In These Fields: A Folk Opera

For the Sunday performance of our 19th fall symposium, SFA commissioned In These Fields: A Folk Opera by Sam Gleaves and Silas House. The cast will perform the piece live tonight at ArtsPlace in Lexington, Kentucky.

For those who can’t attend, we offer this video from its original performance, along with notes from Gleaves and House to orient you. Special thanks to Hed Hi Media for this recording.

Historical Notes
Sam Gleaves and Silas House

In These Fields is a meditation on corn and the role it has played in the history and culture of the South over the last 175 years. With that lofty goal in mind, we have packed our words and music with historical and cultural information. Issues of class and race are so complex here that we have incorporated stage pictures, a term we use to refer to what the audience sees while the words and music happen. In addition to this historical grounding, we also gesture toward a South we can all hope for: a place of unity instead of division. And now, those notes…

Indian Removal

The Indian Removal Act was championed and signed into law by President Andrew Jackson in May of 1830. To make room for white settlers, the law authorized a decade of forced Native American migration out of the South. The best known of these actions is now called the Trail of Tears. Between 1836 and 1839, federal troops forced about 14,000 Cherokees from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Texas to march to Oklahoma for resettlement. More than 4,000 people died on the walk or as a result of the walk, now considered an act of genocide. Around 1,000 Cherokee managed to hide out in the mountains and avoid removal.

Slavery and its Stain

Any exploration of the South, especially one rooted in agriculture, must grapple with slavery and the legacies of that peculiar institution. Slavery in North America began when the first West Africans arrived at the colony of Jamestown in 1619 to aid in agricultural production. According to the 1860 census, almost four million enslaved people lived in the United States on the eve of the Civil War. Though agriculture was their primary vocation, enslaved African Americans drove the broader economic success of the South – and the nation as a whole. During our monologue on slavery, our cast represents Jim Crow. The waltz, which follows, respresents a dream of unity in the South.

The Great Flood

The Great Mississippi Flood of April 1927, the most destructive in the history of the United States, impacted more than a million Southerners. Waters as high as thirty feet covered 27,000 square miles of land as the Mississippi River reclaimed three-quarters of its flood plain. Nearly a month after initial rains, the Mississippi River stretched sixty miles wide below Memphis. Of the more than 600,000 people affected by the flood, most lived in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The flood, and the destruction it engendered, drove black migration out of the South, restructured regional and national power dynamics, and deeply influenced a generation of artists, including Mississippi blues musicians.

Work and Play

For many decades, people in rural agricultural communities participated in celebratory gatherings that revolved around farm work. Quilting bees, apple peelings, sorghum pulls, log rollings, and corn shucking parties combined labor and fun. Corn songs were largely improvised, defined by call and response patterns, with a leader singing verses while the crowd replied with the chorus. Lyrics were often bawdy and might include critical comments about workers or foremen. Once the work was done, corn-shucking parties often featured drinking and dancing. Sometimes corn farmers hid jars of moonshine beneath piles of un-shucked corn to encourage workers to dig deep for a prize.

A Few Words about Moonshine

Originally any whiskey sold illicitly, moonshine as we now know it relies on corn as its main ingredient. Scots-Irish immigrants introduced whiskey making to Appalachia. By the 1800s, Southerners from many origin points had become experts, including African American freedmen and enslaved distillers. Production of moonshine is rooted in the belief, held by many subsistence farmers, that they should not be taxed for converting their crops to make whiskey. If you get your hands on a jar, try this test: Shake the jar to eye the bead. Large bubbles that burst quickly indicate higher alcohol content, while smaller bubbles that dissipate slowly indicate lower proof.

Our Character Meredith

On September 30, 1962, after a prolonged legal battle, James Meredith attempted to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Riots broke out on the campus, as a white mob burned cars, threw rocks and bricks, and destroyed University property. Two died, dozens were wounded, and many were arrested. To enforce order and execute Meredith’s admission, the Kennedy administration mobilized National Guardsmen and federal marshals. On the morning of October 1, Meredith successfully registered for classes. He graduated in August of 1963, the first African American to earn a degree from the University, inspiring generations of students to follow. Our character, Meredith, is named in his honor.

LGBTQ South

Although the United States Supreme Court approved marriage equality in 2015, twenty-eight states still allow LGBTQ discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. No federal law protects LGBTQ people from discrimination. North Carolina recently enacted HB 2, which, along with other impacts, requires transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate, not their gender identity. Overturned in the spring of 2016, Mississippi HB 1523 was written to protect beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman and that the words male and female refer to “an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”