When then-President Richard Nixon sat down at the piano on the stage of the Grand Old Opry in 1974, he was reinforcing a conservative, polemical wall of sound to help contain several decades of transformational popular music, from blues and jazz to rock & roll. Music was the last thing on his mind.
As part of his notorious race-based “southern strategy,” Nixon led the efforts of conservative elites to co-opt American country-western music. He got the idea from George Wallace’s 1968 campaign, which Wallace had filled with country stars like Hank Snow and Hank Williams Jr.
At his Grand Old Opry gig, Nixon bragged that White House performances by Merle Haggard and others had been huge successes with his “very sophisticated audiences” because the country singers spoke to “the heart of America.” He was lying, of course. In his diary, Nixon aide Bob Haldeman confessed that the Haggard concert “was pretty much a flop because the audience had no appreciation for country/western music and there wasn’t much rapport.”
Nixon’s tricky fib and Haldeman’s confession are just more evidence of conservative elites’ cynical manipulation of lower middle class whites in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and other transformative rebellions of the 1960s. Nixon had nothing in common with Merle Haggard’s audience. Blueblood George H.W. Bush had nothing in common with Lee Greenwood’s audience when he deployed Greenwood in his 1988 campaign. That didn’t mean they couldn’t pretend.
The right-wing colonization of country music is still very much in play. There was the 2003 Dixie Chicks controversy. Southern whites burned their albums and country stations blacklisted their music after Natalie Maines said she was ashamed of George W. Bush. And then there was Sarah Palin in 2008 singing “Redneck Woman” with country star Gretchen Wilson in 2008. Next thing you know Mitt Romney will sing about his trailer park upbringing.
This would seem to argue against the point of my “Untamable Melodies” piece. On the surface, it looks like one musical genre has been both domesticated and instrumental in the conservative domestication of its audience. A deeper look tells a different story. Country music, too, is untamable and can still be transformative and transcendent.
First, consider historian Steven Mithen’s points in his terrific book, The Singing Neanderthals. Music evolved from human proto-languages or what Mithen calls “hmmmm” utterances. They are marked by different tones, rhythms, animal sound mimicry etc. When language evolved further, though, it took over human-to-human information exchange. The “hmmmm” habit continued on in song, dance and ritual. It escaped language altogether. Its meaning was no longer even linguistically describable. Nineteenth Century composer Robert Schumann said that the only way to explain what music means is to play it again.
Perhaps because of its natural ineffability, it was used to communicate with the transcendent or the supernatural. Gods, for instance. Music has been escaping the confines of language and the mundane ever since. It is, as noted earlier, always lighting out for the territories with Huck Finn.
It’s significant that that the song that began the contemporary conservative/country music alliance was Merle Haggard’s 1968 hit, “Okie from Muskogee.” Haggard has said repeatedly he meant it as a parody. “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee” was a line said in jest as Haggard’s tour bus passed by the Oklahoma town. The song was captured by conservatives, it didn’t create them.
The same is true of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” He wrote it to mock the rednecks that beat him up outside of a New Mexico bar. An already existing conservative audience took up the song as their own anthem, as they had done with “Okie from Muskogee.”
There is, of course, a difference between pure musical expression and music with lyrics. Music may have escaped language, but what do we make of language that rides the musical magic bus?
We think of 1960s protest music as helping persuade a sleeping public about the horrors of war, segregation and economic exploitation. I think it’s the case, though, that a growing progressive culture used the protest songs not to persuade but to promote emotional, in-group solidarity. The songs’ polemical content was almost incidental. Dylan and others left the genre behind, I believe, because the need for polemics constrained their freedom and creativity.
My point is that music has always outrun efforts to domesticate it or use it for limited ends. It was born out of the oh-so-human desire to understand, escape or transcend earthbound limits, and its nature remains. Just as Henry Ford accidentally helped drive the popularity of Woody Guthrie or John Coltrane, the conservative colonization of mainstream country accidentally created a big market for the outlaw music of Waylon Jennings and Billie Joe Shaver.
Most importantly, we humans necessarily share music’s escape artistry. Contrary to nihilistic deconstructionists and other pessimists who talk about an escape-proof prison house of language or the impossibility of freedom, music lights an always-unrolling road to glory.
In July of 1972, at the height of Nixon’s popularity, Johnny Cash visited the White House. He refused Nixon’s request that he play “Okie from Muskogee” or Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac.” Instead, Cash sang the anti-war “What is Truth” and the poignant elegy, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” a song about the Pima Indian WWII hero who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima but who died a lonely alcoholic, tossed aside and forgotten by the nation he had served.
Cash’s White House defiance raised a flag of its own, and when we salute it we speak of the love and anarchy that remains at the heart of the human endeavor.