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Modernism/Modernity 7.2 (2000) 331-332

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Book Review

Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California

Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California. Gerald W. Haslam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Pp. 380. $29.95.

Like the Great Speckled Bird, country music has been "O so despised by the world," and, until recently, nowhere more than in academia. 1 The slight is fully and entertainingly redressed in Workin' Man Blues. Gerald Haslam's approach is neither that of the musicologist nor of the sociologist, though he quotes each to advantage. He gives us narrative history as evidenced in the careers of the performers, who are allowed to speak for themselves. "My stuff is just hopped-up country," says Elvis Presley. "Nobody paid it no mind till I goosed it up" (135).

From its earliest appearance as a phonographic phenomenon (1922, according to the author) fans and practitioners have been divided by the nonissue, what is real country; and countrier-than-thou is still a stance. Haslam is quite clear as to what country is not. It is not primarily Appalachian folk music of Anglo-Celtic origins. From the first it has been more eclectic than that, and very few actual folk songs have found their way into the repertory, as have few actual cowboy songs. Indeed, it is nice to see the devotees of Woody Guthrie put in their place, "in the city and on the campus, not on the farm or in the honky tonk" (72).

Haslam's own credentials are flawless. He went to elementary school in Oildale, outside Bakersfield, with Merle Haggard, and he makes the point right away that Nashville's claim to have been, if not the mother city, then at least the Bayreuth of country is not secure. Atlanta in the 1920s, Chicago in the 1930s, and Hollywood in the 1940s could challenge its primacy. Nashville is a manipulation of the recording companies, whose fickleness the book details. Its ascendancy was a result of the fact that in California country music had competition from other entertainment, while in Tennessee it was the whole show. As to the authenticity of Grand Ole Opry we only need observe that the nonsinging Grandpa Jones began as a young man, and the nonsinging Cousin Minnie Pearl was the graduate of Ward Belmont, a high-toned finishing school. Bakersfield would have none of either. It had to concede, however, that in the person of Hank Williams the Elder, Nashville had a superstar it was not quite able to match, although it hurried to perform his songs.

Surprisingly, as its instrumentalists are so frequently anonymous, Haslam believes the instrumentation, not the lyrics or the vocal style, defines the music. The characteristic twang-and-slide on the guitar was developed in imitation of Hawaiian vaudeville performers who toured [End Page 331] rural areas around the turn of the century. Minstrel shows introduced the banjo, Italian immigrants the mandolin, Cajuns and Germans the accordion. Only the fiddle was in place in Appalachia, and, as "too corny," was the first to go in the gentrification of the 1950s (23).

Surprise is a constant. The first all-country radio station in the U.S. was in Pasadena. "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" is about homosexual predators in hobo camps. Country became country and western at the same time it became big business and through the agency of the same figure: Gene Autry, to whom an entire chapter is devoted. The Rhinestone Cowboy look was originated by a costumer named Nudie Cohen who had previously been a maker of G-strings for strippers.

Not surprisingly, the subject matter of the lyrics is pretty much as it has been parodied. Only in tango is there a higher percentage of God and Mother and betrayal. However, Haslam supplies enough background and supporting material to soften the edges of the stereotype, making it clear that there were Okies who had to put up with things that would have frightened John Steinbeck to death. The exact demographics of country's fans can be argued--and the quoted authorities argue them...


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