Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Authentic" history? You bet.

We always hear that history is written by winners, who slant stories their way. But sometimes history is told through popular culture of the period, which may not be 100 percent factual but certainly reveals what people believed (or were taught to believe by the media).

The upcoming 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination sent me to The Authentic History Center to look at some of the visual and aural memorabilia of the period. The site's a new one, and a lot of it remains under construction.

But when I clicked on The Kennedy Mystique, I saw a ticket from the inauguration, lots of photos of JFK and Jackie, even a complete story from Dell Comics Combat #4 in June 1962, relating the story of P.T. 109. (And don't tell me some voters didn't read it and pick up their heroic impression of Kennedy there.) There are audio clips, too, including one from "The First Family," Vaughn Meader's best-selling comedy album about life at the White House.

Sites like this can be addictive, so I started hopping around. Soon I was listening to Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address (depressingly full of common sense, in comparison to modern political bushwah) and all kinds of songs from the Depression: hobo ballads, tunes inspiring optimism and the immortal "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" I don't know a more moving tribute to World War I veterans who were out of work a dozen years later, though Rudy Vallee's version doesn't do it full justice.

The oldest entries come from the Revolutionary War; you can see posters against the Stamp Act and Sugar Act, political cartoons and a headstone in Granary Burying Ground paying tribute to victims of the Boston Massacre. You can even hear a 1913 broadcast of a man delivering Patrick Henry's incendiary speech, "Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death!"

By the way, the site's emblem -- a bald, snaggle-toothed boy with an oversized nightshirt and a jaundiced look -- is The Yellow Kid, a character who appeared in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World from 1895 to 1898 and then in William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal.

He comes from Richard Outcault's strip "Hogan's Alley," one of the first (maybe even the first) color comics to run in Sunday supplements; he inspired the term "yellow journalism," because of the questionable nature of the reporting in those pages. So he's a piece of history himself.