May 29, 2003
Bill C. Malone
America's pre-eminent country music scholar looks at its working-class roots in Don't Get Above Your Raisin': Country Music and the Southern Working Class.
Country music is America's truest music. It does not address every issue and problem in our lives, nor is it always uncompromisingly realistic. Sometimes it appeals to us through nostalgia or fantasy, the desire to go back to "the little cabin home on the hill" where we never lived, or to the life of "a happy, roving cowboy" that we never experienced. Often the music offers nothing but escape from reality--through the otherworldly promise of a gospel song, through identification with some macho hero or rambler, or through the momentary excitement of a Texas two-step or line dance.
Nostalgia, fantasy romance, and pure escapism are of course very much a part of that larger reality through which we define ourselves and learn to cope with life's vagaries. But the music does not serve simply as an escape mechanism, taking us to some imagined "country" where problems and pain do not exist; it also intimately mirrors our day-to-day preoccupations with survival. And like no other musical form in our culture, country music lays bare the uncertainties that lie at the heart of American life. Country music expresses not only the hopes and longings of average people but also their frailties and failed dreams.
At times country songs exude great confidence or even a machismo-driven boastfulness, especially when someone like Hank Williams Jr. or Charlie Daniels sings, or when Brooks and Dunn strut their way through the rhythms of a country line dance. More often, though, the music is consumed with the fragility of relationships and the evanescence of life. Above all, the music breathes with the contradictions implicit in our lives. Indeed, the tension that gives country music its power and that defines the stylistic essence of such great singers as Hank Williams Sr., George Jones and Merle Haggard, arises from the struggle to voice the contending and irresolvable impulses of the human heart.
Singers and songwriters deal constantly with such warring impulses as piety and hedonism, home and rambling, companionship and individualism, and nostalgia and modernity, deeply conscious that the line between these seemingly polar opposites is thin and that their ultimate resolution is unlikely. The rambling man, for instance, does not simply voice the desire for an escape from responsibility. More often than not in country music, the wanderer expresses his yearnings for a home that cannot be regained.
The homebound dweller, on the other hand, just as often yearns for an open and unfettered road that will remain forever untraveled.
Although commercial country music addresses longings that are universal, while speaking to an audience whose scope is now international, the music was born in the rural South. It germinated there in a region that, though seeming to diverge dramatically from the mainstream of American life, nevertheless served as the nation's major crossroads of musical cultural exchange. Poor Anglo Americans and African Americans viewed each other with suspicion across the racial divide, but they exchanged songs and styles virtually from the time of their first encounters in the early colonial South.
Out of this common crucible of poverty and pain, blacks and whites created a melange of musical forms that eventually evolved into the nation's major popular styles. From this fused musical legacy, country music emerged as the most vital voice of the Southern working class and a barometer of the revolutionary changes that have marked the transition from rural to urban-industrial life. Country musicians inherited a love for frolic and dance from their British forebears, but the sustained contact with African Americans also inspired them to experiment with new rhythms and dances and to sing with full-throated intensity and bodily release.
On the other hand, they inherited a British religious Calvinist tradition that left them with guilt-ridden consciences, constantly reminded them of the brevity of life and of a world of limitations. Veering between these poles of behavior and preference, the music has evolved with a sense of tension that makes it both appealing and commercially viable. As working-class Southerners struggled to survive, first in a hard and marginal rural economy and then in the blue-collar environment of an unfamiliar urban society, they learned that tradition and modernity could not easily be reconciled.
Music proved to be an invaluable resource, though, in the transition from rural to urban life, serving as a source of sustenance and identity and as a medium of expression. During its early commercial venture into the mainstream of American life, when it most strongly bore the marks of its regional roots, country music functioned effectively as "the language of a subculture." The insights gained from those struggles have since made the music irresistible to growing numbers of Americans everywhere who have become increasingly conscious of the inequities of life in postindustrial America.
Commercial country music entered the world, therefore, with a Southern accent and a cluster of preoccupations that reflected its Southern working-class identity. The entertainers who made the first recordings and radio broadcasts in the 1920s sang with the inflections and dialects of the working-class South. That historical fact has forever influenced both the definition and the public perception of country music. Many fans and performers alike today judge a singer's "authenticity" by the degree to which his or her sound reflects that particular regional and working- class origin.
When praising a singer's "sincerity," fans are really suggesting that the performer is communicating an emotion or response that he or she has actually experienced. That is what Hank Williams Sr. meant when he said that "to sing like a hillbilly, you had to have lived like a hillbilly. You had to have smelt a lot of mule manure."
To some people, the Southern sound serves as a mark of denigration and is best described with such terms as the "twang." But those who equate country music with Southern working-class origins seem to know, I think, that the disappearance of traditional country music also means the passing of a way of life. Although country music has reached out to the world, it has nevertheless preserved a special relationship with the South.
Neither the existence of Japanese bluegrass bands and German rockabillies nor the remarkable popularity around the world of such singers as Garth Brooks should obscure the fact that country music and Southernness have long been linked in the consciousness of most Americans. The bulk of the major performers still come, overwhelmingly, from the South, and they exhibit their Southernness through their dialects, speech patterns, and lifestyles and through the values and themes of the music that they perform.
The predominance of Southerners in the early folk music collections and on early hillbilly recordings was no accident; folksong collectors and recording men traveled south instead of north or west because they believed that the South was a land of music.
No one need doubt any longer that rural music was a pervasive phenomenon in the United States and Canada at the time of country music's commercial birth, or that such music shared some basic similarities whether performed in upstate New York, Canada's Maritime Provinces, Indiana, or Georgia. Phonograph recording companies, however, chose to record the rural musicians of Georgia and other Southern states, and devoted little attention to the performers from other regions.
Southern rural musicians probably appealed to recording talent scouts, just as they had to Cecil Sharp and other collectors of folk music during the World War I era, because they came from a region of the United States that was perceived as both exotic and musical. Visions of archaic but musical mountaineers and lonesome, singing cowboys had already entered American popular culture by the time the first hillbilly recordings were made. Well before that time, African Americans had introduced other versions of Southern music--the spirituals, ragtime, blues and jazz--to an enraptured American public.
Recording talent scout Ralph Peer, in fact, was looking for blues performers in 1923 when, serendipitously, he found Fiddlin' John Carson in Atlanta and inadvertently inaugurated country music's commercial history. Whether the music of the white South suited their musical tastes, once the recording and broadcasting industries actually sampled it, they found, often to their surprise, that a vast local market was ready to buy it.
Above all, they discovered that this music was both different and more interesting than the rural musical forms of the North. Not simply a quaint survival of an older society (as it seemed to be in New England, for example), Southern rural music appealed because of its diversity and because it truly represented the organic evolution of the Southern working class.
Although insufficiently understood or recognized at the time, the fusion of African American and Anglo American elements also made the music distinctive and intriguing. African American musical infusions, for instance--"the emphasis on rhythm, syncopations, blues and jazz elements"--probably gave the music of the Southern string bands the vitality and rhythmic punch that set them apart from other rural bands in America.
Southern rural music was different from other styles, and the predominance of Southern-born musicians on phonograph records and radio stations during these formative years created a pattern and precedent that have permanently shaped both the reality and the perception of country music. As Southern men and women became radio or recording personalities, they inspired similar quests for "stardom" by people like themselves in local communities throughout the region. The Southernness of country music became a self-perpetuating phenomenon. The white folk South from which commercial country music emerged was a culture far different from the one that only occasionally evoked description in American literature and popular culture.
Historically, it has been the fate of the plain folk to be most often simply ignored, except of course when their labor or firepower was needed. A long tradition of writers (and observers), extending at least as far back as William Byrd in 1728, have refused to see the Southern folk in their full human dimensions and have instead viewed them with contempt, condescension or romance. While an occasional Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Abraham Lincoln or Jesse James rose above the masses to become part of the nation's folklore, most plain people were ignored as individuals and instead subsumed in collectivized references to the "sturdy yeomanry," "the honest sons of toil," or "the Hunters of Kentucky."
When the Southern plain folk appeared in the diaries of 19th-century travelers or in the short stories of humorists or local colorists, they seldom emerged as anything more than comic characters, and often they were described as ignorant, lazy and vile. Few polemicists were as harsh in their judgments of Southern plain folk as the acerbic Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken. Writing in 1917, Mencken attacked the "white trash" who, after rising from the wreckage of the Civil War, had dislodged the "better elements" from their positions of power and had subjected the South to an orgy of social crudity and religious bigotry.
Mencken moved a step beyond the usual tradition of vilification by introducing a racial explanation for the behavior of poor whites. They were, he suspected, not Anglo-Saxon at all, but Celts in whose veins flowed the "worst blood of Western Europe." Mencken said nothing about music, but one could infer from his general criticism that such a benighted people could never produce credible art of any kind. He was writing, of course, shortly before the rich resources of Appalachian balladry became known to the literate American public.
Several years later, when the Mississippi patrician William Alexander Percy excoriated the poor whites of his own state in language similar to Mencken's, he at least could acknowledge that they "were responsible for the only American ballads." Although differing from Mencken in arguing that the Southern folk were of "pure English stock," Percy was nevertheless unrelenting in his criticism, asserting that he could "forgive them as the Lord forgives, but admire them, trust them, love them--never. Intellectually and spiritually they are inferior to the Negro, whom they hate.
Suspecting secretly they were inferior to him, they must do something to him to prove to themselves their superiority. At their door must be laid the disgraceful riots and lynchings gloated over and exaggerated by Negrophiles the world over." By the time Percy wrote his diatribe in 1941, the survival of British balladry in Appalachia had become public knowledge, and a few scholars had begun to argue that such music could be found in other parts of the South.
Percy, for example, probably knew about the scholarship of Arthur Palmer Hudson, who had collected ballads and folksongs in Mississippi. The students of British balladry made major contributions to our understanding of the totality of American music.
But while they reminded us of the richness of America's Old World musical roots, they obscured our vision of Southern folk culture. Except for an occasional scholar like Hudson, they concentrated too narrowly upon Appalachia; they overemphasized secular balladry and neglected religious music and instrumental dance tunes; they too often insisted that Southern folk music represented an exclusive Anglo-Saxon inheritance; and, in their urgent haste to collect the remnants of what they perceived as a dying culture, they suggested falsely that folk culture was a static phenomenon.
Appalachian folk culture, they believed, was imperiled by modernity, and the old ballads were being swept away by a deluge of inferior and modern-composed songs. When Cecil Sharp made his pioneering song-collecting expedition to Appalachia in 1916, he was soon impressed by the universality of singing in the region: "I found myself for the first time in my life in a community in which singing was as common and almost as universal a practice as speaking."
Sharp believed, however, that his informants too often sang the wrong kind of songs, and that very soon "the ideal conditions" that had fostered the survival of the ballads would disappear. Already the "simple, Arcadian life of the mountains" was being defiled by the lumber companies and other representatives of "the commercial world," and by the "sworn enemies of the folk-song collector," the public schools. The "alien" musical forms that worried Cecil Sharp in 1916, or what he described as "modern street-songs," were mostly the products of black-face minstrelsy, gospel hymnody, and Tin Pan Alley.
After 1922 the barbarian that slithered through the gates of presumed cultural purity was commercial hillbilly music. Hillbilly music did not fit the idealized version of folk music promoted by the collectors and their allies in the mountain settlement schools, but it did conform marvelously to the reality of plain-folk life in the first quarter of the 20th century. British folksongs, or adaptations of them, appeared frequently on phonograph recordings and radio broadcasts, although they were accompanied by homegrown songs and scores of items that came from the gospel tradition or from popular culture.
This music was generally ignored by the apostles of high culture, but in 1933, about 10 years after the first recordings were released, an article appeared in Etude that was remarkable for its condescension. Written by a self-styled "dealer in sound-reproducing machines," the article informed the sophisticated readers of that music journal about a "subterranean" world of music filled with an "unnumbered inarticulate multitude" that was unknown to most Americans. Contrary to public opinion, he said, the "lowly native white folk of the South"--his customers--did not sing the romantic plantation songs of Stephen Foster; instead, these "childlike" people loved songs about "trains, wrecks, disasters, and crimes."
Clearly geared to the presumed biases of his culturally literate readers, the merchandiser's remarks nevertheless do convey some reality amidst their obvious distortions and half-truths. A plain-folk world of music did exist in the South and, although its brief commercial history was about 10 years old when the article was written, that musical culture was largely unknown or dismissed by many Americans. Despite its dreamy Southern connotations, Stephen Foster's music did not represent or reflect the musical taste and preoccupations of the Southern plain folk--even though Southern educators dutifully taught his songs to all Southern schoolchildren.
The observation that Southern white folk liked outlaw and disaster ballads was also correct, but such preferences, shared by their British ancestors and by their black neighbors, did not exhaust the full range of their interests. Their musical world was far more complex than the Etude journalist suggested. Early hillbilly music enjoyed a diversity that is astounding when compared to the Top 40 sounds of modern country music. One of the great ironies of country music history, and one of the major factors that makes it intriguing, is that the men and women who made the music have been simultaneously socially conservative and remarkably eclectic and absorptive in their acceptance of songs and tunes.
The early hillbilly musicians drew, as we have seen, upon a rather large and floating body of music that reflected Old World, American, religious, pop, and diversely ethnic origins. Columbia records fittingly described the old-time music listed in their 15,000-D series as "Old Familiar Tunes," while the Gennett label described theirs as "Songs from Dixie."
The hillbilly musicians simply did not care where their music came from as long as it conformed to the aesthetic and social values of their community. Songs from New York's Tin Pan Alley, material from the halcyon days of black-face minstrelsy, or gospel songs born in a Dwight Moody-Ira Sankey revival crusade moved into the rural South, acquired the sounds and inflections of the people there, and found intimate companionship with "folk" songs of British and African American vintage on hillbilly recordings and radio broadcasts.
... At the beginning of its commercial history in the 1920s, country music probably appealed to many Americans through its fantasies of rough-and-ready independence, its evocations of nostalgia, and its suggestion that old-time ways carried with them a brand of morality superior to that of modern times. Over time, as the music established itself as a commercial force, and as "the old familiar songs" gradually disappeared from performing repertoires, the writers of country music moved beyond nostalgia--without ever abandoning it--to fashion a body of songs that spoke persuasively to the needs and concerns of working people everywhere, maintaining and yet still exploiting in new ways the traditional, conflicting preoccupations of the Southern folk.
The music, then and since, spoke to its listeners with many voices and with many messages--simultaneously extolling the virtues of home and the joys of rambling, the assurances of the Christian life and the ecstasies of hedonism, the strength of working-class life and the material lure of middle-class existence.
In country music's subtext, one hears the hopes and fears of rural Southerners struggling to balance the internalized values of a disappearing rural life with the external demands of an urban world into which they have been inexorably drawn. Increasingly, the message has resonated with those in other regions and from other backgrounds who, like their Southern counterparts, have felt dwarfed by the complexities of a troublesome and uncertain future. Don't dream too high. Don't forget where you came from. Above all, "don't get above your raisin'."
©2002 the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois and Bill C. Malone. Excerpt reprinted with permission. Don't Get Above Your Raisin' (ISBN 0-252-02678-0) was published by the University of Illinois Press, http://www.press.uillinois.edu/ or 1-800-537-5487.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill C. Malone is a professor emeritus of history of Tulane University. Previous books include Country Music, U.S.A.; Southern Music/American Music; and Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music. This book is a volume in the series Music in American Life and was supported by a grant from the H. Earle Johnson Fund of the Society for American Music.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org