American Literary History 16.2 (2004) 208-237
Furniture! Thank God, I can sit and I can stand without the aid of a furniture warehouse. What man but a philosopher would not be ashamed to see his furniture packed in a cart and going up country exposed to the light of heaven and the eyes of men, a beggarly account of empty boxes?
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
In the 1920s a boom in commercial recording brought hundreds of farmers, miners, carpenters, and preachers from rural places like Burton's Fork, Kentucky, to the very epicenters of urban America to sing and to play banjos, fiddles, and guitars into machines. With the help of a rapidly integrating consumer economy that linked city and country through the twin virtual networks of media and market, these machines turned this music—which only a generation before had existed only as practice—into things. These things, in turn, circulated not only in those great conurbations and unincorporated spaces but between and within every kind of place in the middle. One musician who made this journey was a young coal miner named Dick Justice (1906-ca.1950s) of Logan County, West Virginia, who traveled to Chicago in May of 1929 to record for Brunswick Records. Like the career of his fellow miner Dock Boggs (1898-1971), who left Norton, Virginia, in 1927 to set down 12 tracks for the same label in New York, Justice's recording career there met an abrupt end. Unlike Boggs, who returned to the mines for a quarter century but was rediscovered in the 1960s by folk revivalist Mike Seeger and spent his golden years performing before galleries of earnest young seekers after authenticity, Justice's retirement was permanent. By the 1960s all that remained of him were the circulating things he had made. Indeed, even these things, other than his version of the Francis Child ballad "Henry Lee," which gained new life as the first track on the first volume of Harry Smith's epic Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), seemed destined to disappear forever with Justice.
Perhaps because the transgressive, modern culture of the urban 1920s is so interesting, relatively less attention has been paid to figures like Justice and the world he lived in than to the denizens of speakeasies and jazz clubs and their haunts. Indeed, it has been tempting for generations of observers like Smith to see the pre-Depression South as the last vestige of premodern authenticity: to see it, in Greil Marcus's words, as an inscrutably "Old, Weird America" where folks divided their electricity-free evenings between playing murder ballads on homemade banjos and sitting around waiting for the end times (5). Perhaps less romantic, but similarly problematic, is the scarring post-1929 memory world made by Walker Evans, John Steinbeck, and their cohort, which has made it hard to imagine poor, rural places like Justice's Logan County as ever having been anything but what they are, incontestably, in the documentary art of the Depression: isolated, hermetic, destitute, and blasted. Indeed, despite their apparent claims upon our sympathy, these images have reinforced later viewers' false sense of distance from the rural American cultures of the 1920s and of the distance between the city and the country in the 1920s itself. We do not, after all, call the 1920s the Country Age. And, particularly since the collapse of Steinbeck's Left—and the rise in its place of antiglobalization critics like Naomi Klein—have made us forget the trouble that capitalism brought to Americans, these images have also to our sense that the culture and people of the rural 1920s were not premodern but antimodern, and to our tendency to define them solely in the backlash against modernity inscribed in the second rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the creep of Scopes Trial-style fundamentalism.
What this essay will argue is that early American country music, and the regional culture in which it was enmeshed, instead represents an important aspect both of American modernity and American modernism. First, the songs themselves—both as music and text—speak to the ascendance in the rural South of a hybrid, circulatory consumer culture that...