Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 12, 2019

Country Music

Filed under: Film,Kevin Coogan,music — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

Many people associate country music with those whom Hillary Clinton called “deplorables” or those Obama characterized as clinging to their guns and religion. I felt that way myself until I got to Houston in 1973 and began listening to country music driving to work each day. This was before the two country stations had become commercialized and unlistenable just as is the case with NYC’s WNSH (as in Nashville). You could hear Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, and even classics from Hank Williams in each and every hour. It also helped that my best friend in Houston, the late Nelson Blackstock, was an avid country music fan with a large collection. The two of us used to go hear Asleep at the Wheel whenever they were in town. This was a Western Swing band that played in the style of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. It was led by Ray Benson, a Jew from Philadelphia who Nelson adored.

Recently I had the opportunity to watch three different documentaries on country music. Two are films opening in N.Y. this week and the other was an episode from Ken Burns’s Country Music series on PBS that is being streamed for the benefit of people not living in the USA. All are a pleasure to watch and will help you get some perspective on a type of music that, like jazz, can be regarded as a national treasure.

If you’ve seen “Walk the Line”, the very good biopic about Johnny Cash, you’ll be familiar with the broad outlines of “The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash”, especially since his story is so well-known. His drug problems, his meteoric rise to fame, his marriage to June Carter, and his identification with the underdog are no secret. But what makes this documentary so special is the extraordinary range of figures in the music world who were close to Cash, including Rick Rubin, the record producer responsible for his last albums, including the one with his heart-rending version of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt”.

The biopic glosses over an important part of Cash’s struggles, namely his inability to line up record contracts in the 2000s as a result of his drug-induced unreliability and changing tastes. The records Rubin produced made Cash a star once again and helped him go out on a high note with young fans embracing him.

The technique of the film is interesting. Director Thom Zimny, who has a long history making shorts with Bruce Springsteen, got his hands on an audio recording of Cash towards the end of his life and uses it as a voice-over for most of the scenes depicted in the film. Without that voice-over, it would still be a very good movie but having it makes it great.

A lot of Zimny’s film will be a revelation for most of us. It turns out that Cash was a strong supporter of indigenous rights and defied prejudices in the industry in a struggle to make sure that the songs got heard on country stations. When he ran into resistance, he paid for a full-page ad in Billboard explaining why the issue was so important to him. Two years ago, after the fascists marched in Charlottesville, Cash’s children were horrified to learn that one of them was seen a news clip wearing a Johnny Cash t-shirt. Billboard covered the story in an article titled “Johnny Cash’s Family Condemns White Supremacist: Read Cash’s 1964 Letter to Radio Stations” that will give a good idea of how important Cash was in using popular culture to change minds.

The children of late country legend Johnny Cash remember their father as a peaceful social justice advocate. So when video footage of the neo-Nazi rallies that broke out in Charlottesville over the weekend captured one white supremacist in a Johnny Cash t-shirt, the singer’s daughter, Roseanne Cash, spoke out.

“[Johnny Cash] would be horrified at even a casual use of his name or image for an idea or a cause founded in persecution and hatred. The white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville are poison in our society, and an insult to every American hero who wore a uniform to fight the Nazis in WWII,” Roseanne wrote in an emotional Facebook post also signed by Kathy, Cindy and Tara Cash.

“The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash” opened yesterday at Cinema Village in NY and will open at the Laemmle in LA on October 25th.

“Fiddlin’” opens at the Cinema Village on October 18th and at the Laemmle in LA on the same day. Directed by Julie Simone and produced by her sister Vicki Vlasic, the film consists of performances by and interviews with some of the best “old timey” musicians in the USA. Perhaps the term “old timey” may not ring a bell with you. In a nutshell, it is the guitar, banjo and fiddle based music that the settlers of the Appalachian mountains developed in the 19th century, bringing their traditions from the British isles with them. Since the banjo originated in Africa, there is little question about old timey music being the first to bring Black and whites together culturally.

We hear from the musicians at a yearly fiddler’s competition in Galax, Virginia. The film has a seamless transition between performance and background on the musicians through interviews. One of the things we learn from them is that bluegrass evolved out of old timey music in the same way that bebop evolved out of swing bands. Old timey music is basically ensemble music while bluegrass, which was pioneered by Bill Monroe in the 1940s, allowed for virtuoso performances by soloists. There is little doubt that bluegrass had a lot more commercial possibilities as Monroe and other stars signed lucrative record deals with RCA et al. It seems like at least 3 out 4 of the performers at Galax had day jobs as welders, carpenters, guitar makers, housewives, etc. They play the music because they love it. After you’ve seen this very appealing film, you’ll understand why.

Some of you might remember Tony Thomas, an African-Leader of the SWP. After leaving the party, he began devoting most of his time to playing the banjo and studying the African-American role in making this instrument part of the old timey heritage. This video should be of interest:

So should this one:

I am sure Tony would disagree with me but I think this endeavor will count for a lot more than his sectarian political career.

Ken Burns’s “Country Music” follows the same formula as the series he did on jazz but is much better since it does not rely on the questionable input of Black neoconservative Stanley Crouch. The research on this new series was done by Dayton Duncan, a longtime collaborator. Whatever qualms I had about Burns in the past were abandoned because of his work on the documentary “The Central Park Five” alongside his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon. This film was more than social commentary. Like the HBO documentaries on the West Memphis Three who were falsely accused of Satanic ritual murders of cub scouts, Ken and his team helped to build the movement to free the young men who were victims of the same kind of hysteria.

I saw episode 5, titled “The Sons and Daughters of America (1964 – 1968)”, of “Country Music” that can be seen for free here.  (Episodes 1 through 3 are behind a paywall.)

Like the Johnny Cash documentary, it is graced by a terrific array of musicologists and musicians who know the history well. Special mention must be made of Dwight Yoakam, the country and western singer who has also acted in a number of films, including being cast as a true “deplorable” in Billie Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade”.

When he started out, Yoakam insisted on playing “honky tonk” music rather than the horrible commercialized Nashville sound you hear on country stations today. This is the kind of music Hank Williams made and is to the white working-class of the 40s and 50s what the blues were to their Black co-workers. Of course, what makes is all so interesting is the interaction between black and white in the early stages of the music, just as was the case with Appalachia’s old timey sounds.

Episode 1 of the series begins with Jimmy Rodgers, the white railroad worker born in 1897 who virtually invented country music in the same way that Louis Armstrong invented jazz. Rodgers used a guitar to back up his blues yodeling. Rodgers influenced African-American blues musicians but he likely never would have developed his unique style without being open to the Black sounds all around him growing up in the Deep South.

Episode 5 is set against the turmoil of the sixties and shows how in addition to Johnny Cash taking up the cause of native Americans, women performers began to confront the sexist conventions of the industry that allowed male stars to always refer to someone like strong women like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn as “little girls” on the Grand Old Opry and other shows.

The best part is devoted to Merle Haggard, who raised the hackles of antiwar activists because of his pro-war hit “Okee from Muskogee” that begins:

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our trips on LSD
We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free

Years later, Haggard said, “It was the photograph that I took of the way things looked through the eyes of a fool… and most of America was under the same assumptions I was. As it’s stayed around now for 40 years, I sing the song now with a different attitude onstage. … I’ve become educated. I play it now with a different projection. It’s a different song now. I’m different now.”

Politically, Haggard is just as estimable as Johnny Cash. He will go down in musical history as the bard of the American working-class. Born in a railroad car and penniless for his entire youth, Haggard decided to try to make a life in music since he saw that a life of crime was leading him to an early death. At San Quentin, he became a model prisoner and just after his parole became a superstar in short order.

This is Haggard at his best.



  1. I watched almost the whole series on PBS and it’s all great IMO. I can’t say I’ve become a fan of country music in general just as I’m not going to become a fan of rap or heavy metal, but within all these genres there are brilliant songs and artists. I don’t like “rap” but Nas’s Illmatic is one of the greatest albums ever made. I don’t like heavy metal but AC/DC can do no wrong.

    I now feel the same way about Hank Williams after watching the series. (I always like Johnny Cash, who really centers the entire Burns’ film.) I got to understand why Kris Kristofferson is the Bob Dylan of country music and why Willie Nelson is such an interesting artist. I still don’t quite get George Jones but it’s my fault, not his.

    One of the most fascinating aspects of the Burns series is the bond between Bob Dylan and the “folk scene” revival and its overlap into country music. Burns shows this through Dylan and Cash’s friendship. He also shows that bluegrass was dying before it got revived again on college campuses, in part based on “Dueling Banjos.”

    I was so excited that I listened again to “Nashville Highway,” which I remember really hating when it first came out.

    Listened again and it still sucked.

    As for Haggard, there is a great scene in the series where someone says about the line about “we don’t smoke dope in Muskogee” that Haggard when he wrote that line was a huge pot smoker.

    The Burns series is really great and minus the sappiness that can weigh him down. The line writing is phenomenal and Coyote’s narration is perfect as always. For me, it’s the best thing he has ever done by far. I learned so much from it.

    Comment by HH — October 12, 2019 @ 6:58 pm

  2. for a forgotten delight, go to—-youtube, Cleoma Falcon, Hand Me Down My Walking Cane
    and for a younger delight—-youtube, Heidi Klug, O Susannah

    Comment by ralph levitt — October 12, 2019 @ 9:27 pm

  3. The Burns series was so full of chatter the viewer rarely heard more than a moment of a terrific song, eliminating the emotion power of the music.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — October 12, 2019 @ 10:14 pm

  4. There is music all throughout the series. However buying rights to songs is enormously expensive and they also had to sample a very wide range so I think for both reasons they had to sample. What I did was note a song or an artist that I wanted to hear and then I went to U-Tube to hear the extended play.

    As for “chatter,” what to you was chatter to me was sensational interviews in particular with Cash’s daughter, Hank Williams son, Dolly Parton, a sensational mandolin player/studio musician whose name I’m forgetting but I think was Stuart, and many many others.

    Another thing I really liked is that the series really goes into the economics of Nashville and the way Nashville tried to make a “cosmopolitan” (I think the name for it was “Countrypolitan”) crossover sound in the 1970s to crack the bigger pop market. One statistic astonished me. Dolly Parton got a Country Gold record for a song that sold 60,000 copies. She got a pop gold record for a song that sold over a million. The pop crossover market was astonishingly lucrative and as a result Nashville tried to more and more homogenize the sound, which produced reactions against it from different artists.

    In any case, for me one of the most interesting parts of the “chatter” involved the economics of Nashville. But the show was so filled with stories that it barely mentioned the astonishing rise of Taylor Swift to mega-stardom. It’s easy to forget she began solidly in country music but the show barely mentions her name and her rise to superstar status. But that is because it is focused so much on more pivotal figures in Nashville history like Cash and the Carter family.

    So to someone who knows a lot about the subject there may be a lot of “chatter,” but i found it really informative. Also it was so well written, at times almost a little too well written.

    Comment by HH — October 13, 2019 @ 2:58 am

  5. My parents were from North Georgia and western North Carolina, and I lived in Macon, Georgia until I was 8. Before I went to elementary school, I was listening to Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits, Volume 1. For people who haven’t heard him, his songs would be a revelation (“You’d rather fight than eat.”). Later, it was Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” upon release. I’ve always thought that Williams and Cash, in terms of content, weren’t far from hip hop.

    Not surprisingly, Motown was huge for me, too, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye. Still remember “I Heard It on the Grapevine” in 1968. Didn’t hear “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” until I landed in Sacramento in 1972.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 13, 2019 @ 5:27 am

  6. Forgot to mention that Tammy Wynette, with songs like “D-I-V-OR-C-E” and “I Don’t Wanna Play House”, was really heart rending, heart break about working class love and family in the real world, while women in rock were being marketed as sex symbols, if they got recorded at all.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 13, 2019 @ 5:32 am

  7. “It turns out that Cash was a strong supporter of indigenous rights and defied prejudices in the industry,,,” I always heard that Johnny Cash was part Cree; if so, these sentiments could hardly be surprising.

    Comment by lgloster — October 13, 2019 @ 3:35 pm

  8. I’m pleased to know that your years in Houston did not leave you with totally negative impressions, Louis.

    Comment by Jana Pellusch — October 13, 2019 @ 3:49 pm

  9. Cash brought Pete Seeger to play on his show despite typical protests. Burns has a clip of Seeger performing. He also devotes a brief segment to Woody Guthrie with the mandolin player Marty Stuart saying that Guthrie was pure country as well.

    Comment by HH — October 13, 2019 @ 8:50 pm

  10. Thanks, Louis. As always, your love of music shines through. I have loved good country music for a long time. My father liked it, and on Sundays would play country-infused gospel music, with a dollop of Mahalia Jackson. His parents were tithing Baptists, which he surely was not, maybe the product of seeing death first hand in the South Pacific during WW2. But he sure did like Tennessee Ernie Ford and all the old-time country singers. His religion on Sunday mornings. Did you ever hear Carl and Pearl Butler sing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms? Great rendition. As for Merle Haggart, listen to Mama’s Hungry Eyes:

    A canvas covered cabin in a crowded labour camp
    Stand out in this memory I revived;
    Cause my daddy raised a family there, with two hard working hands
    And tried to feed my mama’s hungry eyes.

    He dreamed of something better, and my mama’s faith was strong
    And us kids were just too young to realize
    That another class of people put us somewhere just below;
    One more reason for my mama’s hungry eyes.

    Mama never had the luxuries she wanted
    But it wasn’t cause my daddy didn’t try.
    She only wanted things she really needed;
    One more reason for my mama’s hungry eyes.

    I remember daddy praying for a better way of life
    But I don’t recall a change of any size;
    Just a little loss of courage, as their age began to show
    And more sadness in my mama’s hungry eyes.

    Mama never had the luxuries she wanted
    But it wasn’t cause my daddy didn’t try.
    She only wanted things she really needed;
    One more reason for my mama’s hungry eyes.
    Oh, I still recall my mama’s hungry eyes.

    That twang is Merle Haggart’s voice is the sound of the longing in the hearts of poor people, no matter their color. Longing for a better way of life, and this doesn’t mean money. If only some of our young leftists could see this, grasp its meaning. “It hasn’t been a happy life, Michael” is what my grandmother told me. I hope will all my heart that my own life has honored her longing for a better one.

    Comment by Michael D Yates — October 13, 2019 @ 9:10 pm

  11. Comment by louisproyect — October 13, 2019 @ 9:20 pm

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