Southern Cultures 4.4 (2003) 1-4
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As cultural motifs go, sin and salvation are about as close to the cream of the southern crop as you can get. It's hard to think of a time when at least some southerners did not feel awash in one and desperately in need of the other. As a matter of fact, that last statement works both ways: for every wino longing for a hymnal, there's probably somebody in a prayer meeting longing for a drink. According to all the stereotypes, when liberals think of southern sins, they're likely to focus on social injustices like slavery and racism. Conservatives tend to look for sin elsewhere, in personal hell-raising like drinking and gambling and running around. In either direction, it's safe to say the South has plenty to answer for.
Social sins are not hard to find in this issue of Southern Cultures. For starters, John Beecher favors us with a poem in "Mason-Dixon Lines" that recalls the police brutality that was a routine response to the Civil Rights Movement in 1964. [End Page 1] Kieran Taylor has edited an interview with P. E. Bazemore (for "Southern Voices") from the files of the Southern Oral History Program that explores Bazemore's role in fighting racial discrimination in the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service. And "Not Forgotten" features a lively and detailed memoir of antebellum plantation life, written by a plucky and observant heiress who seems to have had no idea whatsoever that the people she enslaved might have been unhappy. Personal sins abound as well, especially in J. Michael Butler's reflections on alcohol abuse in the world of southern rock 'n' roll. Framing everything, Phillip Goetzinger's haunting landscape photography portrays a southern wilderness so dense and so animate that you half expect Faulkner's Bear to peer out from between the vines, testifying to the ambiguity of human pursuit of any achievement, even moral perfection.
Regardless of their vision of sin, the people whom Flannery O'Connor called "Christ-haunted" have turned over and over to evangelical Protestantism to save them. Liberals of course have Martin Luther King and his fellow saints of the Civil Rights Movement. Conservatives have an even longer list of preachers to call on, from the tent revivalists on the edge of town to high-profile evangelists like Billy Graham and Pat Robertson. Both sets of pulpit-pounders have long pedigrees that cross many times and merge for keeps back in the eighteenth century, when the inspired revivalist George Whitefield first preached to weeping crowds of whites and slaves, while Virginia Baptists braved whips and gaol to spread the gospel.
Sin and salvation have something in common, besides the fact that they obviously need each other. In the South, at least, each one seems to depend heavily on music to get the job done. An altar call without a choir is as hard to imagine as a honky-tonk without a jukebox, and no self-respecting southerner would organize a rally—whether for civil rights or the Ku Klux Klan—without a few hymns to build the mood. The Devil and the Lord even have to draw on the same pool of talent when looking for great musicians. Everybody knows about the low-down blues singers who got their start in church, or converts who moved from the hoedown to the gospel hour. From Ralph Stanley to Aretha Franklin, innumerable southern artists can switch from the sacred to the secular and back again with equal power and without missing a beat.
Sin, salvation, and southern music anchor this issue of Southern Cultures, with a few thoughts on cultural stereotypes as backbeat. Hugh Ruppersburg starts off with some reflections on the Coen brothers' unlikely hit movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? The tale concerns a set of three convicts, led by one Ulysses Everett McGill, who escape from prison to search for hidden treasure, an obvious bridge to the sin-and-salvation story. In a surreal landscape from Depression-era Mississippi, the befuddled trio run through a series of caricatured...