Going to the Country

March 10, 2011

At the moment, when I’m not busy reading nerdy academic stuff about medieval art, I’m reading Bill C. Malone’s “Don’t Get above Your Raisin’. Country Music and the Southern Working Class“. In this excellent book, Malone – professor emeritus of history at Tulane University and, without doubt, the leading authority on country music’s historical and social background – provides an insightful study of the music’s close relationship with the “plain folk” of the US American South. One thing that becomes clear, though, is that this perceived interrelation is in many respects fictional, and indeed much of the book is concerned with discussions of myth-making.

What I found particularly interesting is the almost obstinate way in which country music and its propagators have been holding on to its presumably rural character. After all, when commercial country music (or hillbilly music, as it was called back then) first emerged in the 1920s, it emerged in a world very much defined by urbanization and industrialization. And, from at least the 1940s onwards, country music was increasingly directed at an urban and sub-urban middle-class audience (both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line) which had little or nothing to do with the rural South. But despite these circumstances (or perhaps, because of them) a substantial part of country music is about, erm, the simple joys of rural life as exemplified by the frequently recurring motif of “the little cabin”. Significantly, the latter even occurs in what is now considered to mark the beginning of commercial hillbilly music, Fiddlin’ John Carson’s 1923 recording of Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane. Ever since, performers of country music have continuously proclaimed to be longing for their mountain home, their little cabin home on the hill and the untarnished world down by the green river where Paradise lay. As Malone puts it, both musicians and fans seem to be retreating “to songs about little cabin homes and country churches (…) as symbolic escapes from modern society”.*

As ill luck would have it, I was reading Malone’s remarks about little cabins and mountain homes just a few days after posting a bunch of photos from my skiing trip here: All of those photos, I realized, show a seemingly pure and untouched mountain landscape and three of them (out of five) even have wooden cabins in them. This has made me think about the escapist tendencies of our blog and, consequently, our lives. As our blog clearly shows, both [m] and I, though living in a big city, like to get out of it and “back to nature” as soon as our work schedule allows it. And even when we blog about the city we live in, it’s usually about some picturesque old buildings and rarely about anything that has been built or going on here in the course of the last hundred years.

So, yes, I guess that we, too, are dreaming about that little cabin home on the hill… Then again, I guess I also agree with something Matt Berninger, resident of New York and singer of indie-band The National, said in an interview last summer. When the interviewer hinted that many songs on the band’s latest album High Violet expressed a desire to get out of the city, Berninger replied:

“Everybody has this fantasy, when they’re stressed out, of unplugging, of getting a place in the country under the quiet blue sky, just sitting thinking nothing, or working on creative projects in isolation and peace. But in truth you’re soon bored and can’t get anything done. If I lived in the country I’d be writing lyrics longing for the city…”**

So, for the sake of balance, I decided to illustrate this post with some photos I shot recently, showing some of the more “urban” aspects of Vienna. I’m not sure if they stir a longing to live in the city, though, but I think they’re not bad photos, so I hope you like them anyway…

* Bill C. Malone, Don’t get above Your Raisin’. Country Music and the Southern Working Class, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press 2006, p. 82.

** Matt Berninger, in: Uncut, Take 157, June 2010, p. 79.

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