Pop History: Yeasayer’s “Ambling Alp”

Experimental rock group Yeasayer released its second album, Odd Blood, in 2010 to a generally favorable reception. As compared to the band’s previous work, critics appreciated the foray into much more accessible pop sensibilities. But beneath the catchy hooks and upbeat affirmation of the album’s first single, “Ambling Alp,” lies a kernel of historical inspiration. Unlike the mysterious and somewhat impressionistic vocals of their other songs, the lyrical allusions of “Ambling Alp” reference a particularly notable figure in sports history: the great boxer Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber,” heavyweight champion of the world from 1937-1949.


Oh, Max Schmeling was a formidable foe.
The Ambling Alp was too, at least that’s what I’m told

Primo Carnera, left, gasps as Joe Louis reaches his stomach with a stiff left in the third round of their fight at Yankee Stadium, New York, June 25, 1935. (AP Photo)
Primo Carnera, left, gasps as Joe Louis reaches his stomach with a stiff left in the third round of their fight at Yankee Stadium, New York, June 25, 1935. (AP Photo)

Joe Louis fought Primo Carnera in 1935, the Italian boxer whose nickname, “The Ambling Alp,” provides the song its title. He knocked out the massive Italian in six rounds, with the powerful victory setting off his career. At that time he was still on his way to the heavyweight title, a road that would hit an unexpected bump in his first fight with German boxer Max Schmeling in 1936. Though few expected Louis to have any trouble, Schmeling handed Louis his first professional loss with a knockout in the twelfth round. Louis had underestimated his opponent, and Schmeling had carefully prepared. But the importance of the fight extended beyond the ring: Max Schmeling fought under the flag of the Nazi regime, and his victory made for excellent material in the Nazi propaganda machine. Though not a Nazi himself, Schmeling’s victory over Louis, a black American, was twisted into further justification for German theories of Aryan racial superiority.

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Gender Gap Set in Stone

Chicago’s 580 parks are littered with statues of historically significant men. Some of these men may be familiar to you: Nicolaus Copernicus, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln. Others may be unfamiliar: Greene Vardiman Black, for example, the “father of modern dentistry.” While the accomplishments of these notable figures vary, their gender does not. In fact, there is not a single statue in Chicago that honors a historically significant woman.

The lack of public statues honoring women has received recent attention in the local media, and for good reason. In a city home to such important female leaders like Ida B. Wells and Jane Addams, how can public depictions of women remain absent in Chicago’s parks?

The Chicago Park District told WBEZ Chicago that this absence is an issue of timing; the heyday of public sculpture in the city occurred before women earned the right to vote and were therefore not involved in public life. Yet this argument does not explain why men continued to be honored in Chicago parks long after women earned the right to vote in 1920. As recently as 2006, the Chicago Park District has added a new bronze statue of a male figure to its expansive park system.

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Student Spotlight: Pamela Johnson

Loyola University Chicago’s history graduate program is home to dozens of students with a wide range of interests. This spotlight series highlights some of these interests and celebrates the history department’s diverse graduate student community.

This “Student Spotlight” focuses on Pamela Johnson. Pam is in her third (and final!) year of the European History MA program. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Arkansas in 2006.

What are your fields of interest?
I study both modern and early modern Europe, with an emphasis on France. I’ve studied the French Revolution, but I’ve found myself more drawn to the Third Republic. I particularly enjoy micro-history, women & gender, race relations, and urban studies. It’s been wonderful having the opportunity to study those different fields in my courses here at Loyola. I feel that it’s given me a well-rounded view of French history.

Why did you choose Loyola?
I chose to apply to Loyola after being accepted into a few other history programs here in Chicago and finding that they were not the right fit for me. After researching the department, I knew I wanted to work with Dr. Suzanne Kaufman, because she’s done work on modern France. Loyola was definitely the best decision for me. Continue reading “Student Spotlight: Pamela Johnson”

Are you Smart Enough for High School History?

As the spring 2014 semester winds down for us Loyola history majors over the course of the next week, I thought that it would be nice to celebrate with something fun, light and easy. For that reason, I am posting on our blog to share with you an interactive website that one of my students at the Howard Area Community Center has recently introduced me to. The site is an online companion to the world history textbook Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources; and it was created by the author and global historian Robert William Strayer.

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AHA Meeting, New York, January 2 – 5, 2015

The AHA, believe or not, it is becoming more innovative year after year. For this coming 2015 AHA Annual Meeting in New York City, there has been a call for creative session formats, and the theme is History and the Other Disciplines (wink-wink digital humanities). Even this past meeting has its own Storify! The AHA is trying to be, not only up-to-date and “hype,” but also to understand that times are changing. For 2015, the AHA challenges historians to think outside the box with proposals like “TED Talk”-style presentations, PechaKucha, or digital sessions where “[a]ll sorts of things are possible now that were not even imaginable [before].”

So here it is my call. The deadline for submitting session proposals is February 15. Is it still possible to put together a session with revolutionary (in the digital sense) ideas in only 10 days? You tell me! I am up for the test. I am working on ways to both democratization of historical research through new media with my dissertation on the physicality of memory in Spain during the twentieth century. Remember, you don’t have to submit the full presentation (these are the requirements), so as long as you have an idea based on the research you are conducting right now, or that you project to conduct over the summer and the fall, we can do this!

Besides, it is always fun to go to conferences and all, but I recognize that accommodations can be tricky as we all live under tight budget constrains. Consider that we can always find somebody willing to host us in their couch, or you can open a hotel rewards’ program credit card (I apologize for the product placement but I have the Marriott Rewards Credit Card from Chase and I got 4 free nights after opening the account; and there several others out there as well)

If you would like to try this with me, send me an email to fpadr009@fiu.edu.

The Columbian Question: A Call for a Plebiscite on Columbus Day

In 1994, Common Courage Press, a progressive publishing house dedicated to social justice and based out of the small town of Monroe, Maine, produced a manuscript entitled Indians Are Us?: Culture and Genocide in Native North America. The author of this text was none other than the Creek-Muskogee intellectual, political activist, and scholar, Ward LeRoy Churchill, who was at the time serving as the professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. In the second chapter, entitled “Bringing the Law Back Home: Application of the Genocide Convention in the United States,” Churchill joined—and perhaps even surpassed—a growing number of journalists, scholars, activists, and citizens by emphatically calling for an end to the annual celebration of Columbus Day in America. “Undeniably,” Churchill wrote, “the situation of American Indians will not—in fact cannot—change for the better so long as such attitudes are deemed socially acceptable by the mainstream populace. Hence, such celebrations as Columbus Day must be stopped.”

Nowadays, there is perhaps no holiday in America culture more defined by ambivalence than Columbus Day. While most working professionals—particularly of the millennial generation—are happy enough getting a day off from work in October, no matter what the occasion, some are finding it harder and harder to memorialize the “Admiral of the Ocean” without feelings of cynicism. These people may not go as far as to agree with scholars like Ward Churchill, or the American historian Alfred W. Crosby—who ended his groundbreaking book The Columbian Exchange (1972) on an extremely pessimistic note about the consequences of European discovery—but most of them harbor at least a vague understanding that the century following European arrival in the Americas is not an historical period with which to be particularly proud or patriotic. At the same time, critics recognize that there is something undeniably important about remembering the pivotal, historical changes that occurred during this period.

The modern dilemma of Columbus Day is partly attached to the atrocities that its namesake and his companions inflicted upon the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. Indeed, some people know about the 48-page report by Francisco de Bobadilla, the governor of the island of Hispaniola after Columbus, from 1500-1502. Testimonies in this report indicate that Columbus faced serious indictments for torturing, mutilating, and enslaving the indigenous population, most notably the Lucayan people of present-day Bahamas and the Taíno people of present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Among other things, these reports state that Columbus suppressed numerous indigenous revolts, afterward reaffirming his authority by parading dismembered bodies through the street, cutting off noses, shipping natives to the Iberian peninsula in shackles (most of them dying en route), and generally instituting one of the most brutal systems of forced labor that history would ever bear witness to. Since the rediscovery of this specific report in the Spanish archives, a series of short, History-channel documentaries, collectively entitled the “Columbus Controversy,” has attempted to integrate these atrocities into our general understanding of the famous and infamous conquistador.

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