"Whackety Whack, Don't Talk Back": The Glorification of Violence Against Females and the Subjugation of Women in Nineteenth-Century Southern Folk Music
- Journal of Women's History
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 8, Number 3, Fall 1996
- pp. 114-142
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"Whackety Whack, Dont Talk Back": The Glorification of Violence Against Females and the Subjugation of Women in Nineteenth-Century Southern Folk Music C. Kirk Hutson AU violence is worthy of scholarly attention. Violence against women gives historians a unique insight into how southern culture fundamentally reinforced gender inequality and control in the nineteenth century . Because few historical sources deal with the beating or killing of southern women, particularly those in the nineteenth century, and because battered women have not historically spoken out for fear of violent consequences and social condemnation, music offers a way of discerning this hidden problem in the South. Violence is not a uniquely southern phenomenon ; however, as several prominent social scientists and historians have shown, the South has traditionally condoned the use of violence more than any other section of the United States. Historically, for example, the region has consistently led the nation in the number of homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Similarly, even though violence against women occurred throughout society, on certain occasions southern culture sanctioned its use more than other areas of the country. In 1824, for example, the Supreme Court of Mississippi was the first state court to recognize a husband's right to beat his wife. Moreover, between 1882 and 1927, seventy-six African-American women and sixteen white women were lynched in the United States, all but two in the South. In fact, one scholar pointed out that in the nineteenth-century South, violence was viewed as "an essential fact of human life somehow built into human relationships." In such an environment, women could easily be physically and psychologically abused.1 The southerner's penchant for violence was also reflected in the region's music. Both the North and the South, for example, published hundreds of tunes during the Civil War, but there were some major differences in how the messages were communicated. Southern ditties, for example, were less humorous, and more "ferocious and savage" than those of the North. In fact, homicide was one of the region's most popular song themes. Love melodies that described fatal bloodshed, for example, outnumbered nonviolent love songs "about ten to one." In fact, no matter how sensational these folksongs might appear to contemporary observers, the stories were not inconceivable to the listeners. When songs dealt with Â© 1996 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 8 No. 3 (Fall) 1996 C. KlRK Hutson 115 vicious female murders, such events could occur. Most of the local tunes were, indeed, factual.2 Folksongs show the extent of violence against women in the rural South. Lyrics are of value to historians because they are artifacts of a community and culture, permitting "an unobtrusive view into the issues, values, [and] ideas" of the time period in which the lyrics were written and sung. When dealing with gender issues, for instance, lyrics illustrate how both males and females thought and acted, or were expected to act. The study of southern folksong lyrics is also important because the words demonstrate how southern men understood particular issues.3 Even though it is clear that southern folk music reflects cultural attributes, a hotly debated topic in scholarly research is whether media affects culture. Modern studies have shown that men use violence against women because it works. When a male abuses a female, it "puts a quick stop to an emotional argument or a situation that is getting out of control." Men who are abusive to women often "learn that women are the 'appropriate' recipients" of violence. According to social learning theorists , male violence is not an "innate personality characteristic" but a learned behavior; therefore, music can be seen as a vital element in the learning process. Since violent antifemale ballads were extremely popular in the region among all classes of individuals, southern males continually heard that male authority could be maintained with violence.4 After many investigations, "researchers have reached a consensus on the effects of mass media violence." Under "certain circumstances, subjects exposed to portrayals of violence typically display more aggressive behavior." Moreover, many psychological studies indicate that if the events seem real, if the aggressors are rewarded and not punished, if the violent acts are not condemned, if the acts seem...