Music, Identity, and George Jones

Today George Jones passed away. I have some good friends who don’t listen to country music, so I had to explain who that was and what it meant. It’s always strange, explaining country music. Even eras and sub-genres and artists I don’t listen to can get me pretty impassioned. For some reason, whenever I talk about country music, I feel like I’m talking less about one genre among many, than about an entire culture.

I think there’s something in that. America has a long history of a lot of good music, but when radios and then record players and all their descendants came along, something changed. Music become mass-produced, piped out over the airwaves for miles in every direction, or arriving in stores in every good-sized town.

Think about what that means. People across the whole United States can listen to the same artists singing the same songs in the same way. Music was already a communal event, but now it was one that transcended the local community. You were tied by your love of this or that music to people half a continent away.

And music is not just the enjoyment of an experience. It’s also a carrier of tradition and a marker of our identity and values. “This is what we sing about, these are our songs, and this is how we sing them.” Music, in that era, tied the United States together in one vast musical tapestry.

And this all, of course, was during and after the second World War. This is when American patriotism, in good ways and bad, was at its height. Our identity as Americans, whatever values we held in common, and our national unity were important to the generation who had endured so many horrors to preserve them. And with the rising threat of communism, such values and symbols of unity would continue to be important.

So when a new generation began to question the old value system and the culture shaped around it, it was natural for that generation to express their views and their sentiments in music. The hippies and their ilk had protest songs addressing issues of race, war, poverty, gender, and just life in general from a new point of view. As they stirred up trouble across the country, their music stirred up trouble across the airwaves.

And that’s where I start my history of country music. It existed before that, to be sure. But for various reasons–good ones and not so good ones–country got associated with conservative values. The nation, or at least all the parts I am familiar with, was polarized between cowboys and hippies. And this was reflected in the music of each side.

Since then music has changed. Hippies themselves stopped being a force as such, and carried their causes into more respectable corners of the world and established them there. The same thing happened with their music. Rock, funk, folk, and others were invented or reinvented by that generation.

Country carried on in another way. Though it effected other genres from time to time, and was influenced in turn, it remained itself. It was still country music, and it was still identified with that same conservative culture.

Music can be a powerful statement of identity. Are you an Okie from Muskogee? Are you not a fortunate son? It can communicate values. Maybe “times, they are a-changin’,” but perhaps we should” stop rolling downhill like a snowball that’s headed for hell.” Sometimes a genre is just a style of picking you prefer. And sometimes it’s a stand you take.

I won’t make any claims about the culture country music represented in George Jones’s day, or what it means in our day. But I will say that, for better or worse, that culture shaped who I am. And it is strange to see one of its legends pass away.

Rest in peace, Mr. Jones. You will be missed.

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The Southern Dilemma, Part One

This is the first in a number of posts on Southern identity. The following exploration of the issue was inspired by a series of three linked articles whose content will largely structure the upcoming posts. They can be found here, here, and here.

Recently Dr. Peter Leithart posted a quote on his blog over at First Things. The originator of the quote compares Ireland’s relationship to England as a literary center with that of the South’s relationship to the remainder of the United States. He offers an interesting explanation for our significant literary output, grounding greater creativity in the experience of defeat.

“The South escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking. The North puffed confidently into the future, Panglossian about progress, always bound to win. But the South had lost. It knew there was an America that could be defeated. That made it capable of facing tragedy, as many in America were not.”

This is an interesting point, and strikes me as true. There is depth to having known defeat, a certain humility when confronted with life that I believe allows a deeper and more poignant experience of the world. But there are greater consequences to such an experience than increased creative potential.

The problem with American history is that it is very short. It has been said that a very old man today could have, as a child, sat in the lap of another old man who in turn had known people alive at the time of the War for Independence. Much has happened in the past two hundred and fifty years, but we are still very much settling into our place in history. We have not been conquered and re-conquered, we have not experienced centuries of changing regimes and lifestyles. The first war the whole United States really lost was Vietnam.

So when the South includes in its narrative a story of defeat, that means a great deal. We are still Americans, with a strong desire for progress and optimism. We cannot fathom the concept of a narrative with rises and falls, defeats and victories, different struggles in different contexts. Change is foreign. Our narrative has only gone so far, and our imagination cannot go much farther.

That defeat, then, defines us. It has the cold air of finality about it, and that terrifies the Southern psyche. No man can maintain a narrative of final defeat. If his worldview has no room for victory or potential happiness, then either he will die or he will find a new worldview.

In the South, that is largely what has happened. In our short-sightedness we think Appomattox meant not just the end of Confederate efforts in the Civil War, but the end of the South as a culture. This drives some to seek out a new culture, whether a Yankeefied liberalism or some broader form of Americanism. Others do not want to abandon their culture so quickly, and instead attempt to change the narrative. The South must rise again, or at the very least be vindicated and accepted in the larger American context. In some sense, our defeat must be undone.

This dilemma largely defines the South as it is now, and if not addressed, will lead to our death as a culture. And it is a problem not for those who are willing to forget the South, but for those who love it and want to see it prosper. We are the ones who have stop living in the past, and address our culture as it stands now. We have to adapt to a new context and become forward-thinking while still affirming our own heritage and way of life.

I do believe that the South has done this on occasion, but almost by accident. We are constantly going back to that same war, rehashing the same old issues, and clinging to that bitter defeat. If we are to maintain an upbeat and forward-thinking culture, we cannot continue to do that. We must deliberately and firmly make a lasting change to our understanding of our own narrative. But that is a topic for a later post.