All day, mechanics and construction workers across America keep a radio twanging next to the socket wrenches or hooked on to bare studs. * All night, the ghost army of workers and cleaners who service the offices and classroom buildings in our towns fill the corridors with the same music from their portable sets. To travel in this land today you need not only wheels but also a radio tuned to Country—one of the thousands of radio stations across the continent which now play country-and-western music day and night. Our samizdat is wide open, electronic, and commercially successful. Its wailing or driving rhythms ride on slide guitars and nasal voices. Behind the broken loves and honky-tonk lives celebrated in the lyrics, it doesn’t take long to find bedrock. John Denver’s bid for a new national anthem is entitled “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” It contains the essential code word.
What’s going on? What does “country” mean? Country-and-western music appeals to a thick social stratum in the North and South and may even define it. Folklorists tell us that an economically and politically deprived segment of the citizenry in any country will soon find an outlet for its feelings in a folk art, often in music. With at least a sixty-year history, C&W music may well be telling us something about the inadequacy of political parties in their present form to represent the people.1 In its several intermingled styles—hillbilly, gospel, bluegrass, cowboy—this music incorporates a strongly felt tradition of populism and protest. We should not misread today’s signals: “country” protest comes from the right.
Country means redneck. The second word crops up fairly frequently in today’s songs as a brag. It mediates between the old slur, “white trash,” and the new cleaned-up model, “country,” an adjective that can enhance anything from pork to chintz. As soon as you try to define redneck, you turn the word into a caricature. Poor, white, undereducated, manual or farm or wage labor, disreputable, patriotic—useless half-truths. Catching the category accurately should concern us less than its expansion and its extent. Rednecks used to exist only in the South. Today there is no state in the Union, no province in Canada without a redneck culture. A diversified corporation in southern Indiana runs a highly successful year-round Country festival and calls itself Little Nashville. WBOS in Boston plays “ten Country numbers back to back” around the clock. Rednecks punish their pickup trucks and consume their sixpacks in Oregon, in Vermont, in Saskatchewan as ritually as they do in Mississippi and Tennessee. The cowboy has not disappeared; he has been taken over. His ten-gallon hat has yielded to the baseball or feed-grain cap. His boots go on.
The reddening of America has already caught the full attention of the music and clothing industries. A few sociologists have given it their attention. The precedents for my title, the “greening” and later the “blueing” of America, had their day as journalism and did not stay the course to become history. I put forward the “reddening of America” with my tongue only slightly in cheek. It is V.S. Naipaul’s new book, A Turn in the South, that has nudged me into taking the leap. He assembles striking yet still unassimilated evidence that the phenomenon has advanced a long way in the South. I extrapolate the rest.
But how far can we believe the evidence of a travel book, the product of a few months in seven southern states and little systematic “research”? Is it sociology or chicanery? The writer comes from another country, another culture, another religion. What we share is a language and something called humanity. Is that enough? We let him travel unimpeded around the country—a self-employed spy, crank tourist, uncarded journalist, world witness. We take him into our houses and feed him. We pour out our hearts to him—maybe court him a little, tell him a few tall tales. He listens well and seems to get it all down in his notebook. A New York publisher has released his book now, and the critics are going to work with the respect due an intelligent foreigner and distinguished novelist. We always want a fresh view, a new understanding. Maybe he sees first what we see last. This doubly displaced Trinidadian with a sphinx-like face must be the invisible man. He can go anywhere. People notice him, but they don’t mind. Well, if not invisible, at least ubiquitous.
In A Turn in the South Naipaul writes as if a modern oracle had chosen to speak through him. The individual sentences and paragraphs read easily enough. The mysterious oracular quality comes from Naipaul’s willingness to follow random leads and his disinclination to pull everything together into a set of conclusions. The absorbing case histories and conversations he records with the skill of a novelist-journalist point urgently toward a significance that the reader himself must construe. The author of superb earlier books on Trinidad, India, Africa, and worldwide Islam decided suddenly at the 1984 Republican convention in Dallas to write “my last travel book” (he is all of fifty-seven) on the old slave states. He would take a turn in the South, conduct a search without preset plan or itinerary. “The timing was pure chance,” he writes on the first page, and opens in medias res. Naipaul is a seasoned enough stylist to dispense with an introduction as briskly as with a conclusion. Then on page 164 we reach one of the several embedded introductory passages; he justifies his discontinuous montage form that combines travel account, interviews (50 percent of the book lies between quotation marks), and personal memoir.
And travel of the sort I was doing, travel on a theme, depends on accidents: the books read on a journey, the people met. To travel in the way I was doing was like painting in acrylic or fresco; things set quickly. The whole shape of a section of the narrative can be determined by some chance meeting, some phrase heard or devised.
The passage is preparing us for things to come. The working hypothesis behind A Turn in the South, developed out of Among the Believers (1981), has a studied naiveté; if you can just find the right circumstances, talk with people not paralyzed by their station, the culture will speak for itself. Ordinary people reveal as much about their collective lives as leaders. Like the earlier books, Turn is a tissue of brilliantly recorded hearsay, of intense listening by a man with a remarkable ear and unencumbered by a tape recorder. Every so often he pauses to interview himself, primarily about comparisons with the interracial society of Trinidad where he grew up as an Indian. Now in the American South he travels as a professional intermediary and exotic, unthreatening, cat-like in his movements, a canny Candide in his requests for explanations of the commonplace.
After an initiatory Easter trip with two friends to a small black community in North Carolina, Naipaul finds his way a bit shakily into the black politics of Atlanta. Of the four important and very different elected officials he talks to, Robert Waymer of the Atlanta School Board seems to impress him most. Having produced the Socratic caution, “You got to know that you don’t know anything about blacks,” Waymer says quietly that “the civil-rights movement was great for everybody” but the end of segregation led to a breakdown of black communities and institutions. This ironic consequence of success turns out to be one of the leitmotifs of the book.
In Charleston Naipaul finds a fading city readjusting to its famous past and to a new tourist economy. A black parole board commissioner in Tallahassee develops another powerful theme. “The church is my salvation. The church keeps me sane.” The following chapter carries Naipaul to Tuskegee University. He says in the guest house and finds reason to sympathize with Booker T. Washington’s vocational emphasis in the early days of the institute, a policy attacked by W.E.B. DuBois.2 Naipaul depicts a Tuskegee “in decay.” The end of segregation removed its essential justification.
Jackson, Mississippi, Naipaul’s next stop, reveals the second meaning of the “turn” in his title. He shifts perspectives.
It was my wish, in Mississippi, to consider things from the white point of view, as far as that was possible for me. Someone in New York had told me that it wouldn’t be easy. In Mississippi, though, I found that people were defensive about their reputation.3 This seemed to give me a start. But then I wasn’t sure.
Naipaul interviews a series of older white women and includes a brief talk with Eudora Welty. A catfish farm and processing plant in the Delta shows him the commercial enterprise of the New South. Suddenly on page 204 the turn becomes a veer. (By now one hears an intellectual rhyme with his earlier title A Bend in the River.) Earlier mentions of crackers, poor whites, hillbillies, and rednecks have left Naipaul puzzled. He decides to ask a loquacious real estate man, “What do you understand by the word ‘redneck’?” He receives in answer a character portrait close to Theophrastus and La Bruyère in its accuracy and detail. Naipaul is hooked. The remaining third of the book is essentially monopolized by the subject of rednecks. Instead of a planned Faulknerian pilgrimage to Oxford, Naipaul makes the pilgrimage to Elvis Presley’s house in Tupelo, Mississippi.
The long and searching Nashville chapter deals with the country music industry, Church of Christ members, and the message of the widely respected churchless Baptist preacher, Will Campbell. Campbell is also the author of the moving autobiography Brother to a Dragonfly (1980). After some pages on the new factory complexes of General Motors and Nissan outside Nashville, the last chapter on Chapel Hill closes the circle with a tour through the tobacco culture under the gentle guidance of a poet, James Applewhite. A Turn in the South closes with four lines of his poetry in which “poor-white powder” rhymes with “a brownface river.” The oracular touches stay with us to the end.
Despite its brilliant moments Naipaul has not worked this book up to his highest standard. Some fleeting details add only puzzlement. A turbaned student in the hotel driveway reads aloud and chants in Arabic. Jesse Jackson’s limousine is parked in front of a restaurant with its hood up and without its occupant. An undertaker’s name is Breeland. Paula, a waitress who believes Satan is trying to tempt her, is given an almost sibylline voice in her plight. None of these moments becomes consequential. And there are too many vocal males called Campbell in the book. Occasionally a sentence jars by its odd usage.
The highway looked like highways everywhere else in the United States: boards for motels and restaurants and gas stations.
[Spoken by an uneducated, oddball black.] “But you must know that I truly respect my past, be it segregated, be it filled with racism, be it whatever.”
I had the vaguest idea of what a redneck was.
At the opening of the Nashville chapter Naipaul splices into the narrative two pages on his “writing anxieties” and his concern “to define a theme.” The pages strike me as writer’s talk, out of place.
Naipaul never tips his hat to Tocqueville, never tries his hand at the Frenchman’s masterful marshalling of observation into general statements about a foreign society. Nor does Dickens’s American Notes provide a comparison. Dickens traveled everywhere as Boz, a celebrity with a cause (international copyright) and a method (visit prisons, orphanages, insane asylums). Naipaul moves less decisively across the landscape, listening rather than talking. His prose follows rather than leads his quest. What he finds emerges slowly and unemphatically.
“In one lifetime, then, it seemed that she had moved from frontier culture, or the relics of a frontier culture, to late twentieth-century Jackson and the United States.”
Here is the third “turn” of Naipaul’s title. Approaching the question of the New South versus the Old South that confronts every historian of the region, Naipaul seems to feel that his observations have proved the case for discontinuity: conditions have changed markedly, especially since the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision and the civil rights marches. I doubt that Naipaul’s modestly urged hypothesis will change the mind of anyone who has looked carefully at the question. What he contributes is anecdotes, case histories, without any irritable reaching after statistics and overall patterns. The word “identity” surfaces very early, contrasted not with a stereotypical “alienation” but with a different state Naipaul has observed in his earlier travels. “I always knew how important it was not to fall into nonentity.” At the end of the chapter on Tallahassee he reiterates “the final cruelty” that desegregation may be depriving blacks of the supports of faith and community that gave them identity. “It is hard to enter into their vacancy.” The horror of that flat sentence can be measured when one sets it alongside the opening of Naipaul’s powerful novel of Africa, A Bend in the River. “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” His sympathy is unsparing.
A Turn in the South does not shrink from the desperation of southern blacks in an ostensibly improved condition. Their attitude toward the past, examined throughout the book, settles into an awkward ambivalence shared by whites: “separation, and kinship.” Aware of how in India the past can paralyze, can kill, Naipaul keeps looking for the new. He finds it in the rehabilitation of one of the oldest of human activities, religion. On page after page the skeptical ex-Hindu notes with amazement and considerable admiration the deep significance of both religious faith and the community of churches to blacks and whites alike. He spots the drift among whites from Church of Christ to Presbyterian. When the Baptist preacher, Will Campbell, describes his intellectual round trip from fundamentalism to liberalism and back, he produces a sentence as political as it is religious: “Jesus asked us to be mindful of the one near at hand.” Then Campbell takes his guitar and sings a parable to explain that line.
No, we don’t fit in with that white- collar crowd.
We’re a little too rowdy and a little too loud.
But there’s no place that I’d rather be than right here,
With my red neck, white socks, and Blue Ribbon beer.
The lesson Naipaul draws from his travels is not only the expected sympathy he felt for the despair of blacks but also an unexpected feeling for whites who have fallen among thieves (and their own vices) and need a Samaritan’s help.
Rednecks become both the central characters and the chorus of the crucial Jackson and Nashville chapters. The portrait sketched for us derives more from Daumier than from Walker Evans. In Jackson the words that pour out of the real estate salesman called Campbell like a prose ode deflect Naipaul’s enterprise in a new direction.
“A redneck is a lower blue-collar construction worker who definitely doesn’t like blacks. He likes to drink beer. He’s going to wear cowboy boots; he is not necessarily going to have a cowboy hat. He is going to live in a trailer someplace out in Rankin County, and he’s going to smoke about two and a half packs of cigarettes a day and drink about ten cans of beer at night, and he’s going to be mad as hell if he doesn’t have some cornbread and peas and fried okra and some fried pork chops to eat—I’ve never seen one of those bitches yet who doesn’t like fried pork chops. And he’ll be late on his trailer payment.
“He’s been raised that way. His father was just like him. And the son of a bitch loves country music. They love to hunt and fish….
“You know, I like those rednecks. They’re so laid back. They don’t give a shit. They don’t give a shit.
“…The rednecks have the pioneer attitude, all right. They don’t want to go to the damn country club and play golf. They ain’t got fifteen damn cents, and they’re just tickled to death.
“…Old Mama, she’s gonna wear designer jeans and they’re gonna go to Shoney’s to eat once every three weeks…. At Shoney’s you’ll get the gravy all over it….
“The rednecks are about sixty to sixty-five percent of the white population. I’m running the good old rednecks and the upscale rednecks and a whole bunch of lower-middle-class rednecks…. Daddy is home a little more often. But they’re tickled pink that they ain’t got nothing. You wouldn’t believe.”
Naipaul runs four pages of this rhapsody. Only a gifted writer would have heard those cadences and caught them in his notebook, with added articles and choral repetitions. Both parties command a certain solfège, a dressage of language. The collaboration brings us the only laughs in the book and a miniature masterpiece.
A few pages later Naipaul designates his new found friends as a “threatened species” with shrinking hunting grounds like the Indians. All those statements need revision. Way back in Charleston someone gave Naipaul an idea he could quickly register. “The crackers, like the blacks, had their own place in the local caste system.” When Naipaul goes dutifully and uncomprehendingly to the Grand Ole Opry, “It was like a tribal rite,…the expression of a community.” I sense that he turns his attention and his sympathy to the rednecks because he feels they sometimes project a stronger identity than blacks. By sheer orneriness and vainglory they refuse to fall into nonentity. Not the finest ideal.4
In the delicate matter of cultural interpretation Naipaul might have paid more attention to the music. (No radio traveled in his baggage.) Late in the game he tries to catch up. An interview with a country music producer in Nashville informs him about Elvis Presley representing “secular and gospel, white and black” and directs him to Bob McDill, who works full-time writing successful country-music lyrics. But country-and-western music remains as incomprehensible to Naipaul as rhythm-and-blues. One of McDill’s lyrics quoted in the book describes a Daddy “with gin on his breath and a Bible in his hand” kissing his son goodnight. The son sings the refrain.
I guess we’re all gonna be what we’re gonna be.
So what do you do with good ole boys like me?
The lines might have told Naipaul that the rednecks have by no means overcome nonentity to attain freedom and identity. And a little music history would have cast light on his reconciliation thesis.
For quietly and obliquely Naipaul implies that black and red might discover common ground against white. He could easily deny ever having said such a thing. But the asides sometimes speak more directly than the central argument. Andrew, a young Mississippi politician, referring to blacks and rednecks, concludes, “If we can’t get together we are lost.” Real-estate Campbell has his own version. “We got to change that redneck society and that black society, or the wealth is going to be just in the few hands that it’s always been in.” Will Campbell sees rednecks as “sharing an ancestry of servitude.”
Could there ever be a joining of causes between blacks and rednecks based on deprivation, political ostracism, strong sense of the past, and religious sentiment? Country music offers a parable in answer to that question. In the Forties Bill Monroe and his entourage drew on both black music and hillbilly music to mount a driving synthesis he called bluegrass. Monroe described it beautifully as “jazz in overdrive.” In the Fifties Elvis Presley, saturated in rhythm-and-blues and gospel, produced the stunningly successful hybrid we know as rock-and-roll. It can hardly be said that Bob Dylan synthesized all the folk, protest, and black elements that contributed to his art. But he kept faith with them all. We thought he had chosen Country with Nashville Skyline. Then Self-Portrait decomposed any synthesis into a sampler and let all the different styles hang out. Only one black musician, the great Charlie Pride, has succeeded in achieving full recognition as a country-music star. After fifty years of cross fertilization and mutual admiration among professionals, country-and-western remains essentially all white, and occasionally coded racist. Can politics and society accomplish what has not happened in the privileged domains of music? Redneck culture and C&W music may travel across the rest of the continent more easily than they can come to terms with their immediate black neighbors. Still, we can hope the reconciliation thesis is right for a longer run.
Naipaul gets an astonishing number of things right during his turn in the South watching the South turn. Unfortunately, he omits TV evangelists from his account and underplays the KKK and other forms of organized prejudice. The genre of a series of interviews held during a few months prevents the book from having an adequate sense of time and the endurance of things. No scene beings to match the subtle comic sense Naipaul showed in his earliest novels of Trinidad. Is he too close? too rushed? When he remarks after talking to a white politician, “Optimism in the foreground; irrationality in the background,” we know this line will lead to pathos, not comedy.
Unlike Gandhi whom he dared to criticize, Naipaul has no program. There is nothing of the guru in him. He probably knows that there is no program. Gandhi’s, he angrily argues in India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), transformed his fellow citizens from colonial subjects into a state of independent, atavistic passiveness. When he seeks out the American South and writes without long experience and without anger, I found myself wondering if dispassionate observation of the present moment of a culture is possible. Out of his wrath in India, Naipaul answers that question with a fine authority. “When men cannot observe, they don’t have ideas; they have obsessions.”
March 30, 1989
Henry Glassie, folklorist, David James, sociologist, and Paul Gaston, historian, discussed with me some of the ideas and materials treated here. I wish to acknowledge their help with gratitude and to exonerate them from responsibility for the final form of the review. ↩
David Duke, in his successful run for the Louisiana legislature in 1989, ex–Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and president of his own National Association for the Advancement of White People, deployed no singers and fiddlers in his campaign. He may be too upscale. But we should not forget that Jimmie Davis, composer and performer of “You Are My Sunshine,” was elected governor of Louisiana and beat the Huey Long machine in 1944 and 1960. One of the greatest Grand Ole Opry stars, Roy Acuff, ran for the same office in Tennessee. Country music has also played a singular role in Texas politics. President Bush’s trainer, Lee Atwater, now chairman of the Republican party, has a mean stage presence as a rhythm-and-blues guitarist. The politics of music runs very deep. ↩
Naipaul has read The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and observes that it “seems lyrical for the sake of lyricism.” I am surprised he does not remark on how much DuBois’s elevated, sometimes Emersonian, rhetoric contributed to that of Martin Luther King and, occasionally, Jesse Jackson. ↩
Addressing “racial problems” near the end of the first volume of Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote: “In the southern states, people don’t talk. They will not speak about the future to strangers; they avoid discussions with friends; each person hides the subject from himself.” (RS) ↩
In his elegantly tendentious classic, The Mind of the South (1941), W.J. Cash almost shows Naipaul the way. Cash’s recurring discussion of poor whites (he never mentions the term redneck) circles around “the savage ideal,” which combines shiftlessness and energy, yeoman stock and degeneracy, hedonism and paternalism. ↩