- The Pursuit of Sadness:Lullaby of Country
*Winner of The Peter Loewenberg Essay Prize in Psychoanalysis and Culture from the American Psychoanalytic Association
The pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right promised in the Declaration of Independence. Driving one of America's primary musical traditions, however, is the pursuit of sadness. A country music anthem by Joe Nixon celebrates this pursuit: "Mother country music let your sad songs roll" (see the 1977 recording by Vern Gosdin). Those sad songs have been rolling out of recording studios, radios and dive bars, roadhouses and dance halls, honkytonks and front porches, and concert halls and stadiums, for as long as what is known as hillbilly music has been around.
Sad songs, certainly, are not the whole story of country music, which embraces a range of emotions, attitudes, and moods as broad and deep as that of its performers and listeners. Many of these songs, however, are focused on experiences of loss and isolation. This can include easy sentimentality, indulgent nostalgia, self-righteous clichés, or in-your-face defensive contempt for city ways that threaten a rural ideal with little or no relationship to lived experience. More deeply, this music reflects the hardship, poverty, and disruptive social and economic changes that shaped the culture of the rural America in which it is rooted.
The world of rural life and values from which this music emerged started disappearing before Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter family made their separate ways to Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927, to make their first recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Rural life as the American way of living and knowing; the old country church as the center of social and spiritual life and truth; the unchallenged supremacy of whiteness as a racial norm, or of maleness as a gender norm; [End Page 641] economic and social stature of the family farm, and of farm-work as a primary occupation—these and many other traditional components of country living and country knowing have been displaced from the center of American life. The lives of many traditional country singers enact some version of this displacement. Although, until recently, most country singers have had rural, working class backgrounds, they have themselves, like displaced farm workers, moved from farms and small towns to cities to make their living.
The music of country singers who grew up in the rural southern culture of the twentieth century feeds off all these experiences. Devoted country music listeners are drawn especially to what they perceive as the depth, authenticity, and integrity of singers who capture the sadness of loss. This concern with loss is not, of course, unique to country singers: music, theater, and art in all cultures have long explored sadness and loss as fundamental components in human life. Still, loss and sadness play particularly prominent roles in traditional country music. David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren recognized this prominence when they named their effort to identify the five hundred greatest single records in country music after Ray Price's 1959 recording of a Harlan Howard song: Heartaches by the Number.
My focus in this paper will be on three men whose recording careers together span just over seven decades of country music: Hank Williams, George Jones, and Merle Haggard. I do not assume these singers represent all that is vital in the sprawling traditions of country music. None of these singers emerges from the great line of music that more or less descends from the hill country music of the Carter family and other mountain singers and musicians of the eastern states. Neither, of course, do they represent the vibrant contributions of women who have over the years made their way into the center of what for most of its history has been a male-dominated music industry. The lineage of these men is more closely connected with the music of Jimmie Rodgers, which emerged from the blues and tent-show traditions of southern Mississippi. Rodgers was a musical hero to Jones and Haggard, although Williams downplayed his importance to him. Williams' music is, however, like Rodgers', deeply indebted to African American blues, as [End Page 642] he recognized in acknowledging...