Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Nuclear Country Music?!?

Now this is interesting!  In these days where blogs proliferate faster than rabbits, I recently came across a blog at blog called Facing South at the Institute for Southern Studies Web site.  This entry is about country songs in the years just after the Second World War that dealt with what was quaintly called "the A-bomb" back then: Nuclear Country by Chris Kromm 03/15/05.  You know, like to the tune of the "The Battle of New Orleans":

We dropped our bomb
And radiation kep' a'comin'

No, I made that one up.  (It was also a gratuitous Andrew Jackson reference.)  It reminds me of the song by (I believe) David Allan Coe that includes what he says are all the essential elements of a country song: rain, mamma, trains, prison, drinking, etc.

Well I was drunk the day Momma got out of prison
I was driving down to meet her in the rain
But when I got down to the station in my pickup truck
She got run over by a darned ole train

Maybe it should have been:

They dropped the bomb the day Momma got out of prison
When I heard it on the radio, I said, "Well, dang"
Then Bubba roared off in his pickup truck
And Rufus threw his bird-dog off the train

The blog entry cites this article: Listening to the Beat of the Bomb New York Times 03/15/05.

Dr. Charles K. Wolfe listens to country music. In fact, he is a leading scholar of the country music of the atom bomb, a genre that flowered almost immediately after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II and faded away by the early 50's.

Yo!  I'd never even thought about such a thing.  He's just put out a whole book called Country Music Goes to War, which really sounds promising. 

What were the country A-bomb songs, you may ask?  Well, there's:

"Atomic Power" by Fred Kirby, the earliest one Wolfe knows about.  According to the Times, it "asserts that atomic power 'was given by the mighty hand of God' and suggests that those who use it unwisely will face cosmic retribution." Yeah, I think that, too.

Then there's:

"Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb"
"There Is a Power Greater Than Atomic"
"Old Man Atom"
"Advice to Joe" by Roy Acuff and Roy Nunn  (That would be Joe as in Joe Stalin.)

You know, I just don't think my life will be complete until I've heard "Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb."  Well, that and maybe a thing or two involving Nastassja Kinski and a desert island.

Kromm writes in his blog post:

It's another example of how country music has reflected our society's deepest divisions -- sometimes stoking our basest fears, and other times affirming our humanity and hopes for a better future.

He also links to this interesting article by Sandy Carter Wild and Blue: The Politics of Country Sept 1994.

Like other music forms of our culture, country music is an amalgam of influences. Its sound, song structure, and lyrical text reveal a heavy debt to African American musical styles, particularly blues and gospel. Rhythmically, country draws most on the dance meters of English and European country dance tunes. As to lyrics and narrative style, country storytelling has roots in Southern Protestant sermonizing, barroom banter, front porch story swapping, and the general character of regional oral traditions. Other distinctive characteristics relate to the way the music is performed. Unlike many pop performers, country singers write much of their material bringing a subjective, direct voice to their performance. Like blues singers, they aim for intimacy more than technical sophistication. In the singer's voice and story lay the central appeal of country music. ...

The loss at the heart of the country song has been expressed through two divergent impulses. When the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers came to Bristol, Tennessee in August 1927 to perform before record scout Ralph Peer and a Victor Talking Machine, they brought with them distinct bodies of material representing seemingly contradictory themes and values. In the Carter Family's huge repertoire of traditional songsresided the morally decent old-time virtues of work, family, humility, and Christian fellowship. By contrast, Rodgers, an ex-railroad brakeman from Meridian, Mississippi, wrote tunes with roots in blues and jazz, folk and cowboy songs, work gang hollers and pop. Though Rodgers wrote his share of songs glorifying the home and family, his work also celebrated the lives of hell-raisers, hoboes, wayward lovers, criminals, rounders, and ramblers.

Part of the theme of Carter's article is how many people have an image of country music as being hopelessly backward as in Scopes Trial, etc.  I've been listening to so much country music for so long that it's kind of mind-boggling that people think that, troglidytes like Chuckie notwithstanding.  Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were two of the main influences on Woody Guthrie, for example.  Woody even stole the tune for his most popular song "This Land Is Your Land" from a Carter Family tune, "World Afire" or something like that.  (More knowledgable fans feel free to fill in the blanks I'm leaving.)  Woody was accused of a lot of things, but I don't think stodgy conservative was ever one of them.

I mean, what respectable country club Republican wants to be identified with songs about being in prison and hard-pressed farm workers and the like?  Well, with Enron and Worldcom, maybe some of them are gaining a new appreciation for prison songs.  As Carter puts it:

Because of this emphasis on Southerness and tradition, country music has long been associated with all that is reactionary. However, while country music generally expresses a conservative outlook, the view of country as an exclusively white, male-dominated, right-wing tradition is unfair and one-dimensional. At no point in its history has country music expressed a consistent political ideology. Although performers such as W. Lee O'Daniel, Jimmie Davis, and Roy Acuff have run for political office and many country musicians have endorsed candidates and aired opinions in public, the music resists easy ideological labeling. Every hard-headed patriotic diatribe like "Okie From Muskogee" can be matched by songs like Waylon Jennings's multicultural, egalitarian anthem "America" and James Talley's ode to populist rebellion"Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again?"

Now, I've got to take exception to her description of "Okie From Muskogee" being a "hard-headed patriotic diatribe."  Merle's "Fightin' Side of Me" would qualify.  But "Okie From Muskogee" always gets a warm reception when he plays in the San Francisco area, especially the lines about "We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy/Like the hippies out in San Francisco do."

Jimmie Davis was a former governor of Lousiana, whose politics were none too progressive even by Louisiana standards.  But he's probably best known for having co-written the song, "You Are My Sunshine." Davis lived to the ripe old age of 101.  "You Are My Sunshine" is one of the two official state songs of Louisiana, the other being "Give Me Louisiana."  (They also have a separate official "March Song" and an "Environmental Song.")


More importantly, since country music has always been a voice for small farmers, factory hands, day laborers, the displaced and unemployed, its harsh portraits of work and everyday life carry an implicit critique of capitalism. Instead of overt political protest, country songs prefer to deliver social criticism through poignant descriptions of economic hardship and family sacrifice. Some of the best examples of this style of protest are Merle Haggard's "Mama's Hungry Eyes," Dolly Parton's "Coat Of Many Colors," and Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter."

Well put.  Now, she was writing this in 1994, but it's also worth mentioning Merle's 2003 song "That's the News," which was, well, a regular old protest song about Bush's merry Mesopotamian adventure:  "Politicians do all the talking/And soldiers pay the dues."

This comment of Carter's is also good, combined with her observations elsewhere in the article about the influence of African-American music on country:

As to the issue of race, country music's sentimental attachment to Dixie is often taken as an endorsement of white supremacy and slavery. Country music's glorification of the South, however, derives mostly from an idealized notion of working the land and the real life movement of millions off the land during the years of the Great Depression and World War II. Not surprisingly, hundreds of country tunes plead the case of the farmer and celebrate the beauty of Southern landscapes. By contrast, since the birth of the country music industry in the 1920s, very few country songs have offered direct commentary on race relations in the South, and certainly no popular song has advocated a return to the slave system. This doesn't mean, of course, that white Southerners or the country music industry are free of racism. Rather, it suggests that the homesickness in country music is based primarily on the erosion of rural identity.

Jimmie Rodgers, "the father of country music," was consciously melding black blues and traditional ballads.

In an otherwise sensible article, though, I find Carter's conclusion kind of strange:  "While the politics of country music eludes many popular prejudices and neat categories of left and right, the fundamental conservatism of the message cannot be denied.  Country's conservatism, however, comes not from taking a particular stand on particular issues, but in the way it reads and resolves conflict. Country music may be one of the truest forms of popular music in giving voice to the bitter realities of class and the sorry state of male-female relations. But in offering few avenues of escape and rebellion, country music tends to settle struggle in favor of the powers that be. Change in country music comes mostly from individual hard work and sacrifice, luck, and God. The music's vision of community is insular and backward looking. And as a result, failure breeds feelings of self-blame and resignation.

How she gets from country music "one of the truest forms of popular music in giving voice to the bitter realities of class and the sorry state of male-female relations" to it being fundamentally conservative is beyond me.

I'm going to have to start checking that Facing South blog more often!


Anonymous said...

My favorite country protest song has to be an obscure ditty called "Guv'ment" by Roger Miller of "King of the Road" fame.  And no, I'm not making this up...

Well you soul selling no-good
Son-of-a-shoe-fittin’ firestarters
I ought to tear your no good
Perambulatory bone frame
And nail it to your government walls
All of you, you Bastards

Well, you dad-gum government
You sorry so 'n' so's
You got your damn hands in every pocket
Of my clothes
Well you dad-gum, dad-gum, dad-gum government
Oh don't you know
Oh don't you love 'em sometimes


Anonymous said...

Let's not forget Tom Lehr, who back in the 60s wrote and sang many songs concerning the bomb.  This one, "Who's Next" is just one.  It starts with an introduction:

One of the big news items of the past year concerned the fact that China, which we call Red China, exploded a nuclear bomb, which we called a device. Then Indonesia announced that it was gonna have one soon, and proliferation became the word of the day. Here's a song about that.

First we got the bomb and that was good,
'Cause we love peace and motherhood.
Then Russia got the bomb, but that's O.K.,
'Cause the balance of power's maintained that way!
Who's next?

France got the bomb, but don't you grieve,
'Cause they're on our side (I believe).
China got the bomb, but have no fears;
They can't wipe us out for at least five years!*
Who's next?

Then Indonesia claimed that they
Were gonna get one any day.
South Africa wants two, that's right:
One for the black and one for the white!**
Who's next?

Egypt's gonna get one, too,
Just to use on you know who.
So Israel's getting tense,
Wants one in self defense.
"The Lord's our shepherd," says the psalm,
But just in case, we better get a bomb!
Who's next?

Luxembourg is next to go
And, who knows, maybe Monaco.
We'll try to stay serene and calm
When Alabama gets the bomb!
Who's next, who's next, who's next?
Who's next?

That Happy Chica,
Marcia Ellen