Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Consumerism and Country Music

Country music, as well as rockabilly which was notably influenced by country western, portrayed American values in their music, presenting an America of which they were proud.  As patriotic as they were, however, there were a few particular values of which the country music community were critical, of particular interest was the consumerism that, well, consumed the post-World War II era.  Country songs reminded listeners that wealth was not all it was cracked up to be.  Songs such as Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska,” Bill Anderson’s “Mama Sang a Song,” Lefty Frizzell’s “Saginaw Mountain,” Marty Robbin’s “Ruby Ann,” and most notably Flatt and Scruggs’ “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” which accompanied the hit television show The Beverly Hillbillies (but we will go into depth about The Beverly Hillbillies next time), all show that wealth was not the most important of the American values.  In fact, it was the least important.

Written by Mike Phillips, “North to Alaska” topped the Country Billboard Chart for the year 1961.  Johnny Horton’s rendition reminds us that the gold in Alaska is nothing without companionship, especially the love of a woman:

George turned to Sam with his gold in his hand
Said, "Sam, you're lookin' at a lonely, lonely man
I'd trade all the gold that's buried in this land
For one small band of gold to place on sweet little Jenny's hand"
"'Cause a man needs a woman to love him all the time
                                        Remember, Sam, a true love is so hard to find
                                        I'd build for my Jenny, a honeymoon home
                                       Below that old white mountain, just a little south-east of Nome" 

Along those same lines, Bill Anderson penned and performed “Mama Sang a Song,” which topped out at Number Eight on the 1962 Country Billboard Chart.  This song describes in great detail the poverty in which the singer grew up, but manages to highlight the importance of family and faith over material things:

Of the old home place where I grew up
Of the days both good and bad
My overalls were hand-me-downs
My shoes were full of holes
I used to walk four miles to school every day
Through the rain, the sleet and the cold
I've seen the nights when my daddy would cry
For the things that his family would need
But all he ever got was a badland farm
And seven hungry mouths to feed
And yet and yet our home fire never flickered once
'Cause when all these things went wrong
Mama took the hymn book down
And Mama sang a song
(What a friend we have in Jesus)

             “Saginaw Michigan,” also written by Bill Anderson, with Donald Choate, was released by Lefty Frizzell and peaked at Number Three on the 1964 Country Billboard Chart.  This song is more a tongue-and-cheek dig at consumerism as the narrator, who is in love with a girl in his hometown of Saginaw, Michigan, leaves home in search of Alaskan gold to prove himself worthy of her love.  The girl’s father was a “wealthy, wealthy man” who did not feel that “the son of a Saginaw fisherman" was good enough for his daughter.  The narrator claims his stake in Alaska, exclaiming he has struck it rich and comes home to marry his girl, and sells his new father-in-law his claim in the Klondike, but his father-in-law is in for an unexpected adventure:

Now he's up there in Alaska digging in the cold, cold ground
That greedy fool is a looking for the gold I never found
But it serves him right and nobody here is missing him
Least of all the newly-weds of Saginaw, Michigan

            Marty Robbins’ version of the Lee Emerson and Roberta Bellamy penned “Ruby Ann” is a love song which notes that the “poor, poor man” wins the girl’s heart because he is a better man, not because he has money.  Robbins’ “Ruby Ann” was the Number One song of Country Billboard’s 1973 chart.  The lyrics pull no punches and bluntly, even bordering on anger, tell the wealthy man that he has nothing of importance compared to the narrator:

Ain't true love a funny thing?
Big man, you got money in your hand,
So what?
You're at a table for two, but still there's only you,
Big shot!
Well, your money can't buy if your power can't hold,
You can't romance your fame
Ruby Ann took the hand of this poor, poor man,

           These songs reveal that money and wealth are the least important values, reminding us that consumerism that is running rampant in this time period is of little importance in the bigger picture.  Though country music was, and still is, patriotic, promoting American values and pride in the American way of life, the writers and performers did not promote consumerism. In fact, in this respect, the values that were truly important were not that different than those of the counterculture, especially the “hippie culture” that revered in communal and simple lifestyles. The parallels in the value system based on a simple life prove that consumerism sparked a rebellion against capitalist consumerism which ultimately led to rock music’s most iconic counterculture symbol, Woodstock, but it was not a purely “rock-n-roll” idea that consumerism was destroying American values as it would seem from remembering Woodstock as the ultimate communal experience.  It seems that those singing the peace songs and the anti-war songs had a similar viewpoint to the more patriotic country singer/songwriters when it came to American values steeped in the idea of community over consumerism.

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