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June 15, 2016

Book Notes - Karl Jacoby "The Strange Career of William Ellis"

The Strange Career of William Ellis

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Karl Jacoby's book The Strange Career of William Ellis is a masterfully told and exhaustively researched story of William Ellis, an African American man who masqueraded as Mexican in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"[A] welcome and nuanced perspective to the racial history of the U.S. as well as a textured examination of the legacy of distrust between the United States and Mexico. …Ellis’ life is also a cracking good story, illustrated with intriguing photos and helpful maps topped off by an emotionally satisfying epilogue."

In his own words, here is Karl Jacoby's Book Notes music playlist for his book The Strange Career of William Ellis:



The Strange Career of William Ellis excavates the real-life adventures of one of the Gilded Age’s great border crossers. Born into slavery on a cotton plantation in south Texas, William Ellis reinvented himself after the Civil War as the fabulously wealthy Mexican banker Guillermo Eliseo. Yet even as moved among increasingly elite circles on both sides of the border, including New York’s Wall Street, he managed to keep his African American ancestry secret hidden from all but his closest confidants.

Revealing the story of someone who wanted to keep so many basic facts about his life hidden was, to put it mildly, a challenging undertaking. It involved archives in Mexico, the U.S., and Great Britain, as well as interviews with far-flung members of Ellis’s extended family. Little surprise that The Strange Career of William Ellis took me the better part of a decade to complete, during which time music helped me to imagine the many missing pieces of Ellis’s life.

1. Corey Harris, “Going to Brownsville.” My book opens with the horrors the “Second Middle Passage”: the forced migration of hundreds of thousands of enslaved African Americans from the upper South to deep South states like Texas, all because of King Cotton’s ceaseless demand for labor. What slave owners did not realize, however, is that by relocating to Texas, they were in fact facilitating the escape of their human property. Mexico had outlawed slavery long before the U.S., and so all an enslaved African American now had to do was make their way across the border to freedom in Mexico. Every time I listen to “Going to Brownsville,” I think about how Brownsville and other border towns beckoned to African Americans as portals to liberty.

Corey Harris (who went to college with my brother, Dean) is an astounding reinterpretator of country blues. Hearing him play without all the sonic distortions that early recording technology imposed on the founding figures of the blues is a revelation, one that underscores the abiding beauty and power of this music.


2. Neville Brothers, “Mystery Train.” Trains serve as a central motif in The Strange Career of William Ellis. As the pre-eminent technology of the late nineteenth century, the train transcended time and space in a way previously unimaginable, especially for African Americans just emerging from the stifling confines of slavery. The train is what made William Ellis’s life of reinvention possible, enabling him to leave his birthplace of Victoria, Texas, and move to a new locale, where no one knew him and he was free to reinvent himself as the Mexican Guillermo Eliseo. “Mystery Train” captures the sense of wonder that the train once possessed for Americans—the sense that one could go anywhere and, perhaps, be anyone.

There are lots of other versions of this song by everyone from Little Junior Parker to, of course, Elvis Presley. The Neville Brothers’ rendition is my favorite for its super-syncopated New Orleans funk.


3. Vicente Fernandez, “El Rey.” This song revels in the irony that, despite the fact that the singer is poor and alone, he still considers himself “El Rey” (the king). The young William Ellis possessed a similar attitude. Despite being born a slave, he saw himself as destined for something far grander than what the white world had planned for him. That this song is sung in Spanish makes it all the more appropriate, since Ellis spoke Spanish fluently and got his start by working as a translator for a white storeowner in Victoria.


4. Eric Bibb, “Boll Weevil.” Although most Americans think of the U.S. and Mexico in isolation from one another, there exist, as my book tries to illuminate, multiple powerful linkages between the two. One telling illustration of this reality can be found in the realm of ecology: the seemingly insignificant boll weevil. The boll weevil was a small black beetle native to Mexico. With the rise of U.S.-Mexico trade in the late nineteenth century, however, it rapidly expanded out of its homeland, crossing the border with Texas around 1892. A ravenous devourer of cotton plants, it devastated the southern plantations. Yet even as they watched cotton fields wither around them amid the bug’s onslaught, African Americans admitted to a certain grudging respect for this tiny bug that could bring low some of the South’s most powerful white planters—a perspective that comes out in “Boll Weevil.”

Many artists have recorded songs about the boll weevil, from Blind Willie McTell to Bobby Bare. Eric Bibb’s version, however, is one of my favorites—it feels at once classic yet modern.


5. Lin Manuel Miranda and Cast of Hamilton, “Alexander Hamilton.” I am, alas, probably the only person left in New York who has yet to see this show. Nonetheless, even I can recognize that the opening song from the musical’s soundtrack encapsulates the quintessential experience of moving to a new place and becoming a new person. It was in New York City where Ellis lived most of his life and most fully inhabited his alternative persona of Guillermo Eliseo, the fabulously wealthy Mexican banker. As the chorus to Hamilton puts it, “In New York, you can be a new man.”


6. Bert Williams / Johnny Cash, “Nobody.” William Ellis may have fooled white New York into believing that he was a Mexican named Guillermo Eliseo, but black New Yorkers knew better (although most were discreet about it while Ellis was alive). In Manhattan’s thriving black musical theater, however, there were several shows that made sly, veiled references to William Ellis. One of these was the 1906 production, “Abyssinia,” which featured Bert Williams, one of the era’s pre-eminent Vaudeville stars. His singing of “Nobody,” with its inimitable blend of humor and pathos, was one of the highlights of the show, and it went on to become Williams’s signature song.

I have included two versions here, Williams’s original and a recent reboot by one of my favorite artists, Johnny Cash.


7. Bruce Springsteen, “Brilliant Disguise.” Unlike most white guys my age, I am not a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. It is not really Bruce’s fault—I was a teenager when “Born in the USA” came out, and George Will’s, Ronald Reagan’s, and the loud frat brothers’ at my college shameless embrace of this song rubbed me the wrong way. It wasn’t until later that I realized how subversive Springsteen’s lyrics really were. “Brilliant Disguise” features similarly clever songwriting. At root, the song is about the social masks we all wear and the difficulty of discerning the real person beneath. Bruce was thinking of a romantic relationship gone wrong, but it applies equally well to William Ellis, who spent much of his life passing for someone else.

8. John Hiatt and Flaco Jimenez, “Across the Borderline.” This song, written by Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, and Jim Dickinson, originated as part of the soundtrack of the 1980 movie “The Border,” starring Jack Nicholson as a Border Patrol agent. It is the perfect song for someone like William Ellis, conveying as it does the bittersweet sense of hope and loss that border crossing involves. The song succeeds on so many levels—not only lyrically, but musically, too. Appropriately enough, the tune features a mix of country and Mexican musica norteña, topped off with the accordion stylings of the Tejano superstar, Flaco Jimenez.


9. Los Tigres del Norte, “América.” Los Tigres, with their songs about heartache, drug smugglers, and hard working immigrants, are the bards of the borderlands. I listened to lots and lots of their corridos over the decade that it took me to write The Strange Career of William Ellis. It was hard for me to select a favorite, but I eventually settled on “América.” One of its lines—“América es todo el continente” (“America is an entire continent”)—served as my inspiration for the blending together of Mexican and U.S. history that fills the pages of The Strange Career of William Ellis.


10. Sones de Mexico, “Esta Tierra es Tuya.” This spirited reinterpretation of Woody Guthrie’s classic shows how many of the questions that Guthrie raised about national belonging in 1940 remain with us even today.


Karl Jacoby and The Strange Career of William Ellis links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
Shelf Awareness review

Columbia Daily Spectator profile of the author
Deborah Kalb interview with the author
KSTX interview with the author
mySA profile of the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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