What Steve Earle can teach us about the Annales school of historiography

October 2, 2014 § 4 Comments

I’m teaching a course on Historiography this semester.  This week, we’re dealing with the Annales school of history, as  a sort of background before we read Marc Bloch’s  Strange Defeat.  While this book isn’t really an annaliste work, Bloch’s theories of history still impacted his evisceration of his country after the Fall of France in 1940.  We’re reading an excerpt from Fernand Braudel’s magnum opus, La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l’Epoque de Philippe II, published in 1949.

In it, Braudel talks about the mountain regions of the Mediterranean world, and argues that the culture and civilisation of the plains didn’t reach into the mountains.  The hills, he claims “were the refuge of liberty, democracy, and peasant ‘republics.'”  And he mentions bandits.  One of my favourite history books of all-time, and one which was massively influential on me as a young scholar, is Eric Hobsbawm’s Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels, which, despite Hobsbawm being primarily thought of as a Marxist, was deeply indebted to the annalistes, and to Braudel in particular.

But, as Braudel goes on and on about the freedom of the mountains, I kept thinking about hillbilly culture, about the Hatfields and the McCoys, about hillbilly culture, and so on.  And it occurred to me that the mountains are no longer this mythical place beyond the reach of modern society.  The coercive power of the state has caught up to the mountains.

And then I thought of my favourite Steve Earle song, “Copperhead Road.”  In this song, Earle sings of three generations of a family who live in the ‘holler’ down Copperhead Road. In the American Civil War era, copperheads were northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War and called upon President Lincoln to immediately come to peace with the Confederacy.  Braudel argues that

The mountain dweller is apt to be the laughing stock of the superior inhabitants of the towns and plains.  He is suspected, feared, and mocked…The lowland peasant had nothing but sarcasm for the rude fellow from the highlands, and marriages between their families were rare.

At any rate, Earle sings of John Lee Pettimore III, named after his “daddy and his daddy before.”  Granddaddy John Lee made moonshine down Copperhead Road.  Daddy John Lee ran whiskey in a big black Dodge, which he bought at an auction.  Meanwhile, John Lee III is a Vietnam vet growing marijuana in the holler down Copperhead Road.  He signs the song in a good ol’ boy twang, and sings of white trash.

Granddaddy John Lee hid out down Copperhead Road, only came to town twice yearly for supplies, and successfully dealt with a “revenue man” from the government.  Daddy John Lee was doing alright for himself before he crashed that big, black Dodge and the whiskey he was running burst into flames, killing him, on the weekly trip down to Knoxville.  Meanwhile, John Lee III wakes up in the middle of the night with the DEA and its choppers in the air above his land.

In other words, as we move through the 20th century, from Granddaddy in the 1940s to John Lee III in the 1980s, we see the mountains lose their allure and mystique.  What was once the badlands is now under the control of the government. In the early 21st century, it is even more so.

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§ 4 Responses to What Steve Earle can teach us about the Annales school of historiography

  • jonsonmiller says:

    If you have more than a passing interest in the “hillbilly” culture of American Appalachia, I recommend Albion’s Seed by David Fischer. He’s one of my favorite historians. Albion’s Seed describes the four major immigrant cultures that continue to shape the regional differences of America. There are other books just on Appalachia and its Scots-Irish settlers, but Albion’s Seed also has something to tell us about the regional cultures of Britain. He argues that the Scots-Irish brought their anti-government, fighting culture with them from the Scottish-English-Irish borderlands. They ended up in the mountains (mostly) because the English who were already here didn’t want them around.

    • Thanks! I once skimmed through Albion’s Seed, but haven’t actually read it. Back in grad school, I read a bunch on Appalachian culture, particularly attempts to understand violence, beyond the Hatfield/McCoys, I think Elliot Gorn was the one who wrote an article about Gouging, a fighting method where men would grow out their thumbnails and attempt to gouge each otther’s eyes whilst fighting.

      • jonsonmiller says:

        I don’t think I got this from Gorn, but here’s more on the eye-gouging story. Mississippi River boat crews (often Scots-Irish backcountrymen I believe) each had their champion fighter. He would wear a red cap. When men with red caps saw each other in New Orleans, they’d fight. But they had rules. You could gouge out only a single eye! The backcountrymen were tough folk. Yikes.

      • Yeah! I always found the fact that there were rules to such absolute violence fascinating. But, I suppose boxing has rules, too.

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