Life As We Knew It

Life As We Knew It

By Allen Tullos

Vol. 11, No. 3, 1989, pp. 1, 3-6

LIKE OTHER NOSTALGIAS, the notion of Southern folk cultures in transition used to seem simpler, easier to track, cut and dried. If you ever have heard the Red Clay Ramblers introduce their version of the Golden Melody Boys’ song “Cabin Home,” you will know what I mean. “There are two places in old time music where the singers of the songs don’t want to be,” Tommy Thompson or Jim Watson will say. “One place singers don’t want to be is home, and the other is away from home. If they are home, they want to get away from home. If they are away from home, they want to be home.”

Even in the late twentieth century South where plumbers don’t make house calls, double-wides travel by night on the Lee Highway, and electronic villages post their city limits signs by modem, the Ramblers’ insight remains a good first principle of cultural transition as it affects songs of the South. Weary pilgrims, restless fools, poor boys a long way from home, rank strangers, friends and loved ones left behind have filled out much of the demographic profile of the South’s folk and working class music, sacred and secular, black and white, young and old, male and female.

Yet things have also been changing. And, as eras change so do the meanings of words such as “home” and “away from home,” and even the meanings of “natives,” and “strangers,” and “loved ones.” You can hear the

Page 3

Southern changes of the 1980s as easily on major-market country radio stations as well as anywhere else. “I sang ‘Dixie,’ as he died,” sings Kentucky hillbilly outmigrant Dwight Yokam. “People just walked on by, while I cried.” Or, in another current country hit by Kathy Mattea:

I loved life as we knew it
I still can’t believe we threw it away
Good-bye, that’s all there is to it
Life as we know it ended today

If there is a scent of the post-mortem South in the air it is charred from the bonfire of the self-interested 1980s. You probably won’t hear Webb Wilder’s “Is This All There Is'” on your local top forty country station, but neither should you forget the lyrics: “You walked off the scene when I couldn’t make your life like Southern Living magazine.”

So what has changed in the South and what remains the same?

First of all there remains something called the South. This is the South in which Vann Woodward insists its people have a shared, rather unpleasant historical experience distinct in America, the enduring South seemingly without end that sociologist John Shelton Reed continually labors to document in that territory which he describes as lying below the Smith and Wesson Line, the South that this summer is being bound together between the covers of The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.

Perhaps it is helpful to think of the South as a section of the United States. A section, like the West, or Northeast, which contains many regions and sub-regions. More about these Southern regions later.

Enclaves of Disparity

The South of the 1980s has become a place in which certain white enclaves of affluence, such as the suburbs of Northern Virginia and northern Atlanta, are home to some of the wealthiest householders in the nation. At the same time overall conditions for working people, and for the poor, continue to be the worst of any section of the nation.

Today there are more poor people in the South (some twelve million) and a larger percentage of the South’s population living in poverty (about 18 percent) than nearly a decade ago. Southerners from the mid-1970s down to the present have seen, or have chosen not to see, a war by the wealthy in business and government against the poor? and against working people who often hold fulltime jobs yet remain in poverty. The gap between the nation’s wealthiest and its poorest has never been as large as it now, nor has so large a portion of this wealth been held by so few people.

For the year 1987, 44 percent of the nation’s total income went to the top one-fifth of all U.S. families (up from 41 percent in 1973), while only 4.6 percent of the nation’s income went to the bottom one-fifth (down from

Page 4

5.5 percent in 1973).

What is true for the nation is truer for the South which has seen, in the last decade, rising poverty rates during a time of declining unemployment. Not only are many jobs worth shoving, but poverty rates for children have climbed enormously.

The Southern Labor Institute, a Southern Regional Council project that has among its duties the biennial gathering and analysis of national, state, and local data for the preparation of its report, The Climate for Workers in the United States, finds that the South ranks lowest when compared to other sections of the country with regard to workers’ earnings and income, workplace conditions, worker protections such as unionization, unemployment benefits, disability compensation, and overall quality of life.

One index among several that were considered in the Southern Labor Institute study-in the “quality of life category”-was infant mortality. The United States has now fallen to a tie for last place among twenty industrialized nations in preventing babies from dying during their first year of life. In the U.S., eight of the twelve states with the highest infant mortality rates are Southern–with Alabama ranked at the bottom. Although a few states stand out as mild exceptions to thc rule, Southern states when considered as a section remain the poorest in the nation with regard to median family income.

If you look at states in which blacks are employed in what have traditionally been predominantly white-male occupations-better paid, higher skilled, higher status jobs, there is much that seems historically and familiarly Southern. At thc low end of the scale, where fewer than one-quarter of blacks work in thc better occupations, there you find a heavy concentration of Southern states. In 1987, most states of thc South also ranked in thc bottom twenty with regard to thc percentage of women employed

Page 5

in occupations traditionally dominated by white men. And so on.

If I have so far talked mostly about working people–wage earners, factory workers, keyboard operators, clerical workers, construction workers, temporaries, labor pool hands, fast food workers, janitors, agricultural laborers, farmers–it is because I consider them, and their families in the 1980s,to make up a large number of the Southerners who have become our contemporary “folk.”

Although most of the South’s current country songs don’t address themselves directly to the statistics I’ve mentioned, the facts and figures help shape the context in which thc music is made and heard. These days, although I tend to hear only musicians who have major label contracts, even here the current misery loves company. I’ve already mentioned Dwight Yokam. Consider such songs as Steve Farle’s “Hillbilly Highway,” “Someday,” or “Nowhere Road.” Nancy Griffith’s “Trouble in These Fields” with its evocative, but ultimately ineffectual solution to the assault on family farming. Lyle Lovett’s “This Old Porch.” And even Randy Travis’s realistic, ol’ boy centered, “The Reasons I Cheat.”

Despair and Myth

If I were to venture into contemporary Southern black secular music forms, especially rap, about which I know all too little, it would be easy enough to fill a list of songs which carry angry and pointed social complaint. Even in recent recordings of older forms–such as the talking blues–Southern Changes’ readers have sampled the fare of North Carolina bluesman Richard “Big Boy” Henry’s “Mr. President,” a reelection upon the demography of trickle-down: homelessness, cuts in assistance to the those most in need, lack of empathy with people in poverty, absence of commitment to low-income housing and decent jobs, cuts in education. “Come live with me a little while,” sings Big Boy Henry. “Find out how the situation is here ,’ [Southern Changes, August-September 1984]

On the other hand from this enduringly grim and callous South, recent years have seen the anxiety over the South’s supposed demise be replaced by an increasingly more mythical, superficial South of merchandising. Although I could point to numerous projections of this mystique of Southernism–in movies, television, and travelogue–the best example is that of Southern Magazine. Here, advertisements embodying Southern regional “lifestyles” (not “ways of life,” which would imply something deeper and less easily packaged for quick sale) cannot always be distinguished from upbeat articles. In its three year existence Southern Magazine has grown to a circulation of 260. In Southern Magazine folk and working class cultures can be prettified, transformed into vehicles of purchasable nostalgia, and kept at armchair length. Black faces, when they turn up, are in their comfortable roles as entertainers and athletes.

This spring Southern Magazine was purchased by Southern Progress Corporation, the publisher of Southern Living magazine–itself a subsidiary of New York-based Time, Incorporated. The households of Southern Living’s two million plus subscribers have a median income of $42,000. No doubt many of these readers have family roots deep in Southern folk cultures. But what these two magazines do best is skim and package a colorful cream that rises above past and present unpleasantness.

Beyond the enduring South of history, and in addition to the mythical South, lie a couple of other Southern changes that need mention.

In early autumn of 1988 a film, Sataam Bombay, which told of street life in Bombay, India’s red light district, won a first prize at the Cannes Film Festival. When asked about her next project, the film’s director Mira Nair described to a New York Times reporter a fiction film that would tell the story of “an Indian family expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin in the 1970s, who now own a motel in the black Bible Belt of the South.”

The South (and particular cities and states of the South) is becoming home to significant numbers of immigrants. Nearly 90 percent of immigrants to the U.S. between 1983

Page 6

and 1986 settled in twenty states. Five of these twenty are Southern: Texas, Florida, Virginia, Georgia, and Louisiana. Atlanta, for instance, now has 100,000 Hispanics, 25,000 Koreans, 11,000 Indochinese, 10,000 Indians. Houston’s Hispanic population is over 425,000. Miami- no longer even considered Deep Southern-has 600,000 Hispanics.

The South’s history with regard to race relations can hardly encourage the expectation that these newest Southerners will be warmly and quickly embraced. The first Vietnamese resettled along the Texas Gulf Coast met Klan violence and intimidation from anxious Anglo fishing communities.

Folklorists will have much to do in interpreting new and existing Southern cultures to each other. With the coming of all these people–including the still increasing numbers of Yankees and other regional Americans–and the recognition that there are some 190,000 Native Americans living in the contemporary South, Southerners will be “obliged,” as Flannery O’Connor anticipated in her short story “The Displaced Person,” “to give new thought to a good many things.” Not the least of the new thoughts prompted by the settling-in of new ethnic immigrants will be those that disclose the unsuspected in the South’s old racial arrangements.

Briefly, a few observations about the continuing emergence of regions within the South. Regions such as the Delta, the Black Belt, Southern Appalachia, the Low Country, the Ozarks, Northern Virginia. These regions are as genuine and persistent, if still emerging, as the South of which they are portions. At the level of day-to-day life, these regions are frequently more significant to the people who live in them than is something called the South.

A French Gulf Coast cultural resurgence is well underway in Louisiana, as is an Appalachian consciousness in the Southern Mountains. In the Alabama Black Belt, the legacy of the civil rights and voting rights movements have resulted in unprecedented political power for black people of that region, and most recently in cultural projects ranging from the production of a newspaper to a regional folk festival to discussion about a civil rights tour along the route of the Selma to Montgomery March.

Movements Held Hostage

Yet, these emergent regional cultures face familiar troubles. They are not immune from the same sort of celebratory mythmaking and merchandising which affects Dixie as a whole. Consider what has become of all things “Cajun” for instance. French Louisiana is also experiencing an intensifying ecological crisis. And, in two of the regions that I mentioned–the Black Belt and Southern Appalachia–absentee ownership of most of the land and economic resources threatens to hold hostage the movements for regional self-determination.

Finally, there are changes which affect the South’s “folk” that only can be briefly noted here. The rise of suburban Republicanism, like the surge of evangelical fundamentalism, is symptomatic of civic and moral retreat. The fragmentation of many Southern emotional, spiritual, and cultural institutions continues helter-skelter. New possibilities of critique and reintegration–whether feminist, socialist, ethnically pluralist, or ecological–have hardly won the day. For now, the emotional landscape seems simultaneously alienating and liberating. Bobbie Ann Mason captures it for a moment in her recent short story, “Memphis.” “Beverly and Jolene,” writes Mason, “ate at a Cajun restaurant that night, and later they walked down Beale Street, which had been spruced up and wasn’t as scary as it used to be, Beverly thought. The sidewalks were crowded with tourists and policemen…

“. . . Beverly’s parents had stayed married like two dogs locked together in passion, except it wasn’t passion. But she and Joe didn’t have to do that. Times had changed. Joe could up and move to South Carolina. Beverly and Jolene could hop down to Memphis just for a fun weekend. Who knew what might happen or what anybody would decide to do on any given weekend or at any stage of life?”

Southern changes.

Southern Changes’ editor Allen Tullos presented a version of this essay at the “Sounds of the South” conference on Southern traditional music held in April at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.