StoryCorps, Statesmanship & Song

This entry in The Out There Side blog series excerpts a StoryCorps interview with Dr. Marty Kuhlman, associate professor of history at West Texas A&M University, and a lifelong friend of the author. It covers wild US elections, great rock & roll songs, and other topics du jour.

“Hit me with your best shot!” That was the email reply I received from Dr. Marty Kuhlman, after I sent him the link to my recent blog post about our interview — along with a reminder that we never really talked about rock & roll so we needed a do-over. “Okay, I’m stuck in the middle with you,” he said.

We did that do-over Q&A in a later phone chat and delved into the topic of music — namely, “What makes a great song?” (More on that below.)

Meanwhile I became an avid fan of Marty’s radio show. It airs on Friday nights 7–9 pm CST on KWTS 91.1 FM, out of Canyon and Amarillo, TX — and it can be streamed at wtamu.edu/kwts. (Now on holiday hiatus, the show resumes January 22 with the spring semester at West Texas A&M University, where Marty teaches history courses on subjects ranging from American Reconstruction to Civil Rights in the 1950s.)

During recent radio shows I took a particular thrill in text-questing Marty while he was on the air, needling him with things like, “You played songs about Saturday, Monday & Tuesday, but you skipped Sunday — as in, Groovin’ on a Sunday Afternoon!” Soon after I heard him chuckle on air, repeat that line and play Groovin’. It was remote magic! (It didn’t always work — Marty’s a free spirit.) One night when Marty played the 1970 hit Ride Captain Ride at my request, he said, “I hope this mystery ship sails all the way to New York City…”I felt the love 2,000 miles away.

So we had a bit of telepathy going, and one day Marty sent a note saying he’d been asked to be interviewed for StoryCorps, the organization that collects and archives conversations around the nation and runs selected excerpts on NPR’s Morning Edition. A rep from StoryCorps High Plains invited Marty to participate and asked him to name an interview partner. To my surprise, Marty chose me — and soon we were on a Zoom-like platform (with a silent moderator) for a 40-minute conversation about “anything” we wanted. As our talk was on November 11, soon after the 2020 election, we talked a lot about politics — through the lens of Marty’s knowledge of US history.

Jack and Marty during the StoryCorps interview.

StoryCorps archived and submitted the interview to the Library of Congress, per usual, and recently they sent the audio link to Marty and me, saying we could share it as we wish. We agreed to share it here in this blog: “Let the chips fall where they may,” Marty said. Most folks will probably not want to sit through a rambling talk between two old friends (now old farts) — but there’s some good stuff in there, so below we present a condensed Q&A.

What Happened in America

On November 11, the day of our talk, Joe Biden had been declared President-elect and Donald Trump had claimed widespread fraud, refused to concede, and vowed to fight on. (Not unlike now.) I hoped that, as a historian, Marty could provide some scholarly perspective, and he did not disappoint.

Samuel Tilden (left) and Rutherford B. Hayes faced off in the contested 1876 Presidential Election.

JACK CRAGER: I’ll start with a question: Was that a dramatic election we just had, or what?

MARTY KUHLMAN: Yeah, it was very dramatic, obviously. In my class, I have a senior graduate seminar class on Reconstruction. And it just so happens that on Monday night, we talked about the election of 1876 — and that was probably the most dramatic election, in that century. It’s not a real well-known election now, but you had Samuel Tilden versus Rutherford B. Hayes. And Tilden won for the Democrats. But it was decided that he won in three Southern states because of the intimidation that was going on. And there actually was a lot of intimidation. They found out that in one parish in Louisiana in 1874, there were 1,688 Republican votes. In 1876, there was one Republican vote.

JC: A little discrepancy there [laughter]. So what were the three states that they singled out?

MK: Well, Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina were the states.

JC: So they gave the election to Hayes after all that?

MK: Yeah, they gave it to Hayes. Tilden got the most popular votes and probably won the electoral votes, but these three states were up for grabs, so you didn’t know it.

JC: And so this all played out after the election, over weeks and months?

MK: Oh yeah, it took a long time. They had to put up a 15-person Commission. It was supposed to be seven Republicans and seven Democrats and then one independent. Well, the independent was more Republican. So of course, they gave the election to Hayes too.

JC: So it was a close vote on the Commission …

MK: Well, it was eight to seven.

JC: That sounds like the 2000 election [Bush v. Gore], when it came down to one person on the Supreme Court, the swing vote.

MK: Yeah. And of course there was a 537-vote difference, I think, in Florida.

JC: That year all the counting was to settle a very close vote in one state. This time, Trump is fighting tooth and nail. Do you think he is going to concede?

MK: He’s going to go through the courts, and throw a fit. Of course Bill Maher says, “He’s gonna lock himself in the Lincoln bedroom.” I think he’ll make a stance, like George Wallace did in 1963. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama and said, “We’re not going to let the federal government do this” [integrate the school]. Well, George Wallace knew he was going to back down and the federal government knew he was going to back down. They just made it kind of a deal where he stood up. So his followers said, “Hey, isn’t he tough!” And then he said, “Well, I’m backing down because the federal government’s making me.” And that’ll be the same thing Trump does. He’ll get on a news program, he’ll buy a network, and he’ll come out and keep causing trouble.

JC: So that way he can appear to be the fighter. But eventually Trump will somehow be gone from the White House. What about Trumpism? Do you think it’s going to still be with us? There are 74 million people who voted for him this time, and that’s a huge vote …

MK: Yeah, and Republicans made gains in Congress, so it really shows people are still leaning conservative, but they said, “Maybe we don’t need Trump.” But I don’t know. What do you think?

JC: I think that Trumpism remains, and the election shows this nation is still very divided. There really is a clear split between two philosophies about the role of the Federal Government. And what I’m wondering is, have we always had that split or is it more pronounced now?

MK: It seems more pronounced in politics now. I mean, there’s always been a 50–50 split, but you know, when we were kids, in the election of ’76, there were people for Ford and there were people for Carter, but when Carter won, the people who were for Ford didn’t say, “We’re gonna go get our guns and and keep Carter from bringing us the communism.”

JC: Right. So it seems the viewpoints of the two sides are more dug in now.

MK: Yeah, it does. It seems like it was building up during Reagan, maybe, and then there were the two Bushes and Clinton. But I think that divide really became pronounced with Obama, and with race, and with Trump and his birther controversy, and all that followed.

JC: In my history classes, they taught me that the Reagan election in 1980 was a realignment — it wasn’t just a shift of power, but it started a whole trend toward modern conservatism. Do you think we’re going through a realignment now or is this more just a swing of the pendulum?

MK: It could have been a realignment at one point … Republicans, you know, are all getting into Trump’s camp, and have been in Trump’s camp for the last two years, and I think they see politically that it’s working out. So they say maybe we should not get rid of it. Yesterday in class we were talking about the Equal Rights Amendment, and how the Reagan-era Republicans were against it. Before then, however, the Republicans were supporters of the ERA, somewhat even more than the Democrats in the ’60s. But when the Moral Majority started to say the ERA is a bad thing, the Republicans said “Well, women are probably not going to vote for us anyway, but we can get the Moral Majority to vote for us. So we’re going to have to change a few things and one of them was our support of the ERA.”

JC: We’ve talked before about how the Republicans, before Reagan, were sometimes progressive — like Nixon was the one who started the Environmental Protection Agency.

MK: Right, and Nixon’s health care plan was probably more liberal than Obama’s.

JC: Sometimes the party itself changes its priorities.

MK: Yeah, and it’s always a political game. We say that we need to get votes of the Moral Majority, let’s change our political game.

America’s political pendulum swings approximately every eight years.

JC: In the 2016 election, I thought: The pendulum always swings and this was a year of change — it was swinging back to the right. The Democrats had been in power for eight years; it usually takes about that long for it to switch. There was also, as you said, an anti-Obama thing going on, and an anti-Hillary thing, and Trump capitalized on all that and got power. But I also thought: That year the pendulum swung so hard and so violently that it might just jerk back again … Do you think it jerked back this year?

MK: I think that it swung back somewhat on Trump, but it didn’t swing back on the Republicans. It didn’t swing against conservatism. Enough people said, “Trump is the wrong guy,” but also, “We like more conservative ideas.” So I think the Democrats are going to have to move more to the center.

JC: And one reason Joe Biden won the primary is because he’s a centrist. Do you see hope that these two parties can work together?

MK: Whoa, not for a while [laughter]. It doesn’t look like it. If it would have been a bigger victory for Biden — if Trump would have been really put down and the Republicans would have suffered more — they may have said, “Okay now we do have to work together.” But I don’t think they can say that now.

JC: You mentioned Republican gains in Congress, but the Senate power is not decided yet — in Georgia, the Democrats could still get two seats.

MK: Yeah, and Georgia was quite a surprise for me. I never thought that Georgia would vote for a Democrat President.

JC: The demographic is changing in places like Georgia and Arizona, even Texas. Democrats are growing their ranks as well. The populace is changing.

MK: Yeah, at some point in Texas, Latinos are going to be the plurality in the state — by 2030, maybe? It’s interesting: 1920 was the first year that there was a more urban population than rural in the US. And there was kind of a clash of culture, over things like drinking, right? And of course Canyon’s a rural town, and then Canyon allowed drinking about two years ago.

JC: It only took a hundred years [laughter].

MK: But the urbanites, you know, they’re going to be more for things like this. And there was the Scopes Monkey Trial, in Tennessee. There the rural people wanted the teaching of creationism from the Bible. And the urban folks said, We’re going to teach evolution. Things like that.

JC: So urban-versus-rural is often the divider between these viewpoints.

MK: Yeah, and you see it in almost every election. This year the area where we came from, Randall County, went 78 percent for Trump.

JC: And Manhattan voted 86 percent for Biden. Well nobody votes for Trump in New York City because we’ve known him for years [laughter]. But as you’ve said, these divides have been going on since the beginning of the Republic. You said, during Reconstruction for instance, they kept fighting over the issue of states’ rights for decades.

MK: Yeah, they talked about it: How can the federal government tell the states what to do? And ironically, one thing that derailed Reconstruction, or ruined any chance of having the federal government protect African-American rights, was the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said, “The federal government gets to do stuff but the state is the main thing.” For example, there was one case, United States v. Cruikshank, that was about murders by whites of African-Americans in Louisiana, and the federal court said, We’re going to take over this, because in your state your juries are all white, during that time.

JC: And the high court intervened …

MK: Well the federal court intervened and and they said, “These guys are guilty of murder — they’re convicted.” And it went to the Supreme Court, which said, “No, you can’t do that. The state has the right to try these guys.” So they overturned and let the guys go.

JC: So not only was states rights being debated between voters and legislators, but also in the Supreme Court.

MK: Yeah. It’s interesting that in the South, when they cry states rights — and cry the loudest — it’s always over racial questions. There’s two key times they’ve really talked about states rights: before the Civil War over slavery, and then in the ’50s when they tried to desegregate schools and all that. Both times it’s about race.

JC: Then there was also the gender issue, which you wrote about: In 1920 women got the right to vote. And a hundred years later Kamala Harris is Vice President-elect.

MK: Yeah, that’s really poetic justice.

JC: That’s one indicator that, while these battles continue, there’s a certain progress going on. Like MLK said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

MK: I guess there’s some historical, progress-making things all the time, but … there’s a lot of down slopes. It’s not just heading straight up. In class we were talking about the progressive movement of the early 1900s, and I asked the students: In your opinion, was it positive or negative? And actually a lot of people say positive, but there are those who say, “The government got their foot in and they wanted too much.” There’s always two sides.

Marty Kuhlman’s 2007 novel Barriers.

The Art of Storytelling

JC: You’re always coming up with all these stories. You said that you got into history because of the art of storytelling — or rather, writing led you to history.

MK: Kind of. Growing up, you like stories, and I grew up with all this Gone With the Wind crap, and my parents took me to Vicksburg [Mississippi].

JC: You mean, you bought into the romantic notion of …

MK: Of magnolias and Southern plantations all that crap, and I thought it was right, but then: education! When you start to get education you start to see you’re wrong, man [laughter].

JC: So you felt like you had a renaissance when you got into the history books.

MK: Yeah, I think so. Especially when I got into my doctoral studies [about civil rights in Texas] and I started seeing the truth of this. And the idea of democracy. And really it’s that people have been so oppressed, but they have kept fighting. Right now I’m grading tests, and one thing I asked about was that idea of the “double victory.” That’s the World War II thing: Many African-American newspapers ran the idea of a double victory, or helping to win the war, but we’re also going to win our rights at home. We’re going to fight for the country, but we’re going to continue fighting here at home.

JC: So do you see that going on now, with Black Lives Matter and with the racial tension that we have? Do you see those same battles playing out in a different setting?

MK: We’re seeing some of these same battles … but the difference now is more white people are joining the protests. In fact, they’re sometimes the ones who go too far, who like, you know, attack people who are having dinner. On the other side, President Trump really put out: “We don’t care what the rest of the world thinks about us.” But now you’re going to have other views. Hopefully what Joe Biden will do is to start to repair the damage that was done with our allies. And one thing our allies will say is, “Hey, you better start having a little more racial justice.” And I think they’re going to have to do that.

JC: You’re studying all this, you said, in search of the truth. What do you think your role is, as a teacher and a writer? What are you trying to accomplish?

MK: I think my role I get to just to get out the stories, get out the stuff. In the last issue of the Panhandle Plains Historical Review [an annual compendium of writings that Marty edits], I have an article about the desegregation of WT.

JC: So you lay this information out there, and let readers and students and people learn from it.

MK: Yeah, that’s the best I can do. You know, “I’m just a singer in a rock and roll band.”

What Makes a Great Song?

Marty Kuhlman’s radio show always starts with the signature number I Just Wanna Celebrate, by Rare Earth: “I just wanna celebrate / another day of living.” It’s a fitting thought from a guy who nearly lost his life in a bicycle accident at age 10. I’ve always been wowed by Marty’s nose for a great song, and it drives his deejay adventures, so I had to ask him about it.

JC: What about your radio show? What do you think your role is there?

MK: My radio show is totally fluff and enjoyment. You might try to say, “Okay, I’ll introduce these young people to classic rock and it’ll change their lives.” And it won’t happen [laughter].

JC: The only people listening to classic rock are old farts like us.

MK: But if anyone’s listening: WTAMU.edu/wtsu.

JC: That brings me to a key topic: What makes a great song? Your show goes in a lot of different directions — like for instance you played Funky Town. And you said, “Now I’m going to play something that might take you places you’ve never been.” Are you suggesting that most of those listeners don’t hear disco, or wouldn’t know that one?

MK: Well I don’t play very much disco on the show — but that one is okay, and sometimes I get into the mood for it. Pretty much, I’m just doing this for myself. And I’m saying, “Hey, you’re gonna dig this sound or you’re not,” and really I don’t care if there’s anybody listening or not. On the radio I don’t have to be a professor. The music is something there to be enjoyed.

JC: How do you pick the song list?

MK: You find something. Like if it’s raining, I might like playing Rainy Night in Georgia, or Have You Ever Seen the Rain? And I always focus on the kind of stuff that I really love.

JC: You said great songs evoke memories, and most of the time your memories come from hearing it on the radio, as opposed to a record ...

MK: Yeah. Like one time I woke up and they were playing California Dreaming. So you wake up out of a dream and hear that … and then they get into the instrumental, the flute part, and it just takes you away. It goes off on its own. And that’s what makes a song. When you listen to it again and again and you find something new. The Beatles always had those surprises. Like, In My Life goes off with the piano that sounds like a harpsichord. Or in the background there’s something more. On I Am the Walrus, at the end they have the lines from Shakespeare’s King Lear.

JC: They just piped that in, as it was playing on the BBC … The other night you played Joe Cocker singing With a Little Help from My Friends, and you said: “Most of the time when somebody covers the Beatles, I would just as soon have the original, but here’s the exception.”

MK: Joe Cocker made it his own song. The Beatles version is more orchestrated — his is looser. And I hear it and I see him dancing [on stage at Woodstock] … he’s in another world!

JC: Sometimes the singer is what makes it. The famous example is Respect: Otis Redding wrote it, but when he heard Aretha Franklin’s version he said, “That girl stole my song!” And what she brought to the song was the middle eight with the R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Plus the gender switch.

MK: Yeah, Otis Redding stood for civil rights and all, but she added more double-meaning.

JC: I think Otis wrote that song about: When he comes home he wants his wife to show him a little respect around the house — it’s almost chauvinistic. And when she sang it, it was like women rising up in the workplace.

MK: Yeah, she made it a feminist anthem.

JC: When you played The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, by the Band, you described it as a history lesson. Could you elaborate?

MK: It’s the Civil War, you know. “Virgil Cane drove along the Danville Train.” Danville’s just like 30 miles from Richmond. And Stoneman’s cavalry … Stoneman was the actual name of the Union Cavalry leader that would harass Richmond. In the winter of ’65, in the last year of the war, you’re hungry, just barely alive. [Sings:] “By May the 10th, and Richmond had fell, it’s a time I knew oh so well.” Then the next verse: “Back with my wife in Tennessee / When one day she called to me / Virgil, quick, come see / There goes Robert E. Lee.” That’s the Confederate Army, I’d say. “I don’t mind chopping wood / And I don’t care if the money’s no good.” Well the Confederate money was no good … In the last line, “Like my father before me / I will work the land / And like my brother above me / Who took a rebel stand / He was just 18, proud and brave / But a Yankee laid him in his grave.” It’s all a piece of history. And what the Band did is, they reintroduced Americana.

JC: That song is written from the Confederate point of view. It’s ironic that the writer, Robbie Robertson, is Canadian. He wrote like a novelist. He must’ve gotten that from Dylan. They were all jamming in Woodstock at the time …

MK: Right, the Band had been Dylan’s backing band. They said, “We have all this British rock & roll, and psychedelia, but let’s get back to basics. Let’s get back to folk music and Americana.” You know, in those golden years, rock music was always changing. That’s why we love it.

Jack Crager is a writer and editor based in New York City (jackcrager.com).