Monday, December 15, 2008

The Myth of the Singing Cowboy

Since country came from those living and working the land, it is only reasonable that those in countries with similar surroundings would relate to the same music and themes.

In America, Canada, Australia, and any other country with a similar anglo-Irish rural heritage droughts, floods, crop failures, poverty, and so on are all common to country folk regardless of the nation in which their country resides. Faith, hope and charity are also an important part of living and dying on the land (I think there’s a song there somewhere).

Country is, as Kingman states, “the closest thing to a universal ‘people’s music’.” A characteristic of country music is that nearly all songs share a few common themes. They will be about death of some sort (murders, hangings, suicide), love (requited, unrequited, divorcee, consummated, unconsummated), religion, trains and being on the road in general, and nostalgia (for the land, a life style past, a town, people, etc). DeWilde picks up this theme when he says “country music is a conservative view of life which is directly associated with a simpler time.” The last theme, nostalgia, is in fact an overarching patina which glazes the viewpoint of the other four themes, and one would have to consider nostalgia as a driving force behind the popularity of country music.

One must look to the initial commodification of country to see how nostalgic influences became a common thread throughout the fabric of country music.

European folk music immigrated throughout the U.S., but only took hold in the south. This may have been so because this type of music was more accessible to the mostly agrarian culture of the south compared to the classical tradition commonly found in the north.

In this part of America the industrial revolution was not quick in coming. Poor people, both black and white, had a subsistence living working the land. Change was slow and people clung to a heritage, and this was reflected in their music. This tradition brought with it a form of nostalgic recollection due to the very musical structure of many of these songs. The lyrics were often written and sung to melodies of earlier folk songs. In fact many of these song were first published in the mid 19th century as “broadside” lyric sheet to be sung to commonly known melodies that were reused over and over in new songs with different words. This practice continued in the folk songs found in the sparsely populated areas of the southern states of America.

D.K. Wilgus observed that, “a good many of the lyric songs of the early hillbilly tradition seem to derive from the nineteenth century sentimental parlour songs” such as the bluegrass song I’m thinking tonight of my blue eyes which has been the basis for several songs including “Great speckled bird, and It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels”. The roots of the cowboy lament Bury me not on the old prairie was a repurposing of the old sailor’s tune Bury me not on the deep blue sea, while the archetypal western tune Streets of Laredo originated as a British song about a dying solder. Slim Dusty, the patriarch of Australian country, sang his most famous song, Pub with no beer to the melody of Stephen Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer. Many other examples are available. These melodies brought into a present time music reminiscent of the past.

This music as an oral culture thrived throughout Appalachia, and the highlands of the southern states. The mountainous geography of the region helped to give a name to this “hillbilly” music. The commercialisation of sound delivery mediums at the beginning of the 20th century dramatically changed all music, and (in America), by the early1920s hillbilly music was beginning to be recorded by traveling field recordists. They carried their equipment in the back of their cars, and would set up in hotel rooms, bars, and music halls and record the best local performers. Music that had never before been written down, documented or copyrighted was now being codified for future generation and more or less “fixed” in its version.

It also immortalised forever those emotions that previously were conveyed only in the presence of the singer’s performance. Once created, the records provided a musical recollection of the life and times of these hillbilly performers. A key starting point of this congealing came in the early 20s when Ralph Peer, working for Okeh records and equipped with a portable record cutter, went to Atlanta to record whatever he could find. His first sessions were with The Carter Family, and Jimmie Rogers.

In the same decade radio began to provide a soundtrack for the lives of people on the land. Radio could reach into places the industrial world had not effected. In 1922 WSB in Atlanta began broadcasting hillbilly music. In Nashville WSM started a “Barn Dance” program. The Grand Ole’Opry found it’s name by an off hand comment made on air sometime around 1927. In 1939 Opry went national over NBC. The format was to be copied in many stations throughout rural America and later in Australia.

But it was Hollywood that took hillbilly music and turned it into country and western, giving it its present day look and mythical persona. Eventually “western” was dropped from this music’s generic description.

Western/cowboy themes had been popular from the beginning of films. The idea of putting westerns and singers together to make a singing cowboy hero was the result of the popularity of western swing, the cowboy movie and the musical. A popular subgroup of hillbilly music that was sweeping out of Texas. Musical westerns was only made for about ten years, (From the mid 30s to the mid 40s) but in that time literally hundreds of them were released. Tex Ritter, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and the Sons Of The Pioneers were the most popular of the cowboys (and cowgirls). These movies portrayed a time when America seemed more innocent. There was still a frontier (sparsely populated with benevolent Indians), good and bad was clear-cut, and most heroes wore white hats and silver buckles. The popularity of the songs and performers in these Saturday matinee shoot-em-ups, became an agent for change as commercial hillbilly music turned into country (& western). Even many of the performers at the bastion of hillbillydom, Nashville’s “Grand Ole Opry”, took on these airs. While the historical accuracy of the Hollywood cowboys and girls is virtually non-existent, their look is the image of country music as we know it today.

As Vaughan describes; “Country had always relied on a bedrock of sentiment and nostalgia but the (film) cowboy took it even further. Their wistful visions of times past, rolling prairies and tumbling tumbleweeds would stay with country music throughout enormous musical changes over the coming decades.”

This is the model found under the cowboy hats of contemporary Australian country music, which by its fabricated origin reflects at least a partially imagined past. This is not to say that those involved with country music are living a lie, but one might say they are extending an image that has much of its basis in a manufactured creation that was from the onset tied to a nostalgic romanticisation of the past.

In fairness history is seldom absent of nostalgia and its influence, and even if it did exist would such a view be somehow more accurate and authentic. It is but one of many ways of viewing history, and as valid as any of the others.

Allen comments that “to many young and city people the bush ballad is outdated, and associated with an older and disappearing Australia”, however an increasing number of urbanites relate to country music themes. This century’s generations have had increasing difficulty finding new challenges and their own space, hence they often look to the past, to when there was “land, lots of land, and a starry sky above” (“Don’t Fence Me In”. 1945) Sung by Gene Autry in the movie of the same name.

The attributes of contemporary nostalgia as found in country music does have a certain point of recollective viewpoint. As Lowenthal observes such material, “They mainly envisage a time when folk did not feel fragmented, when doubt was either absent or patent, when thought fused with action, when aspiration achieved consummation, when life was wholehearted; in short, a past that was unified and comprehensible, unlike the incoherent, divided present.”

Much of traditional country music follows these precepts and is unswerving in its standpoint. “Country music is more concerned with individual experiences, family values, togetherness, and old fashioned solutions to current problems. Critics of country music say it lives in a past of long-gone glories- the space age, technology, the future, and even wars (with few exceptions) are usually ignored. ( Allen)”

Slim Dusty seldom sang songs that weren't nostalgic. From under his drover’s brim, he portrayed a time when things were simpler as he would recount old friends, and brave deeds. Both the Pub with no beer, and The rains came down in July are songs of past events. These songs satisfy what Rosenblatt would suggest is the listener’s “desire to get out of modernity without leaving it all together; ... to relive those thrilling days of yesteryear, but only because ...(they) are absolutely assured that those days are out of reach.” What makes country music so nostalgic is that much of it is framed as personal memories of the performers thus fitting into two popular forms of reminiscence; nostalgia and what Kenneth Hey describes as dis-history. Hey explains, “Nostalgia reduces the past to a personal memoir. It eliminates external balancing information and prefers to project anecdotal stories in place of the general historical knowledge. Dis-history reshapes the past to create an effective story for contemporary purposes. Accuracy matters less than impact, honesty carries less weight than persuasiveness, and integrity comes far behind the “sell”. Together, nostalgia and dis-history portray a manageable world.”

The perception of memories and nostalgia are as varied as the population, but country music holds a unique position since it reflects a segment of society that has an inherent stability attached to the timelessness of pastoral life. Country music is both forthright in depicting the frailties of people, and conservative in it portrayal of social values. Here too it’s text is a suitable nostalgic artifact. As Lipsitz explains, “Progressive and conservative elements interact in any memory of the past, and that the specific contexts in which these elements are deployed, rather than their focus on the past or present, determines their social meaning.”

Country music conveys a country life. Those in urban centres, are persuaded by these images, and many have a longing to be a part of it, if only vicariously through the music and associated images. As Rosenfeld puts it, “People look to specific music as symbolic anchors in regions, as signs of community, belonging and a shared past.”

While most other popular music seems to continually feed on its past through a never ending deconstructive then recontrustructive process that often neglects to recognise its sources, country music builds and acknowledges its past. This provides a historical continuum. While the country image has its roots in the media generated singing cowboys, and the sound of the Nashville music machine, its moral fibre is genuine. Most of the people in country music have grown up in the bush, and intrinsically understand the fundamental values and philosophy of this lifestyle. Their songs reflect a pride in the past, imagined or real.

Country music as a commodity has become a means of contextualising a certain history. Folk rock artist Steve Stills once cautioned “Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now”, but it is that past which gives some stability to the lives of those living in the late 20th century.
“In a world devoted to progress and change, the past becomes ever more precious the more it disappears. Human beings act to change and ‘improve’ the world, but as a result, many feel the sting of disconnection from the past, seeing the villages of our childhoods turn into what Berman calls ‘little worlds emptied out.”(Lipsitz)

Present society’s interest in history feeds this nostalgia in several ways, chiefly, the vast number of media and industrially created artifacts that are available. The plethora of real, looks like, or in the style of artifacts, memorabilia, and reproductions makes it possible for everyone who has a yearning for it to have a piece of the past.

Country songs are even more unique because they are an acquisition of the mind, and for most people a physical holding of the vast majority of these recordings is not important. Only to hear the song stimulates a nostalgic recollection. While large numbers of people are leaving (or are being forced to leave) the country life, and cities become further concentrated, there exists a yearning within many urban cowboys for a life in a time when there was more independence, more resourcefulness, less ambiguity, and simpler. Country music portrays a present that reflects back to “a halcyon prototype of yore that we all can share in”. (Jacobson)

Allen, M., (1993) Country music in Australia, in Seal, G. & Davel, G. (eds). The Oxford companion to Australian folklore, Melbourne: Oxford press. (From Mus 12 course notes, p.87)
Attali, J. (1977, English translation 1985: Translated by Brian Massumi). Noise: The political economy of music. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press
Clarke, D. (1990). The penguin encyclopedia of popular music. New York: Penguin Books.
DeWilde, C (1996) Third week of lecture series: American Music and Popular Culture, ABC: Open Learning
Hey, K.R. (1987, Nov.) The Reel World: Nostalgia and Dis-history, USA Today, New York
Kingman, D. (1990), American music: A panorama. Schirmer books: New York
Lipsitz, G. (1990). Time passages, Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press.
Lowenthal, D. (1985) The past is a foreign country. Cambridge. In Chase, M., & Shaw C (Eds.), (1989) The imagined Past: History and nostalgia (P. 1). Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Lowenthal, D. (1989) Nostalgia tells it like it wasn’t. In Chase, M., & Shaw C (Eds.), The imagined Past: History and nostalgia (pp. 18-32). Manchester: Manchester University Press
Jacobson, M (1987, Oct.), The Way We Weren’t, Esquire, New York
Rosenfeld, A.H. (1985, Dec.) Music, The Beautiful Disturber, Psychology Today, New York
Stills, S. (1969) song Suite Judy Blues Eyes (inspired by a love for Judy Collins)
Vaughan, A. (1992). The world of country music. London: Studio Editions.

No comments: