Waiting for a Train: Progressives and Country Music
If I said that country music holds a key to progressive political success, would it sound so out of tune that you’d stand up and walk out on me?
Hit the door then, or lend me your ears, because I believe that’s the case. I prefer Americana or alternative country over mainstream, country pop. But I embrace the latter, too. There are important values and a profound combination of hope, community spirit, and wariness of authority in much of the music.
Despite the conservative, lily-white image of contemporary country, it’s multicultural to the core. The steel guitar, a staple of the music, was imported from Hawaii. The banjo is from Africa. The guitar is of multi-ethnic origins. Barack Obama and country music are cut from the same tree.
"One of the lessons of the last several presidential elections is that he who has the most country music on his side has the electorate on his side," writes Chet Flippo. Lineage alone ought give Obama a leg up.
Progressives recognize the need to better communicate their values, especially values born of empathy and shared responsibility. But it’s not enough to just describe them. They have to be performed, in two senses: demonstrated in thought and action and embodied in art and culture. American folk and country artists have been doing so for many moons. It’s time to listen, and time to sing and dance the values, too.
Jimmie Rodgers’ 1928 song, "Waiting For a Train" was a hit because of the public’s shared feeling that all of America was, figuratively if not literally, standing around the water tank, waiting for a freedom train, a train of redemption, or maybe just a train back home to the lover who threw you out. It’s populist message struck a deep chord, a chord that still resonates.
All around thewater tank
Waiting for a train
A thousand miles away from home
Sleeping in the rain
I walked up to the brakeman
To give him a line of talk
He says, "If you’ve got money
Then I’ll see that you don’t walk."
I haven’t got a nickel
Not a penny can I show
He said, "Get off you railroad bum,"
And he slammed the boxcar door.
We can’t overlook the misogyny, bigotry and willful ignorance that marks some of country music culture. Rodgers is called the father of country music, and he was always for the little guy. But to name just one shortcoming that needs calling out, in the video you see the freedom-pursuing Singing Brakeman juxtaposed with the domestically bound women. Freedom is too often the exclusive pursuit of the men folk in the tradition.
The musical sphere is a good place to confront such difference and disagreement. Marketers use genre to create specific markets, and music can and does provide in-group solidarity and out-group loathing. But it is also a universal human activity, with obvious potential for transformational change. Mark Mattern puts it this way in his intriguing book, "Acting in Concert: Music, Community, and Political Action:"
Music also may serve critical and visionary roles in making communities more open and tolerant to the experiences of others, helping members see themselves in a new light and expanding the horizons of the community… It increases the possibility of mutual recognition and respect of differences and encourages greater modesty in asserting universal moral and political ends and judgments that are hostile to differences.
"Country, "folk," and "hillbilly" music were part of the same broad category from the ’20s to the ’50s. There was no exclusive genre called "country music" until 1953, after a Red-baiting magazine called Counterattack, the FBI, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy accused Pete Seeger’s folk group, The Weavers, of subversive, pro-communist skullduggery. Mainstream musicians and corporate music barons ran from the term "folk" like misbehaving husbands fleeing through the back door of a honky-tonk as J. Edgar Hoover and his pals showed up dressed as their wives. Which, we know now from Hoover bios, isn’t that far-fetched a simile.
Country’s roots are found in the experiences of poor and working-class Americans. It’s Delta Blues, hillbilly, bluegrass, cowboy pining, New Orleans jazz, Memphis rockabilly, South Texas conjunto, Southern hymnal, hard-times-come-again-no-more-music. The stories told in country music attach us to the land and to one another. The traditions that feed into country came with immigrants and slaves. They’re full of awe, love, freedom, fear, hope, and resistance to authority.
Until the ’50s, country and folk music were exploited by promoters and record companies, but the music was also marginalized. In the ’50s, the cultural guardians of Tin Pan Alley, with a near monopoly on popular music, tried to persuade Congress to place restrictions on two kinds of music they felt would corrupt the nation: country and rock and roll. As usual, the argument, which was lost, was all about the elite and their money.
Technology and progressive innovation are helping dissolve corporately enforced genre boundaries. More people are being exposed to more diverse offerings. FDL’s Donita "Spin I’m In" Sparks has a new project, CASH Music, which will facilitate exciting, direct, creative interaction among musicians, artists, and their audiences. Sparks has been a genre-busting force on the web. Her July 4, rockabilly play list was terrific.
The Music Genome Project’s Pandora Radio uses 400-plus musical criteria to assess a listener’s preferences and allow the creation of one’s own internet radio station. Many of the musicians who fall within the meandering borders of Americana are on independent labels, giving them more creative control. They’re distributing direct through online digital outlets. Who needs the suits?
There’s a healthy opportunity in the breakdown of genre barriers. I’m suggesting that music we now call country speaks profoundly to Americans, and it deserves wider attention.
Back in the early ’70s, my town, Austin, was the site of a remarkable cultural moment that saw that era’s hippies and rednecks find common ground in the music of Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and others. Pot and pistols, cosmic cowboys, redneck rockers. It wasn’t a holy alliance, but it was the seed bed of later political success stories. Like Ann Richards and Jim Hightower.
At Willie’s first Fourth of July picnic on a remote Texas Hill Country ranch in 1973, I stumbled off among the live oaks and fell asleep (pardon the euphemism) as darkness descended and some drunken stagehand turned the power off on the then-little known Stevie Ray Vaughn. When I woke up about three in the morning my friends had given up on me. Workers were dismantling the stage. I got a ride out of the place on the hood of an old Oldsmobile, which only threw me into the cactus once when the sleepy driver ran off the dirt road and slammed on his brakes.
That was a warning I should have paid more attention to. This first progressive country boomlet often found its own self in the cactus. Ray Wylie Hubbard’s "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother," written to mock a couple of bumpkins who beat him at a New Mexico bar, soon became a redneck anthem, a celebration of the qualities Hubbard made fun of. Irony was never the strong suit of country.
Still, it’s time we climbed back on the hood and rode back out to the ranch. We may find out something about American we’ve forgotten. Or never knew.