Southern Cultures 10.2 (2004) 1-6
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Harry L. Watson
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| Figure 1 |
There are few more memorable wives in twentieth-century American culture than Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, who was married to the successful young author F. Scott Fitzgerald. In this issue Linda Wagner-Martin reveals Zelda's world. Photograph from the collections of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald at Princeton University Library, used by permission of Harold Ober Associates as agents for the Fitzgerald Trustees; reproduced courtesy of Princeton University Library.
Readers sometimes ask how we at Southern Cultures find essays whose themes fit neatly together. I'd like to say that we have a stable of faithful geniuses who turn out matched sets of literary gems on regular orders, but my nose would grow. In truth, we're mostly dependent on the kindness of friends and strangers alike, and most of our pieces come in by surprise.
But it's true that certain themes keep coming up in the material that people send us, which tells me that lots of people are chewing over the issue of regional culture and, especially, how it fits with anything larger, or at least anything else. Are southern cultures "traditional" or "modern"? Part of American culture or something different? Pure or polyglot? Alive or dead? These are among the questions that keep coming up, and they command as many answers as we have writers—and probably more.
The articles in this issue are no exception. Author Benjamin Filene, for example, cannot resist a return to the well-known recent film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which is itself a kind of return to an imagined version of the 1930s South. [End Page 1] The film's plot and soundtrack sparked a dramatic surge of interest in oldtime southern music, including "hillbilly" tunes, blues, gospel, ballads, and work songs, and Filene uses its popularity to frame some reflections on the concept of "folk revival," citing examples from the 1930s, the 1960s, and the present.
Filene notes that revivers of America's folk music have often wanted it to be both "traditional" and innovative, faithful to its democratic and supposedly noncommercial origins among disadvantaged people of an older time, and also capable of sparking transformative social and political movements in the present. Folkies have prized what Greil Marcus calls "the old, weird America" and have longed to infuse modern culture with its deep-seated sense of authenticity. But Filene also points out that these twin ambitions tend to undermine each other, because the more "traditional" and "authentic" the music, the less vital and relevant it seems for the present. To make matters worse, as every student of oldtime music knows, even the oldest recordings of "traditional" southern music are actually commercial products of twentieth-century capitalism. While the songs and the musical skills may have flourished around the cabin fireside, the records were created for sale by artists and recording companies from the early twentieth century onwards, primarily with the hope of making money—not from down-and-out hoboes or destitute sharecroppers, but from cash-flush wage-earners in the towns and cities of the New South, already homesick for the sounds of Mama 'n' them. In other words, our oldest recorded forms of "traditional" southern music are not purely "authentic," but were tinged at birth with commercialized nostalgia. When embraced as a passing fad by jaded urbanites longing for an authentic whiff of what Marcus calls "the old, weird America," how can Lead Belly or Ralph Stanley escape triviality or mummification? As an alternative, Filene calls for "living, swirling traditions" that constantly create or rework their themes and sounds, that are not tied to the past or even, it seems, to the South.
And yet . . . if "traditional" southern music is no less commercial than a minstrel show or a Britney Spears concert, what accounts for its undeniable power for those who love it? Take the ballad "John Henry," for example, as John Douglas does in "Up Beat Down South." Born in Reconstruction when the ancient work song traditions of slavery met the Industrial Revolution, "John Henry...