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The Arts

Evolution of a writer

A southerner who found her voice in Vermont writes a book that looks at the nexus of race and music in Alabama in the 1960s

This story has been updated from the original version to correct a reporting error that mischaracterized aspects of DeNeefe’s education and upbringing in Alabama.

BRATTLEBORO—Although she spent most of her life and now resides in Huntsville, Ala., Jane DeNeefe says that her years living in southern Vermont gave her the confidence to become a writer.

The most recent fruit of that self-empowerment is Rocket City Rock and Soul: Huntsville Musicians Remember the 1960s, her new exploration of the intersection of racism and rock and roll.

As described on its cover, the book is “set against the bitter backdrop of segregation, where Huntsville musicians black and white found common ground in rock and soul music.”

“Whether playing to desegregated audiences, in desegregated bands or both, Huntsville musicians were boldly moving forward, ushering in a new era.”

Huntsville got the nickname “The Rocket City” because it was home to the Redstone Arsenal, the army base where many of the rockets that were used in the early years of the U.S. space program were built.

DeNeefe claims that the theme of all of her writing is “the relationship between democracy and individual experience.”

Perhaps because she comes from the South, she is especially sensitive to how race plays a decisive role in this equation. But she feels that she was not able to understand and explore these themes until she came to southern Vermont.

Vermont journey

In order to be with her then-boyfriend, DeNeefe moved from Huntsville to Brattleboro in 1998, where she lived until 2005.

She found the culture of southern Vermont to be an amazing, eye-opening experience. Only after she became aware of the community values of Brattleboro did she fully understand how stifled and inhibited she had been in Alabama.

“Life is harsh in Alabama,” she says. “The results of Alabama’s history [of slavery] had stifled my development.”

She described Vermont as “a place that looks out for each other,” the result of the state’s evolution as “an egalitarian farming community, as opposed to Huntsville, which was a slave state that needed to put one person beneath another.”

In other words, she says, Alabama was “founded and still carries the legacy of hierarchy, whereas Vermont sees each of its residents as equal.”

Because Brattleboro is so different from Huntsville, DeNeefe came to understand Alabama better.

“In Vermont, all the people feel they have a very close access to their government,” she says. “This may have do something to do with the smallness of the state, but more so with town meetings this is a place where everyone literally can have his or her say.”

“Such a civic vision is completely the opposite from Alabama,” she continues. “Government there is almost impossible to reach. The consequences of this are enormous.”

“It is no accident that the state is listed as 49th in quality of education of the states,” she says.

From housecleaner to writer

In Vermont, DeNeefe felt in a position to get a better perspective to understand her connection to society, and thereby to enrich herself as a person.

Her history as a writer began in Vermont with a piece in the Brattleboro Reformer. After a racial incident at Brattleboro Union High School, she decided that she needed to express her opinion how, even in liberal Vermont. racism prevails.

To her surprise, the paper printed the whole of her very long piece as an op-ed piece.

“The piece initiated a great deal of discussion in the community, which contributed to the ‘Hate Has No Home Here’ campaign,” she said.

Here, DeNeefe says, she also developed her natural writer’s voice. She believes that Vermont “reveres the reflective essay form,” the genre she made her own.

She began substitute teaching in Vermont’s public school system. She also attempted to finish her education, and was cut short of succeeding only because of lack of funding, ultimately the reason she returned to Alabama, where she was given free housing.

But, she says, she returned to Huntsville as a very changed person.

A columnist born

Back in Huntsville, she entered a writing contest from the Huntsville Times for which the prize was a monthly column in the local paper. She won.

The 14 pieces she wrote, with a general theme “around misunderstood or hidden aspects of Alabama history and culture,” as she told the web magazine Swampland, won the attention of people who asked her to adapt them into a radio show.

From that column came an offer to contribute to Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail: An Illustrated Guide to the Cradle of Freedom by Frye Gaillard, a book about sites in the state that bear the history of the Civil Rights movement. The title was published by the University of Alabama Press in 2010.

Finally, she got an offer to write the rock-and-roll book, published by History Press.

Gaillard, in turn, contributed the introduction, in which he described Rocket City Rock and Soul.

“With a clear understanding of contemporary music—and the city in which she lives — Jane DeNeefe guides us through the Huntsville scene: the emerging funk artists, some of them still in high school, listening to the music of Thelonius Monk; the great blues singers like Howlin’ Wolf playing the clubs in Huntsville’s inner city; the rich and surprising contributions of Huntsville’s 55th Army Band; and, of course, the beat of old-time rock ’n’ roll.”

Gaillard says that DeNeefe has produced “a well-written case study of American music — how it shaped, and was shaped by, the life and history of one southern city.”

While her writing’s topic varies, her theme of social responsibility and sense of place remains constant.

“It was very difficult to go back to Huntsville, but I know that Alabama is my home,” she confesses.

“It is part of who I am. I have a commitment here. The state isn’t watching out for you here like in Vermont. So I feel I am needed here to help fill the lack.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #128 (Wednesday, November 23, 2011).

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