History

The Max-Blum Incident

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Jason Zengerle has said most of what needs to be said about the penultimate Toby Keith controversy. No, not the country singer's unfortunate remarks about Barack Obama ("I think black people would say he don't talk after or carry himself as a black person"), which I won't defend. I mean the other hubbub, in which the scalp-hunting liberal Max Blumenthal accused Keith of a deeper, more disturbing level of racism (and of pandering to the "radical right"). His chief evidence is the nostalgia for nooses expressed in Keith's 2003 song "Beer for My Horses."

Zengerle points out that Keith, who Blumenthal describes as a "chickenhawk" who has "carefully calibrated his image" to endear himself to "freeperland," is actually a Democrat with doubts about the Iraq war. More importantly, Zengerle points out that the verse in "Beer for My Horses" that set Blumenthal off ("Take all the rope in Texas/Find a tall oak tree") was sung by someone else:

Blumenthal never mentions that Keith sings "Beer For My Horses" with Willie Nelson, and it's actually Nelson who sings the supposedly incriminating lyrics (as you can see at about the 1:43 mark of the music video).

Now Willie Nelson's been called a lot of things—a pot head, a tax cheat, etc—but I don't think anyone's ever called Willie Nelson (who just recorded an album with Wynton Marsalis) a racist. So if Blumenthal wants to argue that Keith is pro-lynching, he needs to argue that Nelson is, too—which is something he doesn't do.

Nelson, for the record, has recorded music not just with Marsalis but with Ray Charles and Snoop Dogg. (No, not at the same time.) And when the black country singer Charley Pride was starting to establish himself, at a time when racial hostility was much more overt and violent than today, Nelson toured with Pride and helped him win over white audiences. In Jan Reid's classic account of the Austin country scene, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, Nelson tells the story of a Louisiana concert where "We didn't know what was going to happen there, so I really laid it on about him, and when he walked out I kissed him, kissed him on the mouth. Of course we had to move on fast to something else, but by the time they got over the shock he was already playing, and he had them hooked." (Nelson's friend Lee Clayon adds: "Yeah, but later on they were looking for the guy who kissed that nigger.")

At any rate, "Beer" isn't about white terror. It's an "I Got Rights"-style paean to vigilante justice, which isn't necessarily the same thing. Its nostalgia is for the Old West, not the Old South; for vengeance, not racial hierarchy. In practice, of course, you can't always disentangle those two traditions—the west was never free of racially motivated lynchings, and southerners sometimes lynched whites as well as blacks. But the two threads aren't identical: not in history, and—more important when you're interpreting pop lyrics—not in cultural memory. "Beer for My Horses" is a mediocre record, the sort of song you could hear five times in a day and still have trouble humming the next morning. But it's a stretch to call it racist.

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  1. Willie has also recorded with Toots and the Maytals.

  2. Clint Eastwood was lynched, and he isn’t black or Chinese.

  3. Chip,

    I just saw Toots in concert. It was excellent.

  4. I saw Willie perform about two weeks ago and the second or third song he performed was “Beer for My Horses.” Maybe some of the HuffPo crowd would like to start criticizing Willie for his rendition as well?

  5. “I think black people would say he don’t talk after or carry himself as a black person”

    Toby Keith–the voice of black America. At least, that part of black America which talks after or carries itself like a third grader with a head injury.

  6. So now the concept of a noose is racist in any context?

    Mentally noted.

  7. Heh, I love that song. One of the handful of country songs I’ve ever liked.

    IIRC, the lines before the one that has Blumey’s bloomers in a bunch go something like

    “My grandpappy told my pappy, back in my day son, a man had to answer for the wicked that he done.” There’s also a line about people doing dirty deeds, and too much corruption and crime in the streets.

    I don’t know where anyone gets the impression this means “Hey! Let’s go hang some black people!” but if you look hard enough and want to believe badly enough, you can find racial grievances everywhere. They’re sort of like God that way.

  8. Yes, there is a jolly good dollop of elitism here, but I think a lot of these perception conflicts have to do with the fact that race (for white people, at least) has two, not one axes. While most want to think of the easy “racist” – “not racist” on-off switch, there is really an obsession with race to consider as well.

    Racist (obsessed): Virulent hicks, klan members, fuckheads who have entire an web-empire devoted to keeping those nasty brown people out of the country.

    Racist (not-obsessed): The casual racist. Might not vote for Obama, but would never admit it, locks the doorsdriving through a lower-middle-class black neighborhood. Purse-clutchers.

    Non-Racist (not-obsessed): Doesn’t really think about race in a day, not overly concerned about the black experience in America. Tries to deal with people as individuals, but doesn’t willfully blind himself to an individual’s shortcomings as a recompense for past racial injustice.

    Non-Racist (obsessed): Sees everything through the lens of race, and scans popular culture looking for examples of “racism” to be outraged about. Wants reparations and cannot understand or accept that anyone might have a problem with quota-esque affirmative action. (And here’s the key point.) Thinks anyone less obsessed with race than he is automatically qualifies as a racist.

    Blumenthal is clearly obsessed with race and jumping at shadows only he can see. Willing to not even consider the context upon hearing the word “noose.” Way too many people on the left are this way. They think calling people who aren’t interested in their hobby the worst slur they can think of is somehow productive. They farm out their own pathological internalized guilt out on everyone else under the self-delusion that they are more virtuous than those around them.

  9. Oh joy. I’m sure these comments are going to be full enough of lmao to sustain me until happy hour.

  10. No kidding, Chip?

    When was this?

  11. A couple of people have mentioned context – the line immediately preceding the song, the history of lynchings in the west vs the south.

    I think what’s going on here is that Blumanthal is using Keith’s dumbass remark about how Barack carries himself as context for the line about the noose. It really isn’t, but if you have an impression of Keith from said dumbass comment, it’s plausible how someone can think a lyric about the good old day of lynching can be racist.

  12. Nicely put, NutraSweet. But this raises the question: why are you obsessed with categorizing the types of racist/non-racist? Huh? What are you hiding?

  13. My OCD.

    [hangs head]

  14. Its nostalgia is for the Old West, not the Old South

    Your not-so-thinly veiled sneer is duly noted as per the usual.

  15. I think what’s going on here is that Blumanthal is using Keith’s dumbass remark about how Barack carries himself as context for the line about the noose.

    He is now, but that wasn’t what started him off. Blumenthal’s first post about Keith went up on July 29. Keith made his comments about Obama on July 30. (And yes, I didn’t get around to blogging it until August 8.)

  16. Your not-so-thinly veiled sneer is duly noted as per the usual.

    Huh? Who or what am I supposed to be sneering at? (Other than Blumenthal, I mean.)

  17. I have just discovered the Boy Scout handbook contains not just references to nooses, but instructions on how to make them. Clearly this document is racist hate speech.

    Burn them! Burn them all!

  18. So now the concept of a noose is racist in any context?

    Keith never actually used the term ‘noose.’ So to be safe, avoid using terms associated with ropes and/or trees.

  19. How is what Kieth said any different than Obama describing his grandmother as a “typical white person”? If there is a sin to what Kieth said it is that he painted the entire black race with a particular brush, which seems to me is exactly what Obama did in describing someone as a “typical white person”. That is really what Kieth is doing here on in reverse describing Obama as “not your typical black person.”

  20. I don’t know if W. Nelson is a racist, but I do know that the movie accompanying his brilliant “Red Headed Stranger” kicks about as much ass as anything I’ve ever seen.

  21. My OCD.

    Over-the-counter-drugs? I thought you were on prescription painkillers, you know, the real stuff. I am.

  22. The film version of Beer for My Horses comes out today:

    http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/1809994770/info

    The trailer doesn’t look especially promising.

  23. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder; common disease of the profession. I don’t know a librarian or archivist without some higher-than-normal degree of it. I over-categorize things (alpha by author*, then by copyright date, and then by publication date for multiple editions.) My wife keeps the house spotless and arranges her clothes along the color spectrum. One of my co-workers will straighten everything on my desk to right angles while talking to me.

    *Although, I have been toying with the notion of arranging my books by publication date alone. I think interesting juxtapositions would reveal themselves being able to look what was being published at the same time, or what came shortly after.

  24. You frighten me, NutraSweet.

  25. Wow dude, that makes perfect sense to me. Seems quite logical to say the least.

    JT
    http://www.Ultimate-Anonymity.com

  26. Sugarfree,

    My wife is a former librarian. We went on a trip last weekend and she packed a cooler in the car and carefully marked the tops of the sodas as cafine free or not. I kidded her that she ought to be like the Army and publish regulations. She could have a whole series of “JRs” or Jennifer regulations as opposed to Army Regulation. JR 1-4 could be proper cooler paking and include a sub paragraph on the proper marking of the tops of sodas. She didn’t think it was a bad idea and I got a little freightened at that point.

  27. Jesse Walker,

    A great many hispanics were lynched in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

  28. I over-categorize things (alpha by author*, then by copyright date, and then by publication date for multiple editions.)

    that seems perfectly reasonable.

    i do cds the same way (artist/date/us-uk-japan whatever edition) but i always run into a problem with solo projects. do you do them by name of artist? or do you lump them in with the bigger project?

    causes me a headache it does.

  29. Do typical black people have their own salute? I thought this was a joke by some rightwinger making fun of Obama but apparently it is serious.

    http://www.usnews.com/blogs/washington-whispers/2008/08/07/one-nation-under-a-new-obama-salute.html

  30. Sugar Free,

    What about by subject, binding, imprint, size?
    I would only use alpha by author as a sub-category.

    IANALibrarian.


  31. A great many hispanics were lynched in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

    Particularly in Hispanic countries.

  32. Pancho Villa,

    While that may be the case, it was hispanics lynched within the U.S. that I was referring to.

  33. Alpha by author then title here, with an exception often made for series of books (treating the name of the series as the title, or under the first book if the series has no clear title, or just do not bother if most of an author’s work is same-universe, no particular order; if I ever get enough Pratchett, this exception could become an issue).

    My wife is also a librarian. Any horizontal surface is storage space, and the proper place for any new addition to that space is either “on top” or “any clear space.” I am not even vaguely OCD enough to keep that in order.

  34. Do typical black people have their own salute?

    That article is about a Barack Obama salute, John.

    Black people, huh? Nice.

  35. “That article is about a Barack Obama salute, John.

    Black people, huh? Nice.”

    Yeah Joe. The thread is about Kieth saying that Obama isn’t a typical black person. Obama seems to have his own salute, although in his defense it is his creepy supporters doing it not him. So my question is does “a typical black person” as Keith or anyone else sees it have their own salute? It was a joke, Joe. Relax. I don’t think there is a typical black person anymore than there is a typical white person.

  36. joe screams “racist” faster than trailer trash girls scream “fuck me, daddy” when you’re banging them.

  37. John,

    I would imagine only the military exceeds librarians in the depth and inanity of its manuals and rules.

    Have you ever seen the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules? 4 times longer than the Bible and that doesn’t include addendums, errata, and appendices. Or the ten plus volumes of subject headings. All to properly decide the numbers libraries slap on the spine and the brief book description you get in a card catalog (or on-line catalog.)

    dhex,

    Two possible solutions:

    1. Auteur theory hierarchical co-location. Take the original band and group all solo projects with it (Mike and the Mechanics, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel all group with Genesis (copyright date is a good sub-grouping here), including side projects where the band has heavier weighting based on your interest in collecting it. (i.e. If you bought the Nelson/Maytels project for Nelson, group it with Nelson.)

    2. Fine-granularity genre. This requires you having hours of joy (or pain) deciding in excruciating detail the sub-sub-genre of everything and then creating a hierarchical structure for arrangement. For example: Electronic -> Industrial -> German Industrial -> Einst?rzende Neubauten (Of course, this leaves gaps. Where you do put Dread Zeppelin, for example, if you don’t have enough for a Novelty Act sub-division?

    SIV,

    I don’t have enough non-fiction to fool with subject division and genre in science fiction books is way too subjective. The wife arranges her own books by boring alpha-only. I have been trying to annotate my electronic catalog of books with subject tags, so I can sort by them, but ran into a definition problem early on that de-railed me into obsessively hunting some obscure books to review in order to properly define the sub-sub-genre. (I admitted to being nuts, up front.)

  38. Yeah Joe. The thread is about Kieth saying that Obama isn’t a typical black person.

    A theme you decided to echo.

    Yeah, I know it was a joke. I think it sucked. The premise of your joke depends on a racist one – that black people are supposed to be a certain way, and not have the trappings of a political campaign, like the three-finger Bush salute mentioned in your link.

    The only connection between the article you linked to and black people is the idea that the trappings of political power are somehow not black. Ha ha, isn’t that funny?

  39. Oh God Joe you are so full of shit. The joke such as it was is how rediculous it is to have a “salute”. There is nothing about a salute that is part of the “trappings of political power” unless you wear a black uniform with a death’s head on it or play a role in Star Trek or Pink Floyd’s The Wall. My God, you really don’t find the “Obama Salute” creepy and bizarre? I guess I never thought anyone could take the joke the way you did because I never imagined any sane person could think of a personal salute as part of the “trappings of political power”.

  40. Blumenthal never mentions that Keith sings “Beer For My Horses” with Willie Nelson, and it’s actually Nelson who sings the supposedly incriminating lyrics (as you can see at about the 1:43 mark of the music video

    Seems to me that the person who’s racist (if indeed anyone is) would be the person who wrote the song, not the one who sang it. Was that Keith, or someone else?

  41. The joke such as it was is how rediculous it is to have a “salute”.

    And you decided to bring the candidate’s race into it, why, again?

    There is nothing about a salute that is part of the “trappings of political power” Um…what? Who do you salute, John? The mailman?

    My God, you really don’t find the “Obama Salute” creepy and bizarre? I find it a bit silly, but that’s not what’s wrong with your joke.

    Look, I feel for your white fratboy angst, John. It never occured to you that dragging race into the joke was a bad idea. Well, news flash – if the subject of the joke’s race isn’t an integral part of the joke, don’t drag it in.

  42. -A “racist” is anyone who disagrees with a liberal.

    -A “terrorist” is anyone who disagrees with a conservative.

  43. – A “dimwit” is anyone who thinks a putdown of a group a speaker belongs to is a really good response to an argument.

  44. The verse in question is as follows

    Grandpappy told my pappy, back in my day, son
    A man had to answer for the wicked that he done
    Take all the rope in texas
    Find a tall oak tree, round up all of them bad boys
    Hang them high in the street for all the people to see that.

    The verse is clearly about hanging outlaws. It amazes me how stupid some people are. Gee, there isn’t any idea in this culture that they hung horse theives and outlaws in the old west is there? No not all. Every reference to hanging someone must be a reference to Southern lynchings and therefore racist. A third grader could read that verse and know that it is talking about hanging outlaws not black people. Apparently Max Blumenthal doens’t have the intelligence of a third grader.

  45. A great many hispanics were lynched in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

    Italians, too. Among others.

  46. Let me try to make this clear to you, John.

    You know how there was nothing race-related in the rope reference in “Beer for My Horses?” How the subject was something else – vigilante justice – but Blumenthal decided to throw in a racial element there, just to try to make someone look bad?

    Some of us don’t like that sort of thing.

  47. For the record Joe I was never in a fraternity and you are as dumb as a post. You really do lose your mind when it comes to certain subjects. No typical person black or white or purple has a personal salute. This is not a traditional salute like you do the flag. This is a special Obama salute like the salute the Klingons or whoever did on Star Trek. I have never heard of inventint your own salute for a candidate. It is bizare.

  48. Seems to me that the person who’s racist (if indeed anyone is) would be the person who wrote the song, not the one who sang it. Was that Keith, or someone else?

    Keith co-wrote it with Scotty Emerick. But it’s not like Nelson needs the money, and it’s not like he’s singing the song ironically. If it were bigoted, it would be fair to criticize him for his role in the project.

  49. Um, John?

    I have never heard of inventint your own salute for a candidate. It is bizare.

    The very first sentence of the piece you linked to was:

    George Bush had his three-fingered W salute that supporters flashed when greeting him at presidential campaign events in 2000.

    I agree, such things are silly, like those awful elephant hats you see at conventions, or “W” buttons. Who has their own buttons? Oh, right: political candidates.

    Still looking for the reason you made sure to mention that Obama was black.

  50. John,

    To play devil’s advocate a bit, the verse might make one wonder just how an outlaw is defined in the historical setting the song apparently takes place in.

  51. Italians, too. Among others.

    My great-grandfather would pretend to be Indian (from India) and other things when being Italian was inconvenient for him (this was in the early 1900’s). He even had fake accents. I guess you get creative when you have the balls to leave Calabria at 15 years old and come to a new country, and end up owning enough of Paterson, NJ to have an island in the Passaic named after you.

  52. John,

    In other words, does the song go on to define just who these “bad boys” were? Were they horse thieves for instance?

  53. But it’s not like Nelson needs the money, and it’s not like he’s singing the song ironically.

    True enough, I suppose, though it still seems like a different animal than actually writing a racist song. Supposing that it is racist, of course.

  54. Seward,

    Well a man come on the 6 oclock news
    Said somebodys been shot, somebodys been abused
    Somebody blew up a building
    Somebody stole a car
    Somebody got away
    Somebody didnt get too far yeah
    They didnt get too far

    Grandpappy told my pappy, back in my day, son
    A man had to answer for the wicked that he done
    Take all the rope in texas
    Find a tall oak tree, round up all of them bad boys
    Hang them high in the street for all the people to see that

    There is the verse with the verse that proceeds it. I guess if you are truly a racist and think that everytime someone refers to a criminal in this society they mean a black person, then maybe you think the song is talking about lynching black people. The sane way to read it is the singer is talking about how there are too many criminals gettting away with things in this society now but back in the old days, they knew how deal with people like that. It is Dirty Harry, not KKK.

  55. It seems to me that if you have to “make a case” that a living person is in favor of race-based lynching, then perhaps you should take a step back and wonder if the hit your own reputation will take is worth it.

    The charge “he supports lynching” should be supported by incontrovertible evidence. And song lyrics are just about the worst place to look for such evidence. If it were, then David Bowie would be Major Tom and Ground Control at the same time, which is impossible.

  56. Jesse Walker,

    Italians, too. Among others.

    What I was getting at (I realize I didn’t make this very clear) was that racial hierarchy may have been a prime motivator in West when it came to lynchings given the number of hispanics lynched there. Indeed, it seems to me that wherever lynchings and other types of “popular justice” exist that the defense of certain types of social hierarchies are more often than not involved.

  57. It was easier to get by if people thought he was from India than Italy?

    Weird.

  58. I guess if you are truly a racist and think that everytime someone refers to a criminal in this society they mean a black person, then maybe you think the song is talking about lynching black people.

    You’re much too quick to accuse people of racism, John.

    Blumenthal obviously made the connection between “lynching” and black people, not “criminals” and black people. He doesn’t seem to have noticed the “criminal” part at all.

  59. It was easier to get by if people thought he was from India than Italy?

    That was my thought too, but anti-Italian sentiment was pretty strong. Better to be something exotic and rare than common and hated.

    As late as the 60’s there were WASPs complaining to their children that they were bringing the “dirty WOP” (my mom) over to the house to play.

  60. Episiarch,

    My Anglo grandmother up and married Aroldo Baldini back in the 30s. She even converted to the One True Church, and learned to make sauce.

    So, my mom was visiting my great-grandmother in the nursing home a few years, and Grammie says “Your mother used to tell me she wanted to have blonde-haired blue-eyed babies. I told her, ‘You ain’t gonna have any blonde-haired blue-eyed babies if you marry that nigger.'”

    So my mother says, “Grammie, that’s my FATHER you’re talking about!”

    Grammie puts her hand on her knee and says, “Don’t worry, dearie, you don’t look a thing like him.”

    I can only laugh. We might as well be living on a different planet from Americans in the first half of the 20th century.

  61. What’s even funnier about this stupid kerfluffle is that in the video for the song, Kieth plays a *cop* trying to find a bad guy cutting up women. The perp? Some white guy.

  62. What I was getting at (I realize I didn’t make this very clear) was that racial hierarchy may have been a prime motivator in West when it came to lynchings given the number of hispanics lynched there. Indeed, it seems to me that wherever lynchings and other types of “popular justice” exist that the defense of certain types of social hierarchies are more often than not involved.

    There certainly was plenty of that. Click on the “never free” link in my post to see a book about the ways western whites kept down the Chinese.

    A prime motivator, though? I doubt that. Bear in mind that, on the frontier especially, “popular justice” often reflected either the absence of formal legal authority or a feeling that the formal legal authority — i.e., the dominant social hierarchy — was itself corrupt.

    Most important, bear in mind the difference between actual history and cultural memory. Songs like this draw on popular stereotypes of frontier justice, which just don’t have the racial dimension you’ll find in popular stereotypes of the Jim Crow south. That might not tell us much about the reasons real people were lynched in old Texas, but it does give us some insight into what was on Keith’s, Emerick’s, and Nelson’s minds.

  63. …faster than trailer trash girls scream “fuck me, daddy” when you’re banging them.

    Epi,

    You might just have your very own country music career ahead of you. This lyric’s solid gold.

    Are you familiar with 1-4-5-1 chord progression?

  64. What Jesse Walker is forgetting is that TobyKeith sings about a “tall oak tree”. And, someone was hanged using a “tall oak tree”. Therefore, TobyKeith supports the latter incident.

    Note: that link is included in MaxBlumenthal’s follow-up article, and I’d like to thank Reason’s BFF for linking to me.

  65. Jesse Walker,

    Bear in mind that, on the frontier especially, “popular justice” often reflected either the absence of formal legal authority or a feeling that the formal legal authority — i.e., the dominant social hierarchy — was itself corrupt.

    I don’t see how that undercuts the notion that racial animus was a prime motivator in lynchings in the West. Anyway, given that in the South the formal legal authority was sometimes in “cahoots” with lynch mobs I could see that sort of phenomenon happening in the West as well.

    Most important, bear in mind the difference between actual history and cultural memory. …

    Sure enough, but my comments to you weren’t really addressing the content, etc. of the song.

  66. Jesse Walker,

    A further thought…

    A prime motivator, though? I doubt that.

    You know, a number of historians have argued that in the 19th century to be an American meant to be – amongst other things – white. I think that observation is right.

  67. I don’t see how that undercuts the notion that racial animus was a prime motivator in lynchings in the West.

    If you meant that it was a prime motivator in particular killings, then I agree with you. I thought you meant it was a prime motivator for the larger phenomenon of “popular justice” in the American West, and I was suggesting that other motives were stronger. Bear in mind that most lynchees in the West were white — at least according to the stats I’ve seen, which annoyingly either fail to count Asian and Hispanic victims or group them as either “white” or “black,” heaven knows which.

    If you add up all the extralegal killings of Chinese, Irish, Mexican, and black Americans in the west, it’s possible that they’ll outnumber the killings I was alluding to. And of course there’s some overlap as well. It’s an empirical question, and I’m just offering a preliminary hypothesis.

    Anyway, given that in the South the formal legal authority was sometimes in “cahoots” with lynch mobs I could see that sort of phenomenon happening in the West as well.

    That’s an important distinction: vengeance as a para-state activity vs. vengeance as a non-state activity. (And then there’s vengeance as an anti-state activity, or as it’s more commonly known, “revolutionary violence.” Or, more broadly, vengeance as an anti-social-hierarchy activity, which may or may not target agents of the state. Let’s not forget that the Wobblies flourished in the West as well.)

  68. Epi,

    You might just have your very own country music career ahead of you. This lyric’s solid gold.

    Are you familiar with 1-4-5-1 chord progression?

    Sure, but I only sing. My cousin does the guitar.

  69. Sure, but I only sing. My cousin does the guitar.

    Throw in some cowbell and you’re set.

  70. in country music, twang trumps cowbell.

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