Call Me Deacon Blues


It was early to mid December when I first heard the podcast.

I’m confident saying that for two reasons: The first is that I remember where I was: the parking lot of a restaurant I tend to visit just once a year - when my free birthday coupon comes in. I was listening to a then-recent episode of Southbound, but I had somehow missed both the episode header and the title of the book that was being discussed, despite it having been mentioned no less than twice in the intro. The author being interviewed by host Tommy Tomlinson - I later came to learn it was Ed Southern - was speaking about the history of college football in the south, much of which I had explored when researching CMB150; the south's lean towards the sport and North Carolina's contrasting allegiance to college basketball; the way the world ground to a halt in mid March 2020; and the unintentional-but-no-less-poignant contrast between Bama and Wake Forest present in the Steely Dan lyrics: "They got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose/They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues" - his wife's and his college sports allegiances, respectively. I was already intrigued, and when I put my car in park, I went to the episode title to find out the name of the book. Fight Songs: A Story of Love and Sports in a Complicated South. 

This is the second reason I'm confident of the date: I exercised the restraint of putting the book on my Christmas list rather than running out and getting it right then and there.

Sure enough, my mom got me the book for Christmas. At Southern's suggestion and my preference, she headed to a local bookstore - Scuppernong Books in downtown Greensboro. I started reading nearly immediately, and for a few reasons - not the least of which being my not always prioritizing reading and wanting to give it the proper attention - I wrapped up on vacation at the Carolina coast in early May. And while the title Fight Songs spoke to my band nerd heart, the book was "we'll herald the story and die for her glory" and "Dixie's football pride" in premise, if not prose. 

One of the first things that struck me was that the book was hyperlocal to me, in both time and space. Ed Southern attended Wake Forest and currently calls Winston-Salem - a half hour to my west - home. But it also took place in, functionally, the present day. My reading selections are primarily nonfiction, but they tend to be either evergreen or identifiably in the past. Fight Songs begins at the top of the still-enduring pandemic, as the world ground to a halt. In the exercise of "where were you when..." Southern speaks of the ACC men's basketball tournament - its cultural significance, both in the conference's previous iteration and enduring still, to North Carolina. In 2020, the Greensboro Coliseum hosted the tournament in its ancestral homeland - or half of it, at least. For me, having attended the women's tournament the week before, I had every intention of seeing the men as the pandemic's impact hit the American shores. on Wednesday, we received word that the Thursday quarterfinals - which I intended to attend - would be closed to spectators. Other conference tournaments began calling it off, and by mid-day Thursday, before tip of the Clemson-Florida State quarterfinal, the tournament was canceled.

As for Wake Forest, it probably should be my favorite ACC team. Hell, maybe it is. When University of Maryland, College Park was still a member, it was easy, but since their defection, there's no true frontrunner. Wake's the local school, sure, but it's also a small, selective, nondiverse private school, which runs counter to my public regional university roots. Plus, the size of their marching band leaves some to be desired. Carolina and State get my tax dollars, sure, but I've never had much use for flagships, despite the previous mention of UMCP. I've been known to state UVA, with an insider chuckle to the folks who know my particular connection to March 16, 2018. But while I don't claim Wake, I've probably been to their stadium just about as often as any other, including my own alma mater, where I haven't attended a game live in a decade and a half.

As a foil to Southern's Demon Deacon allegiance sits his wife's Alabama, boasting more championships than anyone else currently playing college football at the highest level by any reasonable metric. Baked into that dichotomy is a definition of what "south" truly is, as our North Carolina hitches its wagon to college basketball in a way that seems to defy a southern identity. Indeed, Southern's interrogation of a sense of south parallels my own. In Southern's case (and yes, he acknowledges the auspice of his family name) North Carolina is surely south, but is it south south? For me, I still hesitate to consider myself a southerner despite having lived in some definition of the south nearly my entire adult life and having 3 1/2 southern grandparents (my tongue-in-cheek 1/2 reference being a nod to my DC native grandmother, while also acknowledging that DC - especially growing up there Black in the 1920s and '30s - was and is largely a southern city).

The book is a love story, to be sure, and speaks of Southern and his wife's courtship, marriage, and life together, against the backdrop of their respective southernness and college sports allegiances, but also of the pleasures and pitfalls of college sports in particular: sports' power to unite; the mismatches born of realignment (and Syracuse fans at Stamey's pales in comparison to what's to come); and the immense wealth generated by sports - especially football - that seems to enrich everyone except the proletariat, except lately with the onset of NIL. It reaches back to college football's march south from its northeastern roots in the long shadow of the Civil War and brings us through integration, in the macro and micro, to the present day. While I'm hesitant to put this into the universe, the book is thorough enough with the legacy of the "complicated south" that certain school systems might be inclined to affix it with a certain three letter acronym and ban it from instruction. Fight Songs pulls no punches, and in such, it digs deep into a sport, a system, hell, a region and country we all love, even while daring to delve into the finer points of its makeup.

There are a few books I've been known to revisit, and I've got a good feeling this will be one of them. I encourage y'all to check it out too.