Friday, April 21, 2017

Another Win for American Indians and Prehistoric Mammals!
The other day Amherst College announced a change to their school mascot. Previously, the college apparently had no official mascot, but Lord Jeffrey Amherst was considered an unofficial mascot. Amherst College claims to have the oldest collegiate athletics department in the United States, and competes in the NCAA division III as part of the Little Three in the New England Small College College Athletic Conference.

The college, founded in 1821 in Amherst, Massachusetts, was technically named after the town. However, the town was named for Lord Jeffrey Amherst, First Baron Amherst, hero of the Seven Years War, known in the United States as the French and Indian War. Afterward, he was appointed Governor-General of British North America.

As Governor-General, Lord Jeff oversaw the defense against Pontiac's Rebellion. The controversy stems from his suggestion in 1763 to use smallpox as a biological weapon against Pontiac's allies. This has been historically preserved through a letter chain between him and his subordinate Colonel Henry Bouquet. The letters express not just a desire to eliminate combatants, but to "extirpate this execrable race".

The town of Amherst has also wrestled with its namesake, and there have been petitions to change the town's name as well. Even though Lord Jeff had put his stamp on the region (Amherst, MA is not the only place to bear his name in the Northeast), his legacy as a war hero is tarnished by his participation in passive genocide.

Amherst College, however, has indeed decided to take steps to distance themselves from Lord Jeff and his history with Indian extermination. There is a hotel on campus that bore Lord Jeff's name, and that too will be renamed, according to Cullen Murphy of the Amherst board.

As before there appears to not have been an official Amherst College mascot, now the school has adopted one. The Beneski Museum of Natural History on campus has a complete mammoth skeleton, unearthed by Amherst professor Fredrick Loomis in 1913. And so, Amherst begins a new chapter, with a new official mascot, the Amherst Mammoth. Congratulations!

A quick google search for "mammoth mascot logos" proves mammoths could be potentially terrifying. There are a few mammoth mascots already. The Colorado club from the National Lacrosse League and HC Ugra from the KHL both use the Mammoth, and also the Omaha franchise from the now defunct FXFL were the Mammoths. Both Tufts and Alabama have elephant mascots, which are almost the same thing. All of these examples lead me to believe the newly chosen mascot has potential. I look forward to seeing Amherst College's new identity unfold in the coming months.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Battle of Man and Machine

Recently, there has been a focus on an American labor force that has been displaced. The Conservative Right has successfully blamed migrant workers and overseas outsourcing. But realistically, the jobs do not exist anymore for manual laborers, they have been steadily replaced by automation. Technology has replaced good old fashioned man power.

Folklore sometimes uses fables to illustrate actual struggles within society. The story of John Henry has been used for decades by labor and civil rights movements, but it best highlights the changes presented during the Industrial Revolution and the losing battle against technological innovation. Industrial and technological advances have drastically changed economies, and this particular song echoes themes and issues still at the heart of our society.

Not only is the story of John Henry a fable for displacement of labor at the hands of technological advancement, but it is also a story of equality. Of all the American folk stories of the last 200 years, John Henry is one of a few that feature a hero of color, and probably the only one easily recognized by most of the public. John Henry is a black man. Not only is he a black man, but presumably a free black man, and a symbol of a hard working man in pre civil rights America.

The story of John Henry has been translated to song many times in a few different ways, but essentially the story is the same, and ends in tragedy. The many musicians to record songs about the American folk hero include Pete Seeger, Ramblin Jack Elliot, Mississippi John Hurt, Harry Belafonte, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Johnny Cash, Van Morrison, and Bruce Springsteen.

The lyrics seem to be pretty standard, although I can't find evidence of a credible writing credit. Songs usually share 3 parts, young John Henry foreshadowing his fate, the race against the machine, and John Henry's wife taking up where his legacy left off. I've included the lyrics to Pete Seeger's version below.

John Henry was about three days old,
sittin' on his papa's knee.
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel;
said, "Hammer's gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord.
Hammer's gonna be the death of me."
The captain said to John Henry
"Gonna bring that steam drill 'round.
Gonna bring that steam drill out on the job.
Gonna whop that steel on down. Down,
Whop that steel on down."
John Henry told his captain,
"A man ain't nothin' but a man,
But before I let your steam drill beat me
I'd die with a hammer in my hand. Lord,
I'd dies with a hammer in my hand."
John Henry said to his shaker,
"Shaker, why don't you sing?
I'm throwin' thirty pounds from my hips on
Just listen to that cold steel ring. Lord, Lord.
Listen to that cold steel ring."
The man that invented the stream drill
Thought he was mighty fine,
But John Henry made fifteen feet;
The steam drill only made nine. Lord, Lord.
The steam drill only made nine.
John Henry hammered in the mountain
His hammer was striking fire.
But he worked so hard, he broke his poor
He laid down his hammer and he died. Lord,
He laid down his hammer and he died.
John Henry had a little woman.
Her name was Polly Ann.
John Henry took sick and went to his bed.
Polly Ann drove steel like a man. Lord,
Polly Ann drove steel like a man.
John Henry had a little baby.
You could hold him in the palm of your
The last words I heard that poor boy say,
"My daddy was steel-driving man. Lord,
My daddy was a steel-driving."
Well, every Monday morning
When the bluebirds begin to sing.
You can hear John Henry a mile or more.
You can hear John Henry's hammer ring.
Lord, Lord.
You can hear John Henry's hammer ring.