The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music
By David E. Whisnant
Vol. 5, No. 1, 1983, pp. 20-24
The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music, selected and annotated by Bill Malone (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1981). Eight LP or cassette set, boxed, with 55 pp. illustrated brochure. $54.95.
Classic Country Music, prepared by Bill C. Malone for the Smithsonian Institution, takes one back to the clear headwaters: the first commercial hillbilly recording (Eck Robertson’s “Sally Gooden” for Victor in 1922); the first big sellers (Vernon Dalhart’s “Wreck of the Ole 97” of 1924, Carl T. Sprague’s “When the Work’s All Done This Fall” of 1925, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting For a Train” of 1928); one of the earliest recorded examples of steel guitar playing (Derby and Tarlton’s “Birmingham Jail” of 1927); the first big hit by a woman performer (Patsy Montana’s “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” of 1935); Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys performing the Jimmie Rodgers hit (and later bluegrass standard) “Muleskinner Blues” in October, 1940 (with Monroe on guitar); the first recorded example of mandolin cross-picking (Jim and Jesse’s “Are You Missing Me” of 1952), and so on. Altogether a hundred and forty-three tunes, from Fiddlin’ John Carson and the Stonemans to Tammy, Willie, Merle and Dolly. “Funny,” as Willie sings, “How Time Slips Away.”
So friends, don’t delay. This offer is good for a limited time only. Send your check or money order for $54.95 TODAY to “Smithsonian, Washington, D.C. 20560.” That’s S-M-I-T-H-S-O-N-I-A-N, Washington, D.C., two oh five, six oh. The first one hundred orders will receive, in addition to these eight fine records or cassettes packaged in a beautiful fold-out box you will be proud to display, an autographed eight by ten glossy photograph of your favorite country singer, suitable for framing. You’ll hear the inimitable Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower,” so beloved by many a parking lot picker; the Delmores’ “Brown’s Ferry Blues,” made famous later by Merle Travis, the Louvin Brothers, and Doc Watson; the original “Orange Blossom Special” by the Rouse Brothers; and the incomparable Roy scuff’s “Great Speckled Bird.” You’ll thrill to Cliff Carlisle’s wailing dobro, Lulu Belle and Scotty’s “Remember Me (When the Candle Lights Are Gleaming),” and many, many more. It’s an opportunity you can’t afford to miss. So send today. If you are not completely satisfied, your money will be cheerfully refunded.
Well, I “sent away,” as they used to say in the days of boxtops, and I am indeed (almost) completely satisfied. Bill Malone has done, on the whole, an excellent job; it would be folly to expect that his (or anyone’s) 143 choices
(from a few tens of thousands) could ever satisfy everyone. Someone could always ask why this tune and not that one? So the task here is not to quibble about individual tunes, but to ask how well the eight records reflect the complicated and dynamic history of country music.
One the whole, very well indeed. Malone’s strong and sensitive commentary, arising from his recollections of growing up with country music as a poor boy in east Texas, is written with the grace and depth and gentleness that come from knowing–as most country songs tell us–that life is both very hard and very beautiful. Malone divides the history of country music roughly into five periods: the birth of the industry in the 1920s (Dalhart, Uncle Dave, Gid Tanner and others); national dissemination and popularization in the 1930s (southeasterners such as the Delmores, Monroes, Bolicks, and Mainers; and southwesterners such as Bob Wills, Gene Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers); the “honky tonk” period, ;94153 (Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Hank Williams); rockabilly and country pop, 1953-63 (Cash, Ray Price, Chet Atkins, Lefty Frizzell and others); and the current scene since 1960. An additional category–bluegrass and the urban folk revival–cuts across several of the latter chronological periods. Malone’s historical essay is supplemented by extensive discographical, historical and interpretative notes on each selection.
In his essay and notes, Malone surveys some of the major social, political and economic factors that have shaped the music: developments in the radio, recording and television industries; the Depression and World War II; the urban folk revival; the movement of country people to the city; the proliferation of small record companies in recent years; the fusion of southeastern and southwestern styles; the responses of individual performs to social pressure and dramatic social change. He also explicates some of the major internal dynamics of the music: the movement from personally modest solo performers and small permanent ensembles to high-priced, self-conscious stars “backed” by large aggregations of anonymous session musicians; the shift from simple to complex, virtuoso instrumental styles; the replacement of traditional, public domain tunes by copyrighted material; the gradual evolution from fiddle, banjo and guitar to drums, dobro, and pedal steel; and the technological drift from single takes on wax to twenty-four track taping, mixing, and overdubbing.
By selecting carefully from Malone’s 143 tunes, one can also assemble some interesting “sub-histories” of country music. One can follow to some extent the emergence of women performers, from the Coon Creek Girls through Patsy Montana and Molly O’Day to Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton. One can observe the seemingly perennial ambivalence of the country music audience with respect to rough vs. smooth or cultivated vocal styles: Uncle Dave, Martha Carson, Molly O’Day and Wilma Lee Cooper on the one hand, and a rather surprising array of smooth singers on the other–Bradley Kincaid, Buell Kazee, Vernon Dalhart (a Texas-born light opera tenor who tried to sound rough again, but couldn’t), Jimmie Rodgers, Red Foley, Eddie Arnold, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jim Reeves, and others. Or one can line up the brother duets (Callahans, Bolicks, Sheltons, Delmores, Monroes, Kershaws, Louvins, Everlys, Stanleys, MacReynoldses, Osbornes, Lillys) and wonder whether such duets were, developmentally, a way-station between the older family-based groups and the newer luxury bus-owning stars–the last remnant of the close rural family before its final atomization, the archetypal (Jacob and Esau) binary pair struggling for unity and harmony against the fragmenting forces of a culture.
A fine collection, then, and a fine job of selection and presentation, terms of both and order Malone brings to it, and the other interpretative orderings it invites. Still, there are some problems that go beyond quibbling about “significant” (read favorite) tunes excluded. Malone writes at length, for example, about rockabilly and country pop, but we get recorded examples of only the latter. There is no tune by Elvis, Carl Perkins, or Jerry Lee Lewis (a problem with permissions from Sun Records, perhaps?). And from my perspective, there are altogether too many bluegrass tunes (two complete sides; eighteen tunes; nearly thirteen percent of the total, including three by Bill Monroe; more than twice the number of gospel tunes–almost half in bluegrass versions). Could that have resulted from the Smithsonian’s exaggerated sensitivity to its local middle-class audience in Washington–rightly known as the bluegrass capital of the east coast? As for gospel itself, it seem rather seriously under-represented in view of its prominence among those people who gave birth to and sustained country music. Virtually every country music radio or television show ever broadcast, after all, included at least one gospel song.
One also wonders why there is not a single example of country blues, which admittedly was not featured on the major country music radio stations or barn dances, but which was every bit as important a part of the country music scene after 1920–both as separate idiom as influence on white performers–as were southern mountain string bands. Indeed, Malone himself treats these performers in his Southern Music American Music (1979).
But finally the larger questions beckon: why, toward what ends, and with what effect has the Smithsonian at long last ventured to dip its elite toe into the waters of commercial country music? The institution has been
there since 1846, after all, and could well have documented at first hand most of the now long lost traditions from which country music draws its styles and idioms.
Why didn’t it? Partly because its directors have almost always been natural scientists with at best a limited interest in humanistic or artistic matters. The Smithsonian’s most significant foray into cultural work (prior to the 1960s, anyway) was the Bureau of Ethnology, formed by Major John Wesley Powell in 1879, and even that enterprise proceeded under the flag of scientific anthropology and archaeology. Nevertheless, for more than a half-century the BAE carried out extensive studies of American Indian history and life: language and literature; material culture; myth, ritual, and ceremonial life; music and dance. But the Bureau was never able to take what would appear to have been the logical step of moving from studying Indian life and culture to studying the rich and diverse culture of the country’s many immigrant and enclaved cultural groups.
That did not mean that such studies fared poorly within federal institutions supposedly concerned with culture. The Library of Congress established its Archive of Folk Song in 1928, but it was (and remains to this day) small and poorly funded, particularly in comparison with analogous European efforts. The cultural projects of the New Deal for the most part did not survive more than a decade. The National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, established in 1965, were initially oriented exclusively toward high culture, and more than a decade later had to be forced to begin to pay modest (rather grudging, as it turned out) attention to traditional, non-elite culture. The first major policy affirmation of federal commitment to the recognition of traditional culture (the American Folklife Preservation Act) was signed into law at the opening of the nation’s two hundredth year.
Meanwhile, since the mid-1960s, the Smithsonian has been inching toward a rather tentative involvement with non-elite culture. It staged its first Festival of American Folklife in 1967, and opened a neighborhood museum in the mostly black District of Columbia suburb of Anacostia in 1968. Those stirrings, hesitant as they were, came in response to both the social upheavals of the sixties (Resurrection City was set up virtually in the front yard of the Smithsonian) and the urgings of a few individuals who had become infatuated by traditional music during the “folk revival” of the preceding decade.
If one looks closely at the institution’s tentative gestures toward the culturally unwashed, however, they generally prove to have substantial ties to the old elitism. The Smithsonian’s first major phonograph record issuing project was its six-record Classic Jazz package of 1973, aimed at–and bought mainly by, I would guess–middle class whites, who form the bulk of the jazz listening audience. (The Smithsonian’s jazz recording series now totals about three dozen discs.) Not until country music–historically the music of lower and working class whites, primarily in the South–began to be accorded status by a growing national (and upscale) audience did the Smithsonian draw it within the institutional pale. Not, indeed, until country music became chic, and designer-jeaned and powder blue cowboy-hatted Junior Leaguers began to listen to bluegrass and pump quarters into mechanical broncos at scores of Gilley’s replicas all across the country.
Even at that, there are signs that the Smithsonian released Classic Country Music with some sense of peril. Consider, for example, the preface to the fifty-six page brochure, supplied by the Smithsonian’s Division of Performing Arts, which issued the set. It is the only official institutional statement in the entire package, and therefore presumably an index to the attitudes of at least some Smithsonian policy makers toward the project and its subject matter. In the main, the preface attempts to apply to country music concepts and analytical categories developed to analyze and interpret elite (“classical”) music. Thus we learn that most country songs are in “AABA form,” are “atrophic,” and have a “melodic sequence” that moves from tonic to subdominant and back to tonic. So far, so good. There certainly is a need to comprehend country music in terms more precise and analytically useful than those employed by disc jockeys and fans, most of whom couldn’t care less whether Freddie Fender’s “I’ll Be There (Before the Next Teardrop Falls)” is atrophic or not.
As in so many cases, however, the technical terminology quickly proves to be something of a mask for value judgments. The preface in fact uses musicological terminology partly to dignify music which someone et the Smithsonian apparently still judges to lack its own intrinsic dignity. Thus country songs, the preface continues, cannot be expected to display the “cultivated charm or sophisticated wit of the standard popular song.” The accompanying instruments are not played in a. “classical style,” but are “struck,” “twanged,” “scraped,” or “flailed,” and voices are “rough-edged,” without “artificial refinement.” Subject matter leans toward “cynicism and wish-fulfillment” (rather like Don Juan or Madame Butterfly, one supposes).
The most obvious problem with such evaluations is that they simply will not wash–unless one can reasonably describe Don Reno as “twanging,” Vassar Clements and Clark Kessinger as “scraping,” Jim Reeves’ voice as “rough-edged,” and Tom T. Hall’s songs as lacking wit. Any reasonably sympathetic hearing of the full range of country music would confirm that it is characterized by great breadth of subject, variety of form, and subtlety of theme. And for an untutored bunch of strikers, twangers, scrapers, and flailers, Eck Robertson, Lilly Mae Ledford, Bill Monroe, Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements and their like manage to achieve a rather dazzling level of instrumental virtuosity.
A more important matter, however, is that in modern society, public institutions such as the Smithsonian have considerable power to legitimize or de-legitimize certain cultural forms and expressions–to prescribe how and in what terms they shall be understood, and to define the very boundaries within which new legitimacy is to be conferred. In this set of records, it seems to me, the Smithsonian has sent the public a mixed message: country music is a “truly democratic” art form (as they tell us) which by now even the more timid an’ conventional amongst us can safely listen to in public, but
it is withal a little scrape-y and twangy. And so we must distance ourselves from it, and confine our admiration of it to those aspects which can be described in language I (AABAs, subdominants, and vocal lines decorated with “melismatic effects”) whose very use reminds subliminally that we usually listen to and think about “better” music. At a certain level, the preface reads a bit like a letter one might write to a wealthy and sophisticated friend back home in Boston or Marin County after one’s elegant cruise ship has docked briefly at a funky cultural port. Oh, Millicent, the music of those people was simply so wonderfully primitive and wild!
In such a situation, those of us who can’t afford the cruise would do well to keep at least a couple of things straight. Historically, poor and working people in this country have kept hillbilly, country, Cajun, blues, and gospel music alive in the face of a consensus of condescension and disapproval by virtually every established public cultural institution from the local level on up. At this late date they hardly need any favors or assistance from the Smithsonian. One wonders, in fact, if Classic Country Music would ever have been issued primarily out of concern and respect for the audience which gave the music birth and sustained it. It took an avalanche of designer jeans to do that. The weather vane that tops one of the castellated towers at 1000 Jefferson Drive isn’t there for nothing.
That is one thing to remember. The other is this: country music has not only been nurtured and sustained by poor and working people with precious little assistance or approval from their own tax-supported public institutions, but it has also until recently been studied, archived, written about and reissued in much the same way. Like many a banjo picker or gospel singer, scholars Bill Malone, Bob Pinson, Judith McCulloh, Charles Wolfe, Archie Green, Norman Cohen and many others have kept their “day jobs.” They have done their writing about country music mostly at night and on weekends taken interview trips out of their own pockets, pasted record labels and stapled little newsletters and journals together on dining room tables, and run organizations from post office boxes. The spirit behind the enterprise–one might almost say the political posture that informs it–is a spirit (and posture) of love, of self-affirmation, of resistance, of advocacy, of defiant somebody too-ness. As such, it is invaluable and irreplaceable.
At length, then, it is less important that Classic Country Music was issued (re-issues are plentiful, after all) than that the Smithsonian commissioned Bill Malone to do it. The energy that Malone has poured into country music scholarship for twenty years–the very perspective he brings to it–comes ultimately from the physical, social, and cultural landscape of east Texas. That perspective both informed his choice of tunes and shaped his language:
When my brother came home on his last furlough before going overseas, he, my mother, another brother, and I sat around the Spring Street Bowling Alley watching the bowlers (pleasures were often simple and cheap for the poor) and waiting for the Trailways bus that would take him back to camp. I do not know
what thoughts ran through his mind, but the possibility of not returning must have been one of them.
The brother keeps feeding nickels into the jukebox, listening over and over to the 1941 hit “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again,” which Malone calls “a song of parting and of hoped-for reconciliation.”
If the issuing of Classic Country Music betokens the beginning of a cultural reconciliation between the Smithsonian (indeed the whole federal cultural establishment)and the little people dropping quarters into jukeboxes in bus stations and bowling alleys all across the land, it is an event of not only musical but also profound social significance.
One of the worst sins a reviewer can commit is to judge a piece of work by irrelevant criteria, or to condemn it for not being what it does not pretend to be. Classic Country Music was not designed as a scholarly treatise. If one wants more extensive biographical, historical or discographical information on country music, there are places to get it–including Malone’s own other work. If one wants a fuller reissuing job done on the Carter family, the Blue Sky Boys, or the Sons of the Pioneers, one may turn to the fine albums produced by the tiny private John Edwards Memorial Foundation. If it is more intensive analysis one desires, that also is available.
The only fair question one may finally ask is whether Classic Country Music does what it may reasonably be expected to do to entertain and educate the rather select group who will even know it exists, and who can afford to lay down the fifty-five dollars. And beyond that, whether it is a reliable document to place in the thousands of community and school libraries that will probably acquire it.
My own answer–not in any way intended either to belittle Malone’s work or to underestimate the formidable task he faced–is a qualified yes. The qualification has less to do with any of the objections I raised earlier (too much bluegrass, too little gospel, no country blues) than with Malone’s having stopped short of raising some of the more embarrassing questions–as all of us partisans of country music are want to do upon occasion. Out of many possible examples, I mention two briefly: what about the “dark side” of country music, and what about its utility as a creative and correcting force in American life?
The dark side is almost impossible not to notice. To put it bluntly, a good deal of country music has been (and remains) maudlin, racist, sexist, and jingoistic. Much of bluegrass in particular accepts (even celebrates) demeaning images of women and puerile conceptions of relationships between men and women. (Grand opera does, too, but it is another matter.) The lyrics have been cleaned up a bit (or have disappeared altogether), but “rigger” songs (of minstrel and other origins) linger to this day in fiddle and string band repertoire. And our every domestic or military misadventure produces its musical apologia on the country charts.
If one were to condemn every form of creative expression for its lapses into bad taste, reactionary politics, or inhumane sentiment, no form would survive (not even grand opera). The point is not to condemn or to dismiss, but to understand the dialectic. Merle Haggard wrote both “Okie from Muskogee” and “Mama’s Hungry Eyes.” Johnny Cash has sung for Folsom inmates and for Billy Graham. Loretta Lynn’s coal miner’s daughter memories may live on “in a cabin in Butcher Holler,” but lately she has been doing commercials for Amax coal company. And Dolly doesn’t wear her coat of many colors anymore.
To understand country music, the agonizing dialectic must not only be faced as a feature of particular songs or individual careers; it must become the very foundation for analysis. Much of that task remains before us, and we who have grown up with the music must do it, or relinquish the task to those who know less about our values and perspectives than they need to to understand what happened between Eck Robertson and Willie Nelson.
David E. Whisnant is professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region (University of North Carolina Press, 1983).