Nursery Rhyme or Working-Class Folk Culture?

By Nadine Blank

American folk music is known largely for its use in the 20th century as a rallying cry for the working class left. We often think of the music made or popularized by people such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. However, if folk is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, “relating to or originating from the beliefs and opinions of ordinary people,” then folk music and culture must have been a prevalent piece in earlier American cultural periods. However, upon more internet research into the timeline of American folk, there were far more journals and articles on the twentieth and twenty-first century.

This is understandable, in part because the technology needed to spread a song was either just being developed or not even fathomed yet. Word of mouth could only go so far. As a result, most Americans would not recognize the handful of tunes and melodies from the 1800s that historians managed to salvage and archive from different regions, eras, and walks of life. There is, however, one song that has almost become a nursery rhyme; most Americans know it, but most likely don’t think of or realize the historical context behind it. “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” is possibly the only nineteenth-century folk song to break through barriers of time and culture, imprinting itself into modern day popular culture.


While the origins of the melody itself are unknown,  the lyrics are quite self-explanatory. The song was a demonstration of the workers’ patient longing for a basic, limited-hour work day. “Can’t you hear the whistle blowing, rise up so early in the morn” is a testament to the early mornings that begin a terribly long work day, and the horn waiting to be blown is most likely the signal for a lunch break or end of day.  This catchy tune seems like a worker’s lament but in a major key, one which makes the complaints of the workers into a unifying chant that they all could know and appreciate together.

The primary evidence provides a completely different characterization of workers in the Gilded Age, when this tune was most likely founded, compared to the American Railroad Journal which “bemoaned in 1858 [that the workers] lack ‘the right kind of sentiment.’ They established their own ‘rules for the regulation of their own conduct'” (Licht 97). This is not what we see in the culture–if the culture was anything like the music. Workers would argue that the “rules” they want to establish, whether through unions or protests or strikes, were basic workers’ rights. The reason folk found such a home in blue-collar communities such as railroads is because of this; the culture these communities embodied were consciously aware and weary of the wrongs being done to them.

“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” began as an obvious and specific outcry of railroad workers, but it still lives on in America to this day–but why? Something about the patient lament of a long day stuck with the working class; my own grandfather sang the song almost every day until he died, though he’d never worked on a railroad. Charles Keil in Folk Music and Modern Sound suggests that the meaning of the song will never truly die:

Why not just talk about people’s music, or the working people’s music that’s not dependent on state subsidy or corporate mediation, and then celebrate the fact that it changes in striking ways from old country to new, from rural to urban settings, from one city to another, and from generation to generation (Keil, 58).

Eventually, no one will work on the railroad anymore, but we may still be singing this old tune because the new “folk”–whether it be blue-collar country music or Woody Guthrie proteges or any other working class anthem from any genre–reflects the old railroad songs inherently. We will always remember “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” because we will always be working; whether our rat-race takes place on a railway or a farm or an urban office, the patient lament guides us, and it guides our folk culture.


Works Cited

Licht, Walter. Working for the Railroad: The Organization of Work in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton University Press, 2014.

Keil, Charles . “Ethnic Voices.” Folk Music and Modern Sound, University Press of Mississippi, 1982.

The “First” Skyscaper, Concrete Trees: Louis Sullivan’s Wainwrights Building

by Fallon Ward

In the 19th century, American artists architects were trying to adapt a style that symbolize the nation’s identity. Among those architects was Louis Sullivan. Sullivan, Boston born, is considered to be one of the 3 major American architects to come out of the 19th century, next to his student, Frank Lloyd Wright, and his contemporary, H.H. Richardson. Wright pioneered his Prairie house style and Richardson’s work created the term “Richardson Romanesque” but Sullivan is associated with the creation of the skyscraper. His Wainwright building in St. Louis, Missouri from 1891 is often used as an example of the first skyscraper which earned him the moniker “The Father of Skyscrapers” (Bear 2013). Based from Sullivan’s writings of the Wainwright, the building’s height, style, and materials were perfection of modern American technology.


The Wainwright building, completed in 1891, was Sullivan’s attempt to create office buildings that emphasis verticality and introduce a fresh style of architecture into the American art vocabulary. From “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered” published in Lippincott’s Magazine from 1896, Sullivan wrote about the artistic quality to skyscrapers and used Wainwright as a reference. He thought of skyscrapers to be the result of “evolution and integration of social conditions, […] that results in demand for the erection of tall office buildings.” (Sullivan 1896). To Sullivan, tall buildings were needed in American architecture to fit the demands of the market place and business and the increase of a capitalist market along with introduction of steel manufacturing were further influences for the Wainwright building. Sullivan mentions how the inventions of the time were also important factors towards to the creation of the skyscraper. “The invention and perfection of the high-speed elevators make vertical travel, that was once tedious and painful, now easy and comfortable; development of steel manufacture has shown the way to safe, rigid, comical construction rising to a great height; continued growth of population in the great cities, consequent congestion of centers, rise in value of ground” (Sullivan 1896) were all elements that lead to what he felt was a need of tall buildings.

At the base of the building is red Missouri granite and two stone floors before the columns of the building take over. The building façade is essentially large columns with horizontal bands steeped placed to let the vertical nature of the columns to be the predominate feature of the building. On the vertical bands have terracotta designs pressed in but there are so steeply placed that the windows visually become another set of vertical columns. At the very top of the columns were another set of ornamental designs. While Sullivan wanted to verticality of the building to be the most noticeable part of the building, the ornamentation with the tallness is said to “suggest a column/tree metaphor” (Cohen 1982) since Sullivan was inspired by Romanesque details from cathedrals. The decorative structure merged with designed vertical stripes turn the skyscraper to something that fit the current American business system but also acted like a stone reenactment of nature. Powerful, large, and forceful were what Sullivan believed to be key components to skyscrapers, analogous to large trees almost. In fact, Sullivan said that the architect that attempts to build something like the Wainwright must take inspiration from the grandeur of nature. “He must live of his life and for his life in the fullest, most consummate sense. He must realize at once and with the grasp of inspiration that the problem of the tall office building is one of the most stupendous, one of the most magnificent opportunities that the Lord of Nature in His beneficence has ever offered to the proud spirit of man” (Sullivan 1896).

The Wainwright Building was an invention of Sullivan’s that took all the beauty of the shape of nature and combined it with capitalist market of American economy. The use of materials and taking advantage of what he thought were the needs of the country, Sullivan created what most historians consider the first true skyscraper, making the skyscraper a 19th American innovation.

Works Cited

Bear, Rob. 2013. “Mapping PBS’s 10 Buildings That Changed America.” Curbed . May 10.

Cohen, Stuart. 1982. “The Skyscraper as Symbolic Form.” Design Quarterly 12-17.

Sullivan, Louis. 1896. “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” Lippincott’s Magazine, March : 202-214.


Du Bois, The Negro Spiritual, and Political Representation

By: Jared Silverstein

At the turn of the 20th Century, American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois composed his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk, in which the chapter entitled “The Sorrow Songs” grapples with the long-debated theme of black musical expression and its intentional or unintentional impact on social and political perception. The sorrow songs of which Du Bois writes are the melancholy albeit optimistic Negro Spirituals, stemming from the work songs and Christian hymns sung during the Slave era (Brown 45).

The latter half of the 19th Century revealed a highly complex mechanism by which black music was critiqued, appropriated, and exploited in the commercial atmosphere. Not only was the African American’s artistic endeavor exploited, but it was consistently perceived and generalized as a political attempt to influence the public’s perception of black culture as a whole, which in some cases it certainly was; in other words, racial perception was inseparable from individual artistic expression (Gilbert 44).

During this time, renowned American songwriter Stephen Foster popularized the sentimental ballad song form among common American households, which was often secular though sometimes directly taken from Church hymnals (Key 153). As his compositions became staples of contemporary minstrel shows, Foster was crucial in first altering the public’s view of African Americans, as the minstrel songs transitioned from a folk and rural influence to one stemming from European classical ballad styles (155). This effectively stirred black sociologists and musicians alike to critically assess what music was being played, and how it would be perceived by the public in relation to the African American community.

At a time when black popular songwriters such as Ernest Hogan were institutionalizing white supremacy with hit minstrel songs such as “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” the popularization of Negro Spirituals represented a more constructive intention among black musicians to represent their people in a positive political light (Gilbert 28).

Music educator James Monroe Trotter in Washington D.C. envisioned the African American’s path to validation and equality as being paved by the demonstration of technical mastership of one’s instrument and theoretical knowledge of European classical styles. He denounced the use of spirituals as an appropriate method for representing the modern self-disciplined black American, as he feared they would only perpetuate the stereotypes of blacks being overly passionate and emotional (Gilbert 36).

Du Bois’ writing is an endorsement for the use of the Negro Spiritual as a means of accurately portraying the authentic black American experience:

And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas” (The Souls of Black Folk).

He sees spirituals as a sonic extension of a people fighting for their citizenship, lamenting over the injustices of the past, as opposed to an uncouth song form that simply lacks the technical virtuosity of something more closely affiliated with the European classical tradition.

The content of the spirituals themselves dealt largely with existential despair, plight, and varied religious aspects, which are themes that when popularized and made explicit among the general public would reshape the attitude towards African Americans into one of empathetic understanding and universal inclusion, Du Bois hoped. He speaks of the themes present in the spirituals, writing:

Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins (The Souls of Black Folk).

Du Bois was compelled to mention the Fisk University Jubilee Singers here, as they were an instrumental organization in spreading the sound of the spiritual to audiences across the world. While this represented an unprecedented achievement in portraying the authentic history of the Black American, the fact that the Jubilee Singers were presenting these folk songs in the style of classical European choral music was an aesthetic element that at this time did not go without critique.


Fisk Jubilee Singers. Courtesy of Here the original Jubilee Singers from Fisk University are shown in formal European attire posing for what would be used as a press photo for their upcoming American tour.


A prevailing theme at this time in the dilemma of black expression and social representation was the extent to which black musicians should rely on appealing to Eurocentric ideals of high-art to appear sophisticated in the eyes of whites. Composer and instrumentalist Will Marion Cook was someone who had his own struggles and reservations regarding this. As someone who had studied European techniques with Czech composer Dvorák, Cook often necessarily flaunted his credentials and classical training in order to secure performance opportunities at major concert houses (Gilbert 26).

As his career progressed, Cook, like Du Bois began to see the importance of an authentic, though not fetishized, portrayal of Negro folk culture by means of the Spiritual. While both men considered the act of relying on European classical techniques to demonstrate the intelligence of the musician dubious, they agreed that it should not entirely be dismissed. Rather, doing so intelligently broadens the spectrum of those who will even pay mind to the music itself in a discriminating commercial marketplace.

The success and recognition of the Fisk Jubilee Singers exemplified the perfect extent to which the public would receive a blend of folk elements and European sophistication. Though regardless of either methodology used to influence the public’s perception of black Americans, caricature portrayal and minstrel shows continued to undermine the political effort (39). As Du Bois notes:

Caricature has sought again to spoil the quaint beauty of the music, and has filled the air with many debased melodies which vulgar ears scarce know from the real” (The Souls of Black Folk).

Here Du Bois points to the fragility of the positive perception whites can have of African Americans, as their ignorance of their own country’s past and impressionable minds do not allow them to discern between authentic black tradition and simple commercial exploitations. It is as critical as ever to understand the way in which miscegenation and political agenda influence social perception during a modern age, and Du Bois was certainly keen of this at the turn of the 20th Century.


Brown, Sterling. “Negro Folk Expression: Spirituals, Seculars, Ballads and Work Songs.” Phylon (1940-1956) 14, no. 1 (1953): 45-61.

Gilbert, David. “A New Musical Rhythm Was Given To The People: Ragtime and Representation in Black Manhattan.” In The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace, 16-46. University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

Key, Susan. “Sound and Sentimentality: Nostalgia in the Songs of Stephen Foster.” American Music 13, no. 2 (1995): 145-66.

XIV. The Sorrow Songs. Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk. Accessed December 20, 2017.

The Racialization of Chinese Immigrants in 19th Century America

by Chanina Wong


“Let the Chinese Embrace Civilization, and They May Stay” 18 March 1882. Courtesy of


Mark Twain’s book, Roughing It, published in 1872 brings perception of the relevant attitudes and cultural implications of white America’s reaction to Chinese immigration in the 19th century through an excerpt that was recently titled “Mark Twain’s Observations About Chinese Immigrants in California“. The Chinese were the first group to be prevented from emigrating to the country with the passing of a series of legislation shaping the origins of America’s immigration policy. Chinese exclusion is crucial to understanding the modern American immigration policy, which became experimental for the federal government to practice their powers by creating an infrastructure of bureaucracy that determined who was a helpful “merchant” and an unwanted “laborer”. The origins of immigration policies also began to racialize immigration, making race itself a large contributing factor to who was permitted to enter the country.

In 1864 and 1868, provisions were passed to encouraged free movement and trade between the US and China, especially the movement of people to answer the desperate need for cheap manual labor for work like in the railroads and mines. Once the railroads were completed, legislation started being passed 1882, purposely restricting immigration from China with policies like the Chinese Restriction Act and General Immigration Act. The upholding of restrictive immigration policies did not just act as vital provisions of the federal government, but reflected a set of cultural attitudes against the Chinese.

Mark Twain writes of his reflection of how Chinese act in American society:

“They are quiet, peaceable, tractable, free from drunkenness, and they are as industrious as the day is long. A disorderly Chinaman is rare, and a lazy one does not exist.”

What appears to be complimenting of Chinese immigrants, in a time of anti-Chinese animosity growing to be prominent, is an example of the racialization of the Chinese as subservient and willingness to be exploitable labor, perhaps more known as the stereotype the “model minority”. Twain is loving the Chinese to their detriment, enforcing stereotypes of the Chinese, and thus contributing to the negative attitudes against Chinese immigration. White laborers who had to share employment opportunities with Chinese laborers thrived in a culture with the attitude that the Chinese were responsible for their own exploitation due to their own beliefs of respecting elders and commanders, contributing to the anti-immigrant rhetoric. In reality, the Chinese were forced to take upon more difficult jobs that white laborers were unwilling to take, like performing the more life-threatening tasks in the production of railroads and mining.

To embrace stereotypes, especially the “model minority” describing Chinese immigrants, is to ignore the more observed struggles they experienced in the very race-driven culture of 19th century America. They did not, in fact, reap the benefits of being good, obedient workers even if their labor benefited white America. Chinese immigrations were conflated with rattails to emphasize their filth with characterization of all having diseases. This generalization, of course, is without empirical basis to categorize all Chinese with collective traits. And the model minority stereotype further enforced the general public to refuse to assist the diseased and sick Chinese population due to the stereotype that they were willing to tolerate a lack of hygienic standards so long as they were given employment. Chinese immigrants, in reality, did not have the resources or knowledge of proper hygiene and sanitation, living in large groups cramped in small apartments. For example, Twain makes note that they save everything because they lacked the actual wages for proper living:

“They waste nothing. What is rubbish to a Christian, a Chinaman carefully preserves and makes useful in one way or another.”

Twain is practically confirming white Americans’ negative stereotypes of Chinese laborers despite praising them because of his lack of empirical basis and interaction with the Chinese:

“The chief employment of Chinamen in towns is to wash clothing…Their price for washing was $2.50 per dozen—rather cheaper than white people could afford to wash for at that time. A very common sign on the Chinese houses was: “See Yup, Washer and Ironer”; “Hong Wo, Washer”; “Sam Sing Ah Hop, Washing.” The house servants, cooks, etc., in California and Nevada, were chiefly Chinamen…Chinamen make good house servants, being quick, obedient, patient, quick to learn and tirelessly industrious.”

Chinese women were restricted from entering the country, having white Americans experience the Chinese only through men living together in communities. A further aspect of racializing of Chinese men was to characterize their willingness to take on laundry and domestic labor for wages as effeminate, differentiating the Chinese from the more masculine white man. Racializing Chinese immigrants as submissive and obedient to their masters gave them characterization in a new “gender” category as “queer”, as Chinese men failed to meet the normative standard of white men, such as different dress, unwillingness to do domestic work, and eating meat instead of preferring rice. Considering how women were treated during this time, Chinese men were placed in a category of gender inferiority, further being placed as a racial inferiority.

Race relations in America during the 19th century (and arguably, much of the 20th and 21st century) usually grapples with a white and black binary describing the struggle of black persons disenfranchised by white persons. The introduction of Chinese immigrants provides newfound diversity as they are unable to fit in the normative standards of race relations, neither fitting anywhere on the binary. It is not productive to perceive white Americans racism against the Chinese as similar to how black persons were treated. Black persons were forcibly removed from their origin country as enslaved thus facing racist discrimination as racial inferiors even when they were free from enslavement. The Chinese faced similar racist discrimination, but with the backdrop of migration and being barred from entering the country. Even European immigrants like the Italians were racialized in a culture in favor of Anglo-Saxon white persons. The whole history of racialization and the cultural implications against groups is multifaceted, needing intentions and understanding to be explored of how people’s identities could negatively affect someone in a race-driven society, even if those intentions by Mark Twain, at first glance, appear complimentary.



Lam, Tracey, and Jonathan Hui. 2016. “The High Cost of the Model Minority Myth for Asian and Pacific Islander Americans.” Kennedy School Review 16, 61-68. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed December 20, 2017).

Twain, Mark. “Mark Twain’s Observations about Chinese Immigrants .” Library of Congress. Accessed December 20, 2017.

Yuh, Ji-Yeon. “Chinese Exclusion and the Racialization of Immigration.” Reviews in American History 32, no. 4 (2004): 539-44.

Jules Verne Confronts the Uknown

By: Ben Nechmad

20000-leagues-under-the-sea-robert-slackJules Verne seems to be peering into the future in his notable novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Published in 1870, the book is far ahead of its time. It is rife with concepts that were previously unheard of, such as deep-sea travel and nuclear-electric power. However seemingly prophetic Verne’s ideas were, they were often scientifically possible to a degree and largely influenced by the 19th-century infatuation with technological progress.

The author’s description of submarine technology is strikingly similar to the technology that we have today. There is also some foresight present in his other works. His book, “From the Earth to the Moon,” portrays space travel and even goes to state how Florida is the most opportune place to launch a rocket to the moon. These coincidences may give the impression that Jules Vern could see into the future, but in actuality, his work is reflective of a time period in which scientific thought and theory seeped into popular culture. Timothy Unwin highlights this in the book, “Jules Verne: Narratives of Modernity.” He writes,


“Verne has been hailed as a prophet of space-travel, and his lunar novels are probably the first to envisage a journey to the moon as a real possibility—but the launching of the Columbiad in Florida and its eventual touchdown in the Pacific are not the visions of a prophet who foresaw the Apollo space programme. They are based on known and, for Verne, readily available calculations of the moon’s movement around the Earth and of the most favourable launching opportunities.” (Ch. 4 Pg. 49)


Jules Verne did not completely make up the technology in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” he merely took the scientific knowledge of his time and placed it into a practical context.

Verne’s books were written at a time of great technological development spurred by the military-industrial complex of the Civil War. New inventions and scientific discoveries were a major aspect of the latter half of the 19th century. There were newer and faster ships, trains, and even primitive cars. These and other inventions left much of the population wondering what would come next. Scientific progress was apparent to everyone and was shaping the world like it had never been before. “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” among other novels by Jules Verne, is the embodiment of the scientific curiosity that enshrouded 19th century society. This curiosity laid the framework for the major technological development of the 20th century. His work incorporated radical ideas and characters because progress, according to Verne, was to push the barriers of science and society. Carter Kaplan discusses this in his article, “Jules Verne, Herman Melville, and the “question of the monster.” He writes,


“Verne exhibits strict adherence to known science or pseudo-science, a journalistic style ornamented by a wealth of technical detail, and a curiosity for radical character types existing at the fringes of conventional society.”


During the 19th century, much of the scientific knowledge that had recently been discovered had no practical application yet. The electrical apparatus that powered the Nautilus for example, would not be possible at the time Verne was writing the novel, but electricity was still very much on people’s minds. It was this fascination of pushing the limits of science and adventure that inspired Verne to imagine an electrically powered submarine. This imaginative drive eventually allowed humanity to actually develop this technology in the next century. The 19th Century was full of confronting unknowns from the seemingly endless land of the American West to the discovery of bacteria. Jules Verne, imbued with a desire to dream and hope, took the emerging scientific knowledge of his time and came up with a strikingly human story of confronting the unknown.

Science fiction has not changed much in the Century after Verne’s death. Star Trek for example, “predicted” the cellphone decades before it was invented. These novels and stories are the embodiment of humanity’s progress and desire for discovery. Who knows? In the digital age that we live in, with new earth-shattering technology coming out every day, the science fiction on Netflix today could become the reality tomorrow.


An example of a Thomas Edison lightbulb. One of the 19th Century Technologies that revolutionized the way we live today. Jules Verne could have easily incorporated it into a novel, only for it to be invented a few short decades later. The lightbulb among many other 19th Century inventions were the products of the imagination and dreaming spurred by the major scientific discoveries of that time.

Smyth, Edmund J. Jules Verne: narratives of modernity. Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 2000. Citing from Chapter 4: The Fiction of Science, or the Science of Fiction by contributing author, Timothy Unwin

Kaplan, Carter. Extrapolation. Summer, 1998, Vol. 39 Issue 2, p139, 9 p. Kent State University Press, 1998.

Verne, Jules. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. 1870

The Spanish America War: How American Interventionism and Sensationalism is still prevalent today

By Leonardo Reyes

The Spanish-American War that occurred in 1898 led to the end of Spanish colonization and rule in the west, which then led to America’s development into one of the most powerful countries at that time.  As a result of the war, America gained the control of territories in Latin America and in the West, which significantly made America more formidable to other world powers.

This war essentially revolved around Cuba and their struggle for independence from Spain.  When Spain brutally repressed the Cuban insurrection, U.S newspapers took notice of this and introduced sensationalized depictions and descriptions of the Spanish oppression overseas.  This form of journalism became popularized and named “yellow journalism”, and it brought popular demand for U.S intervention after the sinking of the USS Maine.  Afterwards, America and Spain officially declared war, leading to a Spanish defeat and America eventually gaining control of Spain’s territories in both the East and West.  

Although America was not as oppressive and tyrannical as Spain, it definitely established its dominance over the territories it gained control of.  This led to many Americans to support American interventionism and calling the war a “splendid little war”.  This support for war and foreign intervention led to the America that we see today.  An America that feels the need to step in between every foreign conflict, sending troops to fight other nations battles, a nation that puts most of its money into the military-industrial complex.


Recently, America’s current president, Donald Trump, has decided to indulge in tax cuts, but instead of putting the money to more beneficial uses, he chooses to further fund the military.  The Nation addressed this situation in recent article saying,

“Donald Trump used his first Joint Address to the Congress of the United States to engage in an unprecedented flight of fiscal fantasy. Specifically, the president imagined that the United States could cut taxes for wealthy Americans and corporations, rip tens of billions of dollars out of domestic programs (and diplomacy), hand that money over to the military-industrial complex, and somehow remain a functional and genuinely strong nation”

The Spanish American War established the America’s desire to constantly intervene in foreign affairs, however it also established sensationalist writing that is seen in newspapers or articles today.  Pulitzer and Hearst are often adduced as the cause of the United States’ entry into the Spanish–American War due to sensationalist stories or exaggerations of the terrible conditions in Cuba.  Just as those two who sensationalized writing got on the front pages of newspapers, today we see the internet used to spread false stories or misleading material that is without reliable research or data.  

All in all, the Spanish American both introduced Sensationalist writing and American interventionism, and although this was in the late nineteenth century, there is without a doubt that the effects of the Spanish American can still be seen to this day.


Works cited

“Educational Travel Lesson Plans.” Spanish American War of 1898: Puerto Rico – Educational Travel Lesson Plan,

Nichols, John. “Donald Trump Goes All In for the Military-Industrial Complex.” The Nation, 1 Mar. 2017,

John Brown’s Body, and the Specter of Political Violence in Public Memory

By Jeremy Mahr

John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in October, 1859 shocked and transformed a nation. Following his capture by General Robert E. Lee after attempting to take over the Harpers Ferry federal arsenal in Virginia and incite a slave rebellion, Brown was seen by his fellow Americans as a pariah and an extremist. Few outside his ideological circle defended his actions, and he was soon to be found guilty of treason and hanged by the end of the year. Yet, just a few years later, Brown’s memory had morphed from that of an unhinged terrorist to a martyr for the abolitionist cause, and finally to a symbol of Union solidarity. This final phase of his public memory is perhaps best reflected by the popular song sung by Union soldiers during Civil War campaigns: “John Brown’s Body.” Although his shift in public perception from a violent actor against the state to a Union martyr may seem strange, it could be explained by the interplay of several cultural and historical phenomena: namely, the political tensions brought about by slavery, the work of cultural and societal elites to redeem Brown’s image, and Brown’s ideas on shared pain becoming transferred from those of slaves to those of Union soldiers, creating a sense of communal identification with the American nation in wartime.  

john brown

Daguerreotype of John Brown. Image courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica.


John Brown’s assault on Harpers Ferry provoked strong reactions from all spectra of American society. While White Southern separatists used the attack as evidence of Northern treachery and urged the South to secede to protect its slave-holding interests, Northern abolitionists threw their support behind Brown through meetings, fundraising, and political organizing; most people simply thought that Brown was insane (Fine 234-235; Nudelman 650-651). However, the partisan-charged atmosphere caused by Brown’s violent direct action was a fertile atmosphere in which cultural elites within the abolitionist movement could manage Brown’s reputation and paint him, not as a violent criminal, but as a freedom fighter standing for justice.

Energized by Brown’s actions, and politically experienced with advocating for causes such as Free Soil, Liberian colonization, and resistance to Fugitive Slave Act enforcement, Brown’s allies in the abolitionist movement were instrumental in helping craft a different image for him. These included not only prominent activists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Henry David Thoreau, but also his secret committee of supporters, the Secret Six: comprised of the wealthiest and most learned men of the era, they helped provide the financial backing and networking to help rehabilitate his image (Fine 236-237). Because political violence against established institutions are generally looked down upon without a convincing justification, his supporters appealed to notions such as higher law, social consensus, and historic justification to extol his actions, including the Motto of the state of Virginia itself (“So Be It Ever to Tyrants!”) (Fine 233). Furthermore, because Brown’s Southern critics made treasonous statements themselves in support of secession, they limited their rhetorical options and left the field wide open for pro-Brown narratives to emerge. Thus, Brown’s attack was no longer about attacking the federal government, but a struggle against the South and the institution of slavery (Fine 243). In this way, historical circumstances and Brown’s connections to the American elite allowed John Brown to have, if not a wholly positive public image, at least an opportunity to break free from the label of terrorism that would have plagued most violent actors.

Although Brown’s defense by elites helped contribute to the rehabilitation of his reputation, Brown himself actively contributed to his status as a martyr through his dialogues on suffering and empathy for enslaved blacks. Throughout his trial and sentencing, Brown theatrically cultivated his image with the knowledge that he was worth more to the abolitionist cause dead than alive. Speaking from his cell, the courtroom, and finally the scaffold, Brown used the symbol of blood to represent not only his shared humanity with enslaved persons and his willingness to do whatever it took to liberate the oppressed, but also to represent the nation’s collective guilt and the societal price to rid the institution of slavery (Nudelman 643, 659). By way of his rhetoric and growing status as an anti-slavery fighter, John Brown tactically used the power of compassion to form a bridge in which free, white Americans could feel the suffering of enslaved blacks, transforming individual experiences into collective visions. In doing so, he laid the emotional groundwork for future developments during the Civil War, in which shared experiences of loss and suffering would provide the basis for nationalist unity (Nudelman 660). Thus, “John Brown’s Body” took Brown’s best components– his outspokenness, commitment to “higher law,” and strong sense of justice– while ignoring his more problematic aspects, and then incorporated them into a Union Army song that allowed soldiers to negotiate their own mortality and remind them that they were dying for a higher cause (Nudelman 640).

Through historical circumstances and robust support by fellow abolitionists and John Brown himself, Brown ironically became a martyr figure for the same government forces that he died opposing. Despite this, the life, death, and legacy of John Brown reveals not only the society and culture of the United States before and during the Civil War, but also the psychology of its everyday citizens.


Fine, G. A. (1999). John Brown’s body: elites, heroic embodiment, and the legitimation of political violence. Social Problems46(2), 225-249.

Nudelman, F. (2001). “The Blood of Millions”: John Brown’s Body, Public Violence, and Political Community. American Literary History13(4), 639-670.

[Gloria Jane]. (Sep 29,2009). John Brown’s Body [Video File]. Retrieved from



Minority Experience Throughout The 1848 California Gold Rush

By: Kyle Laguerre

During the 19th century many Americans sought out wealth through means of westward expansion.  With this expansion came new opportunity for many because of the abundant untapped natural resources, both renewable and nonrenewable.  In 1848 after James W. Marshall discovered there was gold in California, many flocked there in search of fortune (Parsons 82).   It is noted that globally “gold fever” was nothing new and that it was not exclusive to California, but it is important to recognize that it transformed the would be state into something entirely new at the time (Tuckerman).  As opposed to many of the rural areas in the central United States California flourished because the gold attracted permanent settlers looking for work, wealth, and land.

Over the next two years California presented freedom for all kinds of people in large part because it had yet to officially be declared a state of the United States until 1850. In comparison to American migrations preceding 1848, the gold had attracted white, black, and Asian men, not just in America but across the globe.   The diversity brought on by the gold rush made California on par with major cities like New York in terms of ethnicity the variety of races occupying the state.  It was recorded “about seventy percent of all immigrants in these years remained as permanent residents” (Roske 188). This residence meant gave minorities somewhat of a presence and granted them some rights  not available in the American east. The diversity had lasting influence on California’s constitution which rejected the practice of slavery outside of legal punishment.  While this presented some assistance in maintaining equality, it did not stop the implementation of legislation the banning black people from attending school with white children or the law banning black, Asian, and Native American testimony against white people at the time (CA Dept. of Education).

During the Gold Rush there were plenty of European immigrants who did not speak English, but for many Americans their intolerance of race superseded their intolerance over differences in nationality. It is stated during the early 1850s that the nativism fueled bigotry previously directed towards the Latin and French emigrants “metamorphosed into a racism against African Americans and Chinese, whose skin color and other phenotypical features differed from those of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants” (Chan 67).  This had much to do with the perceived ‘levels of whiteness’ these races reflected.

Despite the discrimination and oppression faced by minorities in California, there were still plenty who acquired enough earnings from the Gold Rush to improve the lives of their families as well as their own.  It was stated that “blacks in California sent about three-quarter million dollars to their loved ones in the early 1850s to purchase the latter’s freedom” (Chan 68).  Although plenty took up permanent residence in the US, many the Chinese working men were collecting money in order to return home with fortune.  This was significant because it shows that many of the men driven by the Gold Rush were driven by the chance to grant their families better qualities of life.  While plenty of men were just looking to selfishly get rich quick, the overall sense of community in the minority communities helped them rise above the racism and claim a stake in the American landscape they could call their own.



Works Cited

Parsons, George Frederic. “The Life and Adventures of James W.” 1870. EBSCOhost,

Roske, Ralph J. “The World Impact of the California Gold Rush 1849-1857.” Arizona and the West, vol. 5, no. 3, 1963, pp. 187–232. JSTOR, JSTOR,

“Key Points in Black History and the Gold Rush.” Key Points in Black History and the Gold Rush – Instructional Materials (CA Dept of Education),

H.T., Tuckerman. “The Gold Fever.” [“Godey’s Lady’s Book”]. Godey’s Lady’s Book, 01 Mar. 1849.

Chan, Sucheng. “A People of Exceptional Character: Ethnic Diversity, Nativism, and Racism in the California Gold Rush.” California History, vol. 79, no. 2, 2000, pp. 44–85. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Mary Tape’s Scathing Letter for Chinese Inclusion

by Jimmy Lu


The Tape Family: Joseph, Emily, Mamie, Frank, and Mary, 1884. Courtesy of Alisa J. Kim.

In nineteenth-century San Francisco, California, Mary Tape accompanied her eight-year-old daughter Mamie—dressed in a checkered pinafore, with ribbons in her hair—to her first day at Spring Valley Primary School. When they arrived, Mamie was denied admission at the schoolhouse door because she was Chinese( Mary and Joseph Tape took the Board of Education to court (Tape v. Hurley). The lower court ruled that “all children, regardless of race, had the right to a public-school education” –a ruling that was upheld by both state and federal courts; but the school district circumvented the ruling by establish a separate school for Chinese children in Chinatown (Yung 49). Despite Tape’s attempt to fit into white-America, her attempts to assimilate through her family’s American manners, American fashion, and Christianity, were limited because the Tapes were still viewed by the school officials as non-American.

Mary Tape presented Mamie as a well-assimilated American child to show she deserved to attend Spring Valley. In response to Mamie’s exclusion, on April 8, 1885, Mary Tape wrote a letter to the school officials, in which she states “My children don’t dress like the other Chinese. … Her playmates is all Caucasians ever since she could toddle around.” Tape points out Mamie’s American clothing and ability to socialize with other white children to show how Mamie, despite being Chinese, is just as American as her peers. However, Mamie’s non-whiteness automatically excluded her from attending Spring valley, despite the Tape family’s attempt to assimilate.

Realizing that Mamie’s Chinese appearance was a problem for the school officials, Tape references Christianity to argue for her child’s acceptance in white-Protestant America. If the Chinese were made by God and Christianity meant acceptance for the Chinese, Tape felt that Mamie deserved to attend Spring Valley. Tape wrote, “Didn’t God make us all!!! What right have you to bar my children out of the school because she is a chinese Decend.” Tape points out the hypocrisy of the white-Christian officials who lacked common sense. The officials lacked the worldwide perspective of the creation of humanity, which she believed and logically assumed that all races were equal under God. Through Christianity, Tape attempted to find a moral ground and show her commonality with the school officials despite their hypocrisy and white-supremacist actions.

Despite the Tape family’s assimilation and Christian faith, Tape reveals racist American attitudes towards the Chinese in nineteenth-century San Francisco. The Chinese, she believed, would perpetually be treated by white Americans as “different” people. Tape wrote, “It seems no matter how a Chinese may live and dress so long as you know they Chinese. Then they are hated as one. There is not any right or justice for them.” Tape admits the limitations of her family’s assimilation: no matter how hard the Chinese try to act like white-Americans by adopting Protestantism and their fashion, the Chinese will still struggle to gain acceptance as American people. Tape mentions how the Chinese are “hated as one,” and this hatred is evident by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which was intended to limit the number of Chinese from entering the United States. Despite the hostility of white Americans toward the Chinese in the United States, Tape was bold and challenged the racial injustice in a legal case that would be representative of the struggle to gain educational integration for Chinese and non-white children.

In the end Mamie and her brother Frank were the first pupils to appear at the Chinese Primary School when it opened in Chinatown on April 13, 1885 ( Tape’s battle for equal rights reveals her desire for racial acceptance and equality for Chinese Americans in San Francisco. This case shows the limitations of assimilation for the Tape family, and the reality of segregation in the United States that not only applied to Black and White people but also to people in between the black-white spectrum.

Works Cited

Tape, Mary. An Outspoken Woman, OAH Magazine of History, Volume 15, Issue 2, 1 January 2001, Pages 17–19,

Yung, Judy. Unbound Voices: A Documentary History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1999.

“”We Have Always Lived as Americans”.” Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion. April 07, 2015. Accessed December 20, 2017.


Menace or Miracle? Recorded Music in the Late 19th Century

by Elisabeth Graham

Music, like many art forms, changes as the technology used to create and share it changes. Before the late 19th century, one could only consume music through live performances in the theater or through private performances at home. As the century drew to a close, the way people consumed music altered dramatically. Scientific innovations throughout this period brought a new interest in sound recording technology, and inevitably, the phonograph was born. The dawn of the phonograph marks the tensions between technology and the arts at the end of the 19th century.

Thomas Edison is accredited with creating the first phonograph in 1877, but he never intended for the machine to record music. As the burgeoning telephone made its way into the world, Edison attempted to create a machine that could better store recordings. Edison also longed to create a better device for recording these sounds (Laing 3). The late 19th century is well known for its advances in science and technology, and the creation of the phonograph is no exception. However, consumers proved to be skeptical about this machine from the beginning. Below, you can listen to “Around the World on the Phonograph,” one of the earliest recordings of Edison’s voice on the phonograph; after hearing it, there’s no wonder why Edison’s contemporaries remarked, “It sounds more like the devil every time” after hearing it (Laing 4).


This image, courtesy of Rutgers University, shows Edison with his phonograph. Click here to access one of Edison’s earliest recordings on a wax cylinder.


Since Edison never intended for the phonograph to become a device for recorded music, how did this happen? Edison was not the only inventor on the sound recording scene; Emile Berliner — a German-born American inventor — saw the issues with Edison’s method of sound recording. Edison used wax cylinders to record sound, and this accounted for a very quiet playback volume and poor storage opportunities. Berliner created zinc disks and an alternative “gramophone” that allowed for a greater dynamic range — how loud or soft music gets — in recordings (Smart 426). Berliner’s disks were also much easier to reproduce, and so commercially reproducing music became a streamlined process rooted in the entertainment industry along (Morton 19). This reveals how music became a phenomenally successful musical endeavor.

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Frederick Strothmann’s accompanying illustrations in Sousa’s article all showcase ridiculous circumstances that arise from recorded music. Here, a young child marvels at an older man playing the piano “with his hands.” This reveals artist’s anxieties of younger generations losing the ability and drive to learn more about music.

As music became a more prevalent part of sound recording and sound consumption, artists quickly went on the defense to protect their craft. By 1896, Edison’s phonograph and Berliner’s gramophone became available — and affordable — for everyday Americans. Towards the beginning of the 20th century, this machine became an ordinary piece of technology in American homes (Thompson 138). But this did not thrill everyone. John Phillip Sousa, acclaimed American composer, wrote an article entitled “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” Throughout the essay, Sousa highlights the myriad ways that recorded music will devastate the craft. Sousa writes:

Right here is the menace in machine-made music! . . . The child becomes indifferent to practice, for when music can be heard in the homes without the labor of study and close application, and without the slow process of acquiring a [technique], it will be simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely, and with him a host of vocal and instrumental teachers, who will be without field or calling. (Sousa 280)

Sousa’s critique of “machine-made music” strikes at the conflict between technology and the arts. If technology’s key purpose is to make life easier, then that could make the laborious process of learning music largely irrelevant. This indicates 19th century attitudes towards change; it also reveals the anxiety over losing sight of humanity and the arts as technology gains momentum in popular culture.

Overall, the dawn of recorded music represents how the 19th century is witness to some of the first mixings of technology and the arts. While the recorded music allowed for more people to enjoy music at their own will and leisure, it also uprooted concerns about what this revolution meant for the future of music. From a 21st century vantage point, it is easy to say that recorded music allowed the music industry to persist and grow in unexpected and marvelous ways. Recorded music allowed for the creation of an extensive network of songwriters, but without it, who is to say what could have happened.

Works Cited

Edison, Thomas A. Around the World on the Phonograph. Edison yellow paraffine cylinder. Performed by Thomas Edison. 1888. West Orange. Recording. Retrieved from

Laing, Dave. “A Voice without a Face: Popular Music and the Phonograph in the 1890s.” Popular Music 10, no. 1 (1991): 1-9.

Morton, David. Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Smart, James R. “Emile Berliner and Nineteenth-Century Disc Recordings.” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 37, no. 3/4 (1980): 422-40. http://www.jstor.orgstable/29781870.

Sousa, John Phillip. “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” Appleton’s Magazine 8, no.1-6 (1906): 
278-284. Accessed December 13, 2017.;view=1up;seq=308.

Strothmann, Frederick. “There is a man in there playing the piano with his hands!” Illustration. 1906. New York.

Thompson, Emily. “Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877-1925.” The Musical Quarterly 79, no. 1 (1995): 131-71.