A National Culture?

 

Traditional music although first marketed in the early 1920s, did not rise to national prominence until the late '20s and early '30s when WLS's National Barn Dance and WSM's Grand Ole Opry were broadcast to a national audience and the barn-dance program became a recognized format. Initially hillbilly or old-time music was marketed to and consumed by rural and newly urban whites in the South and Midwest, but by the end of the '30s Country and Western music had attained a national, rather than a localized, identity.

 

When Polk Brockman first recorded and sold the old-time music of Fiddlin' John Carson, he had no intention of preserving a folk tradition, nor could he have envisioned the ways in which this "awful" rural dance music would mutate and become a part of a national identity. Because Polk, at Okeh Records, and Ralph Peer, at Victor RCA, approached this music as a commercial enterprise rather than as preservation, traditional music was incorporated into the modern mass marketing of leisure and was transformed. market demands necessitated the creation of new material; distribution methods (i.e. the radio and phonograph) and patterns of consumption (i.e. within the home rather than in public spaces) also contributed to a number of stylistic changes. The solitary fiddle gave way to the fuller sounds of a string band; vocals and lyrics were emphasized which produced a number of disparate innovations. The softer crooning style was introduced to rural music; popular and "old-time" songs were distinguished not by content but by who performed them; songwriting and publishing took part in the creation and distribution of traditional music; topical songs were introduced as publicity schemes.

The emergence and commercialization of old-time music coincided with a new interest in folklore. Anthropology had introduced the idea of cultural relativism, that "culture" is dependent on a specific content and is not synonymous with classical ideas about civilization, and American folklorists responded to criticism of America's cultural inadequacies by looking to rural traditions as a source of American identity. This self examination of the American identity coincided with the loss of faith and questioning of long-held assumptions sparked by the Depression. Out of this academic quest came Constance Rourke's American Humor which presented a unified American culture rooted in rural folk humor (Cooney, pp 107-8). Modern art and literature at this time also looked to folk material as an antidote to a mechanistic society. Although country music was largely ignored by the Modernists, traditional music by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and others who had eschewed the commercial trappings of the Grand Ole Opry in favor of a more urban (leftist) blue collar image popularized, and separated, "folk music" from "Country & Western" and brought similar themes to a different audience.

 

On the flip side, growing immigrant populations were producing a more heterogeneous populace. This had two potential, if unclear, effects on the emerging genre of "country" music. In many areas, a nativist backlash grew in response to the new "un-America" groups. While this had subsided by the 1930s to some degree because of immigration restrictions imposed in the mid-'20s, country music's image as an authentic American (white) tradition may have contributed to its appeal. Alternately, as immigrants sought ways to assimilate, "country" music may have provided a commodity that could allow one to buy into an American identity.

What became country music fit comfortably with several mass trends that predominated in this era- allowing traditional rural music to be transformed into a new style dubbed Country & Western. It relied on the radio and mass marketing techniques. It also expressed the common ambivalence about the future, melding a sense of tradition to contemporary tastes.

 

Hillbillies on the Radio | Country & Western | A National Culture?


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