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Sad Songs And The South

How country music helps explain the division in America
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Well, I’m tired of being yanked from one side to another on the Robert E. Lee question, based on what I’m reading online. I went to the library today and checked out Michael Korda’s lengthy biography of Lee. I’ll read it and make my own mind up.

I was thinking the other day about the Confederate controversy, in light of the fact that the South is a shame-honor culture, and one where people are deeply rooted in a sense of family and place — for better or for worse. Might it be that non-Southerners, for cultural reasons, simply cannot understand why it’s difficult for Southerners to execrate their ancestors, even if their ancestors did bad things?

That thought came back to me after listening to this amazing episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. It’s about country music, and what sets it apart from other American musical genres. Malcolm Gladwell is not the first person I would go to for insight into how country music works, but boy, was this great.

On the podcast, Gladwell explores why country music has so many sad songs, but rock music does not. After listening to Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” which is about the death of country singer Keith Whitley, who drank himself to death, as well as Gill’s own brother, who died young of a heart attack, Gladwell says:

It’s heartbreaking. Listening to that song makes me wonder if some portion of what we call “ideological division” in America actually isn’t ideological at all. How big are the political differences between Red and Blue states anyway? In the grand scheme of things, not that big. Maybe what we’re seeing instead is a difference of emotional opinion. Because if your principal form of cultural expression has drinking, sex, suicide, heart attacks, mom, and terminal cancer all on the table for public discussion, then the other half of the country is going to seem really chilly and uncaring. And if you’re from the rock and roll half, clinging, semi-ironically, to “Tutti Frutti Oh Rudy,” when you listen to a song written about a guy’s brother who died young of a heart attack, and another guy who drank himself to death, you’re going to think, “Who are these people?”

Gladwell says America is divided along a “Sad Song Line.” Nearly all the performers of the greatest country music songs of all time (according to a Rolling Stone magazine list) are from the South, including Texas. Gladwell says you can stretch that out to the Top 50, or Top 100 country songs, and you’ll see the same pattern.

“Basically you cannot be a successful country singer or songwriter unless you were born in the South,” he says. There are no Jews on the country list, only a couple of blacks, and no Catholics. “It’s white Southern Protestants all the way down.”

On the other hand, writers and performers of the greatest rock songs include Jews, blacks from Detroit, Catholics from New Jersey, Canadians, Brits, and more. “Rock and roll is the rainbow coalition,” he says. That diversity is why there’s so much innovation in rock and roll, says Gladwell, “but you pay a price for that.”

Gladwell discusses a researcher who created an algorithm to analyze lyrical repetitiveness in musical genres. The researcher discovered that rock music is extremely repetitive, lyrically speaking. Gladwell says that this makes sense: because everybody is from somewhere different, you have to write in cliché, or you’ll lose people.

Country music is not like that — and neither, in fact, is hip-hop. Gladwell says if you look at the background of the most successful hip-hop writers and performers, you’ll find “an urban version of the country list.” That is, they’re all from South Central L.A., New York City, Englewood, NJ, or areas very close to them.

When you’re speaking to and about people from your own culture, says Gladwell, people who understand you, you can tell much more detailed stories, and “you can lay yourself bare, because you are among your own.”

I can’t recommend the “King Of Tears” episode of Gladwell’s podcast strongly enough. I’m not a big country fan, but I learned a lot from it. And it made me think of this, regarding the culture war over Confederate monuments.

Southern white people are a people of loss, and traditionally an agrarian people. Their Scots-Irish cultural heritage imbues them with a deep sense of pride and loyalty to family and place. From an essay discussing the particularities of Southern honor culture:

To understand why a more primal and violent culture of honor took root in the American South, it helps to understand the cultural background of its early settlers. While the northern United States was settled primarily by farmers from more established European countries like the Netherlands, Germany, and especially England (particularly from areas around London), the southern United States was settled primarily by herdsmen from the more rural and undomesticated parts of the British Isles. These two occupations — farming and herding — produced cultures with starkly different notions of honor.

Some researchers argue that herding societies tend to produce cultures of honor that emphasize courage, strength, and violence. Unlike crops, animal herds are much more vulnerable to theft. A herdsman could lose his entire fortune in one overnight raid. Consequently, martial valor and strength and the willingness to use violence to protect his herd became useful assets to an ancient herdsman. What’s more, a reputation for these martial attributes served as a deterrent to would-be thieves. It’s telling that many of history’s most ferocious warrior societies had pastoral economies. The ancient Hittites, the ancient Hebrews, and the ancient Celts are just a few examples of these warrior/herder societies.

As it happened, the Scotch-Irish settlers that poured into the Southern colonies from the late 17th century through the antebellum period were genetic and cultural descendants of the war-like and pastoral Celts. Hailing from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and the English Uplands, these Scotch-Irish peoples made up perhaps half of the South’s population by 1860 (in contrast, three-quarters of New Englanders, up until the massive influx of Irish immigrants in the 1840s, were English in origin). As the Celtic-herdsmen theory goes (and it is not without its critics), their influence on Southern culture was even larger than their numbers. These rough and scrappy Scotch-Irish immigrants not only brought with them their ancestors’ penchant for herding, but also imported their love of whiskey, music, leisure, gambling, hunting, and…their warrior-bred, primal code of honor. Even as the South became an agricultural powerhouse, the vast majority of white Southerners – from big plantation owners to the landless — continued to raise hogs and livestock. Whether a man spent most his time working a farm or herding his animals, the pastoral culture of honor, with its emphasis on courage, strength, and violence — characterized by an aggressive stance towards the world and a wariness towards outsiders who might want to take what was his — remained (and as we will see later, continues even to this day).

The essay is really insightful about the roots and the particulars of Southern honor culture, especially how (and why) Southern whites were much more likely to value thick family ties, and ties to place. And here’s how it played out in the Civil War:

While both the North and the South saw the war in terms of honor, what motivated the men to fight differed greatly. In the North, volunteers joined the cause because of more abstract ideals like freedom, equality, democracy, and Union. In the South, men grabbed their rifles to protect something more tangible — hearth and home — their families and way of life. Their motivation was rooted in their deeply entrenched loyalty to people and place.

But what if a man felt allegiance both to the principles espoused by the North, and the honor of the South? The ancient Greeks had grappled with what to do when one’s loyalties to one’s honor group conflicted with one’s loyalty to conscience. Such a conflict has been a struggle for warriors ever since, and is best embodied during this time in the life of Robert E. Lee.

Lee was the perfect example of the South’s genteel honor code and what William Alexander Percy called the “broad-sword tradition:” “a dedication to manly valor in battle; coolness under fire; sacrifice of self to succor and protect comrades, family, and country; magnamity; gracious manners; prudence in council; deference to ladies; and finally, stoic acceptance of what Providence has dictated.” He had also served and greatly distinguished himself in the United States Army for 32 years, so much so, that as the Civil War loomed, Lincoln offered Lee command of the Union forces. Lee was torn; in the days before secession, he wrote, “I wish to live under no other government & there is no sacrifice I am not ready to make for the preservation of the Union save that of honor.” Lee did not favor secession and wished for a peaceable solution instead; but his home state of Virginia seceded, and he was thus faced with the decision to remain loyal to the Union and take up arms against his people, or break with the Union to fight against his former comrades. He chose the latter. Lee’s wife (who privately sympathized with the Union cause) said this of her husband’s decision: “[He] has wept tears of blood over this terrible war, but as a man of honor and a Virginian, he must follow the destiny of his State.” In a traditional honor culture, loyalty to your honor group takes precedence over all other demands — even those of one’s own conscience.

Read the whole thing. Really, do it. The author says that even though modernization and urbanization have mitigated the Southern honor code a great deal, you can still see it in Southerners. He’s absolutely right. I see it in myself, wrestling with what to think about the Confederate statues. The North’s cause was right, but even if I knew nothing of the history, I can feel in my bones the mandate to fight on the side of one’s people. Robert E. Lee embodies the tragedy of the American South: he was the best military man in America — remember that Lincoln offered him command of the Union Army — and wanted to keep the Union together. But his sense of honor directed him to violate his own conscience and stand loyally with his own people — defined by him as the people of Virginia.

A Northerner sees him as a traitor and a warrior for slavery. Yes, some no-count Southerners would see Lee as a warlord for white supremacy, and cherish him for that. But more thoughtful Southerners see him as a tragic figure: a good man who fought in a bad, doomed cause, from a sense of loyalty to his people. Moreover, this makes sense to us, because we see it in our own lives and families all the time, in all kinds of ways. It’s why we’re such good storytellers — and songwriters. We have a tacit understanding of the ways human beings fail, despite themselves. Until the day I die, I will meditate upon my own family’s story, and how my late father and my late sister, two of the most morally decent and worthy people I have ever known, set out to protect the legacy of family and place, but chose to do it in an honor-obsessed way that ended up destroying it.

Every family has a story like that somewhere. Robert E. Lee? Hell, that’s my own father’s story. He was a good man whose fierce dedication to family and place, and sense of honor, led him to pursue a strategy that cost him the thing he treasured most of all. Even though I suffered personally from his tragic arc, it doesn’t make me feel hard towards him, not at all. It makes me ache for him, because I know he would not have wanted it this way, but he could not see what he was doing. Same with my late sister. They could have been me. It might yet be me one day, because men are frail, men are blind, the heart is deceitful above all things … and life is tragic.

Northerners think they’ve found us out when they point out that we are the most religiously observant region of the country, but also the most morally unruly (to put it delicately). “Hypocrites!” they say. We just shrug. We see no contradiction there. The distance between our ideals and our behavior, and all the contradictions within that space, is the truth of our lives. Often it’s our shame, and sometimes it’s our honor, but we are strings anchored tautly together across that valley of human experience. The collision of time and fate with those strings strikes what Lincoln called in another context “the mystic chords of memory,” and the music it makes can break your heart, just like Malcolm Gladwell said.

The point I wish to make here is that even though Northern iconoclasts are morally and historically correct to judge the Confederate cause wicked, they would do well to understand that the fact that we white Southerners feel a visceral sense of piety towards our ancestors does not mean that we hold them blameless. They would also do well to understand that they are asking us to despise our family and our homeland to prove to them that we are morally acceptable.

That’s not going to happen.

Finally — to tie up the Gladwell insight and the Southern honor culture material — consider The Band’s song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” written by Robbie Robertson (a Canadian!) with historical research assist by Levon Helm of Arkansas. The rock critic Ralph Gleason wrote of the song:

Nothing I have read … has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does. The only thing I can relate it to at all is The Red Badge of Courage. It’s a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn’t some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today. It has that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity.

Here’s the Band performing the song. Listen especially to the third verse — the land, family, death, defeat — and know that for very many of us, that is the South. It’s not the whole South. “Strange Fruit” is also the South. But it’s one true story of the South, and if you can’t feel the tragedy and the heartbreak of a poor, proud Southern man laid low in this song, friend, I cannot help you:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jREUrbGGrgM&w=525&h=300]

UPDATE: Look, if you are going to go to the comments section and say, in effect, “But enough about Southern white people and Civil War history, what about Southern black people, huh, HUH?!” — save it. I’m not going to let you threadjack. This is not a post meant to put down or to diminish the point of view of Southern black people. It’s meant to speculate on why many Southern white people who are not particularly racist nevertheless have complicated feelings about how we ought to remember the Civil War and those who fought it on the Southern side. If you have something to add to that discussion, let’s hear it. If you just want to whatabout, and say the same things here that you’ve said on every other thread we’ve had about monuments, save it for later.



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