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Smiling Faces, Beautiful Places, Angry White Men

Smiling Faces, Beautiful Places, Angry White Men

The Restoration Studio Journals – Part 2 – By Daniel Machado

With the Nashville rhythm sessions behind us, the second stage of production for The Restoration’s debut album began in early September 2009 on-location in Lexington, South Carolina. Head engineer Collin Derrick and producer Stephen Russ arrived on a Friday night to set up gear in the rustic, wooden out-building that sits near the house I grew up in. Surrounded by pine trees and chirping insects, we fell asleep excited to begin recording violin and piano the following morning. The sessions that followed were mostly productive and enjoyable, however the album’s closing track “The Lynching” once again became a point of contention as we struggled to arrange new parts and further streamline its abrasive structure while retaining the desired impact of the song’s refrain: “it all comes back ‘round again”.

To me, writing and recording an album always feels a bit like living in a cave – or perhaps a nuclear bunker. Working on The Restoration’s debut album has been exemplary of that. Add the historical research that’s gone into the project and my bunker has felt as if buried even further beneath the surface. As I mentioned in the first studio journal [read it here], this research has been a grim, reflective illumination of my hometown’s dark history of racial violence and my state’s legacy of supremacist politics.

So, why do all this research for a local pop album – such disturbing research at that?

1. I’m a history nerd. 2. If one aims to depict a fictionalized version of their town lynching their characters in an act of racially-motivated vigilante “justice”, one should have their history straight.

South Carolina’s larger political history has embarrassed me since I was a child – and thematically, that lifetime of embarrassment was a major incentive for forming The Restoration and writing this album. If you’re new to South Carolina or just don’t enjoy studying political history all that much, let me share some of our finest moments:

1837: Senator John C. Calhoun delivers a speech on the floor of the Senate pitching slavery as a “positive good” in an attempt to keep the federal government out of the slavery issue. [1]

1856: Congressman Preston Brooks uses his walking cane to permanently cripple Senator Charles Sumner on the emptied floor of the Senate over Sumner’s speech condemning slavery in the South. [2]

1900: Governor “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman proclaims “We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting]…we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.” [3] Tillman championed Jim Crow laws in South Carolina. He said of Booker T. Washington’s visit with Theodore Roosevelt: “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.” [4]

1911: Governor Coleman L. Blease is elected on a platform of “individual freedom”, opposing public health programs and public education while winning large support from poor mill workers and other working class voters by presenting himself as an “average Joe”. Notorious for race baiting and stoking fears of “black insurrection”, he defended lynching: “Whenever the Constitution comes between me and the virtue of the white women of the South, I say to hell with the Constitution.” [5]

1936: Senator Ellison D. “Cotton Ed” Smith – an opponent of women’s voting rights and challenger (in the name of states’ rights) of Franklin Roosevelt’s post-depression Works Progress Administration and National Recovery Agency – storms out of the National Democratic Convention in Philadelphia when a black minister rises to pray. He said of his walk-out: “…as I pushed through those great doors, and walked across that vast rotunda, it seemed to me that old John Calhoun leaned down from his mansion in the sky and whispered in my ear, ‘You did right, Ed’…” [5]

1957: Senator Strom Thurmond helps block federally administered desegregation with the longest filibuster in U.S. history (24 hours and 18 minutes). [6] An excerpt from a speech during his 1948 presidential campaign: “I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches. [Listen] [7]

2000: Pro-segregation barbeque baron Maurice Bessinger launches a public crusade attempting to paint the removal of the Confederate flag from atop South Carolina’s State House as a loss of his civil rights, a slam to southern heritage, and a victory for the federal government and its march toward “the New World Order”. [8] Bessinger on slavery: “God gave slaves to whites.” [9]

2009: We’ll get to that later…

[Note: John C. Calhoun, “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, and Strom Thurmond are all immortalized in bronze statue on the grounds of the South Carolina State House.]

While South Carolina’s endless parade of white men making asses of themselves in national politics has troubled me for years, the violent local acts that fueled, and were fueled by those politics have been kept far deeper beneath the rug. Details of local lynchings, for example, do not find much light in mainstream history lessons and did not come to my attention until my fictional narrative’s inevitable conclusion reached tangibility. Juggling writing and production responsibilities, I mulled over that conclusion as Collin diligently captured Lauren Garner’s enchanting violin and Sharon Gnanshekar’s grandiose piano arrangements over two days of non-stop recording.

Stephen and I produced those sessions from a small side-office, microphone cables spilling from Collin’s desk and meandering under the glass-pane door into the larger hardwood-floored tracking area. Despite the long hours, we were energized as Lauren and Sharon’s orchestral flourishes began to bring a new magic to the recordings. No longer bare, the now lush “Heavy Ring” suddenly carried the atmospheric mood I hoped it would. “Henry’s Letter from the Front” reached new levels of sonic irony with the addition of Sharon’s jaunty piano arrangement, and I could not contain my delight as Stephen, Collin and I coached him in adding a ragtime-style solo to the song.

When off duty, I continued research, reading John Hammond Moore’s Carnival of Blood: Dueling, Lynching, and Murder in South Carolina 1880-1920 in my attempt to accurately represent South Carolina and Lexington’s histories of racial turmoil and violence. Meticulously compiled from surveys and historical records, Moore’s findings show 144 verified lynchings in South Carolina between 1880 and 1947 resulting in 186 confirmed deaths – 8 such deaths occurring in Lexington County. [10]

During one incident, in my hometown of Lexington on May 5, 1890, approximately thirty men forced their way into the town jail to lynch Willie Leaphart – a black man accused of assaulting a white girl, Rosa Cannon – who was still awaiting trial. Armed and many wearing masks, the men forced the cell key from the sheriff and attempted to remove Leaphart to hang him. When Leaphart resisted, the mob shot him in his cell. Three ringleaders – each white and locally prominent – were tried and acquitted, despite one lyncher having publically bragged about his involvement in the mob. The families of these men are still in Lexington today – if it’s any consolation to them, my great-grandfather was an asshole too.

According to Moore’s research, “many SC lynchers sincerely believed they were ‘correcting’ faulty courtroom decisions or doing work they were certain local juries would not do.” Moore caveats that it can be problematic to directly tie individual lynchings to larger politics, however, the historical role of politicians and commentators as enablers – through inflammatory rhetoric and judiciary inaction – deeply troubled me as I read Moore’s book and several other sources. Since our inception, South Carolina seems to have been caught in an endless cycle of self-destruction, fueled by racially-motivated paranoia. Moore’s paraphrasing of historian Sheldon Hackney sums up the cycle perfectly, attributing it to a “siege mentality”:

“– a mind-set developed first to protect the region’s peculiar institution against abolitionists and then adapted to oppose the Union army, carpetbaggers, the federal government, civil rights agitators, daylight saving time, feminism, Darwinism, socialism, communism, atheism, and any other dreaded “ism” that might bring change, ever so slight, to a carefully constructed realm run by and for the benefit of whites.”

Before I knew it, I found myself in an empty house again. Lauren and Sharon had finished their parts; Collin was back in Virginia, and Stephen in North Carolina. We would be reunited in a few weeks to record vocals and additional layers, but in the interim I aimed to relax. I emerged from my nuclear bunker, turned on the television and surveyed the world around me:

Angry mobs of whites – under the banner of individual freedom and civil rights – were bringing handguns, assault rifles and lynch-themed signs to speeches by America’s first black President. [11] Prominent national commentator Glenn Beck (a white man) had called the Obama administration’s proposed health care and economic reforms “reparations” for slavery, and claimed the President had a “deep-seated hatred for white people.” [12] [13] Internet rumors of an armed “black insurrection” were circling the outer rim of my own extended family. Town hall health care meetings were erupting all over the country in unprecedented screaming matches – displays of unbridled belligerence usually only seen in sporadic outdoor protests – and following suit, with classic South Carolina style, Congressman and Confederate flag advocate Joe Wilson, red-faced and hollering, branded the President of the United States a liar in the middle of a nationally televised speech on the floor of the House of Representatives. [14] [15] [16] The Congressman – who in 2003 labeled the existence of Strom Thurmond’s black daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams a “smear” on Thurmond and a “diminishment” to his legacy – balked when some heard racism in the tone and nature of his outburst. [17]

Bleary-eyed from researching, writing and recording, shell-shocked by the current sociopolitical climate and stunned by the all the parallels – I found relief in knowing that a majority of recording was done and that the endless revisions to “The Lynching” were finally complete. The conclusion to my fictional story was decided by the production team to be grisly, but truthful – and though taking place in a seemingly archaic and fictionalized 1930, sadly relevant.

Sources

1.Root, Erik S. All Honor to Jefferson? The Virginia Slavery Debates and the Positive Good Thesis. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008. Print.

2.Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print.

3.Logan, Rayford W. The Betrayal of the Negro: From Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997. Print.

4.Kennedy, Randall. Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. New York: Vintage, 2002. Print.

5.Huff, Archie Vernon. South Carolina Politics: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same. Columbia, S.C: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Public Programs Division, 1994. Print.

6.Washington-Williams, Essie Mae. Dear Senator, A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond. New York: Regan Books, 2005. Print

7.Asim, Jabari. The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print.

8.Bessinger, Maurice. Defending My Heritage: The Maurice Bessinger Story. Boston: Lmbone-Lehone Company, 2001. Print

9.Weis, Lois, and Michelle Fine, eds. Beyond Silenced Voices: Class, Race, and Gender In United State Schools. New York: State University of New York, 2005. Print.

10.Moore, John Hammond. Carnival of Blood: Dueling, Lynching, and Murder in South Carolina, 1880-1920. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2006. Print.

11.”Dozen Armed With Guns Protest Obama Speech – Political News – FOXNews.com.” Breaking News | Latest News | Current News – FOXNews.com. Web. 18 Aug. 2009. <http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2009/08/18/dozen-protesters-guns-outside-obama-speech>.

12.”Glenn Beck: Obama agenda driven by “reparations” and desire to “settle old racial scores” |.” Media Matters for America. Web. 23July. 2009. <http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/200907230040>.

13.”Beck: Obama has “exposed himself as a guy” with “a deep seated hatred for white people” |.” Media Matters for America. Web. 28 July. 2009. <http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/200907280008>.

14.”Video: Reform Madness” The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Web. 11 Aug. 2009. <http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-august-11-2009/reform-madness>.

15.”‘You Lie!’: Representative Wilson’s Outburst”TIME. Web. 10 Sept. 2009. <http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1921455,00.html>.

16.”Confederate ’swastika’ under attack.” BBC NEWS. Web. 3 Nov. 1999. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/503579.stm>.

17.Talhelm, Jennifer. “Most Say Revelation Won’t Alter Thurmond’s Legacy.” The State [Columbia] 14 Dec. 2003. Print.

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