“We Are the Afterlife”: Contemporary Music and My Historical Imagination

I experience my life through music. When my father left, my adolescent afternoons were spent gripping his abandoned Tom T. Hall record. I listened to “Sneaky Snake” hundreds of times, perhaps trying to incarnate “a-gigglin’” and “a-kissin’” – even from a snake. Years later, with a girlfriend neither named Gina, nor one who worked the diner all day, I nonetheless gave it a shot with my high school youth group to convince them that “Livin’ on a Prayer” should be appreciated for its spiritual insights. It seemed we were half way there when I was allowed to play it on the mission trip bus. Now, whether in trapped rooms at conferences or touching moments afterward, Frank Sinatra speaks my secrets. In other words, his voice says what I cannot.

Music fills my classroom. It sets ablaze my teaching imagination. Sometimes, I fixate on a song and see if I can frame an entire age of U.S. history within it. I weave together the song and images of the time period to create a montage tapestry and then a PowerPoint quilt. Students behold the images multiple times, set in different narrative flows, and attached to different sonic experiences (the music, my voice, the perspectives of one another, and even silence). The totality of the experience, I hope, is invasive. I endeavor to storm their eyes and ears time and again so that they feel the past flowing in and around them.

For the late colonial period and then revolutionary era, I couldn’t stop hearing Mika’s “Kick Ass.” Most of my students know it from the film of the same name. As I listen to “We are young, / We are strong,” I hear Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the others as revolutionary sons before they became founding fathers. As I listen to “I can change the world / I can make it better,” I catch a sonic glimpse of their global hopes. But of course, their freedom was contingent upon the unfreedoms of others. “Running with blood on our knees,” reminds me of the kneeling slaves so ubiquitous in art of the age and after. “Are they thinking of you or of me?” I hear from slaves petitioning for liberty in 1770s Massachusetts.

Of the decades before the American Civil War, I felt pulled toward two songs this term. Big Country’s uncreatively titled “In a Big Country” and Ingrid Michaelson’s “Breathing.” “In a Big Country” is too vast to describe, but it matches the grandeur of American artwork of the era. Michaelson’s song is breathtaking. It often leads me to ruminate on Henry Box Brown, whose twenty-seven hours imprisoned in a box culminated in his liberty. He must have been aware of every breath he would take, because he was certainly aware of every move he couldn’t make. For the video, I had images of African Americans visually boxed until the end when we see Brown’s “resurrection.” This was also the song I hummed quietly, tearfully, painfully two years ago when I selected the box my infant son would never leave.

These videos are more than add-ons. They’re more than creative fun to entice the almost five-hundred students in my class who would probably prefer being anywhere else. Obsessing about the music, rehearsing in my mind over and over what images could go with which lyrics, and then placing them into various narrative flows changes how I conceive of the past. In class, I show the montage before the set of lectures; then students see the discrete images during lectures and conversations, oftentimes with the song lyrics as PowerPoint headings; and then we return to the videos after the batch of lectures and discussions. The music allows me to back-stich, to move forward as we move backward.

Most recently, my imagination of being a historian and a scholar in the humanities has been illuminated by Ingrid Michaelson’s “Afterlife.” You probably know her from this summer’s poppy “Girls Chase Boys.” At first listen, “Afterlife” may seem like a simple love song. There’s much more when I lean and listen in, especially when heard in the context of Ingrid’s mother’s recent death. Grieving through twitter, Michaelson has discussed herself as an afterlife of her mom. I find it a beautiful image of human community and embodied continuity.

Maybe Robert Darnton was only writing of a first step when he described history as “an attempt to make contact with most of humanity – that is, the great majority of the human race who have vanished into the past as opposed to the tiny number of their descendants walking the earth today.” Contact is my beginning. Conjuring is where the magic appears. Every time I mention a person, quote a text, reference old experiences, or bring to the present that which appears to be gone, I participate in the afterlife. And the imperial me demands that others join. The dead are only lifeless in body; the books are only closed on library shelves. “We can live inside of a moment,” Michaelson encourages. When I consider myself part of the afterlife, when I rest and wrestle inside those moments of the past, I feel a deep sense of gravity, joy, and sorrow for our task. This isn’t just a job. These aren’t memory shards of bygone days. They’re beautiful burdens which need courageous burden bearers.

Finally, Michaelson gives me hope amid the seeming unending jeremiads of professional life. I’m not sure when the humanities weren’t in trouble, according to those within it. When I look around at my historian colleagues, when I travel to conferences and symposia, and when I read this blog, however, I feel like part of a group that would fit Michaelson’s tune. “You and me, we got this, / You and me, we’re beautiful, beautiful.” Cheesy, no doubt. But rather than obsess over what we lack, I prefer to enjoy what and who we are. For me, we are the afterlife.

2 thoughts on ““We Are the Afterlife”: Contemporary Music and My Historical Imagination

  1. Oh, I love this! I always play Jimmy Buffet’s Fruitcakes when I talk about the second great awakening and 19th century reform.

    And, I’m going to steal “In a Big Country.”

  2. Not to sound sappy and emotional, but this song is a true mieserpatce. The harmony in their voices coupled with the lyrics, and instruments, fill you with the feeling of bliss.

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