SongWriter is a podcast of stories and “answer songs,” featuring performances by Roxane Gay, Joyce Carol Oates, Ted Leo, Susan Orlean, Toshi Reagon, and Michael Ian Black. You can hear an exclusive preview of the episode featuring a reading from Alison Gaylin and a song written in response by Colin McGrath Noisetrade.
We called the kids who wore confederate flags on their jean jackets “rednecks” in my high school. A reference to the sunburns previous generations got working outdoors, the name was dated but still effective. Few of the kids in my school lived on farms anymore; their parents were more likely to work the checkout at the grocery store or shifts at the poultry plant. But even without sunburns, rich and poor were segregated in my high school with relentless persistence, often aided by the school itself. The kids we called rednecks (they called kids like me “snobs”) were almost all placed in the classes with lower academic expectations. The snobs were in the advanced classes.
I did not know then that the kids we called rednecks were future Republicans. There were plenty of reasons that they wouldn’t be. Their parents were more likely to belong to a union, they were weed-friendly, and they weren’t fans of corporations or banks. But they were also more religious, and a lot more likely to have guns and confederate flags displayed in the back of their trucks. (Racism was the norm in both social groups, but the snobs seemed to understand it was something to be hidden.) The future political alignment of these kids is as obvious now as it seemed unlikely then. If you told me at the time that the kids smoking joints in their pickups would one day align themselves politically with billionaires, I would have laughed.
I thought about how the present changes and rearranges our understanding of the past when I spoke with author Alison Gaylin about her book Never Look Back. The novel features a character loosely based on Caril Ann Fugate, who was convicted for the Starkweather murders. These murders were notorious in mid-century America, and were the inspiration for Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” and the movies Badlands and Natural Born Killers. All of these present the relationship between Starkweather and Fugate as a love story.
But as Alison points out, Fugate was just 14 years-old when she was kidnapped and raped by Charles Starkweather. He told her that she would be returned to her family if she cooperated with him (though by then her family was already dead). Fugate spent 17 years in prison, largely because prosecutors felt that she should have tried harder to escape. At the time she was understood as a willing accomplice—in hindsight she looks more like a traumatized child.
The next live online SongWriter show is Sunday, October 25, and will feature Cheryl Strayed reading letters to “Dear Sugar,” and songwriter Maia Sharp. Follow Ben Arthur @MyHeart on Twitter or @BenArthurMusic on IG.