Mom and Dad Red were watching the documentary on country music, and I listened in as I could around Day Job work. The series is, thus far, one of Ken Burns better efforts, and he uses the idea of focusing on one musician as the key stone, then showing the history through and around that individual. For this topic, it works, because each “generation” had two or three people who shaped country music in various ways. Maybell and A.P. Carter, Hank Williams Senior, Porter Wagoner, and so on, up to Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and more recent musicians.
One theme that runs through the series is how the music fit into the times, and how the musicians channeled events—personal and regional and national—through their music. The other theme, perhaps inadvertent, is just how dang hard people worked and were willing to work in order to support their families and put food on the table in a decent way.
Country music, the original bluegrass and mountain music, came from a world of short growing seasons, thin soil, and very hard work. The Scots-Irish and others who settled in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, northern Georgia, tended to be hard-scrabble as the land, and the music often reflected it. It also held traces of an older musical tradition, one with roots going back to the British Isles, as well as the odd (to modern ears) harmonies of Sacred Harp/Southern Harmony hymns, and the stately pace of the Geneva Psalter.
The Carters, Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash, others, all worked hard. They grew up looking at the back end of a mule, or picking and stripping tobacco, farming slopes in the mountains, working in mills, and other things. Others, like Jimmie Rogers, worked on the railroad. Rogers developed TB, and even as he was dying, his lungs torn apart by the disease, he managed to record one last album. Hank Williams Sr. worked through pain, and the drugs and alcohol used to mask that physical pain, until hard living and hard liquor took him away at age 29.
The only person thus far in the series who had a relatively comfortable live when they were young was Minnie Pearl. She was an English literature major at Belmont College before turning to music. And she worked hard to get into the business, and to stay there. It was a small world of people who helped each other, and who weren’t afraid to call spades spades and stupid stunts stupid stunts, even if they couldn’t cure each other’s demons. Mother Maybell Carter tried to help Hank Williams, and others. It was a small world, and family, with the joys and bitterness that families can produce.
And people were willing to work very, very hard in order to escape something worse. One wonders what Johnny Cash would have been like if his father hadn’t abused him, and then told him that he wished Johnny had died, instead of a favored brother. Life on the road was hard, but better than growing old watching the south bound end of a north bound mule, or working in the coal mines. There’s very little Romantic in the life of the South in the period 1890-1950.
I have to admire the people in the series. They’re not saints. A.P Carter had his problems, Hank Williams Sr…. Yeah, he had demons. Johnny Cash, others grew up hard and lived hard, and it showed. But they worked, did everything they could to hold up their end of the bargain with fans, supported others when they were down and in need, and hung in with nothing but fingernails and will and a guitar pick, sometimes.
Which might explain why I like old country music. Mom grew up on it, and I heard a lot, especially bluegrass and ballads, when I was young. I didn’t grow up hard-scrabble, but we didn’t have heaps of money, and I remember my parents fretting about bills more than once when I was small. And I’ve had months where ramen, ramen, and ramen were the three food groups. You dig in, hang on, and work harder if you can. Or at least, stop digging the hole deeper.
What’s amusing is that this series got sniffy reviews in the major Eastern papers (other than the Wall Street Journal) because of the subject matter. This from people who lionized O Brother, Where Art Thou? , a film where the music made the movie in so many ways.