I just finished reviewing the book Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie by Mark Allan Jackson (University Press of Mississippi, 2007) for the journal Studies in Popular Culture. I heartily recommend it to any Woody Guthrie fan and to anyone interested in learning more about the history of the American working-class in the first half of the twentieth century.
The book also tells the story of an important chapter in the evolution of American popular music. Guthrie’s career spans the period of the origins of the recording industry, which corresponded with the origins of music copyright laws. Guthrie was a transitional figure—the last of the breed of folksingers who functioned as documentary historians and even journalists. Before the rise and explosion in popularity of the mass media, news of catastrophic events like floods, storms, mining accidents, train wrecks, shipwrecks, etc., was often preserved and disseminated by traveling troubadours who told the stories in song. Such “Event Songs” were common in early recorded country music. Guthrie was a compiler of songs as well as a songwriter, and the folksongs he collected in his travels include numbers later attributed to A.P. Carter and Hank Williams
Though Carter is credited with the copyright for most of the Carter family songs, he probably composed very few if any of them. Because copyright laws were new, the first to register a song owned it. The treasure trove of traditional songs free for the picking is part of what inspired Victor Records to send Ralph Peer on his talent search through the deep South, during which both the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers were discovered in Bristol in 1927. Late in his life, when Carter was criticized for what was by now considered plagiarism, he replied, “I may not have wrote all those songs, but I wrote them all down.” This response not only shows the humor associated with country music culture, but also reflects the oral nature of traditional folk music. Writing the songs down was indeed a major turning point.
Guthrie also wrote many songs down—both songs he himself composed and songs he collected in his travels. Sometimes he combined the two activities by adding to traditional songs new verses that express Guthrie’s sympathy for the travails of working people, or by borrowing a traditional tune to tell a new story.
Guthrie’s best known song, of course, is “This Land is Your Land,” which he wrote as a protest song—an effort to deconstruct the message of sappy patriotism in Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Guthrie’s conviction was that the blessings of America were built on the backs of the working class, who weren’t exactly sharing in the benefits of those blessings. Guthrie was frustrated that most of the protest content was dropped from the song as it spread and grew in popularity, and that “This Land” became almost as much a patriotic anthem as the song Guthrie was trying to protest. The irony of singing about “the dust clouds rolling” in the third verse of the popularized version of “This Land” as if the dust clouds were part of America’s bounty has apparently been lost on millions of schoolchildren and their songleaders.
The story of “This Land” teaches another important lesson about folk music—a category that sometimes includes country music. The measure of folk music is not in the intentions of the artists/producers, but in the music’s appropriation and use by the folk.
How I came to love country music is summed up in the opening couplet of a song I wrote recently:
Well, no I did not grow up poor and hungry, but I do come from the South; And I’ve had years and years of education, but I still live hand to mouth.
Let me elaborate. I grew up in Savannah, Georgia, the son of a physician. Basically, I was a pretty typical upper middle class suburban white kid—not the socioeconomic locus of country music’s core audience. Like suburban white kids in my generation (including Garth Brooks!), I grew up listening to arena rock bands. My favorites were KISS, Foghat, and Blue Oyster Cult. Around this time, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were having pop hits and Southern Rock was in its heyday. There was more “twang” in the top 40 than on country radio stations. So, along with classic rock, and in between incidents of the abomination called Disco, my radio brought me in touch with good country music.
When I was about fifteen, my church offered a free guitar class to try to train youth sing-along leaders to replace the ones who were soon to graduate and move off to college and careers. I signed up.
I was not very good at it. A few years later, when I took a battery of aptitude and interest tests to help me decide what I would be when I grew up, I learned that I am in the bottom five percent of the population in finger dexterity, which explains why, to this day, no matter how much I practice the guitar, I never get much better at it. But I learned to play well enough for church youth group sing-alongs (“It only takes a spark, to get a fire go-o-ing….”)—and well enough to entertain myself.
Wanting to use my newly acquired talents to impress others, I looked to perform. But performing rock music requires an entire band, of which some members must possess actual musical talent, not to mention expensive sound equipment. Performing country music requires only the ability to play three chords and carry a tune, because a country performance can be carried along by the power of the song. A mediocre performance of a great country song is still a good thing to hear.
As I moved toward young adulthood, I found myself unlucky at love. This deepened my identification with country music, because I found it much better to think of myself as the kind of tragic loner celebrated in country music than as simply a shy and socially awkward kid blundering his way through late adolescence.
Then life started happening. I married, finished school, became a pastor, started raising children. I listened to country music some, and to other types of music, and mostly to NPR news. Then, in my early thirties, I decided to go back to school to pursue a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics.
This move did several things:
1. It plunged my family into permanent semi-poverty. If you check out of the economy for five years in mid-career, and reenter at entry level, you will never recover financially. So, now, and for the rest of my life, I will identify with the economic situation of country music’s traditional core audience.
2. It committed me to spend the rest of my life studying stuff.
3. More specifically, it began the process that would lead me to study country music. I was talking with friends one day about various theological books we had read recently, and I said, “Someone ought to write a book about the music of poor white people the way James Cone did about The Spirituals and the Blues.” Suddenly, a research project was born!
I love good country music because of the way it expresses to ultimate concerns of ordinary working-class people, because of its humor and irony, because it’s fun to sing, and for whatever other reasons make up the intangible dimensions of individual aesthetic tastes.
I gradually grew into a serious love for hard country music. As a teen I was really resistant to country music. I had church people trying to shove Southern Gospel down my throat, telling me it was the only kind of godly music anywhere. Well I didn’t like that. But now as an adult I’m learning that there were kindly influences who didn’t push, were just kind and loving, and were the genuine article.
One old friend is the evangelist Joy Ann Silvey. She grew up in one of the original country music families of the 1930s. Her mother and aunt made up the duo “The Girls of the Golden West.” They went by Milly and Dolly but their real names were Mildred and Dorothy Good. Here’s a brief bio:
Hillbilly duo of ’30s-40s, made comeback ’60s. Millie (b Mildred Fern Good, 11 April ’13; d 3 May ’93) and Dolly (b Dorothy Laverne Good, 11 Dec. ’15; d 12 Nov. ’67), both from Muleshoe TX, were among the earliest female country singers, starting a radio career in St Louis ’30, regulars on WLS National Barn Dance ’33-37, then in Cincinatti on Boone County Jamboree and Midwestern Hayride ’37-42. Records on Victor, Columbia, Conqueror; most popular songs “Tumbled Down Shack Of My Dreams’, “Home Sweet Home In Texas’, “When The Bees Are In The Hive’, “Little Old Rag Doll’. Appeared on 50-50 Club in Cincinatti early ’60s, made six albums for Blue Bonnet label ’63-7.
On Aug. 4, 1982, Atchison died at age 70 at the home of his daughter, evangelist Joy Ann Silvey, in Granite City, Ill. They brought him home to Ohio County for burial and laid his worn fiddle atop his closed casket during the service.
As a child I was introduced to the Country Gospel singers Slim and Zella Mae Cox. My parent’s ministry involved occasionally raising money on Christian television. They wanted me to learn and sing a particular song well. So Slim and Zella Mae took me over to their house and literally taught me how to sing that song well. Here’s a brief bio of them from the St. Louis radio Hall of Fame:
Almus J.C. “Slim” and Zella Mae Cox
“Slim” began his radio career in Kennett, Missouri in 1947 with Slim Cox and the Foggy Mountain Boys and several other groups. A year later he met Zella Mae and they were married in 1948.
Their first gospel radio show was on KBTM in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Later in St. Louis they first appeared on WGNU with their weekly gospel program in 1955 sponsored by Schweig Engel, followed by KXEN and WEW.
Their performances were also heard on WSM’s Grand Ol’ Gospel program in Nashville for nearly 4 years, and their daily gospel radio broadcasts have been carried by 18 stations in 4 states.
The broadcast careers of the husband/wife team of Slim and Zella Mae Cox spanned over 56 consecutive years.
In June of 1999 St. Louis’ Riverfront Times did a feature length article on them here.
When I visited my mom over the holidays last year I called Slim in lieu of dropping in and we chatted about this rich legacy I’ve only lately come to appreciate. Somewhere near the end we talked about how different his music is from whats become popular in churches these days. Years ago gospel music used to be about the struggle. Songs like “Palms of Victory” and “Wayfaring Stranger” used to be about real life. People used to feel their need for God because of the harsh realities they experienced. The popular music of overhead projectors and choruses these days is all about how Jesus feels and how close we’re all sure he is. Its less about struggle and more about victory. Its less about God and more about how God makes me feel. I told Slim to keep up the good work. Keep singing the old songs. We need the struggle. He agreed to that. God bless them.