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Saturday Night in Country Music: The Gospel According to Juke Stephen A. Smith and Jimmie N. Rogers The American South has always been a mythic land of contrast and juxtaposition —black and white, rich and poor, mountaineer and planter, hospitality and violence, unregulated development and a sense of place, greed and grace, illiteracy and great writing—and it remains so today. One of the more intriguing paradoxes is the image of the South as the Bible Belt, a place where fundamentalist zealots constantly damn deviant behavior, and as the land of the honky-tonk, a place where good ole boys and girls push the limits of drinking, dancing, dalliance , and debauchery. In this essay, we seek the clues to that puzzle in one of the region's principal cultural texts, the lyrics of commercial country music, and illuminate the larger social dynamic by focusing upon attitudes expressed about the pursuit of pleasures in the honky-tonks of the lyrical landscape, that liminal weekend window situated between jobs and Jesus. Paychecks and Paternalism Even the casual observer knows that the working poor are the predominant dramatis personae in the rhetorical vision of COUntrv music. In Reprinted with the permission ofJimmie N. Rogers. "Forty Hour Week," after eulogizing an itemized who's who of the proletariat, Alabama sings that they "work hard every day" and proclaims that the "fruits of their labor are worth more than their pay."1 On the other hand, we found no songs that discussed the joys of the job or claimed that vocational pursuits led to the ultimate self-actualization of the individual. 230Southern Cultures Paul DiMaggio, Richard A. Peterson, and Jack Esco Jr., in their article "Country Music: Ballad of the Silent Majority" suggest that the lyrics of country music bemoan the economic structure but fall short of rejecting the system and the American Dream of achieving success through hard work.2 Two songs identified in this study seem to support their thesis. Bill Anderson's "Laid Off" portrays the plight of a man and his wife who both lose their jobs on the same day, but says they will make it even though they will be on their knees asking the Lord to help while they are out of work.3 Merle Haggard's "If We Make It through December " tells of a man who "can't afford no Christmas" because, despite his diligent efforts and hard work "got laid off down at the factory." Although he feels that "their timing's not the greatest in the world," he expresses hope for the future if his family can just make it through the winter.4 Haggard is less optimistic, however , in "Hungry Eyes," in which he concludes that "another class of people put us somewhere just below," and he laments that their prayers and hard work only brought a loss of courage.5 Hopelessness is more clearly expressed in Charley Pride's "Down on the Farm." He bemoans the plight of farmers who "never thought of giving it up," but who are now "staring out a factory window," and "trying to understand it all." Despite their hard work they discover that "a way of life can be auctioned off." "It was only the family farm," they despaired, "who really cares if it's gone." Poignantly, Pride acknowledges that "somebody's dreams are gone."6 As Hank Williams Jr. sang of the situation about the banker being against the farmers, "the farmer's against the wall."7 John Conlee brought Harlan Howard's classic "Busted" back on the charts in 1981; it is another song that depicts hard times, contemplates stealing to survive, and despairs of any possible solutions to the economic woes.8 Merle Haggard reaches the same conclusion in "A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today."9 Conlee's version of "Nothing Behind You, Nothing In Sight" tells of how he sells his week to a company that uses his body and cares nothing for his mind, of the lack of hope felt when the worker knows that all his tomorrows will be just alike, of knowing that there is nothing behind him and nothing in sight "when the worries have stolen the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 229-244
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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