Southern Cultures 9.2 (2003) 102-105
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Don't Get Above Your Raisin' Country Music and the Southern Working Class. By Bill C. Malone. University of Illinois Press, 2002. 392 pp. Cloth $34.95
Hank Williams once remarked on the important connections between so-called hillbilly music and the hardscrabble rural backgrounds of its singers. "He sings more sincere than most entertainers," Williams explained, "because the hillbilly was raised rougher than most entertainers. You got to know a lot about hard work. You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly." Southern white working people probably made their single greatest contribution to American popular culture with country music. From its humble beginnings, the music has risen to become a multi-billion dollar global industry, so popular internationally, in fact, that it is not uncommon to find Japanese bluegrass bands and German rockabillies. Now, Bill C. Malone, professor emeritus of history at Tulane University and one of the leading authorities on country music, explores the southern, working-class origins and development of the music in his insightful new book, Don't Get Above Your Raisin': Country Music and the Southern Working Class. One of the pioneers of serious country music scholarship, he has written or edited four well-received books on the subject, including Country Music, U.S.A. (originally published in 1968, revised and enlarged in 1985), which remains the definitive history. But Malone was a fan of country music long before [End Page 102] he became its most distinguished scholar, and insights about southern culture and music drawn from his working-class youth in east Texas during the 1930s and 1940s inform Don't Get Above Your Raisin'.
Two basic assumptions underpin Malone's argument: first, that "country music has been an art form made and sustained by working people," and second, that most of the musicians and fans were "southerners who carried in their personalities and music the burdens of their region's history, as well as its many contradictions." After establishing these two premises, Malone goes on to explore a half-dozen of what he calls "major realms," or defining themes, of country music—home, religion, rambling, frolic, humor, and politics—in a series of roughly chronological chapters. Each chapter in the book traces the evolution of a particular theme in the lyrics of country songs that span the entire sweep of the music's history, beginning with nineteenth-century traditional ballads and running through present-day Top 40 and alternative country songs. As with Malone's previous studies, Don't Get Above Your Raisin' is informative, panoramic in scope, and based on an impressive collection of historical and musical sources.
Like all good studies of country music, though, Don't Get Above Your Raisin' reaches beyond the music itself to tell us much about working-class white people in the twentieth-century South. In particular, the book highlights the ways in which ordinary white southerners responded to and coped with the wrenching changes of industrial development, urban growth, and mass migration that remade their world since Reconstruction. The greatest country singers, among them Hank Williams, George Jones, and Merle Haggard, grappled with the contradictions and complexities of southern working-class life, and through their "struggle to voice the contending and irresolvable impulses of the human heart" created one of the defining tensions of the music. As Malone observes, country singers and songwriters address "such warring impulses as piety and hedonism, home and rambling, companionship and individualism, and nostalgia and modernity, deeply conscious that the line between these seemingly polar opposites is thin and that their ultimate resolution is unlikely." And it is these contradictions, Malone argues, that account for the enduring popularity and visceral power of country music over the last eight decades. First commercially recorded in 1922, the music continues to attract fans, he points out, because many of the bedrock issues explored in the music of the 1920s and 1930s remain fundamental themes of the music in our own day. But, in...