An Avett Brother Meets a Founding Son: John Quincy Adams

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Some professional musicians spend their days on the tour bus staring out the window, sleeping or pursuing various routes to oblivion. For Bob Crawford, the bassist for the folk-rock band the Avett Brothers, history has been his distraction of choice.

“On the van, and later the bus,” he said recently in a video interview from his home near Durham, N.C., “I would read history books.”

One day, he picked up Sean Wilentz’s mammoth study “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln.” From there, he moved on to “several books about Martin Van Buren,” as well as studies of Andrew Jackson, the rise of the two-party system and the knockdown congressional debates over slavery in the 1830s.

Now, he’s put it all together in “Founding Son: John Quincy’s America,” a six-episode podcast about John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president and a man, Crawford argues, for our own fractured times.

“He knows democracy is on the line, he knows slavery is a moral evil,” Crawford said of Adams, who became a leading antislavery voice in the House of Representatives, where he served after leaving the White House. “He’s one of those transcendent characters. He deserves to be in the pantheon.”

“Founding Son,” available through iHeartRadio starting April 13, is the latest entry in the crowded field of history podcasts. But it’s one where Crawford (who composed and played the show’s old-timey mandolin theme) hopes to use his musical celebrity and serious historical chops to illuminate a complex, formative period in the evolution of American democracy.

The Early Republic, as scholars call it, may be a rich field of study. But it’s largely a blank for most Americans, who are a bit foggy on what exactly happened between the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Adams, the only president to serve in Congress after leaving office, is a vehicle for tracing the arc of the period, which saw the United States transform from a nation dominated by its founding elites (like the Adamses) into an expansionist, populist democracy where every white male had the vote, regardless of property or station.

As a seven-year-old, Adams, the son of John Adams, witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill, when his mother, Abigail, took him to the top of the hill to watch the gunpowder rise in the distance. And he lived long enough to serve in the House alongside Abraham Lincoln.

And in an impossibly dramatic ending, Adams (spoiler alert!) died in the Capitol, after having a cerebral hemorrhage as he stood up to cast a vote relating to the Mexican-American War, which he opposed.

“It’s almost poetic,” Crawford said. (Oh, Adams also wrote poetry.)

Crawford, 52, grew up in Cardiff, N.J., where he recalled himself as an unimpressive student, although one with a passion for history. He recalled how one of his high school teachers, Mr. Lawless, would ask the class, “Does anyone who isn’t Bob know the answer?”

Over an hour-long conversation about the podcast, Crawford, his upright bass visible on a stand behind him, regularly pulled books from the shelf to underline a point. (William Lee Miller’s “Arguing About Slavery,” he said, was a particular inspiration.) He repeatedly apologized for diving into a rabbit hole before diving into another one.

With his neatly trimmed hair and soulful eyes, he gives off the vibe of the intense, idealistic high school history teacher who is also “in a band.” Except that Crawford (who earned a master’s degree in history online in 2020) really is in a band.

Crawford joined with Scott and Seth Avett in 2001, after a decade of jobs that included selling shoes, working in movie production and slinging grilled cheese sandwiches “in the parking lot of Grateful Dead shows,” as the band’s official bio puts it. (In an email, Crawford clarified it was actually Phish.)

Scott Avett, the band’s banjo player and co-writer, said that the podcast reflected Crawford’s steadfast character.

“He does hold a lot of facts, and it’s really impressive,” said Avett (who voices dialogue for Charles Francis Adams, one of John Quincy’s sons, and the abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld). “But that’s not the point, which is how he carries those facts and who he is when expressing them.”

And it’s not just Crawford’s friends who are impressed. Wilentz, who appears on the podcast, also praised his historical chops.

“He’s really quite versed,” Wilentz said. “He had a lot of really specific questions to ask, some of which I didn’t know the answer to.”

Crawford’s side gig as a history podcaster started in 2016 with “The Road to Now,” which he created with the historian Benjamin Sawyer. (Recent episodes have covered Benghazi, Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy and the history of March Madness.)

Last year, Crawford hosted “Concerts of Change,” a SiriusXM docuseries about human rights benefit concerts from the 1970s to the 1990s. While working on that, he got an invitation from a friend to pitch a show to iHeart, and suggested Adams.

The initial response was lukewarm. “They asked, was he involved in any true crime?” Crawford recalled.

But eight months later, they bit. Will Pearson, the president of iHeartPodcasts, said what ultimately sold him on the project was the combination of Crawford’s enthusiasm and knowledge and the unfamiliarity of the John Quincy Adams story.

“In my opinion one of the strongest elements of a good history podcast is the element of surprise,” he said.

Crawford wrote the show (a coproduction of iHeartPodcasts, Curiosity Inc., and School of Humans) himself, with help from James Morrison, a producer who also works on the Smithsonian podcast “Sidedoor.” (Adams is voiced by Patrick Warburton, familiar 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 approach, has a certain whiskery dad-history vibe. There are dramatic set pieces (some with Ken Burns-style voice-overs and sound effects) about events like the battle of the Alamo and the 1838 burning of Pennsylvania Hall, an abolitionist meetinghouse in Philadelphia that was destroyed by a racist mob. (Burns himself pops up as the voice of Roger Baldwin, the lawyer who represented the enslaved people who revolted aboard the Amistad.)

But even as Crawford focuses on elite politics and Congressional maneuvering, he makes clear that politics was far from just a white man’s game.

He acknowledges the crucial role of Black abolitionists like David Walker, whom he likens to the Black musicians who inspired rock ‘n’ roll — the creative sparks who are rarely given enough credit.

And he notes that the antislavery petition drives of the 1830s, which led to the notorious “gag rule” forbidding any mention of slavery in Congress, were largely the work of women, who played a growing role in national politics despite being denied the right to vote.

“Founding Son” underlines the story’s resonance to contemporary politics, with terms like “one-term president,” “alternative facts” and “deep-state cabal.” There are even accusations of a “stolen election,” after Adams — despite losing the popular and electoral votes — was elevated to the presidency in 1825, following a back room deal in Congress.)

But Crawford, who calls himself an “unaffiliated” voter, also allows plenty of room for those aspects of history that don’t satisfy a contemporary thirst for a simplistic morality play.

Consider the treatment of Adams’s archrival, Andrew Jackson. Today, Jackson — a slaveholder who pursued a brutal policy of Native American removal, in defiance of the Supreme Court — is anathema to Democrats who not so long ago celebrated him as a founder of the party. And Crawford seconds the opinion of Lindsay Chervinsky, a historian featured on the podcast: There’s a word for him, and it’s “not a nice one.”

But he also notes that it was Jackson who blocked John C. Calhoun’s doctrine of “nullification,” which held that the Constitution allowed states to reject federal legislation.

As for Adams, for all his noble fight against slavery, some of his rhetoric — like his lament that American leaders, unlike Europe’s, were “palsied by the will of our constituents” — does not sound great today.

In history, Crawford said, “everyone’s a hero, and everyone’s a villain.”

As for today’s politics, he laments the intensity of the polarization, and the loss of any connection with a “shared reality.” But the dysfunction, as he sees it, is not equally shared.

“Today the parties are clearly out of balance,” he said. “And yes, it seems to be that the Republican Party of 2023 bears no resemblance to its former self.”

What comes next, he said, “is a story for someone else to tell many years from now.” In the meantime, he’s outlining another history podcast he hopes to record.

“It’s juicy and reflects this moment,” he said, launching into an enthusiastic elevator pitch. “I’m not dallying in presentism — not doing that! But man.”

He paused: “And I’ve already got a whole shelf of books.”

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