(Re)discovering Rhythms

The script goes something like this:

“So, what are you up to this summer?”

“I’m actually going to be spending most of it in Williamsburg doing research for my thesis.”

“How lovely!  What’s it on?”

“American opinion and activism during the South African War”

“Ah…(and here there is often a long, smile-filled pause)….what’s the South African War?”

So much for American opinion.  Notwithstanding the transfixing nature of the conflict in its own time and the significant role Americans played – on both the front lines and the sidelines – it seems Byron Farwell’s words still ring true that Americans “remember the war but none of its details [Ed.: if even that], and they have completely forgotten their own interest and involvement in it”*  The South African war is only one part of a kind of amnesia that seems to mark the relationship between the United States and South Africa, two of the world’s oldest “white settler” states (remember, O William and Mary, Cape Town was founded 45 years before dear old Williamsburg, only 45 years after Jamestown).

In many ways, Jim Reeves’s 1963 version of the iconic Afrikaans folk song “Sarie Marais” signifies this amnesia.  Jim Reeves, to those in the know, was a famous Texan country singer in the 1950s and 1960s, charting regularly in both the country and pop categories with hits like “He’ll Have To Go,” “Am I Losing You,” and “Blue Boy.”  In fact, even after this tragic death in a plane crash in 1964, his songs continued to land in the top ten until well into the 1970s (this information is all available through his page on the Country Music Hall of Fame website – he was inducted in 1967).  What many American fans are not aware of is that his fame was even bigger in South Africa, and that he even recorded albums in Afrikaans specifically for his South African audience.  Continuing in a remarkably strong tradition of American artists finding unique fame in South Africa, such as Sixto Rodriguez (the subject of the Oscar-winning 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man) and Orpheus MacAdoo’s  Virginia Jubilee Singers, Reeves’s Sarie Marais is a rare example of an American invoking the South African War in order to connect with his audience.

An additional layer of history of which Reeves may or may not have been aware is that the origin of the tune itself is thought to be an American minstrel song called “Sweet Ellie Rhee” or “Carry Me Back to Tennessee,” adapted for South Africa by Boer fighters in the Transvaal War of 1880-1881.  The lyrics, which treat the same themes of love and war, are remarkably similar:

“Sweet Ellie Rhee”

Sweet Ellie Rhee, so dear to me
Is lost forever more
Our home was down in Tennessee
Before this cruel war
Then carry me back to Tennessee
Back where I long to be
Amid the fields of yellow corn
To my darling Ellie Rhee.

“Sarie Marais”

My Sarie Marais is so ver van mij af  (My Sarie Marais is so far from me)
Ek hoop haar weer te sien  (I hope to see her again)
Sy het in die wijk van Mooirivier gewoon (She lived in the land of the Mooi River)
Nog voor die oorlog het begin (Yet before the war began)
O bring my terug na die ou Transvaal (O bring me back to the old Transvaal)
Daar waar my Sarie woon (There where my Sarie lives)
Daar onder in die mieleis by die groen doring boom  (There in the corn fields by the green thorn tree)
Daar woon my Sarie Marais (There lives my Sarie Marais)

The truth is that the relationships (musical, commercial, spiritual, political, and otherwise) that have existed over the past three and a half centuries between Americans and South Africans have been extensive and diverse, and what I hope to do in my thesis is capture a snapshot of an important moment of that history that the past has buried.  Just as Americans have largely forgotten their government’s conciliatory posture towards South Africa through much of the apartheid era, as well as their euphoria and interest in South Africa’s post-1994 democratic experiment, Americans have forgotten a conflict which, though thousands of miles away and among foreigners, forced them not only to consider the destiny of an unfamiliar land but to look at themselves in the mirror in order to do so.  They have forgotten the issues of race, imperialism, commerce, destiny, and identity that riveted many of their forebears to South Africa.  Finally, in forgetting their own gazing upon turn of the century South Africa, they have forgotten the way in which South Africans of all races examined them – for guidance on race relations, education, religion, government, and, of course, popular culture.

As I dig further and further into primary sources this week, interrogating the American newspapers of the 19th and early 20th centuries for evidence of the interest I have read other writers describe, it is this larger framework of framework of gazing, forgetting, and remembering that I hope to keep in mind.  Historians of the 21st century have an important role to play in breaking down the notion that subfields like American or South African history can persist as self-contained categories, neatly roped off from one another.  Much of our history and legacy as Americans in 2013 will occur outside our borders, and it is our task to rediscover this phenomenon in a world that, while rapidly globalising at present, has been “global” for quite a long time indeed.

To bring it back to “Sarie Marais” (the tune of which I just know will be stuck in my head for the rest of the day), bring my terug na die ou Transvaal.  We’ve been there before….

“Sarie Marais,” Jim Reeves, 1963

*Byron Farwell, The Great Boer War (New York, N.Y.: Penguin, 1977): xiii.