- “Are You from Dixie?”:Geography and Iconography in Country Music’s Southern Realms of Memory
In the Fall of 2002, I drove a carful of newly arrived Western Kentucky University graduate students from Bowling Green to Rosine to participate in the opening of the restored boyhood home of bluegrass music great Bill Monroe. In the course of the 40-minute drive, I took the opportunity to point out the common misapprehension that Bill Monroe came from the southern mountains. They took in my rant, gazing solemnly out at the low rolling hills of Ohio County. Heading to the stage area, we made our way through the ring of concession stands, where my group was wickedly thrilled to see the official commemorative T-shirt for the event, featuring a (blue) Kentucky moon rising above snow-capped peaks. These inverted Dixie cups might have resembled a stylized representation of the mountains of Telluride but nothing to be found in the Commonwealth—as the graphic designer and the event planners very well knew. In a collision between bluegrass geography and iconography, geography was the inevitable loser.
The excellent articles in this special issue balance the common assumption that country music is exclusively and innately southern, and that the many exceptions to this rubric are unnatural deviations—if not downright deviant. Ron Cohen examines the role of collector Alan Lomax in defining a broad vernacular base for the commercial style that would come to be identified as “country” and hence, by a popular non sequitur, southern. Patrick Huber brilliantly documents the pervasive presence and influence of New York “citybilly” recording artists from 1924 to 1932, effectively the gestation period of the music as an identifiable commercial entity. Clifford Murphy offers an entertainingly personal examination of the social context of the State of Maine as a “perfectly authentic” site for country music, focusing on the writing and career of Dick Curless and the alternate personas of trucker and cowboy as identities not inextricably linked to the South. Also, Paul Tyler attacks sectarianism head-on in his vehement defense of the midwestern element as key to an understanding of the music.
Each of these capable scholars takes issue with Bill Malone’s thesis that “[country music] is a creation and organic reflection of southern working-class culture, changing as that society had changed,” even given his qualification that it is, as well, “a [End Page 230] dynamic element of American popular culture” (Malone 2003:48). Their evidence is largely based on the history of the music and musicians themselves—and it is important that this historical record be kept straight. What really happened does indeed matter.
But my memory stubbornly returns to those inverted Dixie-cup mountains. What can we infer, when certain expressive forms are so persistently identified (or mis-identified) with a particular region, a particular set of socio-economic and historical circumstance? Perhaps more to the point, why should certain themes of longing, subversion, obsession, struggle, elation, grotesquery, and heartbreak find expression in trappings often borrowed not from personal southern memory, but from the costume-chest of a collective set of agreements about southernness already well in place by the turn of the twentieth century? Stephen C. Foster (1826–64) was only reassembling images and themes already firmly established in parlors and minstrel shows when he captivated mid-century audiences northern and southern alike with his lively and plaintive tunes. Their charm was not their fidelity to lived southern experience, but rather their assemblage of ready-to-hand materials identified with the South to express universal sentiments. The songwriters Jack Yellen and George L. Cobb penned “Are You From Dixie?,” the beloved paean to Alabama, Tennessee, and Caroline, in 1915—straight from the heart of Tin Pan Alley. The slight, cheerful ditty was happily embraced by both Vermont-born country artist Ernest Thompson (1924) and the Blue Sky Boys (1939), along with numerous other versions.
The universalization of a generalized notion of southernness as cultural shorthand is not limited to music: an unforgettable ongoing gag in The Bob Newhart Show (1982–90) was the regular appearance of the brothers Larry, Darryl, and Darryl (William Sanderson, Tony Papenfuss, and John Voldstad...