Friday, May 09, 2003

I've been listening to a good bit of country music lately through Internet radio and I've done a little thinking about it. First is that country is extremely formulaic as far as the lyrics go (yes, there are many exceptions); there are ten or twelve themes that make up 90% of country songs. There's the cheatin' song, the lost love song, the train song, the outlaw song, the miss-them-Blue-Ridge-Mountains-back-home song, its variant hate-it-up-here-in-Detroit song, its other variant, the old-folks-back-home song, and the we-done-grown-up-real-poor song. I love all of them. And then there are those creative songs that deal with something else. I like those even better.

There are three country music themes I hate, though. One is the drinkin' song. I'm not on anything resembling an anti-alcohol crusade--I drink moderate amounts of beer and wine, and I used to drink way too much, so I know what it's like--but come on, drinkin' ain't good for you. I can deal with the "Friends in Low Places" or "Family Tradition" drinking sing-along tunes--they have their place, which is to provide a let's-get-rowdy atmosphere, get people up on the dance floor, and encourage beer consumption--but the ones I can't stand are those morose, cry-in-your-beer, "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me Her Memory Will" songs. To put it mildly, those songs are not real psychologically healthy.

A second is the Nashville-pop-has-ruined-real-country-music song. Everybody's got a tune called something like "NashVegas" about how those phony record executives don't let them play the real old-time music. That's BS because all these people have been permitted to release those songs by those phony record execs. Even George Strait, Mr. Phony singer of MOR pop tunes like "Marina del Rey", has one out called "Murder on Music Row" about those record company execs. There's an analogy with the Chomskys and the Sontags who proclaim in the pages of the New York Times and from university lecterns around the country that their free speech is being repressed; of course, if there were real repression, those two would years since have been locked up incomunicados.

The third is the good-darky song. This type is patronizingly racist. The usual theme is there's an old blind blues guy who used to play guitar in the small town I grew up in and I used to listen to him for hours while he dispensed nuggets of folksy wisdom. Completely fictional, of course.

On the record "Will the Circle Be Unbroken III", which I highly recommend, there's a song done by Alison Krause called "Catfish John" which fits right into the good-darky theme. Catfish John was "born a slave in the town of Vicksburg" (that means that the song itself takes place around 1920, say, at the latest) and now he is a "river hobo". The singer is a middle-class Southern country girl who was "proud to be his friend" and spent her free time with him.

In 1920 in Mississippi. Yeah, right.

Blacks and whites did not mix much in the South--still don't, except in the workplace. Lower-class whites despised blacks and were fully capable of treating them with a viciousness and cruelty unimaginable today, and middle-class whites were often kindly disposed toward blacks but considered them inferior, of course. It was, oversimplifying greatly, the difference between hateful racism and patronizing racism. To a middle-class white "good Negroes" were mammies and loyal servants and people who worked hard and "knew their place". One could feel kindly toward a black person, but one would never accept him as an equal or a "friend".

Here's the refrain of the song:

Mama said don't go near that river
Don't be hangin' round old Catfish John
But every morning I'd always be there
Walking in his footsteps in the sweet Delta dawn

This is what a real Southern white middle-class Mama in around 1920, who had kindly feelings toward old Catfish John or who at the very least didn't want to see the poor old bum get mixed up in any trouble, and was horrified at the thought of what might happen if the proletarians of either race got out of control, would have told her daughter:

Hear me, girl, don't go near that river
'Cause if something happens and you fall in or get lost
That night they'll drag old Catfish John out of his shack
And hang him on the nearest live oak, if he gets lucky and they don't burn him at the stake

Catfish John would have drowned in the great Mississippi flood of 1927 if he'd escaped lynching because of this dumb little pre-"To Kill a Mockingbird" white girl who kept following him around and brought him to the attention of the local proto-trailer trash, who don't much cotton to little white girls hanging around some disreputable Negro who lives in a shack by the river and who don't need much of an excuse to organize a movement to grow some more strange fruit.

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