academic year not with the frantic wrapping up of syllabi or even avoiding the bookstore emails. Instead I am packing for my first sabbatical. Clothes. Books. Coffee needs. Iron skillets. Fly rods. The essentials. 

As September draws near, I am preparing to spend most of the next few months in some archives. And I am excited about the prospect.  Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching (which occupies most of one’s time at a liberal arts college like where I am fortunate enough to serve). But I REALLY love researching and writing. Knowing that I have some dedicated time for such things ahead of me these next few months is really hard to beat.

Should you find yourself in the Louisville area over the next few months, let me know. I will be there more often than not. Many evenings sitting at one of the River City’s fine dining establishments enjoying some of the best food and drink fare that Kentucky has to offer. I’ll share.

Tuesday Tunes—8/25 Edition

As many of my academic friends are starting classes this week or getting ready to do so next week, I find myself doing something different for the first time in some eight years—preparing to spend the Fall semester in some archives doing research. 

This preparation means I’m relocating for parts of the fall. So, as I spend this week packing and getting ready to head off to Kentucky (which I love in the autumn months), I am playing the following playlist of songs about Kentucky. 

Tuesday Tunes

  • Bill Monroe—Blue Moon of Kentucky
  • Grandpa Jones—Sweet Dreams of Kentucky
  • Johnny Cash—The Road to Kaintuck
  • My Morning Jacket—Nashville to Kentucky
  • Loretta Lynn—Blue Kentucky Girl
  • Merle Haggard—Kentucky Gambler
  • Glen Campbell—Kentucky Means Paradise
  • Johnny Cash—My Old Kentucky Home
  • Elvis Presley—Kentucky Rain
  • Thieving Birds—Kentucky
  • Murder by Death—Kentucky Bourbon
  • The Kentucky Headhunters—The Ballad of Davy Crockett
  • Nappy Roots—Kentucky Mud
  • Tom Waits—Kentucky Avenue
  • Skeeter Davis—Bus Fare to Kentucky
  • Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys—My Rose of Old Kentucky
  • Ben Sollee—Blue Moon of Kentucky

What songs would you add to the mix? As you consider that question, check out Kentucky for Kentucky.