Some skilled musicians spend their days on the tour bus staring out the window, sleeping or pursuing varied routes to oblivion. For Bob Crawford, the bassist for the folk-rock band the Avett Brothers, historical past has been his distraction of selection.
“On the van, and later the bus,” he stated just lately in a video interview from his residence close to Durham, N.C., “I might learn historical past books.”
At some point, he picked up Sean Wilentz’s mammoth research “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln.” From there, he moved on to “a number of books about Martin Van Buren,” in addition to research of Andrew Jackson, the rise of the two-party system and the knockdown congressional debates over slavery within the 1830s.
Now, he’s put all of it collectively in “Founding Son: John Quincy’s America,” a six-episode podcast about John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president and a person, Crawford argues, for our personal fractured instances.
“He is aware of democracy is on the road, he is aware of slavery is an ethical evil,” Crawford stated of Adams, who grew to become a number one antislavery voice within the Home of Representatives, the place he served after leaving the White Home. “He’s a type of transcendent characters. He deserves to be within the pantheon.”
“Founding Son,” accessible by way of iHeartRadio beginning April 13, is the most recent entry within the crowded discipline of historical past podcasts. However it’s one the place Crawford (who composed and performed the present’s old-timey mandolin theme) hopes to make use of his musical celeb and critical historic chops to light up a fancy, formative interval within the evolution of American democracy.
The Early Republic, as students name it, could also be a wealthy discipline of research. However it’s largely a clean for many Individuals, who’re a bit foggy on what precisely occurred between the American Revolution and the Civil Warfare.
Adams, the one president to serve in Congress after leaving workplace, is a car for tracing the arc of the interval, which noticed the USA rework from a nation dominated by its founding elites (just like the Adamses) into an expansionist, populist democracy the place each white male had the vote, no matter property or station.
As a seven-year-old, Adams, the son of John Adams, witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill, when his mom, Abigail, took him to the highest of the hill to observe the gunpowder rise within the distance. And he lived lengthy sufficient to serve within the Home alongside Abraham Lincoln.
And in an impossibly dramatic ending, Adams (spoiler alert!) died within the Capitol, after having a cerebral hemorrhage as he stood as much as forged a vote regarding the Mexican-American Warfare, which he opposed.
“It’s nearly poetic,” Crawford stated. (Oh, Adams additionally wrote poetry.)
Crawford, 52, grew up in Cardiff, N.J., the place he recalled himself as an unimpressive pupil, though one with a ardour for historical past. He recalled how considered one of his highschool academics, Mr. Lawless, would ask the category, “Does anybody who isn’t Bob know the reply?”
Over an hour-long dialog in regards to the podcast, Crawford, his upright bass seen on a stand behind him, often pulled books from the shelf to underline some extent. (William Lee Miller’s “Arguing About Slavery,” he stated, was a specific inspiration.) He repeatedly apologized for diving right into a rabbit gap earlier than diving into one other one.
Along with his neatly trimmed hair and soulful eyes, he offers off the vibe of the extreme, idealistic highschool historical past instructor who can be “in a band.” Besides that Crawford (who earned a grasp’s diploma in historical past on-line in 2020) actually is in a band.
Crawford joined with Scott and Seth Avett in 2001, after a decade of jobs that included promoting footwear, working in film manufacturing and slinging grilled cheese sandwiches “within the parking zone of Grateful Useless reveals,” because the band’s official bio places it. (In an e-mail, Crawford clarified it was truly Phish.)
Scott Avett, the band’s banjo participant and co-writer, stated that the podcast mirrored Crawford’s steadfast character.
“He does maintain quite a lot of info, and it’s actually spectacular,” stated Avett (who voices dialogue for Charles Francis Adams, considered one of John Quincy’s sons, and the abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld). “However that’s not the purpose, which is how he carries these info and who he’s when expressing them.”
And it’s not simply Crawford’s mates who’re impressed. Wilentz, who seems on the podcast, additionally praised his historic chops.
“He’s actually fairly versed,” Wilentz stated. “He had quite a lot of actually particular inquiries to ask, a few of which I didn’t know the reply to.”
Crawford’s aspect gig as a historical past podcaster began in 2016 with “The Highway to Now,” which he created with the historian Benjamin Sawyer. (Latest episodes have lined Benghazi, Jimmy Carter’s overseas coverage and the historical past of March Insanity.)
Final 12 months, Crawford hosted “Live shows of Change,” a SiriusXM docuseries about human rights profit live shows from the Nineteen Seventies to the Nineteen Nineties. Whereas engaged on that, he received an invite from a buddy to pitch a present to iHeart, and recommended Adams.
The preliminary response was lukewarm. “They requested, was he concerned in any true crime?” Crawford recalled.
However eight months later, they bit. Will Pearson, the president of iHeartPodcasts, stated what finally bought him on the mission was the mixture of Crawford’s enthusiasm and data and the unfamiliarity of the John Quincy Adams story.
“In my view one of many strongest components of a great historical past podcast is the component of shock,” he stated.
Crawford wrote the present (a coproduction of iHeartPodcasts, Curiosity Inc., and Faculty of People) himself, with assist from James Morrison, a producer who additionally works on the Smithsonian podcast “Facet Door.” (Adams is voiced by Patrick Warburton, acquainted to some as Elaine’s boyfriend on “Seinfeld.” Andrew Jackson is voiced by Nick Offerman, of “Parks & Recreation.”)
“Founding Son,” which takes a largely chronological strategy, has a sure whiskery dad-history vibe. There are dramatic set items (some with Ken Burns-style voice-overs and sound results) about occasions just like the battle of the Alamo and the 1838 burning of Pennsylvania Corridor, an abolitionist meetinghouse in Philadelphia that was destroyed by a racist mob. (Burns himself pops up because the voice of Roger Baldwin, the lawyer who represented the enslaved individuals who revolted aboard the Amistad.)
However whilst Crawford focuses on elite politics and Congressional maneuvering, he makes clear that politics was removed from only a white man’s sport.
He acknowledges the essential function of Black abolitionists like David Walker, whom he likens to the Black musicians who impressed rock ‘n’ roll — the artistic sparks who’re not often given sufficient credit score.
And he notes that the antislavery petition drives of the 1830s, which led to the infamous “gag rule” forbidding any point out of slavery in Congress, have been largely the work of girls, who performed a rising function in nationwide politics regardless of being denied the best to vote.
“Founding Son” underlines the story’s resonance to modern politics, with phrases like “one-term president,” “various info” and “deep-state cabal.” There are even accusations of a “stolen election,” after Adams — regardless of dropping the favored and electoral votes — was elevated to the presidency in 1825, following a again room deal in Congress.)
However Crawford, who calls himself an “unaffiliated” voter, additionally permits loads of room for these elements of historical past that don’t fulfill a recent thirst for a simplistic morality play.
Think about the therapy of Adams’s archrival, Andrew Jackson. At present, Jackson — a slaveholder who pursued a brutal coverage of Native American removing, in defiance of the Supreme Courtroom — is anathema to Democrats who not so way back celebrated him as a founding father of the social gathering. And Crawford seconds the opinion of Lindsay Chervinsky, a historian featured on the podcast: There’s a phrase for him, and it’s “not a pleasant one.”
However he additionally notes that it was Jackson who blocked John C. Calhoun’s doctrine of “nullification,” which held that the Structure allowed states to reject federal laws.
As for Adams, for all his noble combat towards slavery, a few of his rhetoric — like his lament that American leaders, not like Europe’s, have been “palsied by the need of our constituents” — doesn’t sound nice right now.
In historical past, Crawford stated, “everybody’s a hero, and everybody’s a villain.”
As for right now’s politics, he laments the depth of the polarization, and the lack of any reference to a “shared actuality.” However the dysfunction, as he sees it, just isn’t equally shared.
“At present the events are clearly out of stability,” he stated. “And sure, it appears to be that the Republican Celebration of 2023 bears no resemblance to its former self.”
What comes subsequent, he stated, “is a narrative for another person to inform a few years from now.” Within the meantime, he’s outlining one other historical past podcast he hopes to document.
“It’s juicy and displays this second,” he stated, launching into an enthusiastic elevator pitch. “I’m not dallying in presentism — not doing that! However man.”
He paused: “And I’ve already received a complete shelf of books.”