John Steinbeck and Stakhanovites of Country Music

Writing about Country Music without writing about politics is a unique challenge; in the last three decades, the music itself and the culture surrounding it has become so thoroughly ensconced in the political culture of the United States that an opinion about Country reveals nearly as much about one’s political persuasion as it does musical tastes. Beneath all the built up fat of political enmities gathered from the culturally-ingrained consumption of infotainment, there is still a beating heart of Country that is both aesthetically unique and peculiarly American.

There is a rather sardonic quote attributed to the aging John Steinbeck that “socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarassed millionaires”. If one had to find a word to describe Steinbeck’s impressive corpus, one could do a great deal worse than “proletarian”. The greatness of his writing resides in precisely that: he gave to America a new and unique aesthetic that had been “in the air” among the disjointed tribes of dispossessed yeoman of the hinterlands and deracinated ethnic labourers of the American city, but never articulated even as the bloom of American Industry had begun to wilt. George Fitzhugh could decry the “slaves without the rights of slaves” and their capitalist “masters without the obligations of masters” who made up the bulk of Northern industry, and Upton Sinclair could enrage a sitting President into a reforming fury, but the person of the labourer as a tangible form in which actual Americans could see themselves reflected belongs to Steinbeck.

The aesthetic Steinbeck creates retains its parochial qualities in those places in which one or another sort of work is customary, but the popularity of Steinbeck as an author among the (now dwindling) reading public can be credited to his appeal to certain universals. The same, incidentally, is at the heart of the nationalisation of Country Music during Steinbeck’s lifetime. Beginning with the regional Old Time music of the Appalachian hillfolk, Country music and its decidedly Southern aesthetic became a national phenomenon because its aesthetic orbited the same star that Steinbeck had used to give life to his prose. It is this unifying thread that ties that dark mirror held up to the American Pioneers by the Joad family as they follow Henry Fonda across the the continent with the lonesomeness of Hank Williams and dogged defiance of Merle Haggard, and which continues to find itself woven into the contemporary generation of musicians like Travis Tritt and Cody Jinks, among a number of others.

The name of this star is the Working Man. Much like the Cowboy, the Working Man is both a reality and a literary figure, and a fascination of Americans in the later 20th century as industry has fled to foreign shores, leaving a wasteland of gutted and rusting factories, mills, collieries, and foundries in their wake. Like the Cowboy, he is not a proletarian in the Marxian sense, reduced to a faceless economic unit, but something more – an imagined self as much as an imagined other, who has become a source of identity for a population that feels displaced – the people referred to cynically by politicians and their mouthpieces in the Fourth Estate (or is it the other way around?) as “left behind”, “forgotten”, “silent”. This has fed into the aesthetic itself, cultivating it with the desire to use it to overcome those feelings of displacement.

Will the Circle Stay Unbroken?

Music has long been a source of identity in America – Bob Dylan, for example, would never have received the vitriol piled upon Bringing it All Back Home (1965) if his folk music did not impart his fans with a sense of investment, indeed a sense of self, that his foray into rock music thoroughly up-ended. Other fans suffered an existential crisis precipitated by the death of Elvis or the break-up of the Beatles. Now consider that both of these were decidedly mediocre talents elevated by excellent branding and salesmanship. Your reaction to the line you have just read will likely only further illustrate the deep investment of Americans, and indeed Westerners in general, in popular artforms, rock music being merely one of the most ubiquitous. The degree to which Country Music has uniquely shaped its own place in American culture as a vocalization of authentic experience is articulated clearly in the efforts now devoted to “saving” it from (self-)destruction. Classic Country radio stations abound in the South, Saving Country Music blog has a respectable enough following to feature prominently in the Country music corner of Spotify, and even The Baffler has seen fit to comment on the implosion and betrayal of the authenticity of Country music. Despite an audience mostly comprised of those who are more likely to profess a distaste in Country, Chris Reitz is hardly triumphalist in his coastal critique of an avowedly Flyover artform, and he does an admirable job excorciating the contemporary genre for abandoning the authentic experience that is the core of its aesthetic – the real and imagined experience of the Working Man, though Reitz does not name him.

Reitz’s most entertaining line is a passing reference challenging the pseudo-Steinbeck quote above, bemoaning “the sad realization that many working-class whites believe they are oppressed”. For listeners of Country and readers of Steinbeck, it will seem Reitz is late to the party with this statement; after all, Merle Haggard could already declare that “the workin man can’t get nowhere” in 1977. What has changed in Country music is not the perception of the state of the Working Man, but rather the reaction of those Americans who identify with him. What pseudo-Steinbeck observed of the American working class is reflected in the Working Man himself, that rather than an oppressed underclass, the Workers are in fact hapless and hard-working folks who have just enough to survive even if they can never seem to get enough to be comfortable. The Working Man is content with this situation, even though he may (naturally) complain about it. Or, to juxtapose two Haggard songs, “The Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today” (1977) and “The Way I Am” (1980), two songs with the same character, one of whom complains “for years I’ve been bustin my rear// to make a livin’, but it ain’t made… and this old broken back of mine is all I got to show” and the latter who says “wish I enjoyed what makes my livin’// did what I do with a willin’ hand// some folks would run, but that ain’t like me// So I’ll just dream, and keep on bein’ the way I am”.

This is typical to the sentiment of the Working Man as he appears throughout the genre of the day. Women who joined the Country scene in the 1960s and ’70s sang admiringly of their fathers and mothers who were of similar mind – Loretta Lynn was proud to be a coal miner’s daughter, whose father’s priority was the basic needs of his large family were met and they understood what was important and whose mother could find no reason to complain. Lynn, of course, came from the perpetual poverty of the Appalachian Hillfolk, but her sentiments are mirrored in the similarly autobiographical songs from Dolly Parton’s repertoire like “Coat of Many Colors”(1971) and “Good Old Days (When Times were Bad)” (1968). Parton, while not regretful of her youth, declares she’d never go back to living it again; Waylon Jennings is more sanguine, “I can still remember the way things were back then// In spite of all the hard times, I’d live it all again” because, essentially, of the pride he felt as a Texan in Bob Wills and the rest of the Western Swing scene. Johnny Cash, too, cultivated a certain nostalgia of his dirt-poor youth in rural Arkansas with his tribute to the music of the Carter Family in “Daddy Sang Bass” (1968). Reitz can contrast the sentiments of these musicians who came of age in the Great Depression with contemporary Country musicians who, he observes, “‘I know everybody says money can’t buy happiness,’ [the musician] allows. ‘But it could buy me a boat.'”

The principal fault of Reitz’ critique is that, while he clearly listens to and enjoys Country Music, his fandom is divorced from the underlying culture and aesthetic that he sees contemporary Country turning against. They key can probably be found most readily in Cash’s repertoire, which included a number of songs he heard sung on the radio like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”, “Orange Blossom Special”, and “Dark as a Dungeon”, all of which come from a common place and time – a one that was nationalised with the advent of radio during the Depression just as Country Music has lately come to be nationalised, feeding into the Working Man as an aesthetic figure among people who desire his authenticity, an authenticity that can only be born of adversity.

“Dark as a Dungeon” in particular offers a rare critique of the greatest vice of the Working Man, as sort of work-ism, which the narrator compares to alcoholism and drug addiction. It will strike many contemporary ears as strange to warn young men not to seek their fortunes in a coal mine, mining being an industry infamous for poor pay and poorer safety standards, so bad that it was at the beating heart of the labour union movement of the 19th century. In a culture which values work as a point of pride and identity, however, it is far less ironic a song. The distance Reitz is observing between vulgar “Buy me a Boat” Country and the more authentic Country of yesteryear is in essence the abandonment of all the virtues of poverty and the retinence of all its vices brought about by the reduction of the Working Man’s quiet defiance of his condition through resignation to this work-ism that by itself merely starves the soul.

Boxer’s Rebellion

The weariness of the younger generation with the Working Man held up by Steinbeck and the Old Guard of Country is easy to understand. If one will permit a brief aside, consider the character of Boxer from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. A truly tragic character, Boxer is the workhorse (literally) of the farm, honest, decent, and deeply invested in the farm’s success, but too trusting and slow to realise how he is being exploited by the pigs. His answer to every new challenge with the pig’s system is “I must work harder”, until finally he cripples himself and the pigs sell him for glue. The frustration Orwell wanted to inspire in his readers as they watched poor hapless Boxer work himself to death is precisely the frustration that has brought about this change in Country music.

The Working Man, this blithe wretch who seeks dignity in breaking his back and is repeatedly exploited and obstructed by unseen, unnamed, perhaps even natural, powers of the world, is authentic because he suffers. Contemporary Country musicians, and increasingly their audience, no longer want that authenticity: generations of back-breaking work have made them weary, and they no longer find dignity or any other reward in it. A $500 cooler to store cheap beer, as Reitz references, is reflective of a shift in aesthetic – the core tastes have, perhaps, not changed, but an aesthetic is ultimately a reflection of or a moulding force upon the lived experience of its beholder. The aesthetic of the Working Man of Steinbeck and Haggard no longer reflects, neither does it exercise any motivating power, upon those living the reality of blue collar poverty in America. Therefore, work-ism is supplanted by a sort of luck-ism, winning the lottery, discovering a product that as if by magic makes a fortune (as in the case of the Duck Dynasty family), or having a wealthy uncle or friend leave their fortune to you – these are how the Working Man really gets ahead, how he achieves tangible results.

The shift, therefore, is one away from Steinbeck and the Old Guard of Country Music precisely because of the value this younger generation places on tangible results. An aesthetic, when it is full of energy and vigour, is valuable in its intangibility – the Working Man, though more clearly defined, remains a faceless man in whose shoes and overalls any American could perceive himself. It is, to a greater or lesser extent, a sort of ideal, a reassurance that there is dignity and pride in work alone, even work that does not advance an individual. In this, his values are those of the very real mineworker upon whom Orwell based his poor workhorse – Aleksei Stakhanov, a hero of the Soviet Union (here meant in the more common manner, though he was decorated as a Hero of Socialist Labour). Stakhanov was a mineworker who in 1935 set a record for tonnes of coal mined (106 tonnes in just over 5 hours of work – 14 times the quota allotted by the local Committee for Labour). He was a sensation, and actively collaborated with propaganda efforts by the Party to have other workers imitate his example and show the superiority of the socialist system. His work gained him no additional rations, no special home or reduced hours or increased vacation time. There was no reward to be gained from his action that he could have expected before he set the personal goal for himself to exceed his quota. He did it because he found dignity in his work, as the workers who joined the Stakhanovite Movement did.

Country music is experiencing a change now, and the Working Man is in decline, in large part because fewer and fewer listeners are Stakhanovites, fading as the spirit of pseudo-Steinbeck’s “temporarily embarassed millionaires”, who believe hard work will gain them something, faded in the middle of the 20th century. There are a few country musicians who remain dedicated to the spirit of the working man, like Cody Jinks, whose “What Else is New” from Adobe Sessions(2014) is an homage to the Haggard vision, and unadulterated Stakhanovism:

What else is new? I’m tellin’ you
All the trouble the blue collar man is goin’ thru
We don’t let no bad news hang around
It’s the same old situation
All the problems facin’ our great nation
So to hell with all those bringin’ that bad news down

Sure, the Working Man suffers, but he’s always suffered. Focusing on the struggle is undignified, unworthy of the aesthetic Jinks fortifies and participates in with his music. He is a sort of rear-guard action, though, as the Stakhanovite Working Man grows more and more distant from the heart of American Culture and Country Music, American literature, and American culture become more heavily politicized.

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Author: Walter Devereux

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