Race meets the Grand Ole Opry: In Episode 5 of his eight-part PBS series, Country Music, Ken Burns lets Merle Haggard make an intriguing claim.
Burns is describing the way Haggard's parents became Dust Bowl refugees. They left Oklahoma "after a fire destroyed their farm during the Depression," we're told by the Burns narrator.
Haggard was born three years later, in 1937. But his parents "were still looked down on as Okies," the narrator of the Burns film says—and Haggard is shown saying this:
"The human being has a history of being awful cruel to something different. Okie was not a good word, you know. They were talked down to, and looked down on. It might have been something comparable to the way they treated the blacks."At any rate, Haggard's parents were said to have been talked down to and looked down on. As we noted yesterday, Haggard presented a romanticized version of his parents' struggles in his song, Mama's Hungry Eyes:
[Daddy] dreamed of something better,In Haggard's telling, another class of people put his family somewhere just below. "The human being has a history of being awful cruel to something different," Haggard is shown saying.
And my mama's faith was strong
And us kids were just too young to realize
That another class of people put us somewhere just below;
One more reason for my mama's hungry eyes.
In 1939, Steinbeck described this slice of human and American history in The Grapes of Wrath. On tape, Haggard suggested that the treatment afforded the Okies was something like the treatment long afforded to people socially defined as "black."
Is Haggard allowed to say that? Within the context of today's tribal wars, some will say that the late country music legend was making an inappropriate comparison.
We'll let each person decide that. But that last comment by Haggard is especially striking because of its placement within the Burns film. As Burns starts his profile of Haggard, he has just finished telling the story of Charley Pride, the son of a black Mississippi sharecropper—the fourth child of eleven—who, starting in 1965, broke a type of color line at the Grand Ole Opry.
"He would become the first black member of the Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey decades earlier," Burns' narrator says. "The first black artist to have a number one country record, and the first artist of any color to win the Country Music Association Male Vocalist award two years in a row."
Indeed, Pride was selected as the CMA's top male vocalist in 1971 and 1972. In 1971, he was also selected as the CMA's entertainer of the year.
Pride had a very big country career. "Times were changing," the Burns narrator says. "Other awards would follow."
So we were told as we watched Country Music last week. In Episode 5, the film offers wickedly funny story-telling by Pride, thanks to his wickedly funny sense of humor. That said, we thought the Burns film tended to give wide berth to the general topic of race in Nashville, an apparent offshoot of Burns' apparent fondness for stories designed to illustrate the greatness of Americanism.
Consider the way Burns tells Pride's story in Episode 5. (To watch the material in question, click here, move ahead to the 58-minute mark.)
Ken Burns' Charley Pride is a remarkable figure, much like his Dolly Parton. Pride's breezy attitude, and his giant career, suggest the remarkable personal traits which let certain people blow through apparent obstacles while barely noticing their existence.
That said, Burns tells Pride's story through a series of heartwarming, feel-good stories which, it must be said, feel a bit like the "perfect stories" which are sometimes said to be "too good to check."
There's a perfect, feel-good story in which Pride wins over a silent, all-white audience in Detroit by telling a single joke.
There's a perfect, feel-good story in which Pride's racially nervous record label doesn't want him recording love songs—until his gigantic single, Kiss An Angel Good Mornin', became his biggest hit.
There's a perfect, feel-good story in which Loretta Lynn hugs Pride as he received one of his major early awards, ignoring directions to "step back one step" and avoid such physical contact.
Pride is very funny telling these stories, all of which may have the feel of tales too good to check. But the major such stories in the Burns profile involve Pride's relations with Faron Young, who was already a major Nashville star as Pride was attempting to make it.
When Pride arrives in Nashville, his manager tells him there are certain people he will have "to get by" due to their racial attitudes. Pride is shown telling the start of the story:
PRIDE: He said, "Now there are certain people in Nashville that you're just going to have to get by."...And the first name he named is Faron Young. And he said, "Faron's just subject to walk up to you and say, 'So you're that N-word who's trying to sing music!' "Frankly, it didn't sound promising! But the story proceeds as shown:
PRIDE: I said, "Let's go find him." I said, "Might as well get it over with right now."Please understand! As this perfect story proceeds, Faron Young is a major star. Charley Pride hasn't even signed a record contract.
NARRATOR: They tracked down Faron Young at one of his favorite clubs.
PRIDE [affecting the voice of his manager]: "Faron, I want you to meet Charley Pride!"
[Pride scrunches his shoulders down.]
His shoulders went like that. I said, "Uh-oh, here it comes."
He got up and he says, "Charley Pride, you sing a fine song."
I said, "Faron, you do yourself."
To our ear, this makes his statement to Young seem almost strangely cheeky. But the story proceeds apace:
PRIDE (continuing directly): But he would sing one, and I would sing one. He would sing one, and I would sing one. And finally he said, "Well, I'll be! Who would ever have thought I'm sitting here singing with a jig and don't mind?"To tender ears, we'll only say this—that is intended to count as a feel-good story. Charley Pride is a major unknown, and Faron Young is a major star. But Young agrees to accept Pride as an equal based on the content of his obvious talent!
For all we know, the story happened exactly the way Pride tells it. At any rate, Pride tells several wickedly funny stories as the film's profile continues. But as Burns ends his profile of Pride, we return to Brother Young, and we get to enjoy the ultimate denouement:
NARRATOR: Charley Pride would go on to have 29 number-one country hits and 12 gold albums, be indicted into the Country Music Hall of fame—and remain a lifelong friend of Faron Young.So ends the profile of Pride, with the ultimate feel-good outcome.
PRIDE: We went into the Country Music Hall of Fame [clasping hands as if in prayer] together. Faron Young—one of my best, best friends there ever was.
Personally, we like that feel-good story! We like the idea that Faron Young may have grown as a person during the years in question. We like the fact that Charley Pride treasured his friendship with Young.
We like the part of Pride's persona which lets him speak and joke about "race" in the ways he does, blowing through apparent obstacles as he describes an astounding breakthrough career.
That said, we also note some positive elements in the Pride history which the Burns profile seems to skip in search of a few perfect tales.
Was Nashville growing in its treatment of race during the years in question? According to the Burns profile, Pride is first encouraged to come to Nashville by two musicians who see him singing in a bar in Helena, Montana.
Each of these musicians is white. Indeed, each musician is named Red! (Red Foley and Red Sovine, and let us say good for them.)
Was Nashville growing in its approach to race? Burns presents a perfect story in which Kiss An Angel Good Morning gives the lie to RCA's squeamishness about letting a black guy sing a love song.
The story has the perfect feel of the perfect squelch. But if RCA was so squeamish on this subject, how the heck did Kiss An Angel Good Morning ever get recorded and released in the first place?
We like the idea that various people in the country music industry were trying to move away from Jim Crow during the 1960s. But as we watched Country Music over the past two weeks, we often got the impression that Burns was himself a bit squeamish on the subject of race.
We think the film does a poor job exploring the role of race in the earlier years of country music. For example, in the 1940s and 1950s, did black Southerners listen to the Grand Ole Opry (and the Louisiana Hayride) on the radio?
Aside from a dreamer named Charley Pride, did black Southerners listen to and like Hank Williams? Did they buy Hank Williams records? Did black Southerners attend the Grand Ole Opry? Were black Southerners even allowed to do so?
It seemed to us that such basic questions were ignored as Burns tried to fashion a larger story about the inevitable triumphs of Americanism. Wynton Marsalis would get dragged out to say that "the music" was open concerning matters of race while the wider culture wasn't. But it seemed to us that Burns skipped past some basic questions, with the feel-good tale about Faron Young providing a preconceived outcome.
A very large industry grew in Nashville during the Jim Crow era. We would have liked to learn more about the way that industry actually functioned during its earlier decades.
Beyond that, "race" now plays a leading role in the tribal warfare which underlies our impending impeachment. And uh-oh!
Descendants of Merle Haggard's "white" Okies now inhabit one of our warring political tribes. Descendants of Charley Pride's "black" sharecroppers now largely inhabit the other.
What keeps these two groups split apart—one might say, divided and conquered? Tomorrow, we'll finally get to that intriguing Kevin Drum post, and we're going to tour the South with the young, wise Minnie Pearl.
Tomorrow: Never got above her raisin'