Spring 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 1
Matters of Debate
IN THIS BICENTENNIAL YEAR of Lincoln’s birth, one of the hundreds of offerings about the 16th president brings his voice to life with particular power: BBC Audiobooks has released a 16-hour audio recording of the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and his great rival, Stephen Douglas, for the Illinois Senate seat in 1858. The seven debates, each held in a different Illinois congressional district, would prove a major force in propelling Lincoln to the presidency two years later.
The set of 14 CDs—featuring David Strathairn as Lincoln and Richard Dreyfuss as Douglas—presents the marathon engagements unabridged, bringing them to auditory life in a way the printed page can’t achieve. The inescapable topic, of course, was slavery—particularly whether it would be allowed to spread into the new territories. Lincoln had launched his campaign against the incumbent Douglas in June 1858 with his famous “A House Divided” speech to the Illinois Republican Convention. A good portion of the debates consists of Douglas accusing Lincoln of being a radical abolitionist, with Lincoln counterattacking that Douglas’s doctrine of “popular sovereignty” was both morally wrong and politically untenable.
The audio introduction by historian Allen C. Guelzo of Gettysburg College, author of Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, paints a vivid picture of these three-hour debates, each attended by anywhere from 1,500 to 10,000 people. “The air [was] filled with the dust clouds of thousands of people on foot, on horseback or in wagons, and punctuated by the noise of brass bands and fist fights. The weather was unbearably hot and dry.”
If you want to plumb the historical significance of the debates, go to any number of books, especially the recent Lincoln-Douglas Debates, edited by Rodney O. Davis and Douglas L. Wilson (University of Illinois Press 2008). What these recordings offer is a glimpse into a form of political discourse that has long since disappeared—it’s like seeing the shadow of an extinct animal. “They are a testimony to the dazzling quality of American political oratory in the days before spin rooms and instapundits reduced politics to sound bites,” says Guelzo. As a straightforward listening experience, this will provide many hours of pleasure for anyone so inclined.
Available at www.bbcaudiobooksamerica.com  as a set of 14 CDs or as a digital download.
WE SHALL REMAIN, a five-part history of American Indians premiering April 13 on PBS, is particularly notable for what you won’t see on TV. PBS and the American Experience series based at Boston’s WGBH have created an unprecedented collection of Web-based initiatives to give the public TV series an impact far beyond the airwaves.
Of particular interest at www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/weshallremain  is the “ReelNative” feature: short videos produced on cell phones by mostly young Native American producers. Many of the 25 or so segments available on the Web site are autobiographical and set in the present day, although as series executive producer Sharon Grimberg notes, “a lot of them have some connection to the past, even if history is not the main theme.”
According to Maria Daniels, director of new media for American Experience, it’s been a fascinating and challenging experience to work with young producers across the country. “Now that our audience is much more savvy about production, we’re interested in continuously engaging viewers in new ways of looking at history.”
In addition to the videos, the Web site features a section called “Native Now,” which deals with sovereignty issues, enterprise concerns, and ongoing efforts to preserve the approximately 150 native languages still extant. The section hosts short videos, links to other sites, and connections to resources that are part of the contemporary lives of American Indians. The site also hosts 15 different regional coalitions of native organizations and tribes, libraries, historical societies, museums, schools and other groups to promote understanding of native history and contemporary life.
“We’re a history series,” says Grimberg, “but on this project in particular we felt it’s very important to bring the story up to the present.”
What soundtrack comes to mind when you think of Andrew Jackson? If you’re curious about an accompanying score for the seventh president, a recent CD release, The Atrocious Saint, will set your ears buzzing.
The brainchild of world music performer and composer Christopher Hedge, The Atrocious Saint is the expanded CD version of Hedge’s score for the recent PBS documentary Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil and the Presidency. Hedge likens the project to a sonic archaeological dig—an attempt to create music that would reflect the multicultural world that was early 19th-century Jacksonian America.
The 17 selections cover a range of sources and styles: slave songs, American Indian traditional music, classical European compositions, and Scotch-Irish folk songs. “I wrote this music to try to get a more realistic understanding of my own country,” Hedge says. “I wanted to try to see Andrew Jackson from the contrasts and contradictions that defined his life.”
Jackson’s life (1767–1845) saw the 13 colonies become an industrial powerhouse fueled by slavery and pushing relentlessly westward, obliterating the native peoples in its path. Jackson himself played no small part in the process. To capture those cross currents, Hedge brought in performers proficient in all the strains of music that filled the air in
late 18th- and early 19th century America: Congolese drummer Titos Sompa, Navajo-Ute flute player R. Carlos Nakai, bluegrass mandolin master David Grisman, Hedge himself on guitar, dulcimer and keyboards, and a host of other accomplished musicians. Nakai and Sompa play together for one piece—a cultural pairing that evokes the early Americans who are often omitted from the national portrait.
To capture even more authenticity, Hedge sought out historical locations in which to record some of the selections. Sometimes, says Hedge, “the history of the place and the experience of creating music within it became what the music was. . . . The music is affected by that essential reality even without the audience knowing the back story.”
The Atrocious Saint offers an entertaining reminder that there’s more than documentary evidence to the historical record. Available through www.amazon.com  or downloadable at www.livedownloads.com .