- “The Southern Thesis”:Revisited and Reaffirmed
First, I would Like to Thank the contributors to this journal issue for making me feel important, and for helping to keep my name and scholarship alive. It is indeed flattering but humbling to find my name used alongside that of Alan Lomax in the title of Ron Cohen’s essay. And when Paul Tyler describes my narratives as “impressively factual” and my analyses as “penetrating,” I begin to know what it means to be “damned with lavish praise.” It is somehow strangely satisfying to be made the center of an issue even if the intent is to repudiate one of the central theses of my life’s work.
I find it troubling, though, to see my motives for writing described as malicious in origin. Of the various criticisms made by Paul Tyler, his kindest observation is to describe my work as a “reductionist exercise.” Otherwise, he attributes my motives to “sectionalist mischief” and my writings as “being in the service of sectionalist pride.” I am not certain what he meant by the charge of sectionalist mischief, but he makes it sound as if I am some kind of rebel warrior intent on waving the Confederate flag and prolonging the War of Rebellion. That will come as a surprise to my conservative friends who know me as an ardent liberal and defender of civil rights and unions (both political and economic). Actually, although born, raised, and educated in the South, and having spent the greater part of my academic career there, I have lived in the Midwest for about 18 years, and am pleased to be a citizen of Middle America and to share in its well-known generosity and rugged honesty. Since establishing residence in Wisconsin, I have been privileged to hear and perform with many of the region’s finest country musicians, such as Chirps Smith and the Goose Island Ramblers.
But I do want to acknowledge the fine work that Tyler and the other contributors have done in broadening our knowledge and understanding of American country music. Their work follows on the heels of insights contributed as early as the 1970s by such scholars as Simon Bronner, Bob Coltman, Peter Narváez, and Neil Rosenberg, who have written about manifestations of country music outside the South. Since that time, other writers such as Jim Leary, with his investigations of folk culture in the Upper Midwest, and Gerald Haslam and Peter La Chapelle, who have written [End Page 226] about country music in California, have similarly sharpened our knowledge of country music outside Dixie’s parameters.
Students of American music, myself included, have long been aware that people have always made music at home and in community settings all over North America. Wherever they settled, from Canada to the Mexican border, people of European extraction sang ballads, love songs, and religious pieces, played fiddles, banjos, harmonicas, pianos, and other instruments, danced frequently at house parties or other local functions, and often utilized music as accompaniment or celebration of work. And everywhere, talented or ambitious musicians often tried to commercialize their art by exploiting or utilizing any means of dissemination that was available (whether community dance, stage show, radio broadcast, or phonograph recording). Newspapers, entertainment trade journals such as Billboard, and ephemeral journals such as Country Song Roundup, Rural Radio, Talking Machine World, Mountain Broadcast and Prairie Recorder, National Hillbilly News, Radio Digest, and many others provide plentiful examples of hillbilly radio shows and barn dances that flourished throughout the United States for varying periods of time in the decades prior to World War II.
While it is wonderful to see the full story of country music’s history being fleshed out by these impressive essays, and refreshing to ponder the questions about the music’s identity raised by Huber and Cohen, I nevertheless feel that my central thesis remains intact. As I argued in an essay in The Encyclopedia of Country Music (1998), I still believe that country music bears “a special relationship to the South,” and that its defining and appealing elements are linked to its origins in that region. Yes, people made music all over rural...