And, On Piano, Dick Nixon: Music and Anarchy

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. Continue reading “And, On Piano, Dick Nixon: Music and Anarchy”

Untamable Melodies: Music’s Revolutionary Spirit

Alone in the walnut-paneled music room, his favorite of Fair Lane Mansion’s 56 rooms, automobile tycoon Henry Ford picks up one of his two Stradivarius violins. It is 1920 or so and Henry, cocooned in his woolen three-piece suit despite the summer heat, stretches his bow arm for a little elbow and shoulder room.

Henry plucks the A string uncertainly, then steps to the grand piano at the far end of the room and searches the keyboard for A. Counting forward on the white keys from Middle C – C, D, E, F, G, A – he pokes at the A, then plucks the A string of his violin again. His ear hears the same pitch. Unison, they call it, a good name for the sound of happy hands on his assembly line. He plucks the other strings and touches a couple of tuning pegs lightly, but doesn’t adjust them. Close enough.

Tucking the fiddle just so under his narrow chin, he bows each string once, and then, pinching his eyes at the difficulty of playing in E-flat, he begins to play one of his favorites, the 19th Century hit “Home, Sweet Home.” He whispers John Howard Payne’s lyrics as he plays.

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

Henry Ford’s industrial brainstorm – a moving conveyor that brought parts for assembly to stationary workers – was matched only by his insight that mass production was worthless without mass consumption. So, he helped invent American consumers. They, like his assembly line workers, would have the goods brought to them for assembly into an all-American consumer lifestyle. In this there would be harmony.

Continue reading “Untamable Melodies: Music’s Revolutionary Spirit”