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ESSAY Rednecks,White Socks, and Pina Coladas? Country Music Ain'tWhat It Used to Be . . . And It Really NeverWas by James C. Cobb ust the other day, I read a lengthy piece suggesting that the Grand Ole Opry is about to fade away. Fans of "contemporary" country apparendy don't find Little Jimmy Dickens or Porter Waggoner terribly relevant, and the current chartbusters among the younger generation of artists are loathe to forgo the big bucks from lucrative road gigs for the paltry $500 or so that the Opry pays. Such news is certain to set offa new season ofwailing and hand-wringing from those who fear the irnminent demise of so-caUed "traditional" country music. Before we get too lathered up, however, let me point out that we've heard aU this before. ActuaUy, every time Garth Brooks or one of his big-hatted buddies kicks off another over-hyped mega-tour or cuts a new cd, somebody teUs us that ifol' Hank were aUve today, he'd be spinning in his grave. Now, don't get me wrong. The more "old fashioned" or "down home" a country song is, the better I Uke it. They simply don't come too maudlin or twangy for this boy. Still, I'm not ready to throw in with those who reject everything they hear on the radio these days as nothing but over-produced, pop-oriented drivel and long for the good old days when times were bad and country music was a pure, unadulterated reflection ofthe Ufe experiences ofrural southern whites. As is often the case, these self-described "purists" are actuaUyworshiping something that was never pure in the first place. In fact, as I see it, the entire history of country music reflects the manner in which southern culture at large has survived by accommodating rather than resisting the forces of change. Technology, especiaUy the advent of the phonograph and the radio, seemed to pose a formidable threat to the region's traditions and values, yet these contraptions also served as vehicles by which southern music would reach Usteners around the nation and ultimately the world. Likewise, technology brought other musical forms into the South and encouraged the lyric and styUstic mtermingling and cross-fertiUzation that marked southern music from the beginning. 41 Hank Williams, the performer whose emotional songs andtragic life seem most quintessentially "country" today. Courtesy ofthe Southern Folklife Collection, University ofNorth Carolina Library. As early as the turn ofthe century, Harvard archaeologist Charles Peabodywas dismayed to find black southern workers singing not only hymns but "ragtime" tunes that were "undoubtedly picked up from some passing theatrical troupes." By the time folklorists began their early field recordings in the South, as Francis Davis put it, "a supposedly authorless and uncopyrighted song learned by ear for generations might be in reaUty a song once featured in a vaudeviUe revue or written or recorded by some long-forgotten professional entertainer." Historian Edward L. Ayers clearly had both early country music and the blues in mind when he observed that "what the twentieth century would see as some of the most distincdy southern facets ofsouthern culture developed in a process ofconstant appropriation and negotiation. Much of southern culture was invented, not inherited."1 For southern whites, the nostalgic and weepy Victorian parlor songs popular throughout the nation at the turn ofthe century were particularly appeaUng, and songs such as "Pale Amaranthus" were soon southernized into the famous Carter Family classic "Wildwood Flower." Early recordings ofsouthern rural musicians, 42 southern cultures, Winter 1999 : James C. Cobb In the 1920s, the more rustic countryperformers like Fiddlin'John Carsongraduallygave way to a "modern" country sound. Courtesy oftheAtlanta HistoricalSociety andthe Southern Folklife Collection, University ofNorth Carolina IJbrary. black and white, proved so commercially successful that recording companies quickly dispatched talent scouts who fanned out across the region in search of new singers and new songs. The quest for fresh material soon exhausted the available reservoir offolk, spiritual, gospel, and dance tunes and encouraged performers such as Fiddlin'John Carson and Ernest V. "Pop" Stoneman to try their hand at songwriting. Although these early country composers frequendy retained the old Anglo-Saxon baUad format, they...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 41-51
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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