Saturday, March 1, 2008

Does it Take Urban Patrons to Elevate the Rural Arts?

In the introduction to their book, Knowing Your Place: Rural Identity and Cultural Hierarchy (1997), Barbara Ching and Gerald Creed argue that it does. They give the example, from Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" of a "rural black woman's refusal to allow her status-seeking daughter to turn the family's butter churn into a decoration of her urban apartment. Conversely, when rural people attempt to aestheticize elements of everyday life and labor for themselves -- such as using a tractor tire as a flower bed in the front yard--they unwittingly provide further evidence of their laughable lack of taste." (p. 22). This claiming of rural art and artifacts by the urban or suburban, Ching and Creed maintain, confers cultural value beyond that which the rural resident, who actually create or use products such as the churn, ever could.

Here's another example, this one from yesterday's New York Times: "The Sound is Rural, the Setting Urban." (It was a top-10 emailed story, no less, for about 12 hours). It reports on the "roots music scene" in New York City, highlighting the current popularity of bluegrass and "country-rock" there. Journalist Nate Chinen also notes the recent successes of "Raising Sand," the collaboration between Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, and Norah Jones's "Come Away with Me." A related story, with listings, is headlined, "The Week in Twang, Day by Day."

I've long appreciated these music genres, perhaps in part because of my rural roots. In many circles, though, I've felt the need to closet these tastes. Now, it seems, New Yorkers are helping me do with regard to musical taste what I've been working at in one way or another most of my adult life. To use a Southern expression, they're helping me "clean up well." How nice that they're doing it without requiring that I change my ways.

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