October 4th, 2010
My second foray into this year’s Wisconsin Book Festival was a session with country music historian Bill Malone and David Masciotra. Malone now resides in Madison and has written an authoritative history of country in Country Music U.S.A. and also about the issue of class in the music in Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ and elsewhere. Masciotra’s first book is Working On A Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen.
Malone started things off by saying that he was currently working on a book about Mike Seeger, half-brother of Pete Seeger. Pete, he said, sang mostly to middle-class audiences whereas Mike’s attention was more working class focused with attention paid to preserving old timey musical styles. Mike is credited with “discovering” Hazel Dickens, the subject of another book by Malone that he co-authored with his subject. Dickens told Malone in an interview that Mike Seeger had “validated” her culture, i.e. – that of the West Virginian coal fields. This was prelude to his more general idea that country music is a Southern working class phenomenon. While the music’s audience has never been that restricted, the music should be viewed in that light, although he admitted that it has changed with a more pronounced suburban side these days.
The music of Bruce Springsteen affected Masciotra very deeply as a kid and his book was an attempt at social observation. He quoted a friend of his who said, “We live in a culture that operates according to a game show mentality.” Our society has deficits of empathy and inspiration. Further he asserted that art in general can have an effect on people’s beliefs. It can encourage those things we lack and use tradition to empower individuals towards ends of social change as well as internal revolution. For him, Springsteen uses the power of story to start dialogues by elevating the lives of ordinary people who aren’t at the forefront of today’s political environment. Plus his songs provide counternarratives to those offered by the mass media. I think that for Masciotra, the greatest power of art lies in its ability to overcome our tribal mentalities and to extend our empathy to groups of others who are not like ourselves.
With these introductory remarks done, the floor was turned over to audience Q&A for the remainder of the session. I don’t want to delve into every question, but rather address the main theme that emerged during the discussion.
With a generally older audience, there was a fair amount of how things were better when they were young. Most people seemed to agree that our society today is terrible. Masciotra quoted a priest/philosopher named Ed Ward: “We don’t live in a country, we live in a market.” The first audience member to ask a question thought that there was this general sense of everything being dumbed down today. Art vs. commerce. One guy even expressed some cynicism by saying that Springsteen is simply a business person. Masciotra’s response was that he was but that doesn’t automatically negate The Boss’ attempt to attach his art to a higher purpose. Bill Malone added that ours is a consumer society yet we have contempt towards music given to us via commercial means.
But the whole art vs. commerce thing wasn’t the main theme. That belonged to the notion that society today was incredibly fragmented. The Tea Party came up many a time. The refrain here was that the Left was doing its level best to mock and marginalize the traditional audience of country music. Instead of acknowledging the legitimate gripes these people have, the Left is condescending. There’s no empathy, bridge building, or search for common cause. The working class is increasingly being left out and behind while identity politics reigns.
Malone maintained that country music began to lose its working class edge in the 1960s. After one audience member noted that “subversion” is not a word used today in relation to advancing the working class, he noted that country music was quite subversive in the 1920-40s. I believe it was here that he quoted the line from a song that blamed the evil capitalists for keeping William Jennings Bryan from the presidency. “Can you imagine hearing a line like this in contemporary country music?” he asked. I don’t think anyone in the room could.
For his part, Masciotra was a lefty and he was obviously disturbed by the Left’s attitude towards the working class. While he didn’t think that music had a direct contribution to make in creating change, but that it could be part of an arsenal. He spoke about it as having the ability to help break down the polarization dividing us. It could help people of different classes and from different regions see their commonalities. He spoke about gospel and other types of music with regards to the Civil Rights movement. “Change will come,” he said, “from commitment to something outside of self-interest.” While there is certainly a religious component to this, I think he would say that music and art generally can play a role in giving people a view of others and their situation and encourage altruistic commitments. (N.B. – He was very specific in saying that the ability of music to change politics is slight and Malone agreed with him.)
I found it interesting when Masciotra conceded that, as Springsteen’s music became more pointedly political, his popularity in the South declined. That being the case, I have to wonder through exactly what mechanism and via what art we can expect some sort of working and middle class reconciliation. I’m not intimately familiar with Springsteen’s music but, from what I’ve heard of his more political music, there’s nothing that singles out the South for being heinous in any way. He doesn’t do stuff like Neil Young’s “Southern Man”.
While I’m sympathetic to Masciotra’s view, it occurred to me during the session that music and art can also have the opposite effect, namely to help polarize. Class got all the attention but what about age? Rock music is the music of youth (a debatable point, to be sure). When President Obama came here last week, he wasn’t out to reconcile with the working class; he was here to court the youth vote and he brought two rock bands with him. Young people love to use taste in music as a way to form cliques and social identities. So how much power does pop music have in bringing disparate groups of people together? I mean, Obama used rock music to draw and motivate an audience to directly oppose manifestations of working class resentment.
In the end, art can be used for a lot of things, helping people empathize with one another being among them. I suppose I’ll comment further after I read Masciotra’s book.