Where, Exactly, is the Southern Tradition These Days?

I am not asking a rhetorical question. I am calling for public discussion. Where is this Southern tradition that I keep hearing will eventually produce another attempt at secession?

I came to the South, briefly, as a child in the fall of 1949. My father was stationed temporarily at Camp Gordon (now called Fort Gordon), Georgia, outside of Augusta. There, I got my first experience with forced busing. The Augusta public school system bused a lot of us Army kids across town and into what, I learned from my mother only as an adult, was becoming a black ghetto. The school district wanted to keep a particular elementary school all-white. I was part of a racial quota system.

I hated it. It was the worst sustained early experience of my life. I did not want to be driven across town every morning. In California, I had walked to a local school. Let me tell you as an early victim: busing for racial purposes stinks. I learned this lesson in the South.

The education in that school was good. We moved back to southern California after Christmas, and I found that I had covered the entire 4th-grade curriculum in reading/English. We used the same textbook in Georgia that they used in a progressive education school in California. This was an early warning indicator: the textbook companies by 1949 had already created something like a national public school curriculum.

I moved to Durham, North Carolina, in 1977. It was pretty much like everywhere else I had lived: same fast food restaurants, same national chain stores in the malls, same TV shows. (Actually, we did not own a TV, but the shows were the same.) Maybe North Carolina is not really “the South.” But I can still recall the chorus of a song of the early 1950’s: “Way up in North Carolina, North Carolina; that’s as far north as I want to be.” Andy Griffith went to college at Chapel Hill. Andy ain’t no yankee, and “What It Was, Was Football,” the two-side record that launched his national career in 1953, was surely not a product of Harvard’s curriculum. (I was actually tempted to name my daughter, who was born in Durham, “Carolina.” I figured that would amuse readers of all the alphabetized name lists she would be on until her marriage.)

Then we moved to east Texas, or as they write it there, East Texas. Most residents have no southern drawl. Tyler had been the home of the legendary running NFL back, Earl Campbell. The civic religion of the South is high school football, and you don’t see any AWB’s in championship high school football games. (AWB: all-white backfield.) “That boy can run!” is not a racist phrase of opprobrium on Friday nights. This, too, was the New South.

Education in the South

About 45 minutes east of Tyler is Longview. Longview is the headquarters of Mel and Norma Gabler. This couple has waged an under-funded war against public school textbooks for over two decades. I honestly believe that they have inflicted more pain — revenue-cutting pain — on liberals than any two private citizens in America. Their little organization evaluates the social studies high school textbooks offered for sale in Texas.

The Gablers are masters of the media sound bite. They get a lot of media coverage. They can kill any textbook that has made a media-juicy gaffe, and they have killed several. If a textbook loses the Texas market, the author might as well start over, which is what authors do, frequently, after the Gablers review their finished products. I can think of no two words that produce more fear in the public school textbook industry than “the Gablers.”

The Gablers’ power to inflict pain stems from the existence of what amounts to a liberal monopoly over public school education. It is a national monopoly. The Gablers cannot change the system; they can only inflict pain and slow down the tide of political correctness. I appreciate what they do: inflict pain on liberals. But theirs is a holding action.

For a century, the South’s public school curriculum has been written by humanists in northern universities and published in New York City. Reconstruction failed officially in 1877; the South’s public school monopoly — “Made in New York” — triumphed almost completely over the next century.

The Old Main building at the University of Arkansas was built during Reconstruction. It has a tower on each corner. The Yankee-directed politicians who oversaw its construction made sure that the architect designed it so that the two towers on the north side of the building were taller than the two on the south. Anyway, this is the explanation given by the locals.

The dreams of Southern partisans had better be more visionary than building taller towers on Old Main’s southern side.

When there are private buyers for the University of Arkansas and every other public school in the South, then I will consider joining with Southern partisans to declare a New, Improved South. When there are curriculum materials that show what the South’s positive heritage was, and how it can be regained, I’ll be impressed.

Popular Music as a Reflector of Culture

Maybe a Southern teenager flies the Stars and Bars on his car’s radio antenna. So what? He listens to country music. Country music today is one long wail of adultery and broken marriages. (I say this as a former disc jockey of a late-1960’s country music radio show in California.) Country music offers the theology of the blues, but packaged for white folks: steel guitars and, more recently, dobro guitars instead of bottleneck style. The ethics and worldview of poor white trash have taken control of a large segment of the nation’s FM-radio airwaves, but this should be no cause for rejoicing in the South. On this cultural foundation, no one will ever build much of a civilization.

When Sun Records released Elvis Presley’s first commercial record in 1954, it offered a blues number on one side — Arthur Cruddup’s “That’s All Right, Mama” — with an upbeat version of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the other. That two-sided single was the essence of Sun Records’ breakthrough and also its first big hit. It was rock-a-billy. It fused country music and the blues. Sun’s Sam Phillips created a new form of music over the next two years. It was to become a major stream leading into what would become, by 1956, a cultural tidal wave. Perry Como never had a chance.

In the early 1940’s, Bill Monroe and banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs also invented a separate musical art form: bluegrass. Today, at any bluegrass festival, you will hear gospel themes, working men’s themes, rural family left behind themes, and not too much about adultery. When you do hear about adultery, it is mostly about how very bad things happen to adulterers. Many bluegrass festivals open with prayer.

I have loved bluegrass since that glorious day, in 1958, when I heard my first bluegrass album, performed by some good old, down-home, New York City boys named Sprung, Cohen, and Kilberg: the Shanty Boys. I did not learn about Flatt & Scruggs until Vanguard’s release of the Newport Folk Festival album in 1959. Yet, as a teenage record store clerk and a folk music nut-case, I had heard a lot of regional music, 1956-59, in the store and on Los Angeles FM radio, which, before the invention of the Japanese transistor portable radio, was not much listened to. It had taken almost two decades for bluegrass to reach southern California. (The first West Coast bluegrass group, the Golden State Boys, appeared about then, co-founded by Larry and Tony Rice’s father Herb, but I didn’t hear about them until the early 1960’s.)

Bluegrass, apart from the magnificent Alyson Krause, remains on the fringes of country music. Festival attendees are mostly over 40. Bluegrass is not really the Old South — 1943 was hardly the Old South — but it does reflect the older yeoman Southern tradition. Nothing in popular culture reflects the upper-class Southern tradition, which was gone with the wind long before Bill Monroe was born.

Still Searching

So, as I have looked around the South over the years, I have not seen much in the way of Southern high culture. Maybe Southern partisans have. I would like to know where.

The South that I have seen, writ large across the region, is Atlanta. Atlanta began as a railroad town, grew into a place for fast-money operators to make fast money, was burned by Sherman precisely because it was a railroad crossroad, and — tragically — rose again. When you hear the words, “The South will rise again,” think of Atlanta. Think of Coca-Cola. Think of Marta, the public transit system. Think of the Atlanta Constitution. Think of — I can barely stand the thought — the Atlanta airport, through which most southern residents must fly whenever we don’t go through Dallas/Ft. Worth. My favorite scene in “Gone With the Wind” is the burning of Atlanta. It was the city that Rhett Butler chose after the War to set up shop and buy himself a little class, a place where everyone was nouveau riche, and always had been.

Here is what was never part of the Old South: compulsory, tax-funded education; New York City-published textbooks; football and basketball; country music; rock-and-roll; the blues; and the Ku Klux Klan. (“The Klan,” an Alabamian physician told me in 1977, “is made up of two groups: gas station attendants and FBI informers. Everyone knows who the informers are: the guys who pay their dues.”) Sorry, but I just cannot imagine Robert E. Lee in the Razorbacks’ football stadium, yelling, “Whoooo, sooie, pig!”


Give me John Randolph and John C. Calhoun. I can do without Pitchfork Ben Tillman, Tom Watson, and Jimmy Carter. I will also be happy do without John Marshall and little Jimmy Madison, just to show where my sympathies lie. But, above all, give me Patrick Henry. He saw clearly what had come out of the closed-door sessions in Philadelphia, but hardly anybody listened.

This much I know: you can’t beat something with nothing. This is another way of saying that you can’t beat New York City with Atlanta.

March 7, 2001

Gary North is the author of an eleven-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible. The latest volume is Cooperation and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Romans. The series can be downloaded free of charge at www.freebooks.com.