Segment from Finding Americana

End Riff

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

Ed Ayers: Brian you did that fun interview about Roadside America. Do you think the days of Americana are numbered?

Brian Balogh: I don’t know, ’cause all the things I think of are old. I think of the world’s largest ball of twine. I think of where I grew up. The monkey jungle, the Seaquariam. These were really earnest efforts to capture nature in ways that, today, just out of place to say the least.
I’m curious to know if there are any modern iterations of the largest ball of twine.

Ed Ayers: I would suggest that the current version of Americana is Dollywood in east Tennessee. I think not only is it one of the most popular places in America, but it’s a place that goes with basically the same pure heart, the same sincerity that you see in Roadside America.
You go there for America distilled, for a certain kind of nostalgia but that’s also affirming. The music would be too earnest for most media. The singing on the stage and the dancing, but somehow it fits into the whole spirit of Dollywood which is this is our home, this is who we are. It’s okay to celebrate it.

Brian Balogh: Nathan, what do you got?

Nathan Connolly: I think part of what makes Americana speak to us or sing to us in some ways is that the context of late 20th century America really did see the evisceration of local places, right? That you have suburbs and motels and billboards.
There’s so many markers of the repeating landscape that if you find a place that has a sense of its local fair and local products and local identity, it really does stick out amidst the Starbucks and the Motel 6s and such.
In some ways, I’m a little bit less familiar with what makes a kind of Americana place where I grew up. I remember, for instance, the Miccosukee Indian Villages or some sense of local antique shop being grounded in a way that, say, the big box retailers of my childhood or the big corporate movie theaters simply weren’t.
I’m curious, Brian, we’re actually from the same place, just a couple years removed I’d say. Was your sense of South Florida, did it have a kind of Americana that you could identify?

Brian Balogh: Absolutely! It had nothing but these tourist attractions that were trying to trade on what the tourists assumed that Miami was, this kind of place where you could be in direct contact with nature. You could sidle right up to Hugo, the killer whale, as though you’d really see Hugo the Killer Whale out in Biscayne Bay. No, you wouldn’t.
But I wanna also touch on the Miccosukee Indians and I wanna touch on billboards and I wanna touch on a place that had signs for a hundred miles before you got there. I don’t know if they ever went by the south of the border.

Ed Ayers: I knew that’s what you were gonna say. South of the border between North Carolina and South Carolina.

Brian Balogh: I’m guessing about the Miccosukee Indians and definitely South of the border, there were a lot of racial slurs embedded in these places and if we had to pick a turning point in maybe the death of Americana as we’ve been talking about it and I hate to pick on Ladybird Johnson, but it might be those billboards.
It might be the quote “beautification” program, of course, a national effort to help clean up the environment, get rid of all this claptrap and make things kind of more sanitized if you will. What do you think, Nathan? I don’t even know if you saw all of those billboards. They looked homemade. Literally hand painted and they’d go on for hundreds of miles.
If you were on a really boring road trip, I loved them. I couldn’t wait for the next one.

Ed Ayers: You’d stop at South of the border just to hope the signs would go away.

Brian Balogh: And today I talk about them because they were horribly racist and they traded on racial stereotypes. I just didn’t know that as a young kid.

Nathan Connolly: Yeah, I mean, I have very little in the way of personal memories of that stuff but I do think just thinking even in broad sweeps that there are ways in which some of the reforms that helped to change depictions of different stereotypes met with an explosion of different forms of marketing and different ways of redefining America.
Even the expansion of the highways and cities off of the highways and suburbs off those highways. It seems to me, at least, that there’s a way to look at the life cycle of Americana and think about it almost in direct relationship to where it’s located relative to mass transit and mass transportation.
Those spaces that had to identify as something that was special, be it the south of the border theme park or the Miami International Airport. There were ways in which they had to evolve or they maintain a certain kind of local flair in the case of south of the border and became almost caricatures of themselves.
In a way, that park is not in any way a reflection of Mexican Americans but is instead a reflection of Americana on its own and how kind of silly it can be sometimes.

Ed Ayers: You said something Nathan that makes me think the form that Americana takes today is the other side of the mirror on that which is a yearning for authenticity. I think it’s farm to table food.
I think that how would you get past the fast food places on the interstate? You’d pull off the interstate and go to a place and see where they’re making something that’s specific not only to this geography but to the season.
I think they know that we’ve kinda come out the other side of Americana and it became sort of corporatized and now we’re trying to find something that couldn’t be mass produced by its very nature because it’s something from here, made by hand, at the farmer’s market and it feels healthy and good to us and it also knows that you’re supporting the same kinds of small family businesses that were running all those things that we call Americana. Now they’re farmers and craftspeople.
That’s gonna do it for us today. Do get in touch. You’ll find us at or send us an email to Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @BackstoryRadio and whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

Nathan Connolly: Backstory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Johns Hopkins University.
Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.

Speaker 1: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is professor of the humanities and president emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is Herbert Baxter Adams associate professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University.
Backstory was created by Andrew Wyndham for Virginia Humanities.