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(Read more about Kate Campbell below)
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with a Christian perspective:
History of a Southern Heart: The
Music of Kate Campbell"
each of us, in varying proportions, there is part of yesterday’s
man; it is yesterday’s man who inevitably predominates us, since
the present amounts to little compared with the long past in the course
of which we were formed and from whom we result. Yet we do not sense
this man of the past, because he is inveterate in us; he makes up
the unconscious part of ourselves.” - Pierre Bourdieu
by John Seel
have a strong sense of place. In the songs of Kate Campbell one
can smell the clay dirt roads of Georgia, one can picture the kudzu
vines of North Carolina, feel the uncontrollable force of the great
river of Mississippi. This is tactile music from the heart of a
woman who understands the meaning of heritage and home.
going south of everything
Where the air is sweet and church bells ring
Back where I come from, back where I belong
Down where the sun shines in the rain
And life goes by from a front porch swing
You can keep the bitter cold
I’m gonna go south of everything
Americans have lost a sense of place. Like fiddler crabs we scurry
from one suburban domicile to another. It’s an ersatz world
of designer identities; superficial and terribly the same. It is
even eroding what it means to be a Southerner.
Orlando is lined with toney shops and gaslights. It’s cobble
stoned streets give the impression of history reclaimed. But it’s
not. It, like much of America, is a Disneyfied fraud. There never
was an old downtown Orlando; it is simply a mythic facade used as
a setting for tourism. Welcome to the New South.
getting hard to find good grits and gravy
I know you know just what I’m talking about
Well that’s the price you have to pay for progress
And to be living in the new south
traded our boots for Italian loafers
And Bichon Frises are our new hounds
Thanks to Disney World and Coca-Cola
We’re finally living in the new south
Walmart and McDonald’s cannot erase the importance of place.
It gets into our pores and shapes our identities. American Christians
have little appreciation for context and physicality’for the
weight of the doctrines of creation and incarnation. We are not
autonomous individuals shaped somehow by reductionistic rationality.
Our identity is derived from our families and from the places we
in habit. We are embodied history. Which is why the sins of fathers
are passed down from generation to generation. We don’t know
who we are until we know where we’ve come from. For many,
homelessness is more than the product of geographic mobility; it
is rooted in historic amnesia. Home is ground zero of selfhood.
Campbell is a Southern singer/songwriter. Raised the daughter of
a Baptist minister in Mississippi, her music is rooted in the glories,
ambiguities and sorrows of the American South. Musically, she is
compared to Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nanci Griffith, and Lucinda Williams.
Her narrative songs’ “post card fiction” are compared
to William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner and Eurdora Welty.
(“If Eudora Welty wrote songs, they would probably sound a
lot like this,” writes the Boston Globe.) But such comparisons
do Campbell no justice. Here as few have done before is a voice
that captures the pain and promise of place.
career is also unique, begun at the age of 30 in 1991. She left
a history faculty position at Middle Tennessee State University
to pursue music. “I loved teaching, but when I turned 30,”
she told the Nashville Scene, “I came to the conclusion that
teaching was something I could come back to, that it was something
I can do when I’m older. But if I was going to sing my songs,
I had to give it a go now." As one reviewer commented, “The
world needs teachers like Kate Campbell.” Her music is the
history of a heart, ’the unconscious memory of a Southerner.
Her seven albums are simple, honest, and powerful: Songs From the
Levee (1995), Moonpie Dreams (1997), Visions of Plenty (1998), Rosaryville
(1999), Wandering Strange (2001), Monument (2002), and Twang On
a Wire (2003). These songs connect the mind and heart, the past
and present, the particular and universal, the transient and eternal.
They are soul food. Campbell quotes Flannery O’Conner on the
liner notes of Rosaryville, “Art is something that one experiences
alone and for the purpose of realizing in a fresh way through the
senses the mystery of existence.” In contrast to a world filled
with entertainment as diversion, one reviewer wisely noted, “You
need this woman’s music in your life.”
also have a strong sense of heritage, but it is a checkered history.
How does a child of the South connect his or her identity to a past
that is filled with images of slavery and burning crosses? I write
as a Southerner. Virginia is my adopted home. I honor the memory
of its heroes, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. I cried at the
recent film Gods and Generals. And yet, my own family was deeply
involved in the alleviation of racism in the South. My grandfather
served as the Secretary of Negro Work of the Southern Presbyterian
Church and was the president of Stillman College in Tuscaloosa,
Alabama, a historically black teaching institution. The administration
building bears his name. I well remember, my father storming out
of a little cafe located in a small town on the border of Florida
and Georgia, when he read the words “We reserve the right
to serve whomever we want” on the bottom of the menu. Having
grown up on the mission field, it was my first memory of segregation.
My father’s outrage has left a lasting impression.
also a student of history and history textbooks rarely describe
the ambiguities of Southern culture. We’re PC now and paint
history in simplistic black and white hues. How then is a Southerner
to remember? How is the pride and shame to be faced?
are questions Campbell, college history teacher turned folk singer,
addresses. In her song, “Petrified House,” she tells
the story of an aging woman living in a Southern downtown mansion,
now surrounded by topless bars and strip malls. For her time has
stood still, even as property taxes have whittled away her once
believes that somehow that nothing has changed
Even though Sherman left Georgia in flames
Cotton’s still king and the south didn’t fall
As long as wisteria climbs up the wall
as the South has changed, there is much that remains the same. It
was only last summer that ex-Klansman, Bobby Frank Cherry, was convicted
for the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham,
Alabama that took the life of four black little girls. The pain
of the Civil Rights Movement is still fresh. Of these four girls,
Campbell asks Jesus to take the collective pain on his own shoulders.
little girls dress up nice
Singing about Jesus, red and yellow, black and white
Dreaming of freedom across the land
And all God’s children walking hand in hand
deadly blast shattered the peace
Making for a dark Sunday morning on Sixteenth Street
Who can explain such ignorant hate
When the violent bear it away
it away, bear it away
Merciful Jesus, lift up our sorrow
Upon your shoulders and bear it away
one of her most poignant and personal songs about her attitudes
toward the South, “Looking Back,” from the album Rosaryville,
she describes the importance of getting the history right and feeling
fully both the triumph and tears of the Southern experience. This
is wise advice, learned from study, reflection, and life.
still recall the night lightning burned the mansion down. We all
stood in our pajamas on that hallowed Southern ground. When the
flames had turned to ashes only blackened bricks remained and sixteen
stately Doric columns there beneath a veil of gray. And it’s
a long and slow surrender retreating from the past. It’s important
to remember to fly the flag half-mast and look away. I was taught
by elders wiser love your neighbors, love your God. Never saw a
cross on fire; never saw an angry mob. I saw sweet magnolia blossoms.
I chased lightning bugs at night. Never dreaming others saw our
way of life in black and white. Part of me hears voices crying.
Part of me can feel their weight. Part of me believes that mansion
stood for something more than hate.
of us are rooted in time and place. All our histories bear the scars
of both fallenness and grace. Campbell traces these memories through
the contours of her heart. In doing so, she helps each of us make
our own connections and experience the deeper mysteries of existence.
She doesn’t leave her listeners only with nostalgia and pathos.
Campbell points beyond to our hearts’ true home.
John Seel is the headmaster of The Cambridge School of Dallas, a
Christ-centered, classical college preparatory school. He is the
author of Parenting Without Perfection: Being a Kingdom Influence
in a Toxic World. He was formerly the Associate Director of the
Institute for the Advanced Study of Culture at the University of
Virginia. Kate Campbell’s CDs can be ordered from www.katecampbell.com.