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One hundred and thirty years ago, Huckleberry Finn’s wild adventures on the Mississippi River first entered our imaginations, made all the more entrancing by the native lure of the water. Rivers are the lifeblood of communities, equal parts permanence and transience, ever-flowing as their waters pass through and beyond. For those who sit on the bank, the river is a muse. For those who dive into her current, the river is the road to elsewhere. Rivers take us back into history, sometimes literally, as the mighty Colorado has laid out the past in the rocky strata of the Grand Canyon. But elsewhere, that time-travel is sparked in the imagination. And rivers weave together much of this issue of Southern Cultures, inviting us to reflect or float away on one for a moment.
The Tennessee River runs through a region in northwest Alabama known as [End Page 1] Muscle Shoals. When the Wilson Dam was completed there in 1921, it turned the river into the economic driver of the region, opening up transportation options and, as one piece of the larger Tennessee Valley Authority project, heralding a new era of development and progress for part of the South. The river was mobility. It was also inspiration, coursing through the small towns, where, in the 1960s, an independent recording studio produced some of the most memorable soul recordings of the era, including hits by Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin. A local bass player named David Hood was part of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a team of white musicians who backed legendary black singers, including Franklin and the Staple Singers, on R&B and soul classics.
Some thirty years later, Hood’s son, Patterson, and the southern rock/alt-country band Drive-By Truckers released an influential album, Southern Rock Opera, a poetic, introspective, and hard-rocking musical exposition on growing up in Muscle Shoals alongside the Tennessee River to a soundtrack of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s southern rock, Hood’s dad’s music, and the politics that framed and forged his youth. Patterson penned his summation, “Proud of the glory, stare down the shame / the duality of the southern thing.”
That southern pride, entangled in its own confounding past, is at the heart of the infamous 1856 caning of Senator Charles Sumner, an incident in which U.S. Representative Preston Brooks from South Carolina attacked the Massachusetts senator with his walking stick in congress. While the incident itself is legendary pre–Civil War drama, in “The Cane of His Existence,” Stephen Berry and James Hill Welborn III offer a compelling exploration of Brooks’s life, the burdens of southern pride, and the toll it exacted on him. In the aftermath, Brooks was vilified in the North as a “beast out of control,” reduced to a mere caricature of the southern politician.
A century later, public perception of southerners, at least as seen on tv, was still essentially a caricature, as Sara K. Eskridge explores in “There Goes Old Gomer.” Yet, Eskridge suggests that “By embracing the harmless, humorous hick, rural comedy privileged, for southern viewers, the more innocuous and charming traits of their region over very real issues of racism and poverty” in an era when violent conflicts over Civil Rights, for example, threatened far more excoriating characterizations.
Patterson Hood’s turn of phrase prompted Angie Maxwell to re-visit the sociological and political implications of self-professed southern identity in “The Duality of the Southern Thing,” wherein she challenges the longstanding political association of “southernness” with whiteness and offers a summary of the way in which black southernness is an increasingly significant regional identity with powerful political implications in the...