The South, the Whole South, and Nothing But the South

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by Joseph R. Stromberg

Dr. North on the South

Dr. Gary North has written a provocative piece which challenges would-be Southern defenders to show that there is a South left to conserve. That is a tall order, and defenders must rely on the division of labor in making an answer. Dr. North has lived in Texas and Arkansas, and his call for a discussion was certainly made with the best of intentions. Here I can only tackle, peripherally, some of the issues he raises.

Is It True, What They Say About Dixie?

I can't give scientific proof of this, but go to any well-stocked library, look around, and see if there just isn't a whole lot more written about the American South than any other "region" of the empire. There has been, I grant, some interest in the West as the West, but I daresay that the body of writing on the poor, benighted South leaves all competitors in the dust.

Now why might this be? There have been a number of explanations. Two come to mind. The first is the traditional Northern theory: the South has more ink spilled and trees timbered on its behalf than do other regions, because the South has always been the "nation's" number one problem.

This is an economical theory. It must be true: why else have generations of high-minded Northern busybodies devoted so much time and effort to investigating, explaining, and drawing up reform plans for the South? Why, indeed, except on the unworthy hypothesis that there was something wrong with the busybodies. On closer analysis, it seems that Northern soul-greatness has usually been ancillary to rather concrete material interests and goals.

This, as the reader will have noticed, is not an anti-market website. I refer above to material interests and goals which could only have been realized via massive federal subsidies, tariffs, and controls of the sort that make trivialities like saving the Union seem important to some people. Beside that winning mix of interest, ideology, and State intervention, little things like the horrors of war seem small.

But I am not here to fight that war, or any other one. As Dr. Clyde Wilson noted recently, we have several centuries of Southern life to reflect upon (and critically defend) — and need not spend all our time on four and half years of brutal and aggressive warfare. This brings me to the second explanation for all the writing on the South, namely, that the South is just a whole lot more interesting than the rest of the empire.

This seems intuitively obvious, but again I can't prove it here. Doubters should pull a couple volumes out of the mountain of books already mentioned. The Agrarians are central, to be sure, and soon enough there will be "Post-Agrarians," who will take the Agrarians' best insights and build a new outlook by engaging those ideas with some other things we have learned along the way. The outcome will not be the hat-in-hand, guilt-ridden, even-newer-South approach favored by homegrown leftists and, well, external agitators safely berthed in Southern universities.

Sometimes a real outsider adds to our understanding. Michael O'Brien, a British academic, has written many thoughtful essays on Southern literature and thought. Over the water, he had more perspective than a truckload of Yankee lit professors could muster. His focus on the South's existence in the minds of Southerners, who may not even agree on what it is, led to misunderstandings. Hence the unfortunate controversy about eight years ago in the Southern Partisan — that "evil" magazine spoken of during the Ashcroft hearings — some of whose contributors read O'Brien as saying the South is a sort of mental delusion. We are past that, now. Not to go all hermeneutical on you, it is the case that cultures rest on shared meanings and mental constructs. It is the poor archeologists, who have no records to read, who are reduced to cataloguing broken kitchenware.

That cultures are "mental" does not mean that they are not real. Moon Pies and RC cola might survive the disappearance of Southern culture as mere artifacts taken on by the new owners. Southern culture could survive the loss of those items and still go on, as long as there were Southerners. This is why all the flag and statue business matters.

Georgians can go on being Georgians, even under the Cluttered Banner favored by the Governor of Atlanta. More monuments and statues could be sidelined or even dynamited without getting to the heart of the matter. We have, however, no reason to yield out of misplaced guilt or to pretend we like it. Let the telescopic philanthropists of New England investigate the history of their own shipyards, for a change.

Sorry. Thinking of our pharasaical New England brethren derailed my train of thought. What matters here is the survival of Southern culture. We can sort out later whether it's high or low culture. Meanwhile, the managerial-political class who dwell in great glassy monuments to power in Northern cities, especially the city which Rules the World, have other plans.

We need not feel singled out. The managers are visionaries, even if their vision consists of big State-capitalist profits for their friends, bombing foreigners just to do it, and ruining whatever came before their time so as to make themselves feel important, with it, immortal. If they wish to eradicate the South, "it's not personal," as an Italian-American says in one of those movies. Southerners, alas, do take things personally.

All Our Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down

This somehow brings me to music — "both kinds, country and western." That's Rustic and Occidental music to you, sometimes learnedly referred to as Bucolic and Hesperidean music. In fact, there isn't that much Western to it. You have follow that cowboy poets' convention in Elko, Nevada, for that, or stock up on CDs by Ian Tyson.

No, as Clyde Wilson has noted, "country music" is an accepted euphemism for Southern music. Not that other folks haven't cottoned to the notion and adapted it for local purposes. Take the Australians, for instance — but we don't have time for that discussion. Take the rest of the United States, they listen to it, too, not to mention our good friends who live north of the Yankees. If country music fans made national policy, the South would get treated better.

As against Dr. North, country music has always been about divorce and cheating — among other things. At a time when entertainment spokes- phonies and leftist academics defend Rap music for its – well, whatever they defend it for – it is not too much to claim that some country music is just "social realism." Of course it's that and more.

I was living in Fort Pierce, Florida, in the early 1970s, when Gary Stewart lived there in spite of then being famous on country radio. About once a week the local paper reported that the police had to go over to his house, again. Lifestyle, I guess. I suppose that's how he met the Allman Brothers, who backed him on a classic album called "Okeechobee Purple." But Gary Stewart at his best makes Dwight Yoakam sound like a mild-mannered merchant of moderation.

Stewart did hardcore honky-tonk songs that served anyone well who was undergoing a divorce in those years. His oeuvre was no worse, in the end, than all those Irish songs about drunken merriment and the resulting brawls. More powerful, though; enough to make a mild academic consider pulling on his boots, going to a shingle-sided bar, and starting a fight.

High Lonesome

And, yes, there's bluegrass. Peter Rowan's seven-minute "Land of the Navajo" says more about Indian affairs in the 19th century than all the bulletins published by the Bureau of the same name. I guess that's the function of art. I don't recall the song as all that PC, either, just resigned and realistic. Like country music, bluegrass is a form with wide appeal far outside its homeland. Take the classic "Old and in the Way" album, with Jerry Garcia, Peter Rowan, John Kahn, and one Southerner, the amazing Vassar Clements of Kissimmee, Florida. Does it get any better?

Just Another Musical Genre on the Lost Highway?

I grant that country radio has been on a downhill slide for ten or fifteen years. Part of this fits an old cyclical pattern. In the early sixties you either had songs with that bawm-bawm-bawm guitar lick, or overproduced ones with whole string sections and choruses (quit blaming poor Chet Atkins for all of that). This created an opportunity for the redoubtable Buck Owens to go global with the then-renegade Bakersfield sound, a creative extension of the honky-tonk jukebox songs of the forties. And don't forget Merle Haggard, he's still around. Oddly, when Dwight Yoakam reinvented the bawm-bawm-bawm sound in the mid-eighties, he was hailed as a traditionalist. So much for the historical sharpness of the music press.

Here was creative destruction. Then came another stagnant period, punctuated by early country-rock and the last gasps of Jerry Lee Lewis, and laid low, finally, by Waylon, Willie, et alii by the late seventies. The rise and fall of the Texas Poets – especially Guy Clark – is another saga. "Lifestyle" issues which beset musicians as a class are not a big problem, unless the artists choose to write about nothing else (a problem of the "Outlaw" movement). You may have men (and women) behaving badly in country music, but there, unlike rock 'n' roll, there are usually consequences.

The aspect of current top-forty country radio which seems dangerously non-cyclical is the prevalence of really bad country-rock to the exclusion of all else. Any day now, someone will reissue "Purple Haze" with a twangy vocal part, and country radio will inflict it on us – and not as a joke. This is where cheaper CDs, the Internet, Amazon.com, and the rest help out. Merle is still out there, even you have to hear him interviewed on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's web program. They even interviewed the great keyboardist Hargus "Pig" Robbins. It's not much work any more to find tons of real stuff for sale – country, bluegrass, Cajun, Celtic, Cape Breton fiddling, etc. (The tough one is finding Boeremusiek.)

You know the old saying: "In bluegrass the words are there to support the music and in country music it's the other way around." Perhaps so. I doubt that Dr. North's yeoman/poor white distinction actually holds up. And don't even get us started on Hank Sr. Anyhow, just as there is a reactionary conspiracy to bring technique, skill, and representation within Western forms back into painting, so too will country music produce its own reactionary recovery, but not on FM radio.

How Many Atlantans Does It Take to Screw in the New South Lightbulb?

During and just after the War of 1861-1865, a lot of folks wanted to abolish the South. The meaner class of Yankees – editors, ministers, and politicians – proposed decidedly genocidal methods. In the nineteen fifties and sixties, many books announced that Modernization was abolishing the South. Heck, the South was only "about" slavery and state-codified segregation. Why, there's no reason to have a South, if you get rid of all that.

"Sunbelt" Success Alarms Chattering Classes

Then in the eighties came a mob of articles and books about the economic transformation of the South. Damned if Dixie hadn't "rejoined the Union" and gotten all productive. This was real news.

Then the Northern observers had further thoughts. Whiny Northern social scientists dug deeper, invented complex questionnaires, ran statistics, and found out – to their great unhappiness – that the productive, newly industrialized, New-New South was still identifiably Southern.

Praise turned to vilification. The timing is very interesting. A prosperous South might be a bigger problem than the disease-ridden, impoverished, mentally stunted South of liberal lore and legend. Imagine all those millions of mean, flinty-eyed crackers taking care of business. The Journal of Southern History spent several fun-filled years deconstructing the South, even making the tiresomely predictable comparison with a twelve-year period of German history. (The journal has now gone on to another phase.)

"Doin' Right Ain't Got No End"

So began the Third Reconstruction. Like Ireland, the South, whatever it may be, had absorbed or deflected its conquerors. There were still Southerners, which brings us back to the realm of culture and ideas. Our Northern friends, afraid that their previous reforms have failed to address the real problem, now wish to eradicate all forms of Southern consciousness. In this they do the work of the Leviathan state, but that is nothing new. Hence their need to control education and all spheres of public life and communication. Dr. North was absolutely right to put education on center stage. Southern educational institutions are, on this analysis, part of the problem and must be by-passed wherever possible.

Northerners of the type referred to above are discontented world-improvers, restless moral imperialists, and can-do pragmatists — they'll think I'm handing out compliments here – because they don't have an ontology. Southerners generally have one, even if they don't all know the word for it. To put it another way, Southerners basically accept the human condition; Northerners treat it as just another technical problem which will soon be cleared away by scientific study and political initiatives. The abject and costly failure of that vision has a specific name: we call it the 20th century.

That failure doesn't much matter to those who aim to fix the South. They mean to raise the price of remaining Southern, just as England raised the price of maintaining Gaelic culture. Ireland exists today, though shorn of its original language. Billy Kay notes in The Mither Tongue that the conformist Scottish middle classes, keen to get on with trade on English terms, have said for over a century that Scots is "deein' oot." His book shows how alive Scots is. Small comfort just now, but the first step in making a defense is having a correct assessment of the threat.

As for the South, esto perpetua.

Joseph R. Stromberg is the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a columnist for Antiwar.com.

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