Thursday, March 4, 2010

Southern Music & The US Working Class (I)

I was going through Bill Malone's excellent history of country music, Don't Get Above Your Raisin', while prepping for my popular music class this week.

The class's topic was the backlash against the 1960s counterculture levelled by country artists like Merle Haggard, which so clearly show the social distance they felt from 60s political activism.

Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee" expressed, with wit and sarcasm, the feelings of conservative, blue-collar, small-town folk about the excess and hedonism of the hippie counterculture. The song also criticizes the hippies (or, more accurately, the anti-war protest) for dissenting against the government and thus against the nation. It was the first in a long series of country songs with a nationalistic, love-it-or-leave-it attitude towards the US.

The "other" in "Okie from Muskogee" is never really named apart from the hippies, but implicity, the opposite of the small-town, blue-collar, white man is the urban, middle-class, university-educated white man. In other words, it's about class, not race. (Gender-wise, I get the sense that the ideal or "addressed" listener is male -- not sure why).

Malone's book is principally concerned with the white American working class and what country music meant to this constituency. I was interested in what Malone had to say about the politics that get expressed in country.

Malone shows that country music's populist basis once overlapped with some progressive politics -- see the Depression song "Hurrah for Roosevelt," praising the New Deal and the president's concern with the plight of working people -- and he deals with the apparent conservative turn that the American working class seemed to make after the social changes of the 1960s divided the nation. "Okie" was one of the harbingers.

However, the politics of the American working class, especially as expressed in country music over the past 40 years, is a riddle to most social scientists. The clinging to rugged American individualism, the hardcore religiosity, the disdain for "liberal elites," the "my country right-or-wrong" nationalism is perplexing when it seems so clear, given the massive income disparities in the US, that the working class should logically embrace a more progressive politics. Explanations for this are usually very condescending. The assumption is that they are duped, uneducated, justifiably angry yet misdirected, or some combination of these.

Malone's argument is simply that country music's politics can't be pinned down in any simple way. Fair enough: the social class backgrounds described implicitly in country music aren't singular or monolithic. But Malone's conclusion also indicates that a lot more research and analysis is left to be done.


  1. What music groups are the best upbeat Southern Rock? eg. Lynyrd Skynyrd?
    Thank you
    Brad Fallon

  2. Skynyrd is good, Allman Brothers are very good. The Band is good rock band that worked at sounding very Southern.