Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.
To know the music of a society is to know that society. While much musical analysis is focused on the music itself, music tells a story much bigger than can be contained in the meter of a song. I once had a professor who said, “Music was the language of the soul.” Even the mass produced popular music of the FM stations is telling a story about who we are and where we are going. And with Americana/folk music regaining a foothold in the American psyche with bands like the Lumineers and Mumford taking airtime from Beyonce, it’s important to know where that came from and what it means about us, the consumers of American folk music.
Enter Greil Marcus, the music writer who changed the way I think about music and culture. Marcus is a cultural critic who has written a myriad of books on everything from Van Morrison to the Basement Tapes to The Sex Pistol’s very last concert in San Francisco. The thing about Marcus that makes him special is that he sees music as the glue of a culture’s ideology, practice, and politics. His essays and books are existential, but never disconnected from the tapestry of the culture the music was made in. His understanding of cultural movements and their impact on a society’s music is critical to understanding the “what” and “why” of American folk music. In the same vein that Marcus would claim that Dadaism, Surrealism, Industrialization, and Individualism begot punk rock, the structure of southern church and Christian thought did beget American folk music.
Not to say that it was only the piety of the South that created folk music, but the brokenness too.
But what is this world that birthed American folk music? One wouldn’t have to look further than the writing of Flannery O’Connor. The world O’Connor presents in her novel Wise Blood, about a man who can’t shake Jesus, is a sacred yet deeply troubled world that dances between righteousness and wretchedness with a disturbing seamlessness. In the novel, Hazel Motes is the quintessence of the Southern psyche. Motes is attempting to avoid “Jesus swinging from tree to tree in the back of his mind” in such vehement fashion that in his rebellion he turns himself into an ascetic hymn to his great enemy, Jesus. It is a wrestle to avoid the spiritual truth surrounding him and escape that dreaded Figure in the back of his mind. Now parallel this to one of the greatest and most influential American Folk songs, Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.” It is as if Lunsford and Motes are running from the same thing. Although the following video quality is poor, the audio is good:
Greil Marcus detects a similar spiritual destruction:
“Now what the singer wants is obvious, and almost impossible to comprehend. He wants to be delivered from his life and to be changed into a creature insignificant and despised. He wants to see nothing and to be seen by no-one. He wants to destroy the world and to survive it. That’s all he wants. The performance is quiet, steady, and the quiet lets you in … You can imagine what it would be like to want what the singer wants. It is an almost impossible negation, at the edge of pure nihilism, a demand to prove that the world is nothing, a demand to be next to nothing and yet it is comforting.”
All the while, the music about Jesus is inescapable and captivating. Consider the great folk song “Wayfaring Stranger,” a hymn to Jesus and the world to come. In the version below, redone by David Eugene Edwards (a believer with a following that’s mostly secular), the blood is embraced and sends chills down the spine of Christians and non-Christians alike.
So the question is, why is American folk music gaining such traction in the popular eye of Top 40 music?
It’s because of the blood.
We are living in a post-Christian (or close to it) society, in the sense that Christianity is a private affair, largely losing its social and moral holds on the American population at large. More and more people are openly leaving the spiritual home where their ancestors lived (or at least claimed to). This is leading to a culture, which much like the hyper-religious South of the 20th century, is spiritually polarized. We now have a nation that isn’t trying to “avoid Jesus by not sinning,” as O’Connor claimed of her odd protagonist Hazel Motes. So this struggle of blood, or as the Bible would say, the clearly perceived eternal nature of God in the conscience of man (Rom. 1) is boiling over. And where would Americans go but back to their favorite existential battlefield, American folk music.
To understand the spiritual state of America, particularly the American church, look at the music—there is a story hidden in its music that is waiting to be understood. In the music, we find the blood of a culture. Its sins, its obedience, its struggles, its idols, and, for the church, the glory of the Bride. And for the culture, we find Jesus, swinging in the back of the minds of our collective conscience, being avoided even to the extent of complete self-destruction.
We all have the blood and to some extent we are all running from it. Only by grace can we turn to Jesus and hear American folk music as an ode to the Savior. Jim White said it best at the end of his documentary on the South, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus:
“You’ve come here looking for some sort of essential truth about the South or something spiritual. And you’re not gonna find it, unless it happens by accident or by grace. These people know about it, they have what Flannery O’Connor called ‘The Wise Blood’. The blood rules them, they don’t rule the blood. You wanna know the secret to the south, you gotta get it in your blood. And you ain’t gonna get a transfusion from the blood bank for it.”