Faculty Research: Dr. Karl Miller and Dr. Janet Davis at Humanities Texas Teachers Institute on 1960s America

america in the 1960s

Some very cool activities from our faculty this summer: Dr. Karl Miller and Dr. Janet Davis are both participants in the Humanities Texas Institute for Texas Teachers, this year’s theme being “America in the 1960s.” Dr. Davis gave a presentation yesterday on “Influential Women in the Sixties,” and Dr. Miller is today speaking about “Music in the 1960s.” Both also led primary source workshops in the afternoons.

We just wish we could attend, too!

Announcement: SXSW Film Picks

With SXSW looming over us, we’ve curated a list of films that are of interest to folks who live beneath the American Studies umbrella. If you have a moment during spring break and want to catch a flick, check these out! If you don’t have a badge or wristband, tickets will go on sale about 15 minutes prior to screening time if there is still seating available. The single admission ticket price is $10 for all screenings. Need more details? Check out SXSW’s official website.

“Film Screening,” by Andy.

The 78 Project Movie (documentary)

The 78 Project Movie is a road trip across America to make one-of-a-kind 78rpm records with musicians in their hometowns using a 1930s Presto direct-to-disc recorder. With one microphone. One blank disc. In one 3-minute take. Along the way, a kaleidoscope of technologists, historians and craftsmen from every facet of field recording – Grammy-winning producers, 78 collectors, curators from the Library of Congress and Smithsonian – provide insights and history. In Tennessee, Mississippi, California, Louisiana, the folk singers, punk rockers, Gospel and Cajun singers in the film share their lives through intimate performances, and find in that adventure a new connection to our cultural legacy.

Above All Else (documentary) 

One man will risk it all to stop the tar sands of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from crossing his land. Shot in the forests, pastures, and living rooms of rural East Texas, “Above All Else” follows David Daniel as he rallies neighbors and environmental activists to join him in a final act of brinkmanship: a tree-top blockade of the controversial pipeline. What begins as a stand against corporate bullying becomes a rallying cry for climate protesters nationwide.

As in his previous film, “Mississippi Chicken”, director John Fiege puts a human face on a complex case of social injustice, capturing the South in all its drama and contradiction.

All American High (documentary)

In 1984—before cell phones, the web, and reality TV, a young director set out to document a year in the life of a typical California high school. The result was “All American High”, an unusually honest and humorous look at 80’s teen life. The Hollywood Reporter found it “fascinating and insightful” and The Village Voice called it “a laugh out loud documentary”. Told through the eyes of a visiting foreign exchange student, the film presents an uncensored view of senior year in the era of big hair, punks and parachute pants. Thirty years after they lived it, some of the film’s original subjects return in new interviews, revisiting one of the most memorable chapters in their lives.

Born to Fly (documentary)

Elizabeth Streb is not just a choreographer; she is an extreme action architect. “Born to Fly” traces the evolution of Streb’s movement philosophy – she pushes herself and her company from the ground, to the wall, to the sky. The film asks: Why is one person’s circus another person’s dance? One dancer’s gorgeous flight another dancer’s stunt work? Why call it art? Why choreograph it? Why have a role in performing it?

How might a film inspire a broad audience, hungry for a more tactile and fierce existence in the world?

Cesar Chavez (feature)

Directed by Diego Luna, “Cesar Chávez” chronicles the birth of a modern American movement led by famed civil rights leader and labor organizer, Cesar Chavez. Torn between his duties as a husband and father and his commitment to bringing dignity and justice to others, Chavez embraced non-violence as he battled greed and prejudice in his struggle for the rights of farm workers. His triumphant journey is a remarkable testament to the power of one individual’s ability to change the system.

Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound (documentary)

“Deep City” is an inspirational story that explores the early days of soul music in Florida, the era’s pioneers and their lasting contributions to the broader American musical landscape.

During the mid-1960s, producers Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall masterminded Deep City Records. Both from the streets of Miami, they honed the business and musical skills learned in college and went on to change the face of soul music in Miami and eventually the country by creating the first black-owned record label in Florida.

“Deep City” delves into the life and times of these groundbreaking producers, their label, the artists they spawned and the remarkable era in which they accomplished it.

For No Good Reason (documentary) 

Johnny Depp pays a call on his friend and hero Ralph Steadman and we take off on a high-spirited, raging and kaleidoscopic journey discovering the life and works of one of the most distinctive radical artists of the last 50 years.

The Frontier (feature)

Sean, a retired literature professor and civic activist, writes a letter to his estranged son, Tennessee, a ranch hand. Tennessee is uncertain how to respond, but knowing he should see his aging father, he decides to go home. Tennessee arrives just as Nina, Sean’s personal trainer fresh off a bad breakup, accepts Sean’s offer to move in and help him write his memoirs. The tension between Sean and Tennessee is ever-present. As Sean and Nina work, Tennessee avoids his overbearing father with fix-up projects around the house. One evening after Nina has gone out, Sean and Tennessee find themselves alone in the house for the first time. No longer able to avoid each other, the two men must talk.

Joe (feature)

A gripping mix of friendship, violence and redemption erupts in the contemporary South in this adaptation of Larry Brown’s novel. Directed by David Gordon Green (“Prince Avalanche”, “Pineapple Express”) the film brings Academy Award® winner Nicolas Cage back to his indie roots in the title role as the hard-living, hot-tempered, ex-con Joe Ransom, as he meets a hard-luck kid, Tye Sheridan (“Mud”, “Tree of Life”) who awakens in him a fierce and tender-hearted protector. Joe and Gary forge an unlikely bond. When Gary finds himself facing a a great threat, he turns to Joe and sets off a chain of events that play out with the brutal inevitability of tragedy and the beauty of a last stab at salvation.

Ping Pong Summer (feature)

The year is 1985. Rad Miracle is a shy 13-year-old white kid who’s obsessed with two things: ping pong and hip hop. During his family’s annual summer vacation to Ocean City, Maryland, Rad makes a new best friend, experiences his first real crush, becomes the target of rich, racist local bullies, and finds an unexpected mentor in his outcast next-door neighbor. “Ping Pong Summer” is about that time in your life when you’re treated like an alien by everyone around you, even though you know deep down you’re as funky fresh as it gets.

Que Caramba es la Vida (documentary)

Mariachi is an essential part of Mexican culture. It’s more than just music; it’s a lifestyle that views the world from a macho perspective. The business is tough and women are seldom appreciated in this strictly male domain. Nevertheless, a handful of female musicians choose to be Mariachi. Against the backdrop of the folky ‘Día de los Muertes’ celebrations, director Doris Dörrie accompanies the musicians to their performances on the streets of Mexico and throughout their daily lives. When the Mariachi women sing about death, love and poverty, the heavy issues of everyday life in Mexico City appear slightly more bearable.

Road to Austin (documentary)

“Road To Austin” chronicles how Austin, Texas became the Live Music Capital of the World, dating from 1835 to present. The film highlights 1800s Austin, the psychedelic movement, Armadillo World Headquarters, and numerous iconic musical inflection points that shaped the American musical culture of today. Vintage photos, posters, and footage are presented to a soundtrack that truly inspires! The film story line weaves towards an all-star live performance featuring Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton, Eric Johnson, Ian McLagan, Joe Ely, and 40 other Artists led by Musical Director, Stephen Bruton. Kris Kristofferson dedicates this film to Stephen Bruton.

Take Me to the River (documentary)

“Take Me to the River” is a feature film celebrating the inter-generational and inter-racial musical influence of Memphis in the face of pervasive discrimination and segregation. The film brings multiple generations of award-winning Memphis and Mississippi Delta musicians together, following them through the creative process of recording a historic new album, to re-imagine the utopia of racial, gender and generational collaboration of Memphis in its heyday. Featuring Terrence Howard, William Bell, Snoop Dog, Mavis Staples, Otis Clay, Lil P-Nut, Charlie Musselwhite, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Yo Gotti, Bobby Rush, Frayser Boy, The North Mississippi All-Stars and many more.

Faculty Research: Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller on “15 Minute History”


Want to learn something fascinating about the history of popular music? Kick your weekend off with one of our favorite podcasts: the UT History Department’s “15 Minute History” has released a quick interview with our own Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller about his book, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow.

The podcast is available here, and a quick excerpt from the chat is below:

I find three groups are essential to this book and three groups of players or people really started interacting in new ways at this period. Those groups are musicians in the south, who have been there all along of course, a record industry that is new, recordings really started taking off around 1905-1906 and they spread across the north and south and the globe, in fact. And this is a completely fresh and novel way of making music, listening to music, and buying music. It’s this moment where music actually gets separated from the musician for the first time. That has dramatic effects on the way people conceive of the identity of the music as separate from the identity of the musician, because there had never been an opportunity to contemplate that before.

So musicians, music industry, and I also think academics at the time, particularly folklorists were instrumental in this shift. At the same time that record companies were distributing this technology and new records across the south, folklorists were moving into the south looking for particular kinds of music and not others. It is at this moment when records, musicians, are permeating the south that folklorists begin talking about the south as a repository of older styles of music, more authentic, more true, more genuine styles of music as a way of distinguishing them from these commercial ditties that they didn’t like very much.

Alumni Voices: Recent Grad Publishes Book on Austin Music in the ’60s

Today we are thrilled to feature an interview with one of our recent graduates, Ricky Stein, who has published a book based on his undergraduate thesis, Sonobeat Records: Pioneering the Austin Sound in the ’60s. We sat down with Ricky to discuss his book, his time in American Studies at UT, and what’s next for him and his research on Austin music.


What was the inspiration for this project?

Music and musicology have always been what I go for. I grew up listening to all the great rock records and got endlessly interested in music. My other interest is in my hometown of Austin and its history. Austin has, I think, a history that you don’t hear a lot about. It’s not on par with some of the other major cities in the country, but it has a really nice little history. I was also interested in seeing how it went from being a sleepy college town, a settler’s town, really, to this up-and-coming city on the rise known throughout the country. The thing with Sonobeat, well, that was a gift–it’s amazing what can happen after one conversation. One minute I was working as an intern at KLRU and this guy says I should check out this website, Sonobeat Records, because he knew I was interested in Austin music. I checked it out and two weeks later got invited to participate in the senior thesis class taught by Dr. Janet Davis. I’m so glad I did that, because it dawned on me then that I had a chance to write about this local story.

How did you go from writing an undergraduate thesis on Sonobeat Records to writing a book?

It occurred really naturally. I am also a musician and worked for about ten years before going to college. For a long time I tried to get a record deal and then when I finally went to college the book just happened. I was so lucky, because it’s a really good topic and people are interested in it, especially because Austin has become the music town it has become. When I interviewed one of the musicians who was in a band signed with the Sonobeat label he knew of a publisher, The History Press that does city and local histories. He got me in touch with them, and they read the thesis I had written. They liked it and asked if I could expand it, double it, basically. And we drew up a timetable and they drew up a contract, and it was too cool–a little less than a year later I expanded it into a book and now it’s published.

We had an event this past Sunday at Antone’s Record Shop–there was a book signing, and we had one of the Sonobeat bands playing, The Sweetarts. I wish more students went to Antone’s Records, because I always loved going there when I was at UT and I wish I got out there more. It has a perfect location, right by campus, and they specialize in these old records, the old vinyls. We’re also doing a book signing this week at Waterloo Records on Thursday at 5:00.

How did your work in American Studies prepare you to do what you are doing now?

One of the things I really love about American Studies and one of the reasons I chose it as my degree was the interdisciplinary nature of it. It’s like history meets anthropology, sort of. I’m a culture junkie; I love film and music and art and history and literature, and that’s literally what I wake up thinking about in the morning. So American Studies spoke to me directly because it fit what I was interested in. I think the class I took that most stands out to me is Main Currents in American Cultural History, one of the courses that every American Studies student takes. We studied cities; the professor focused on studies of places like Chicago, New York, the Rust Belt, and we studies Los Angeles when we were talking about the twentieth-century rise of the Sun Belt from Los Angeles to Houston. I found that really interesting–the evolution of the American city–so that definitely had a big influence on writing the book. The broad scope of American Studies is great–there’s a lot of room for research there.

What’s next for you?

I have applied for the Texas State Historical Association conference. I’m on a team with a couple of grad students that is headed by Jason Mellard who is a really brilliant musicologist and American Studies professor at Texas State. He was a big help for me as I was working on the book, and his book on Progressive Country just came out from the University of Texas Press. My topic for the panel is the East Austin music scene, which you don’t hear a lot about–the juke joints of the 1950s back when Austin was a segregated city. I’m not sure where the research will go, but I want to do as much research as I can and continue writing. I loved writing this book–the whole process was so cool and came so naturally. It’s something I’m really proud of. So I hope to do more of that, and I am gearing up to apply to grad school and I want to be a professor of American Studies or History and read and write for as long as I can.

Departmental Theme: The Music of [In]security

Marconi "Velvet Tone" Phonograph Record Sleeve - 1907

As part of our department’s 2013-2014 theme, we’ve compiled a collaborative Spotify playlist containing songs that relate to notions of security and insecurity. Today, we feature a few of those selections introduced by members of our departmental community, who opine on the relationships between sound and security. So kick your Wednesday off with some tunes and a little fancy scholarly footwork that sheds a little more light on some well-known (or not-so-well-known) favorites. The depth of some of these songs may surprise you. Enjoy.

And, if you’re a Spotify user, be sure to subscribe to the playlist at the link above.

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Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, “Nowhere To Run” (1965)

Ostensibly about the difficulty of walking away from a bad relationship, the jarringly upbeat “Nowhere to Run” is more of a ghost story.  The phantom lover haunts dreams, the bathroom mirror, and other people’s faces.  Reeves knows its time to go, but she can’t find a way out.  GIs took over the song as a metaphor for the quagmire of Vietnam.  Today, considering the quagmire of bankrupt Detroit, the Vandellas’ joyous romp through an auto plant in their promotional video offers an almost spectral image of a distant, happier past. – Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller

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Steve Earle, “Rich Man’s War” (2004)

Steve Earle makes an appearance on the list. His “Rich Man’s War” is part of the most recent incarnation of Earle—a songwriter with politics on the sleeve and class consciousness in the heart. But it makes me think of an earlier, Appalachian-inspired Steve Earle—that of the “Copperhead Road,” bootlegging, fast cars, and law-breaking days. That Steve Earle had it the other way around, class on the sleeve and politics in the noisy heartbeat underneath. To my ears, both bring more layers to the question of security/insecurity. To “Are we secure or are we insecure?” Earle adds, “Did we build this prison ourselves?” and “How do we get out of this cycle?” As his “Satellite Radio” puts it: “Is there anybody listening to earth tonight?” Because it might just be us who are here to figure it all out. – Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt

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Bruce Cockburn, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (1984)

Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.   Everything about Cockburn’s piece screams the eighties—from its cheesy keyboard patches to its scathing critique of the US pursuit of the strategy of supposedly “low intensity conflict” in Central America.  The pacifist folkie’s mounting frustration leads to dreams of high-powered vigilantism two years after the first Rambo movie and two years before the Iran-Contra affair made Ollie North a household name. – Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller

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Jeff Buckley, “Grace” (1994)

Jeff Buckley’s “Grace,” the title track from the artist’s only self-released album, embodies the emotional volatility of nineties alternative rock. At once a driving hard rock anthem and a surprisingly tender expression of a man’s resignation to his own demise, “Grace” is a nexus among uncertainty, alienation, and shrill-but-powerful panic stoked when death knocks at the door. Such themes are well at home in the disaffected Gen-X musical world also inhabited by the pre-emo likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But fear not. That messy snarl of ostensibly inevitable misery is ameliorated, at least in part, by the power of love (no Back to the Future allusion intended, although Marty McFly certainly had reason to feel insecure). Much as love provides some semblance of stability, the raw finality of death is, sez Buckley, perhaps the greatest source of security we can hope for. – Carrie Andersen

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Alumni Voices: Jason Mellard, History Lecturer at Texas State University

We’re back this week with a feature on an alumnus of the American Studies Ph.D. program. Jason Mellard currently teaches history at Texas State University and recently (as in, this month!) published his first book, Progressive Country: How the 1970s Transformed the Texan in Popular Culture with the University of Texas Press. You can nab a copy here. Do it! (And, if you’re in the Austin area, Threadgill’s South will be hosting a book release party this Wednesday, October 30, at 6:00pm.)


How is the work that you’re doing right now informed by the work that you did as a student in American Studies at UT?

I work with the Center for Texas Music History at Texas State University in San Marcos. Under Director Gary Hartman, we publish the annual Journal of Texas Music History, produce the short This Week in Texas Music History radio segments for KUTX, advise on the Dickson Series in Texas Music with Texas A & M University Press, and teach popular music courses in the Department of History and Honors College at Texas State.

The interdisciplinary habit of mind fits the Center’s broad audience quite well. We speak to musicologists, historians, record collectors, industry types, artists, and fans, all of whom have strong, but often divergent, affective investments in Texas Music. This requires the ability to pivot, to see the relevance of popular music history from each of their vantage points.  The conversations we seek to foster beyond the academy also involve a populist sentiment I feel to be deep in the American Studies vein. Janet Davis, Elizabeth Engelhardt, and Randy Lewis, among others, have modeled this sensibility in the department, one that dates back to our UT forebears in Henry Nash Smith, J. Frank Dobie, and Américo Paredes.

In teaching, I credit the wide latitude the department offered in allowing us to design and teach our own courses. In the spring I have the opportunity to return to the first class I ever offered at UT, “The 1970s in America: Revolution, Malaise, Reaction, and Sleaze.” I feel lucky that AMS gave me free reign to present students with the disorienting smorgasbord of disco, Patty Hearst, AIM, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And, it is likely that I never would have been in a position to teach it had not the department given the same freedom, years before, to Joel Dinerstein in developing his legendary “The History of Being Cool in America.” It was there I first learned of American Studies as a UT undergrad, and I continually endeavor to develop that same combination of curiosity, wonder, and critical acumen that UT-AMS faculty and grad students offer in the classroom, semester after semester.

Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for students in our department about how to get the most out of their time here?

Say “yes.” This is a tricky piece of advice, as I am only now reaching a place where I tell people to learn to say “no.” In grad school, though, I found it served me best to stay hungry. My dissertation and book project evolved from answering an Austin Chronicle open call to aid Threadgill’s proprietor Eddie Wilson in researching material for his memoirs. Saying yes also earned me a writing gig with UT AMS alum Farbrizio Salmoni’s magazine American West: La Rivista Italiana di Western Lifestyle, where I covered rodeo and Texas Music for a fervent Italian audience. Also know that there is a network of alumni locally, nationally, and internationally that wish for your success and the success of the department as a whole. Take advantage of these contacts to learn of the various possible career paths out of the graduate experience.

And, have a life outside of the university. In addition to cultivating the Italian rodeo circuit, I worked at a shoe store that sprung out of the Emo’s orbit and at Toy Joy’s short-lived vegan bakery. American Studies folks tend to be drawn to these opportunities of their own accord, but I just want to ratify the impulse. Do something that engages your physical and social intelligence to get you out of your head now and again.

For more about American Studies at UT, subscribe to our newsletter here.

Security/Insecurity in the News, Sept. 27 – Oct. 11

2010 10 30 - 9376 - Washington DC - Fear-Sanity Rallies

Hey there, sports fans! Here’s your biweekly round-up of security and insecurity in the news:

Is ethical parenting possible? (New York Magazine)

Marvel’s Diversity Issue: Screen Output Doesn’t Reflect Open-minded Comics (Vulture)

Videogames are making us too comfortable with the modern surveillance state (The New Republic)

It’s Always Time for a Midlife Crisis: When are people most likely to face a tough stretch? (Slate)

‘Drones might be the future of food’ (The Atlantic)

The state of the American war novel (LA Review of Books)

Die Like a Man: The Toxic Masculinity of Breaking Bad (Wired)

Thomas Pynchon understands the power of conspiracy theories (Salon)

Why are there still so few women in science? (The New York Times)

How music makes us feel better (The New Yorker)

For more about American Studies at UT, subscribe to our newsletter here