In the comments to my previous post on Ray Davies of The Kinks, one reader linked to a YouTube version of a lovely ballad called “Oklahoma U.S.A.”. The kind person who made that video seems to be under the impression that the song is about Oklahoma, but it’s not: it’s about the romance of America for working-class Brits half-a-century ago, as they saw America on the movie screen.
So the song isn’t about Oklahoma but Oklahoma!, which Davies’s sister Rene especially loved — she was dancing to a song from that musical when she died. For people who lived in Muswell Hill — and the song comes from the Kinks’ album Muswell Hillbillies — images of Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae and the sound of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” offered a powerful alternative to the shabby workaday world they struggled through.
And yet the Muswell Hillbillies loved their place in the world. Rene repeatedly escaped from her unhappy marriage by returning to a home which, however shabby it may have been, gave her love and stability. It seems that for her there was something particularly consoling about hearing those American show tunes at the Lyceum Ballroom not far away, and playing them on the beaten-up old piano in her parents’ front parlor. And Ray Davies’s nostalgia for the world of his childhood is palpable throughout his music — Village Green Preservation Society, anyone? — and well as in his autobiography.
I’m reminded here of several books by the remarkable English writer Richard Hoggart — 94 years old now! — in which he celebrates his own urban working-class upbringing, in Leeds rather than London, and laments its displacement by an electrically-disseminated mass culture. But as he describes the place of singing in his upbringing — his community was intensely musical in much the same way that Davies’s family was — something odd emerges: these people weren’t singing English folk songs, but rather hit tunes they had heard on the wireless. He describes, for instance, the huge influence of Bing Crosby’s “crooning” style on the amateur singers in the local “workingmen’s clubs.”
There seems to have been a period, then, in England and I think in America too, when electrical technologies (primarily radio and movies) connected people with a larger world that shaped their dreams and aspirations — but without wholly disconnecting them from their local culture. Instead, it seems, they managed to incorporate those new and foreign songs into their local culture. Oklahoma! might show you some of the shortcomings of your world, but it didn’t necessarily make you hate it. There was a way to bring those distant beauties into your everyday life.
But perhaps this can only be done if you’re a creator and performer as well as a consumer. Davies’s sister Rene went to the movies, yes, but she also danced in the ballrooms and played piano with her brother. She made those songs her own by using her body and her voice, rather than merely observing the words and movements of others. Perhaps we have the power to incorporate mass culture into our lives — but not by just consuming it.