Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns
The music of white Southern plain folk, called “country” as a marketing label to disguise its source, is a major presence in 20th century American culture. It is too big and too beautiful to too many people to be ignored. Southern literature, of which it forms a part, is the only living cultural creativity in superficial and ephemeral “American culture” When something Southern is too important to be ignored, it becomes “American.” This is an age-old phenomenon and doubtless forms the motive of this series---a Yankee imperial takeover with control of money and media.
Thus the Southern music creators of the 1960s get referred to as “The Sons and Daughters of America”---just like Ken Burns’s beloved radicals and rioters of the same period. And African Americans get a fourth of the screen time and billing as if they were the real originators of the music and the music is an aspect of the Civil Rights Revolution. Burns seems to think that the appearance in Nashville of Northern parasites like the faker “Bob Dylan” was a great boon to country music.
I always approach Ken Burns with skepticism. In his “Civil War” and other productions he is the Great Distorter who falsifies history to fit the sentiments of a current liberal. Unfortunately, Southerners have allowed themselves to become a loyal but despised element of the Yankee Empire. Nevertheless, this 8-part series is worth watching. It is good to have the history told (up to the 90s). The Southern people and the Southern music shown are intrinsically attractive. (As in Burns’s “The Civil War” the material is important despite the doctored interpretation and serious omissions.)
These country music people really are the soul of America and it can’t be disguised. Two things I most noticed. 1) The prevalence of poverty as the mainstream of Southern life through most of the 20th century, as has been so vividly documented in the Kennedy brothers book Punished by Poverty. 2) The authenticity and beauty of the accents that are now disappearing. “Country music” is today rapidly sinking into the lowest common denominator, which is the “American” way. It is good to have this record of the time when it was real.
Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews