A Place in History

From folk culture to foreign policy, beekeeping to Buddhism— professor Dan Margolies discovers meaning through a site-specific lens

By Leona Baker

Dan Margolies picked up the banjo when a former boss challenged him to learn to play if he truly loved old-time music. Margolies regularly organizes a series of Appalachian music concerts on campus. (Photo by Janice Marshall-Pittman)

Presumably there is a desk in Dan Margolies’ small, square-ish office. If the laws of gravity yet apply, surely a furniture-like object is serving as a pedestal for the stacks of books that form a multicolored miniature skyline that almost entirely obscures its top surface.

Around the desk, nearly every millimeter of wall space is covered with shelves, and every shelf is bursting with books. Books about history. Books about music. Books about beekeeping. Here and there are tokens of Margolies’ travels abroad, including a collection of battery-operated plastic songbirds from Korea that whistle the tunes of their respective species.

From behind the stacks, Margolies offers a scalding hot cup of tea as he settles into his chair to talk about his latest publications and how his seemingly disparate passions—from apiculture to Appalachia—“all relate somehow.”

Given one of Margolies’ other abiding interests, the politics and culture of spaces and places, it’s tempting to psychoanalyze the artful chaos of the room in Blocker Hall with his name outside the door. Yet his recent academic research explores these concepts on a far grander scale.

A professor of history and coordinator of the History Department at Virginia Wesleyan, Margolies’ second book, Spaces of Law in American Foreign Relations: Extradition and Extraterritoriality in the Borderlands and Beyond, 1877–1898 (University of Georgia Press), examines U.S. imperialism in the late 19th century and how the American government seized on the legal gray areas of border disputes and other jurisdictional entanglements to unabashedly advance its interests in an increasingly global world.

A significant portion of the book focuses on the hotly contested Zona Libre along the U.S.-Mexican border and uses it as a jumping-off point for characterizing American unilateralism as a whole. But it was Margolies’ love of conjunto music—not history—that drew him to that infamous stretch of geography north of the Rio Grande.

Margolies has published numerous articles on conjunto, a uniquely Mexican-American hybrid that is as much a lifestyle as it is a musical form. Born in South Texas, conjunto gets its distinctively danceable sound from the button accordion and the bajo sexto, a low-pitched 12-string guitar. The word conjunto translates literally as “group.”

“The name itself is evocative of more than just music;” Margolies wrote in a 2008 story for the Old-Time Herald. “It taps into a deeper sense of community and culture as well as a fierce regional pride.”

As a regular visitor to the Tejano Conjunto Festival, which draws legions of faithful to party conjunto style each May to San Antonio, Texas, he has experienced that culture firsthand. He’s even “monkeyed around” on the bajo sexto as he has on a number of traditional instruments from the Southern fiddle to the Mongolian morin khuur.

But it’s the banjo, a gift from a former boss who told him he should learn to play if he truly cared about old-time music, on which he’s most at home. It’s an instrument that figures prominently in Appalachian music, another of Margolies’ teaching and research interests.

Margolies regularly organizes a series of Appalachian music concerts during winter session at VWC, presenting well known artists of the genre like champion old-time fiddler Mark Campbell and ethnomusicologist James Ruchala along with other guests—from historians and anthropologists to poets and journalists.

In the summer of 2011, he spent a month in Mongolia studying traditional music in the remote, landlocked Asian country. He was especially interested in what is known as “sustainable culture and music”—a theory popularized by Brown University ethnomusicology professor Jeff Todd Titon.

“Issues of sustainable culture and music are similar across different cultures and different forms of music,” Margolies explains. “So the concept of creating a culture of sustainability within traditional music making is something you can look at among Mexican Americans in South Texas, among Appalachian Americans in Appalachia and then in Mongolia.”

Based on an ecological model of sustainability, it’s an idea that incorporates not just the music itself but who is playing it, how they are playing it, what support they have from the state, and how it’s being presented to the public.

“The easiest, most memorable image is the model of building up soil,” Margolies says. “So if you are building up soil in a garden and you have a lot of compost and you build a really good rich, dark soil then you can grow a lot plants and sustain a lot of growth. You are concentrating on building the conditions for healthy natural systems. It’s the same thing with music. It’s a culture you create.”

This way of thinking represents a break from the past, particularly in Asia, where cultural heritage has often been treated as a packaged commodity to be preserved in amber or put behind glass in a museum rather than a dynamic living system. 

“It’s a process,” Margolies argues, “not a thing.”

On a late March afternoon, Dan Margolies unloads a nondescript white bucket from the back of his pickup truck, carries it gingerly past the campus greenhouse and places it alongside the mismatched cluster of beehives along the tree line outside of Blocker Hall.

Dressed in a white t-shirt and jeans with protective netting over his face, he carefully removes the lid of the bucket. Attached to the underside of the lid is a massive buzzing glob of about 15,000 honey bees. He positions the lid above an open hive box and gives it a firm tap on the edge. With the hum of an alien ship, the bees descend en masse into what will hopefully become their new home.

As a past president of the Tidewater Beekeepers Association and a member of the Beekeepers Guild of Southeastern Virginia, Margolies is on a call list for local bee-related emergencies. In this case, it’s a swarm that took up residence on the side of a building in Norfolk. Assuming the bees approve of their new on-campus accommodations and have a queen to fawn over, they’ll start doing what honey bees do best.

They’ll also have a chance to serve as exhibit “A” for students enrolled in Margolies’ beekeeping course. In the class, students learn about the long history and culture of beekeeping, also known as apiculture, as well as the science behind it. But for Margolies, the bees represent something more.

In a short video called “Buddha in the Bee Yard” he created along with his wife, Skye, for a Buddhist film festival taking place in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2012, Margolies muses about a question he is often asked: “Why do you keep bees?”

“I never had a good answer until I started to think about beekeeping as practice,” says Margolies, who lives in Norfolk with his wife and three young children, including one-year-old twins. “I began to see that the reason to keep bees was, in fact, simply to keep bees—nothing more than this and nothing less.”

Margolies’ interest in Buddhist philosophy also ties into his work as a historian and teacher. Among the classes he offers regularly at Virginia Wesleyan are courses on various aspects of Korean and Mongolian history. Buddhism factors prominently in both cultures.

His primary teaching and research specialty is American foreign relations and foreign relations law, but he also teaches a wide variety of classes on topics such as globalization and empire, Old and New South, the Civil War, the 19th century, maritime history, and radicalism and violence in American history. Originally from Illinois, Margolies attended Hampshire College in Massachusetts as an undergraduate and thought he wanted to study film.

“Finding out that the U.S. had taken over the Philippines in 1898, which I just never learned growing up—I couldn’t really understand that because it seemed very un-American. That’s kind of why I became a historian. That piqued my interest—that concept of the U.S. having an empire and taking over another country.”

Most of all, though, Margolies seems to be concerned with the intersections of things, the crossroads where cultures and ideologies collide, intermingle and evolve into something new. More often than not, these intersections are deeply tied to specific places—“hybrid, malleable, and ephemeral places.”

A Maurice L. Mednick Memorial Fellowship from the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges gave Margolies an opportunity to take a series of photographs documenting the ways in which Latino migrants, primarily Mexicans, have literally transformed the landscape in many areas of the South, specifically in rural and small town Virginia and especially North Carolina.

These spaces, “the frayed edges of modern America in roadsides, abandoned downtowns, decaying strip malls, churches, and community halls,” he writes, have been visually redefined because of “an ongoing discourse between peoples, cultures, ideas, systems of power, expressions, and sovereignties.” It’s an abstract but historically grounded concept sometimes referred to as “place making.”

“If you think about a space as either a physical space or a social space or just kind of a landscape,” Margolies says, “it gets invested with meaning and becomes a place. And there are different scales: local spaces, regional spaces, an entire area of country, region or neighborhood, a house, a building. Some of it is smell, some of it is sound, some of it is image, vibe, language, food, music.”

He recently taught a class at VWC that dealt specifically with the idea of place making.

“The point of the class is to think about the way global cultures have created meaningful places within the United States. So, in Virginia Beach, one of those might be the Buddhist Temple that was in Pungo that’s now right around the corner from Virginia Wesleyan. Some of it is I was trying to give the students the ability to read a place historically and visually and orally, to think about things in terms of history but also about the way that history has shaped the spaces and the places that people are in and how that has an effect on historical change.”

In the summer of 2012, Margolies plans to spend time traversing one of American’s most storied wild places: the Appalachian Trail. Along with a friend, he will complete the southern half the 2,184-mile hike, from Front Royal to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. They began the hike at Springer Mountain in Georgia in 2000.

He is currently working on two book projects: one is a study of sustainability in Texas-Mexican Conjunto music and the other is a comparative global study of free zones, foreign trade zones, special economic zones, and exclusive economic zones since the 19th century.  He also edited a recently published collection called A Companion to Harry S. Truman (Wiley-Blackwell).