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Southern Cultures 10.3 (2004) 1-5

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The gridiron is now deeply entrenched as a theater of southern manhood. Or as General Lee always said, the Battle of Chancellorsville was actually won on the playing fields of the Southeastern Conference. But in "'Fighting Whiskey and Immorality' at Auburn: The Politics of Southern Football, 1919-1927," Andrew Doyle tells us there really was a time when football was controversial. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress Photographic Archives.

On a sunny afternoon last spring, an ad hoc string band assembled outside our campus coffee shop. An overturned washtub laid down the beat, a gentle-eyed fiddler flourished away, and a rapt banjo picker hung soft streamers of notes around the melody. I couldn't place the tune exactly, but it was soothingly repetitious, lively without being raucous. The music was so infectious that a nearby foursome had playfully started a reel, one boy murmuring his calls to the others. A solitary clogger shuffled quietly on the side.

All this was downright Arcadian, but I was struck by the reaction of the crowd, sipping lattes under the awnings and languidly gossiping about everything from symbolic logic to the doings of last weekend. Everyone seemed to enjoy the music, but nobody paid it much attention. Not loud enough to obstruct conversation nor urgent enough to compel a clap-along, it was just another part of the [End Page 1] whole delicious scene, as precious and unremarkable as the mild breeze and the sunshine.

The musicians and the dancers were interesting too. Individually, none would stand out in a crowd, and only a few visual cues like a tractor hat here or an especially bushy beard there suggested that they were part of a unique folk-music set. Unusual but not quite exotic, they seemed perfectly at home.

The students at Chapel Hill think of themselves as an up-to-date bunch. It's not Berkeley or Soho, and anchors to the past endure behind the scenes, but a public cult of antiquity is hard to find. And no matter where the students come from, you can bet that pickin' and fiddlin' and cloggin' are not part of the scene at their hometown malls. Like everywhere else in the modern South, pick-up string bands are not an everyday occurrence.

So what was going on at the coffee shop that day? Was it an expression of tradition or a display of the avant garde? A reemergence of populist authenticity or a self-consciously off-beat counterculture? Ever since the Folk Revival of the 1950s, old-time music has spoken in a dissenting code to its intellectual devotees, so an easy answer would be "both." And yet . . . why didn't these musicians distract their audience if they were trying to be dissident? Why did everything about the scene seem so . . . natural? Somehow, in this place, with these folks, the people strumming and dancing in public seemed entirely at ease, and nothing like an ersatz intrusion.

The concert reminded me of regional culture in general. Traditions can be invisible against the backdrop of modernity, or so taken for granted they might as well be, until something happens to snap them into focus. Then you wonder whether the tradition in question is a "real" emanation from deeply buried lore or a self-conscious fashion statement. Is tradition really old-fashioned or just the latest fad? Imagine hanging out in Harvard Square wearing a sunbonnet stamped, "It's a southern thing. You wouldn't understand."

For many of us, Auburn University without football is no easier to imagine than a high-fashion sunbonnet in Harvard Square. Or any southern university without football. As author Andy Doyle has shown before in Southern Cultures, the gridiron is now deeply entrenched as a theater of southern manhood. Or as General Lee always said, the Battle of Chancellorsville was actually won on the playing fields of the Southeastern Conference.

But there really was a time, Doyle tells us, that football at Auburn was controversial. In the 1920s football stood for teamwork, industrial discipline, modernity, and urban...


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