For the larger portion of my life, I have been a loving devotee of American folk music. As an adolescent, I started out listening to American and British rock artists from the 60s and 70s (e.g. Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Lynyrd Skyndyrd, Aerosmith, AC/DC etc.). That phase of my life intrigued me enough to dig deeper, so to speak, and investigate the musical influences of my classic rock heroes. This is how I became acquainted with authentically American music.
The artists I admired in my pre-teen years were tremendous enthusiasts of blues, folk, country, bluegrass, rockabilly, and r & b. Through my study of classic rock’s musical progenitors, I not only became a fan of American folk music in its own right, but also I was able to construct a mental timeline of American folk music’s development over the past century. (Before I begin my analysis, I would like to make clear that I utilize the term “folk music” very loosely. In the sense I utilize it, the term is not confined simply to folk music as such, but rather encapsulates the entirety of music that originates from the American “heartland.”)
Based on my study of American folk music’s history, I have made certain observations concerning folk music particularly designated as necessarily “rural.” I have noticed a tremendous shift in the narratives of rural songs in recent years.
I went back and read an article from 2004 in the New Yorker, Folk Hero: A New Biography of Woody Guthrie, written by David Hadju. In it, Hadju makes clear that Guthrie, perhaps the most renowned American folk sing-songwriter, the man who wrote the socialist refrain “This Land is Your Land,” was an unwavering exponent of his own brand of folksy radical leftism. This reminded me of an idea that has been floating in my head for some time: rural music’s narrative has experienced a drastic paradigm shift from organic protest to one of engineered conservatism. Why is this the case? What accounts for this stark switch?
I can recall listening to songs like Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and just feeling (and loving) her unabashed rural, working class pride and a degree of class-consciousness. In the song Lynn describes her upbringing, “We were poor but we had love that's the one thing that daddy made sure of/ He shoveled coal to make a poor man's dollar.” Attached to this endearing, purely descriptive account of her impoverished background there is no explicit political message. It is simply a tender and nostalgic (and perhaps romanticized) recollection of her working class past.
Now, contrast this with a more contemporary country song I heard while listening to the radio. Charlie Daniels’ “Simple Man” plays on the same theme of unashamed rural, working class pride, but it is attached with a direct reactionary political message. He sings:
I ain't nothin' but a simple man. They call me a redneck. I reckon that I am, but there's things going on that make me mad down to the core. I have to work like a dog to make ends meet,
there's crooked politicians and crime in the street, and I'm madder'n hell and I ain't gonna take it no more.
The lyrics at this point express a degree of discontent with the political and social status quo, however, Daniels’ prescription is what is really problematic. He sings, in discontent with what he considers to be a criminal-lenient judicial system: “If I had my way with people sellin' dope/ I'd take a big tall tree and a short piece of rope/ I'd hang 'em up high and let 'em swing 'til the sun goes down.”
The coded language is quite stark, and quite unsettling. In effect, Daniels sings that if it were up to him, he would lynch those who sell drugs. He believes the judges and politicians are too soft on the petty criminals who peddle narcotics. Thus, he would like to bypass trial and simply lynch. Shamefully, lynching has been quite the common phenomenon in rural American history, particularly the lynching of (often times innocent) people of color (see lynching of Jesse Washington).
Daniels’ proposed solution to the illicit drug trade appears racially neutral at first glance. But, if one dwells on the notion for more than a cursory moment, and if one has a nominal degree of knowledge concerning the demographics of those accused of drug crimes, one will be able to see that Daniels indirectly proposes the return to the lynching of black folks.
To emphasize, even more so, the paradigm shift in the rural music narrative, it is important to note that in the early 70s Daniels had a significant hit with the song “Long Haired Country Boy.” In that song he describes himself as a sort of unapologetic country contrarian. He places himself in opposition to the conservative mores of the time, which dictated that men maintain their hair at respectably short lengths, by reveling in his status as a long-haired, dope-smoking, preacher-scoffing, rock ‘n’ roller.
There are other conservative themes prevalent in contemporary rural music, which were certainly not in the fore in decades past. For instance, it is quite common nowadays to hear a country music artist lament the ubiquity of foreign cars in bigger cities, the influx of city slickers in rural areas, and the alleged concerted effort to corrode country life.
I believe these themes all point to the underlying cause of this shift. Rural music went from Johnny Cash to Hank Williams, Jr.—from the poetic beauty of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” or “For the Good Times” to “Kiss My Country Ass,” “Country Boys Can Survive,” or “Redneck Paradise—because of the rapidly changing economic and social state of affairs in this nation.
The United States is increasingly transforming its demographic characteristics. White-Americans are gradually becoming more of a numerical minority than a majority. Thus, the credence of socially constructed mythology like white supremacy is being shaken up a bit. For fear of its complete destruction, naturally white folk singers have responded defensively, to say the least.
Moreover, the United States’ unrivaled economic primacy has been facing steep decline for the past few decades, thus putting in a tremulous situation other social mythology like the so-called American way of life, or the American Dream. Country life at its core represents and epitomizes this Americanism. As the material basis for Americanism dissipates, it follows that the most American of institutions, rurality, is placed in a precarious situation.
Add to this the fact that the livelihoods of rural working class Americans have been put in jeopardy because of this nation’s overall economic decline. And add to this a conscious effort on the part of ultra-reactionary, bourgeois ideologues to scapegoat “big government,” immigrants, and people of color, and naturally the most reactionary elements of Middle America will come out in song.
Moreover, much of the twentieth century was colored with the omnipresence of progressive social upheaval and radical leftism, consequently much of popular music of the time was a direct reflection of this zeitgeist, and rural music was no exception. That sort of general turmoil is nonexistent today in the United States.
But, as time goes on and international economic conditions worsen, the spirit of the times is orienting toward a return of popular uprising. So too, American folk music will reorient itself in that path. It’s fitting to end on this note: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHbTWJ9tjnw.