One Nation Under Elvis

Photo: Larry Mills

THE BIGGEST WILDERNESS I’ve ever been in — a roadless area roughly the size of Portugal with about fifty contiguous watersheds and the whole panoply of charismatic macrofauna doing their thing undisturbed — is another story. This one is about what happened afterward, when I and the Canadian environmentalists I’d been traveling with arrived at the nearest settlement, a logging town in the far northeast corner of British Columbia consisting of a raw row of buildings on either side of the highway to Alaska.

We were celebrating two weeks of rafting down the central river in that ungulate- and predator-rich paradise at the outpost’s big honky-tonkish nightclub, where the DJ kept playing country songs, to which all the locals would loop around gracefully, clasped together. But my compadres kept making faces of disgust at the music and asking the DJ to put on something else. He’d oblige with reggae, mostly, and we’d wave our limbs vaguely, dancing solo and free-form as white people have danced to rock-and-roll since the mid-1960s. Everyone else would sit down to wait this other music out. It was not a great movement-building exercise. How far were you going to get with a community when you couldn’t stand their music or even be diplomatic about it? I’ve been through dozens of versions of that scene over the years and got reminded of it last year by my letter from Dick.

He really was named Dick. From a return address in the exorbitantly expensive near–San Francisco countryside, he sent me a typewritten note about a section in a recent book of mine. He declared, “The country music parts of the US you love so much are also home of the most racist, reactionary, religiously authoritarian (i.e., Dominionist) people in the country. You don’t have to go far: just look @ voting patterns among rednecks descendants of the white yeomanry, if you wish to be polite) in the Central Valley. They love Bush and are very backward people by the standards of the Enlightenment. The Q might be, what is the correlation between country music and political backwardness, if any?”

My first question for Dick might be: which country music? You could cite Johnny Cash’s long-term commitment to Native American rights and stance against the Vietnam War (he called himself “a dove with claws”) or the song about interracial love that Merle Haggard wrote (but his record company refused to release, though the minor country star Tony Booth had a hit with “Irma Jackson” in 1970) or “I Believe the South Is Gonna Rise Again,” boldly sung by Tanya Tucker in 1974:

Our neighbors in the big house called us redneck
’Cause we lived in a poor share-croppers shack
The Jacksons down the road were poor like we were
But our skin was white and theirs was black

But I believe the south is gonna rise again
But not the way we thought it would back then
I mean everybody hand in hand . . .

Or you could just mention medium-sized country star Charley Pride (thirty-six Billboard No. 1 country hits), who also doesn’t fit Dick’s redneck designation because he is African American.

In terms of political orientation, you could cite the Texas-based Dixie Chicks, who refused to back down from criticizing Bush on the brink of the current war. They were, as their recent hit had it, “Not Ready to Make Nice.” Though corporate country stars like Toby Keith stampeded to support the so-called war on terror, alt. country musicians like Steve Earle charged just as hard in the opposite direction. Country music is a complex beast, sometimes in resistance to or mockery of the mainstream and the rural South, sometimes a mirror of or hymn to it, the product of many voices over many eras, arisen from a culture that was never pure anything, including white. (And its current listening territory includes much of the English-speaking world.)

Another set of questions might be why Dick despises the people and places that spawned the music, and what larger rifts his attitude reveals. Answering them requires digging into the deep history of American music and American race and class wars, and into the broad crises of environmentalism in recent years.

Those wars about race and class are peculiarly evident in the stories we tell about Elvis. I was raised on the tale that Elvis stole his music from black people. The story told one way makes Elvis Presley a thief rather than someone who bridged great divides by hybridizing musical traditions and brought the lush energetic force of African-American music into white ears and hearts and loins. It ignores his many white influences, from bluesy Hank Williams to schmaltzy Perry Como, his genius in synthesizing multiple American traditions into something unprecedented, and the raw power of his own voice and vocal style. It ignores, too, the lack of an apartheid regime in American roots music. White country blues and white gospel were part of the rich river of sound that came out of the South long before Presley. Despite segregation, black and white musicians learned from each other and influenced each other. (Another view of Elvis, from Billboard magazine in 1958, stated, “In one aspect of America’s cultural life, integration has already taken place.”)

The particular song Elvis was supposed to have stolen from R & B singer Big Mama Thornton, “Hound Dog,” wasn’t a vernacular expression of African-American culture, and it wasn’t her creation anyway; it was written by two New York Jews, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Elvis’s first single featured a cover of the song “That’s All Right Mama” by Delta blues singer Arthur Crudup, but the B-side was a cover of bluegrass star Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” as perfect a mix of southern musical traditions as you can find. Elvis was repeatedly charged with being a racist — most famously in rapper Chuck D’s 1990 song — on the basis of a comment he never actually made. James Brown and Muhammad Ali thought otherwise, and some Native Americans claim the part-Cherokee Elvis as their own.

The story that Elvis stole his music from African Americans as told by, for example, my now-deceased, uber-leftie, America-hating, and otherwise wonderful aunt, turned rock-and-roll into a mostly white child miraculously born to a purely black family. It was a way of saying that cool and correct white people could love rock-and-roll — white music with roots in the South — but dodge the sense that they had any affinities with white southerners; they could imagine them as wholly other and hate them with ease, with a fervor and disdain that spilled over pretty easily to all blue-collar rural people, to the white American peasantry, basically. That hate had and has wide currency. Ask Dick.

The story that racism belongs to poor people in the South is a little too easy, though. Just as not everybody up here, geographically and economically, is on the right side of the line, so not everyone down there is on the wrong side. But the story allows middle-class people to hate poor people in general while claiming to be on the side of truth, justice, and everything else good.

I grew up surrounded by liberals and leftists who liked to play the idiot in fake southern accents, make jokes about white trash and trailer trash, and, like the Canadian enviros, made gagging noises whenever they heard Dolly Parton or anything like her. If Okies from Muskogee thought they were being mocked, they were right, in part. This mockery was particularly common during the 1970s and 1980s, but it has yet to evaporate altogether — after all, Dick, who judging by his typewriter was around then, wrote me only last summer. My aged mother continues to make liberal use of the term “redneck” to describe the people I grew up among (though they were just suburban conservatives), and last summer I met a twentysomething from New York at a Nevada campout who told me he too was raised to hate country music. He was happily learning to love it, but late, like me.

My own conversion to country music came all of a sudden in 1990, around another campfire, also in Nevada. The great Western Shoshone anti-nuclear and land-rights activist Bill Rosse, a decorated World War II vet and former farm manager, unpacked his guitar and sang Hank Williams and traditional songs for hours. I was enchanted as much by the irreverent rancor of some of the songs as by the pure blue yearning of others. I’d had no idea such coolness, wit, and poetry was lurking in this stuff I was taught to scorn before I’d met it.

HATING WHITE SOUTHERNERS, particularly poor white southerners, and often by extension any poor rustic whites, seems to be a legacy of the civil rights movement. So far as I can tell (I came later), well-meaning people outside the South were horrified by the culture of Jim Crow, with its segregation, discrimination, and violence — and rightly so. Over the past couple of years, I’ve spent time in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast, and I myself was horrified by the racial violence that transpired during the chaos of Katrina and some of the everyday apartheid and racist vileness that persists in the region. But I also recently ran into raging white racists on the periphery of Detroit, Michigan, right across the river from Canada. And the last ostentatious racists I met were the middle-aged heir of a fabulously wealthy family whose hallowed name is smeared all over the Northeast and his yachting buddy, right here in left-coast ultra-urban San Francisco. Racism is pervasive. The pretense that it belongs solely to poor people who talk slow lets the rest of us off the hook.

So on the one hand we have white people who hate black people. On the other hand we have white people who hate other white people on the grounds that they hate black people. But that latter hatred accuses many wrongfully, and it serves as a convenient coverup for the racism that is all around us. The reason why it matters is because middle-class people despising poor people becomes your basic class war, and the ongoing insults seem to have been at least part of what has weakened the environmental movement in particular and progressive politics in general.

Right-wing politicians may serve the super-rich with tax cuts and deregulation and privatization galore, but they also dress up expertly in a heartland all-Americanism that has, at least until Bush’s plummeting popularity, allowed a lot of rural Americans to see them as allies rather than opponents. The right has also done a superb job of portraying the left as elite and hostile to working-class interests, and the class war going on inside and outside leftist and environmentalist circles did this propaganda battle a great service. The result of all this has been a marginalized environmental movement — more specifically, an environmental movement that has alienated the people who often live closest to “the environment.”

Of course dreadlocks and ragged clothes weren’t exactly diplomatic outreach tools either. I spent some of the 1990s with and around activists in the public forests of the West, and a lot of the supposedly most radical had a remarkable knack for going into rural communities and insulting practically everyone with whom they came into contact. It became clear to me that in their eyes the worst crimes of the locals did not involve chainsaws and voting choices but culture and what gets called lifestyle. It was a culture war that got pretty far from who was actually doing what to the Earth and how anyone might stop it.

Grubby, furry, childless pseudo-nomads who could screw up all they wanted and live hand to mouth until something went wrong and the long arm of middle-class parents reached out to rescue them scorned the tough economic choices of people with kids, mortgages, and no bail-out plan or white-collar options. Some of them did great things for trees, but their approach wasn’t always, to say the least, coalition-building. It also wasn’t ubiquitous. There were some broad-minded people in the movement, and some who even hailed from these rural and poor cultures, and Earth First! always had a self-proclaimed redneck contingent — but the scorn was widespread enough to be a major problem. And it seemed to be part of the reason why a lot of rural people despise environmentalists.

I remember talking to a young rancher in an anti-environmental bar in Eureka, Nevada, who humbly presumed that environmentalists, including myself and the group I was with, loathed him. His hat was large and his heart was good. Whatever you think of arid-lands ranching, he seemed to be doing it pretty well. He boasted of grass up to his cows’ bellies, talked about moving the cows around to prevent erosion, and deplored the gold mines that are doing far worse things to the region. We were clearly on the wrong track — the environmental movement as a whole, if not the Nevada activists I worked with, who did a decent job of bridging the divide, but why was there a divide? The bar in Eureka, as of last July, still sold t-shirts emblazoned with the acronym WRANGLERS (Western Ranchers Against No-Good Leftist Environmentalist Radical Shitheads), a slogan about as diplomatic as my letter from Dick.

THE SOCIALISM AND PROGRESSIVISM that thrived through the 1930s saw farmers, loggers, fisheries workers, and miners as its central constituency along with longshoremen and factory workers. Where did it go? You can see missed opportunities again and again. Some of the potential for a broad, blue-collar left was trampled by the virulent anti-communism and anti-labor-union mood of the postwar era. More of it was undermined by the culture clash that came out of the civil rights movement. By the 1980s, when I was old enough to start paying attention, the divide was pretty wide. And environmentalists were typically found on one side.

The environmental justice movement set out in part to rectify that. The founding notion was to address the way that environmental hazards — refineries, incinerators, toxic dumps — are often sited in poor communities and communities of color. But class and thereby poor white people very quickly vanished from the formula. Toxic dumping in a rural North Carolina African-American community is said to have launched the environmental justice movement in 1982, but the prototypical environmental injustice had been exposed a few years earlier, in the mostly white community at Love Canal in western New York. It wasn’t an anomaly either. The 1972 Buffalo Creek flood occurred when a coal-slurry impoundment dam on a mountaintop in West Virginia burst and killed 125, left 4,000 homeless, destroyed many small communities, and devastated the survivors — almost all of whom were white. And modern-day coal mining continues to ravage poor, mostly white regions of the South in what environmental journalist Antrim Caskey calls “the government-sanctioned bombing of Appalachia.” Caskey describes how “coal companies turn communities against each other by telling their employees that the environmentalists want to take away their jobs.”

The right wooed rural white people (and then screwed them), the left neglected them at best, and the electoral maps everyone made so much noise about in the 2004 election weren’t about red states and blue states, they were about urban islands of blue surrounded by oceans of red. The anti-environmental and often corporate-backed Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and the Wise Use Movement of the 1980s did their part to deepen the divide by convincing rural whites that their livelihoods were threatened by environmentalists and persuading them to embrace pro-corporate, pro-extractive-industry positions. And small-scale farmers losing their land were receptive to right-wing rhetoric that claimed to feel their pain and pinned the blame on liberals or immigrants or environmentalists, rather than corporate consolidation, globalization, or other macroeconomic forces. During the Clinton era when rural right-wingers feared the United Nations and “world government” (remember the black helicopters?) and the militia movement was strong, I wished that the anti-corporate-globalization movement could have done a better job of reaching out to these descendants of the old Progressives, Wobblies, and agrarian insurgents to tell them that there were indeed schemes for scary world domination, but they involved the World Trade Organization, not the UN. An environmental movement, or a broader progressive movement, that could speak to these
communities would be truly powerful. And truly just.

Pieces of it are here. The Quivira Coalition and many other groups across the West have found common ground with ranchers; land trust organizations and others have forged alliances with farmers; the whole premise that the people who actually produce the resources that the rest of us use are necessarily the enemy is fading away. I think of the fantastic work being done by good-old-boy-like activists I’ve met in the South — a land preservationist getting lots of conservation easements from the local Charleston-area gentry and a big red-faced drawling guy doing extraordinarily great environmental justice work with the African-American community in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. And of people like Oakland’s Van Jones, who are thinking about how jobs and the environment can come together as a goal. Even presidential candidate John Edwards, himself the child of North Carolina textile millworkers, talks about class and poverty in a way no one in the mainstream has in many years, or decades. The argument that a healthy environment can bring more revenue into rural communities through recreation and other benefits has more credence nowadays, and hardly radical constituencies like the lobstermen of Maine have recognized the relationship between their livelihoods and the health of the oceans. But much remains to be done.

The environmental movement’s founding father, John Muir, was himself a Wisconsin farm boy, and he did not so much flee the farm for the wilderness as invent wilderness as a counter-image to the farm on which his brutal father nearly worked him to death. Muir worked later as a shepherd and lumber-miller in the Sierra Nevada and much later married into an orchard-owning family, but he didn’t have much to say about work, and what little he did say wasn’t positive. The wilderness he sought was solitary, pure, and set apart from human society, corporeal sustenance, and human toil — which is why he had to forget about the Indians who were still subsisting on the land there. This apartness and forgetting so beautifully codified in Ansel Adams’s wilderness photographs has shaped the vision of much of the environmental movement since them.

The Sierra Club, which Muir cofounded with a group of University of California professors in 1892, saw nature as not where one lived or worked but where one vacationed. And traditional American environmentalism still largely imagines nature as vacationland and as wilderness, ignoring the working landscapes and agricultural lands, whose beauties and meanings are widely celebrated in European art. More recently, as environmentalists have found themselves dealing with more systemic problems — pesticides, acid rain — they’ve begun to shed the sense that the rural and urban, human and wild, are separate in ecological terms, but that awareness has done little to actually connect rural and urban people and issues.

Today, rural citizens see themselves in an unappreciated, fast-shrinking middle zone between wilderness and development (even though agriculture is often the best bulwark against sprawl). In many ways, rural culture is dying, and that seems to push many rural people into near-paranoia. During the water-scarcity crises in the Klamath River region on the California–Oregon border, farmers spoke of “rural cleansing” and seemed to believe that environmentalists wanted to empty out the countryside. Some of them do. Rural life, other than sentimental fantasies of an idyllic past, cowboy fetishism, or the pseudo-ruralism of people who live in rustic-looking settings but commute to work in the white-collar economy, is largely invisible to most of us most of the time. It’s true that agriculture and wilderness are often in competition — the farmers of the Klamath Basin are competing with salmon for water. But if rural culture and rural life were positive values also being defended, the negotiations might go better.

Wallace Stegner wrote forty-seven years ago that “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed,” and something else will go out of us if the resourcefulness, rootedness, and richness of rural culture disappears. It’s why the environmentalist-rancher coalitions are so noteworthy, and the new alliances forged to resist the Bush-era oil and gas leases across the arid West. But they are only a small part of a culture and a movement that need to do a lot more.

One step would be to stop letting the right wing frame the debate. More significantly, we need to seek ways to sustain both rural life and wildlife. The small solutions — fencing riparian habitat, allowing wildlife corridors, reorienting farms toward sustainable agriculture and local markets and away from chemical-heavy industrial production — can be cooperative rather than competitive. The large solution is a culture that values all of its fulfilling landscapes — the ones that sustain us bodily as well as imaginatively, the tilled lands as well as the wild. Of course one complication is that rural life itself has been increasingly industrialized in ways that produce, rather than a picturesque farm scene, a sort of food factory operated largely by exploited and transient workers and run by offsite profiteers. Reforming this will be good for both human rights and the environment — as well as our health and our tables.

IF, AT THE START OF THIS STORY, the great divide was manifest in musical taste and distaste, that too has begun to close, as musical genres bleed into each other and no longer provide the airtight identities they once did. The young don’t seem to care who owns what music, and a lot of them have distinctly downwardly mobile tastes — garnished with irony, but not with scorn. (After all, a lot of them are downwardly mobile in this ruthless economy.) Race has gotten a lot more complicated in their lifetimes (and ours), both in abstract ideologies and in actual liaisons and general hybridizations, and so has music, above and beyond all those suburban white boys who wanted to be rappers in the 1990s.

The late-twenties writer and music aficionado Steven Leckart wrote me last year about the splendidly hybrid music and tastes of his generation. “I get the sense that the phrase ‘everything but country’ — which was rather popular when I was a teenager — is starting to go out of fashion,” he said. “When Jack White of the White Stripes produced Loretta Lynn’s last record and was nominated for a Grammy, that may not have been on teenagers’ radars, but it’s certainly reflected online. So you have a thirteen-year-old who happens to like Beck navigating with a click to the White Stripes and then to Loretta Lynn, and if he likes what he hears with Loretta even just a little, he will continue to explore those roots.” The Farm Aid lineups over the last decade suggest another kind of crossover: everyone from Billy Joel and B. B. King to Dave Matthews has played alongside Willie Nelson and a regular array of country musicians. Maybe the music that once divided us could unite us as we wander this unfenced aural landscape.

Fortunately, I think Dick might be a relic. There are particular organizations as well as general tendencies that make me hopeful. Among them are the resurgent interest in where food actually comes from, the growing tendency to condemn less and build coalitions more, and a stronger capacity for thinking systemically. And then climate change is an issue that could unite us in new ways as it makes clear how interdependent everything on this planet is, and the extent to which privilege and consumption are part of the problem. The solutions will involve modesty as well as innovation.

The anti-environmentalist right has shot itself in both feet in the past few years, losing credibility and constituency, and a smart and fast-moving left could make hay out of this, to mix a few fairly rural metaphors. It would mean giving up vindication for victory — that is, giving up on triumphing over the wickedness of one’s enemies and looking at them as unrecruited allies instead. It might mean giving up on the environmental movement as a separate sector and thinking more holistically about what we want to protect and why, including people, places, traditions, and processes outside the wilderness. It might even mean getting over the notion that left and right are useful or even adequate ways to describe who we are and what we long for (or even over the notion of rural and urban, as food gardens proliferate in the latter and sprawl becomes an issue in the former). We must also talk about class again, loudly and clearly, without backing down or forgetting about race. This is the back road down which lie stronger coalitions, genuine justice, a healthier environment, and maybe even a music that everyone can dance to.


  1. Environmentalists might very well do what Rebecca says, but it still won’t make any difference. Here’s the problem: global capitalism needs to show bigger profits every year. This means it can’t conserve, can’t be sustainable. To the contrary, global capitalism must- by its own mad logic- chew up more planet each year than it did the year before. Which is the very definition of “unsustainable”
    I do not know what a sustainable global economy might look like, but it can’t be this one.
    Permit me to illustrate. Before Europeans arrived Native Americans practiced an economy that was really,truly sustainable. Never mind seven generations- it was sustainable forever. At the end of each year there was more planet than there had been at the beginning.
    I know we can’t go back there but we do need to start thinking of sustainability in realistic terms, and see if we can find a workable model for the future.

  2. “And daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County/Down by the Green River where Paradise lay?/Well, I’m sorry, my son, but you’re too late in asking/Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.” –John Prine

  3. This illustrates in short form what I read Wendell Berry for. I believe that in the millenium ahead, stitching up the divide between the country and the city will turn out to be a very major issue. Environmentalists have every reason to be in the vanguard here. This isn’t a partisan issue, it’s not a class issue. It’s not even just a human issue. At this point, the health of our world is an organism issue. Country music loving organisms included.

    I’ve seen that once you show rural people the respect they deserve, they can become environmentalism’s staunchest supporters. A lot of rural people have a strong independent streak. Nobody likes to be talked down to. Everyone wants to do what’s best for their families, and farmers in particular have been totally screwed by industrial agriculture and globalization.

    I’m interested in assuring the means of providing for people in my locality, forever. The only way to do that is to open up a welcoming and rewarding dialogue with the people who raise our food and hold our rural lands.

  4. Thank you Rebecca Solnit! This is an important article and every conservationist should read it.

  5. God bless you. Nothing turns off Middle America quicker than west or east coast big city snobbery. I fully recognize that it is a few loud jerks from New York and LA that make the most noise, and that there are ten good or great metropolitans for every person looking down their nose at us.
    Any long-term winning coalition in politics or the environmnet has to include rural America, and it needs to be at least a little sensitive to our lives and culture. We have so much to contribute! Just treat us with respect.
    Finally, it’s fine to look down on most modern country music, which can be pretty crappy. But the older stuff by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard the older outlaws (Waylon & Willie) and the newer outlaws (The Dixie Chicks, Robert Earl Keen) is just wonderful, because it is authentic. And that is the mark of most good music- authenticity; at least to my farm-raised ears.
    Long live the Longleaf Pine.

  6. Solnit writes really interesting, vital, provocative stuff–the best reason to read Orion! Great article! Here’s a smattering of responses:

    – This speaks to a small part of what Solnit wrote about, but for what it’s worth here’s an anecdote. I lived in NYC last summer. I grew up in the rural south, place-symbol for alive-and-well racism in America. Yet, I found NYC blatantly and profoundly segregated along racial lines. Yet the pervasive pretension (for NYC and its surrounding region) is always one of successful cosmopolitanism. Bull.

    – I’m curious to know where Solnit lives, as in, do you write from the rural South, the urban NE, etc.?

    – I like it when Solnit speaks in various ways to the dissoluntion of human/wilderness divide. But when she wraps up, I think she always unfortunately reinstates it, if subtly or without exactly resolving the divide. This will freak people out, but I would love to just not use the word ‘wilderness’ at all. Or ‘nature’. That may also cause problems for the idea of environmentalism. But not using any of those words doesn’t have to change some sort of practical impertive to take care of living things–does it?

  7. Such synchronicity! Last night, on my drive home from work through Michigan farm country, I was listening to Johnny Cash’s famous live album, recorded at San Quentin prison. I’ve never heard any music more genuinely American in the best sense of the word. But for me, classic country music (or NASCAR, or chainsaw-hewn lawn art, all-you-can eat buffet restaurants) are equally emblamatic of the class and culture divide that separates many working class Republicans who live in the country from middle and upper class urbanite Democratic who love the countryside. Or at least, their vision of what it should be. It’s an song we’ve all heard before: the farmers, hunters, loggers others who make a living from the land are often at odds with those who value the land for aesthetic reasons, but rarely rely on it for economic necessity.

    So how to do we bridge this divide? My answer is, “you don’t, because much of it is none of your business.” Instead, you find tangible things you can agree on and build from there.

    For instance, I’ve been working with a local land trust since its inception in the mid-1990s. Since then, we’ve protected more than 5,300 acres on some 35 preserves. I’m a church-going Republican and many of the board members and volunteers I’ve served with have polictical views on issues such as the Iraq War, abortion, stem cell research, vegeterianism, organized religion, etc. that differ greatly from mine. But so what? We work together on what we care about, which is saving wild and scenic places. After that, what everybody does, and who they do it with, is their own business. What frustrates me about guys like Dick (as mentioned in Solnit’s piece)is that they’re above that. They won’t work with you, or acknowledge that your ideas could have merit, unless you share their whole ideology lock, stock and barrel. That’s where the environmental movement often breaks down — it’s get hamstrung by it rarified ideological zeal. Fortunately, I think the people that Orion reaches can do better and are doing better. As for the Dick’s of the world, if we’re patient enough, maybe they’ll join in, too.

  8. i’m surprised nobody mentioned willie nelson’s support of dennis kucinich. to me, willie represents the bridge and he’s been doing it since at least the early 70s (bring together “hippies” and “rednecks”).

  9. Excellent article. Sound on Elvis, which is always good. Worth noting: The song “Okie From Muscogee” was a joke, and a piece of descriptive rather than confessional writing. Merle Haggard was basically satirizing his own audience, but it was an instant hit with them, and he laughed all the way to the bank. How many got the joke? Hard to tell. Merle was and is a redneck patriot; but remember that his 2005 song “America First” is based on this line: “Let’s get out of Iraq and get back on the track.” A contrary old cuss, but great.

  10. Enjoyed the article. Surounding yourself with people like you — just another form of narcicism??

  11. Thank you Rebecca. Your writing continues to have the feeling of wide open spaces i came to love on the high plains of Nevada, also having had the privilege of listening to Bill Rosse. Real wilderness needs native American presence. Human beings are part of nature, in no way are we a superior being. Only when we recognize this fact and start thinking of the seventh generation, will we have a chance.

  12. Sometimes when we publish a story, interesting things happen. A publicist brought this guy to our attention yesterday:

    Hal Clifford
    Executive editor, Orion

  13. Environmentalists might very well do what Rebecca says, but it still won�t make any difference. Here�s the problem: global capitalism needs to show bigger profits every year. This means it can�t conserve, can�t be sustainable. To the contrary, global capitalism must- by its own mad logic- chew up more planet each year than it did the year before. Which is the very definition of �unsustainable�
    I do not know what a sustainable global economy might look like, but it can�t be this one.
    Permit me to illustrate. Before Europeans arrived Native Americans practiced an economy that was really,truly sustainable. Never mind seven generations- it was sustainable forever. At the end of each year there was more planet than there had been at the beginning.
    I know we can�t go back there but we do need to start thinking of sustainability in realistic terms, and see if we can find a workable model for the future.

    2 Nancy Schimmel on Feb 26, 2008

  14. Grat piece, as usual for Solnit.

    There is an entire book on the ‘politics of twang’ – my review of it for the SF Chronicle is here:

    When politics goes country, it ain’t as simple as red or blue
    Reviewed by Steve Heilig
    Sunday, December 4, 2005

    Rednecks & Bluenecks
    The Politics of Country Music
    By Chris Willman
    THE NEW PRESS; 302 Pages: $25.95
    When Elvis Presley was asked, in the late 1960s, what he thought of the Vietnam War, he replied, “Hey, man, I’m just a musician. What do I know?”
    Dixie Chick Natalie Maines probably wished she had followed the King’s example in 2003, when she ignited a firestorm of attack and boycott by offhandedly remarking that she was ashamed to have President Bush as a fellow Texan. Until then, the Chicks had the fastest-moving new-country CD, but sales plummeted and Maines was labeled “Hanoi Natalie” by furious fans and right-wing radio jocks. There were CD-breaking parties of a type unseen since the 1960s, when John Lennon said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Maines apologized, sorta, but later said, “A lot of people have asked if I regret what I said. And I thought about it. But I didn’t want to be a flip-flopper. I knew Bush would hate that.”
    Was this tempest the teapot type? Maybe. But maybe not; East-West coastal dwellers might be surprised to learn that country music is far and away “America’s most mainstream music,” as Entertainment Weekly writer Chris Willman posits in his fascinating and funny new book, “Rednecks & Bluenecks.” There are more than 2000 country radio stations, more than twice as many as for any other genre, and a star like Toby Keith sells double that of, say, Britney Spears. Garth Brooks is second only to the Beatles in album sales. So although country may be “where the elite don’t meet,” as Willman notes, it’s where everyone else does, relatively speaking.
    So what might this mean for politics? In the last election, so-called progressive musical activism all came to naught. As Maines’ experience showed, country’s core audience is Republican, religious, even right-wing. Her lack of real repentance, though, is just one example of the perhaps-surprising recurring message of Willman’s interviews with many of country’s biggest stars: Their politics are all over the map, even if their industry is largely run by right-wingers. And some of the country stars, contrary to stereotypes, are not wholly ignorant about politics, even international issues, and can have some nuanced, if contradictory, views.
    Ronnie Dunn, of the superstar duo Brooks & Dunn, not only played at Bush’s first inaugural but also is a “boot-scootin’ policy wonk” who reads widely on the history of Islam. He’s a hawk on Iraq, but also notes that “right now, religion scares me to death. Historically, it’s probably the cause of more deaths than any other force on the planet. … Here, you turn on the TV and see these TV evangelists going at it and you want to say, Give me some air. Back away from the pulpit, dude!” Successful Christian songwriter Marcus Hummon echoes that, saying, “How they’re able to pull the militant response of the United States out of the gospels is an absolute riddle. … I don’t like Christianity being hijacked.”
    Chely Wright, whose pro-troops song “Bumper of My SUV” was a huge hit, also fails to hew to any party line: “I hate political parties. I told G. Gordon Liddy on his show, ‘I think it’s gang warfare at its finest — corporate-funded gang warfare.’ ” She also opines that Bush’s “whole angle on amending the Constitution to preserve the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman is just ludicrous, and just shy of a hate crime.” And recalling an event where pandering politicians took to singing, Oak Ridge Boy Joe Bansall, albeit a Republican supporter, notes, “Seeing Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott singing oom-pa-pa-mau-mau — it freaked us right out.”
    Willman traces the thin line of country music’s overt politicking back a century or so, from World War II-mongering songs like “We’re Going to Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap” to Woody Guthrie’s populist folkie anthems to Merle Haggard’s hippie-baiting “Okie From Muskogee” (which Haggard, hardly a drug warrior in his personal life, later called a spoof). Richard Nixon, shrewd as ever but far from “country” in any way, was the first president to court country stars in the White House. Bill Clinton was “country” by geography and demeanor; Jimmy Carter, whom Willman interviews humorously with the laconic and perpetually potted Willie Nelson, was hardly a hawk on anything. One of the last things said by the late, great icon Johnny Cash, nominally Republican but reticent about political statements, was in opposition to the bombing of Afghanistan: “We’re bombing a tribal people.” Yet country remains replete with deeply analytic lyrics like this one by Hank Williams Jr., directed to Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War: “You can take that poison gas, and stick it in your sassafras.”
    The overall impression from most of the many country stars profiled here is that they are conflicted on many issues, just like most Americans. On the Iraq invasion, though, the flavor is mostly hawkish. For every left-leaning Steve Earle or Kris Kristofferson, there’s a Clint Black bragging, “Our troops take out the garbage for the good old USA,” plus other support-the-troops sloganeers and maybe also a single-issue anti-abortion singer or two. But even some of the self-proclaimed patriots hedge their bets with down-home skepticism, as when Bush-backing Ricky Skaggs relates, “Every politician speaks with forked tongue. ‘Poli means many and tics are bloodsuckers’ — that’s what my grandpa used to say about politics.”
    Country musicians as a whole, it seems, sing from the heart more than anywhere else. They’re sincere, but as Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt concludes in his recent best-selling little tome “On Bull — ” (a topic familiar to real country folk), uninformed sincerity is still bull. Many of these most successful musical stars are, like our Texan president, wealthy folk just playing a role; “Bush talks with enough of a twang that nobody recognizes the fact that he is himself one of the Yankee elite,” observes singer James McMurtry. Arguing with his family about the 2000 Florida election debacle, he recalls, “I didn’t get very far into it with my cousins, because we all had guns.” Earle, who even his detractors admit is one of the most talented songwriters in decades, concedes, “We won’t get anywhere by telling people how stupid they are, because that’s not what the problem is. The problem is, they’re being lied to, by very, very efficient, expert, straight-faced liars.”
    So, on the country airwaves and in saloons and concert halls, the polarized shouting goes on, with more than one patriotic singer “banging on the drum to put money in his own pockets”; even a living legend like Haggard provokes a backlash if he expresses pessimism about Iraq — and wait until folks read him comparing Bush to Hitler here; Earle gets labeled “the pet monkey of the New York cocktail scene”; the national debt and divide between rich and poor grow, while even the country music industry monopolizes and dumbs down the music (but that’s another book). War and poverty go on and on, at least providing some fodder for new achy-breaky angry country songs. To which the only polite comment might be: Dang. No wonder most of them, like Elvis, just shut up and sing.
    Steve Heilig is a columnist for the Beat magazine and co-editor of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. He votes for Gram Parsons, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Buddy Miller and Dolly Parton.
    This article appeared on page M – 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle

    © 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.

  15. A few more examples …

    [1] One much overlooked point of racial integration was the R&B;scene around Muscle Shoals Alabama. Lots of black and white musicians making great music together. in the early-mid 60s.

    [2] Johny Cash “Man in Black”

    Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
    Why you never see bright colors on my back,
    And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
    Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

    I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
    Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
    I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
    But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

    I wear the black for those who never read,
    Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
    About the road to happiness through love and charity,
    Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

    Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
    In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
    But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
    Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.

    I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
    For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
    I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,
    Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

    And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
    Believen’ that the Lord was on their side,
    I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
    Believen’ that we all were on their side.

    Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,
    And things need changin’ everywhere you go,
    But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
    You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.

    Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
    And tell the world that everything’s OK,
    But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
    ‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black

    [3] Listen to Buddy Miller sing “With God on Our SIde” on his most recent album or to he and Julie singing about land mines on an even earlier one.

  16. I don’t know where you would categorize Steve Forbert. He plays Rock and Roll but he hails from Meridian Mississippi. His song, “Baghdad Blues” is terrific. Similarly, Kate McDonnell’s “Mercy.” Like my song ‘The War of the Wild Goose’ these talk about the war in Iraq and the imperial theocracy in the White House.

    Elvis wasn’t country, tho he started out playing bluegrass. As a matter of fact, so did Jerry Garcia.

    When you think about it, it’s a thin line that separates country, folk, rock. Take a folk act, swap the acoustic guitar for electric and throw in lead guitar, bass, and drums, and you have rock and roll. Dylan proved that. As did Elvis before him.

    These distinct classifications are useful for musicologists. As far as I am concerned, the question is do I like the music? And does it mean anything?

  17. i think Solnit is once again repeating herself along the lines of of hope or reconciliation vs. despair-destructive tales along the lines og the never ending and always cogent “Genesis Tale”. I think the main value of her rather boring piece is that a “good tale does not require a beginning middle or ending since these are never factors. It is the telling which sells. Since the storyline is universal it can be tied to anything and everything allowing for depth and subsequent growth,hence learning. The Best Show around.

  18. An intriguing piece that would make three separate pieces (and a little tighter as a result).

    I can’t help but be struck by the naivete in the piece despite the very prescient cautions to environmentalists to avoid cultural mocking. The naivete shows up in the idealized images and fantasies Rebecca holds of rural culture. Clearly she’s never lived there, I have. What I lived with the first 18 years of my life, I wouldn’t wish on anyone. And I hate to rain on the love-gush but you’ll all find out soon enough first few times you try to hang out in a local bar. “You ain’t from ’round here.” that’s the opening salvo. The result is if you ain’t from there you don’t belong there and no amount of merit or common sense will convince a local otherwise. But hey, enjoy the idealized notion until the cold bath of reality hits yer face. I’m redneck enough to know I don’t fit in the city and college eddicated enough to know I surely have no home in the Appalachian mountains where I grew up. Despite this I agree with Rebecca that a middle ground has to be forged between red and blue but to be honest, I think a lot of people who didn’t grow up rural have got a lot of learning to do before things happen.

    TomBombadil said: “What frustrates me about guys like Dick (as mentioned in Solnit’s piece)is that they’re above that. They won’t work with you, or acknowledge that your ideas could have merit, unless you share their whole ideology lock, stock and barrel. That’s where the environmental movement often breaks down—it’s get hamstrung by it rarified ideological zeal.”

    Unfortunately the door has another side too; localist culture is every bit as “hamstrung by rarified ideological zeal” mainly defined by “how long have you lived here?” If your grandparents weren’t born here, your ideas need not be voiced, they surely won’t be heard.

    What truly frustrates me as rural reject-cum-urban nomad Gen-Xer is that for all the mentions in the piece of projects where coalitions have been forged, I have yet to see a writer accurately describe the effort and emotional work required involved in those efforts. Either city folk just want the feel-good illusion or the rural folk want to kudos. It just feels like a con to me without that kind of detail.

  19. I am an Appalachian woman with roots deep in West Virginia. I was allowed to roam the hills and hollows and experience nature in all its glory. I have encountered bear, deer and all other creatures native to those hills. I know where to find the teaberries, black raspberries, mushrooms, sassafras and poke weed growing wild. I have put my hands deep into the West Virginia soil and felt rich loam almost up to my elbows. I have stood in Monongalia Forest and saw ferns and moss covered forest floors for acres.
    What really goats me is when someone from a big city comes to tell us what we are doing wrong. How backwards we are. Oh sure, they do not come out and say it, it is implied and hinted at. We mountain folk fight hard to hold onto our natural surroundings. When we do, we are called backwards, and against progress. We don’t need yet another Star Bucks. When my California born husband first introduced me to his parents, he told them that my family were “back to nature” types. I said there was nothing back to about it, my people had never left it in the first place. I am an environmentalist, vegetarian and compassionate human. I grew up on food that my family raised and meat that my father hunted and processed himself. And oh yeah, I also know how to read. Country music is the soul music of Appalachians, it speaks for us, and sometimes we do not always agree. Don’t over think it.

  20. There are some good discussions here, but the title of this one is completely crazy. Elvis was a racist and a biggot. We would be in a much sadder condition if it really were, “One Nation Under Elvis.”

    The idea of listening to more country music might be a bit of a problem as well, considering the majority of country music is targeted toward less educated people. I was born and raised in a small town in Washington, and I love rural America, but only a small minority of country music has any place in an open-minded free thinking society. Too often country music appeals to hard line conservative republicans, which are arguably the most destructive sort of people in our society.

  21. Can anyone else see how urgently we as environmentalists need to be able to see eye to eye with rural people? Whatever there is of an ecosystem left on this planet, guess who’s living there? It’s not in the city. We have got to start learning to speak the same language. We all have a lot to lose here.

    I am very interested in the farm bills that go through both in my state and nationally. What are these rural families going through, how can we support them more? Right now my perception is that our current system is slowly draining the life out of our rural communities. People think the only citizens that matter live in the city. Rural people are slurred with abandon everywhere in our society. God forbid we use racist or sexist terminology, but “hick” and “hillbilly” flow freely.

    How would you feel if you knew your land was being eaten up but corporations were the only people that gave a fuck about you? You might do whatever those corporations said. We need to offer more support for rural families if we expect them to be walking our talk.

    Elvis or no.

  22. Rebecca Solnit’s essay just sounds like more delusional white man/woman’s guilt to me. I was born and raised where she attempts to write about, and from her writing, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t. Strangely enough, her buddy “Dick”, whom she ruthlessly disparages, is closer to overall truth than she is.

  23. What interesting times we live in! Here we are in a forum discussing almost everything. If I could say I learned anything from my clod-hoppin’, shit-kickin’ hillbilly upbringing on a truck farm in the rural south, it’s that people are all the same and just like the weather, we’re always changing.

    Fifty years ago an old farm hand I was working with one day told me the best thing to know is that “ya don’t know nothin about nobody cause as soon as ya think ya know somthin about anybody yur puttin yurself and the other in a jail.”

    Now in my sixties, if I’ve learned, or realized anything about that advice, it’s that I’m not really connecting with anybody if I’m putting them in the jail of my concepts and judgments. I’m finally starting to realize that holding concepts and judgments are like walls made of fear…fear of life and/or death.

    Another bit of advice that comes out of these hills is – how you see the outside is a result of what you’re doing on the inside.

  24. Todd Musser contradicts himself. At one end of his binary spectrum he seems to know what is entailed in as “open-minded, free thinking society” and on the other he condemns those who don’t seem to see eye to eye with his ideology. This seems hardly open minded or free-thinking.

    Part of the problem with the all-too-prevalent Enlightenment-era perspective (a la Musser) is that it presupposes that rational thought will bring about only one conclusion. That is, all rational people will find only one rational way to live, all others are subject to irrationality. This simply is not so.

    There are multiple conceptions of what the good life is and what such a life should entail. Different conceptions of a good life imply incommensurable standards by which we judge and act in life. No way of life I’ve come across has yet proven to me beyond a doubt to be the uniquely rational manner in which all people should live.

    It is obvious that Musser believes his way of life to be equivalent to, or an approximation of, the good life par excellence. However, in invoking ambiguous terminology such as “free thinking” and “open mindedness”, he betrays his own bigotry and self-contradiction when using them as weapons against those who may not have the opportunities or even the desire to leave rural America as he did.

    As a final note to Musser, I must remind him that during the greater part of the history of Country Music, which arose mainly in Southern culture, Southerners were mostly Democrat. It was the political class that changed directions, not so much the people in the rural South. Rural people seem to have much the same about them now as when I grew up around them.

  25. Allen, I appreciate your constuctive and at times, not so constructive criticisms. Where would we be without debate?

    You seem to have taken my few, short points to a philosophical extreme. I never made a claim regarding what it means to be open-minded, and free thinking. I simply used terminology that the majority of the people I know are familiar with.

    My first point dealt with Elvis. He made a few good songs, but leaving everything else aside it’s pretty hard to respect somebody who left this world the way he did.

    My next point was of listening to more country music. I enjoy country music. I remember listening to “El Paso” from Marty Robbins with my grandpa at 4 years old. However, as I said, the majority of country music is listened to by and targeted toward a certain part of our population. The majority of my loved ones still fit the model of a rural American citizen and many of them listen to country music. I must remind you that I was not being condescending toward a group of people. I was stating what I feel to be a fairly obvious fact.

    With regards to my “own bigotry and self-contradiction when using them as weapons,” well, that’s just completely insane. Again, you seemed to have taken my few, short points to an extreme. I don’t quite see how my points were used as weapons, but obviously you took them personally.

    I don’t care about what kind of people listen to country in the south. I made a statement about the majority of country music, and it was an opinion. But, if you read reviews and do some research, you may or may not find that country music appeals to republican (the word is used only for a lack of better term) values and ethics. Which, depending on who you talk to have gotten our country into a lot of trouble and which have caused an unspeakable amount of harm to other people throughout the world.

    I’m not saying republicans are bad and democrats are good. For at the national level, it doesn’t really matter. They all do horrible things.

    I didn’t claim anything about a right way to live, or the “good life.” And I surely wouldn’t limit myself with a label like “Enlightenment-era.” I’ll leave the labeling to you.

  26. Todd, I would wager it is precisely because there is too little debate that we are where we are in regard to the crises facing our planet. But, so it goes in behemoth nation-states, I suppose…

    First, there is no “philosophical extreme” in my post. My point is, that you are using terms you seem to believe are self-evident in their definition, and hence have the same meaning for that “majority” to whom you appeal. The terms are not self-evident, but highly ambiguous and, if I’m not mistaken, fraught in our day with ideological pitfalls. I don’t believe that to be “open-minded” is to believe a certain set of precepts (Classical) Liberal or otherwise, but is a particular attitude one can at times achieve, but is highly contingent upon many things in one’s environment as well as one’s own emotive state. All in all, it is a relative state of being and really undefinable.

    Given that you seem to believe, by your own argument, that “open-mindedness” entails closing off to other ways of life that don’t suit your model of a “free-thinking society” seems to be self-contradictory. You have to be closed to be open? This makes no sense and is reason why I tend not to use those terms. It alienates from the get-go and forestalls any debate with its inherently condescending tone. In this way, you set your point of view up as a threat to another’s way of life and it will never be accepted worth hearing, much less valid.

    As to claims of the good, or “good life”, you don’t have to raise it directly in any given argument. It is there inherently whenever there are axiological considerations. They underlie every question of value. You so much as admit this in saying: “…appeals to republican values and ethics.” You are weighing someone else’s valuation of what is good against your own valuation. However, the attempt to ignore the incommensurability of differing conceptions of what is good is a product of the Enlightenment, with its quest for universal rationality and the singularity of moral good that was presupposed to be the result of “true” rationality. All rational people were supposed to reach the same conclusion if their reasoning was “correct”. Ideologies that attempt to represent themselves as the model for “the open society” seem always contingent upon articles of faith in such universal claims and mostly I find them not only inherently totalitarian, but also that they are reflective of no historical earthly community of which I am aware.

    My point is, that there are differing and irreconcilable conceptions of the good, and all our values are based upon those concepts. You have them, I have them, and “hard line conservative republicans “ have them. In this we are all similar. To understand this pluralism from the outset seems to me a place much more conducive for political discourse than hostility, condescension and self-contradicting ideological posturing.

  27. Thank you for a wonderful article. The first part, on music, explained why I have been saying I love country music written prior to 1980, and exposed me to much more to listen to. The second part explained why the group I lead in central Iowa has to work so hard to bring farm boys and girls into fellowship with sustainalble-minded folks. I’ll send people from both sides to this article to help them understand each other and their common concerns.
    Randy Gabrielse

  28. I am a Wyoming native whose family hasn’t sold the ranch yet. I think you guys made some good points in this article. Longtime western reidents usually don’t resent environmentalism, we resent certain environmentalists who don’t respect our way of life & think they know how to ‘fix’ things when they don’t even have to live here or raise their kids here. Lots of guys with rifles in their pickups are also concerned about the prevalence of 4wheelers near wilderness areas or oil & gas drilling in wildlife habitat. Hunters were some of the first conservationists!

    By the way, give John Anderson’s ‘Seminole Wind’ a listen. It’s an oldie, but it might change the way you think ‘rednecks’ feel about environmental issues.

  29. Rebecca Solnit points out that the seeds of class divide in American environmentalistm were sowed as far back as John Muir. As a result, it may take a while before we can bridge the gap between low-income rural workers and middle-class environmentalists.

    But one brand-new movement might offer guidance on how to bridge that gap: the local food movement. Only a few years old, this burgeoning movement has recognized (thankfully, early on) that low-income people risk being severely deprived of the healthy food that wealthier people can enjoy. As a result, many folks at food & farming conferences are talking passionately about how to make local, organic food accessible to low-income people. It is a tough challenge, because it involves everything from changing economic policy to altering transportation patterns. But if we can bridge the class divide around food, it means we will have rallied upper- and lower-income people around a common goal — the breakdown of the corporate stranglehold on food — and environmentalists might be able to use our strategies to join with rural folks to break down the corporate stranglehold on nature.

  30. I read this wonderful article last night after watching a film that very much touches on the class/social divides in the environmental movement. The movie is “The Real Dirt on Farmer John”. It is a story about a man, Farmer John, and the life-cycle of the mid-western family farm that he inherited. Farmer John is seemingly full of contradictions. He loves dirt and tractors, but he also loves glamor and artistic expression. The farm goes through several different metamorphoses,as done farmer John. Originally a soybean, wheat, and corn farm, it is now a model for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). By understanding that all types of people – rural and urban, black and white, college-educated and farm/street-educated – Farmer John has bridged the gap that Rebecca Solnit talk about in this article. If we could all be so comfortable holding a pitchfork in overalls and a furry boa, this land that we call home might be a little healthier.

  31. I used to read Dr. Suess’s _The Lorax_ to kids in an environmental education program. I think the relationship between environmentalists and rural locals is the best point of that book, and it makes a similar point to this article’s.

    The book is narrated by the Onceler, whose industry destroyed the forest but who now lives in regret. The Lorax is the environmentalist who does nothing but accuse and denounce. He parachutes in, screams and lectures, then disappears once the forest is gone. The Onceler rejects him because of the way his message is framed, and doesn’t see the looming consequences of his industry’s actions.

    The environmentalist Lorax is as responsible for the disaster as the industrialist, who begins by loving the forest and just wants to keep making a living off of it. If the Lorax had found a bridge, a way to start a dialogue, they could have built common ground over the idea of sustainability and a shared love for the land.

  32. I have a friend who studied theory and production at the Berklee school of music and at one point took it upon himself to listen to and learn to appreciate every genre of music. He didn’t like hip-hop, for example, but he learned to see the value in it, including the often complicated ways the spoken rhythms meshed and contrasted with the rhythms of the beat tracks, and the way the rhyming schemes evolved fluidly throughout a given song.

    But when he got to Country music he was defeated because it was nothing more than a simpler, more predictable, more formulaic form of rock music. And that’s how I’ve viewed Country music ever since I first heard it: rock-n-roll for retards. Is it any wonder Johnny Cash’s best work is a NIN cover? American folk music is a beautiful thing, with a long and varied tradition. Country, by contrast, is simply dumb.

  33. Rebecca,

    Thank you for writing about a topic seldom mentioned in the left’s “polite company”. I suggest you check out Joe Bageant’s essays, if you have not already encountered them. One of his central themes is the damage done to everyone by the cultural arrogance of many on the left towards rural society; not the least, its exploitation by the Right. I also recommend his book, “Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War”

    The Right pursues a “divide and conquer” approach to domination. They fostered the Culture War not just to win votes in the short term, but as a means to destroy the possibility of any feelings of community, of “fraternite” between persons with common interests spanning demographic, ethnic and economic borders.

    The “divide” the Right exploited had its roots not only in the Civil Rights movement, but also in the increasing and now almost total neglect of rural society that became biz’ness as usual in the 80s. Some on the left look down on rural people for being uneducated and uninformed; the fact is that we gave up on them and their children sometime back in the 80s, and our neglect continues unabated to this day.


  34. In “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” Thomas Frank explains why people vote values over self-interest.

    In “Don’t Think of an Elephant” George Lakoff explains how the sides frame their arguments. He also points out one of the basic fallacies of the progressive movement – that people base their votes on logic. You can understand this by watching any of the original episodes of “Star Trek.” The ‘Spock’ character, played by Leonard Nimoy, was logical and emotionless. Humans, as he was told over and over again, are emotional, and illogical.

    People make decisions emotionally, then use logic to justify their decisions.

  35. RM, in talking about the Lorax and the Onceler reminds me of the people who call themselves environmentalists but who oppose wind farms. The Kennedys come to mind, as some of New Jersey’s Democrats. T. Boone Pickens, the oil guy, is building wind farms in the bastion of progressive lefty politics – Texas.

    New Jersey, for example, needs 7 giga-watts of electric generation. 1% comes from a wind farm near Atlantic City. Something like 30% comes from nuclear plants, most of the rest comes from coal, and a very small fraction comes from solar.

    We could easily build wind farms offshore – we have some 120 linear miles of shore – but we’ve been talking about it, throwing money at consultants, and arguing.

  36. your imagery is at odds with itself. that area of BC is fascinating to you precisely because it is unpopulated.

    it is also consummately puritan to view ‘vacationing’ as reprehensible. how all-american.

    otherwise, somehow i am reminded of the deer hunter and annie proulx’s wyoming stories.

  37. Environmentalists that the aut5hor mentions, are the result of academikization and industrialization of environmental issues.
    Iwas an activist in the 70’s and 80’s . I saw Prof. Joseph Cummings, Prof. Epstein and others supporting environmentalists activists efforts to deal with issues such as malathaion spraying, in Winnipeg, uranium in northern Saskatchewan, Uranium problems in Pine House, deforestation and other issues. thger academia then, only gave supportive corroboration of the matters.
    Then came the organizations and then came the barring of non-academic educated grassroots and now we are in the dead phase of the environment movement. I remember the first canadian environmental meeting in Calgary, where a video was made of the people present. Some people were chosen to be in the video, others not. Who do you think were the ones left out? Non-whites and non-diploma carriers.Environmentalism has been co-opted so badly that I heard a Dean of a Earth Science department respond the following when there was a talk about lifting the moratorium of oil exploration from the waters of BC: “We are well positioned. We can argue in favour and against. The department has experts in both side of the issue.:
    So the day we stop writing books, we stop consuming, we stop talking about and we start acting on behalf of mother earth and all species (not just humans). Everything that needed to be written has been written. /we need to act, educate, down size, ask forgiveness to all sentient beings around us, celebrate, change our directions and create a future from the ground up without the academic interference that makes people to snob the rednecks or farmers or whatever. I just finished watching a movie about the life of a civil rights person in the south and how the white southern people killed and raped and pillaged black folks and made the poor (black and white) suffer.
    Let’s stop the myth making action of farmers and southerners including black, asian southerner.
    The earth cannot wait for this intellectual exercise. We are at the last gasp. Wake up we are fooling around with this non-sense discussion.
    When there is no clean air, water or soil, you will regret the steps not taken towards dealing with the crisis in front of our eyes.
    Start by creating the road to sustainability in your own community. Be the hero you are waiting for. Vote Ralph Nader for starters.

  38. Policy is too important to be left to the politicians. So in addition to my songs (as XB Cold Fingers), my blogging (here, on DFA, on Furman Files . Blogspot, and on Popular Logistics) I am running for local office. When I win, I will be in a position to put photovoltaic solar systems on the schools. Because when I tell politicians what to do they nod, agree with me, and ask for my support, and do very little.

    As for Nader, his argument that Bush and Gore would have been indistinguishable is, well, for people with the intelligence or the agenda of a Bush. Nader has become as much a part of the problem as the academicians who can argue both sides. While he fought to make cars safer in the ’60’s, while he fought nuclear power in the late 70’s and ’80’s, and while he argued for national health care 20 years ago; he helped Bush gain the White House in 2000. The suggestion that a vote for Nader this year is anything but a vote for McCain is disengenuous at best.

  39. Great Article! I never comment like this on the web, but I feel it hits close to home. Country music vs. the left, here it is: I am a liberal, and I love the environment in general (I have a science degree and have been in the environmental field for 13 years), etc. I have also been a musician for 25+ years, some of it professionally, and I love all kinds of music, especially jazz, country, rock, etc. I am in a country band playing traditional honky tonk country here in the CA Central Valley (we are doing well!). We play in both liberal Bay Area cities, and in the most “country” and backwoods places we can find, where the people are not exactly liberal. Everyone in the band is very liberal like myself, and it is hard sometimes not to make comments on stage about our Commander-in-Chief, it has gotten us into trouble! The article talks about people like Johnny Cash and The Dixie Chicks, etc, which brings me to the point to say that most musicians, from my experience, tend to be more open minded and liberal in general. No matter what kind of music you play, musicians will always find a way to connect with each other, and with their audiences. This sometimes leads to a gap between the performer and the audience. Country music may have the biggest gap as far as personal beliefs go, also presuming the new country artists are more liberal at heart than their act may seem. As a performer, we also get to talk to very interesting people such as cowboys (real ones – mule packers up in the high Sierra, ranchers, bull riders, etc). Under all of their macho cowboy right-wing tendencies, some of them really love and care about the environment. It’s very refreshing to meet and talk to people like tha t about the environment and conservation because they often times have a different view of it from their perspective. On the other hand, we meet some of the most right wing knuckleheads in places you would not expect – Sierra foothills, suburbs, etc. So it’s not always about north and south, urban vs rural. Many times it is about back-woods vs. suburban, but in reverse as far as who believes what, which is something you would not expect! Those country music loving cowboys just may be the ones to save your favorite rolling prairie from development, not the suburban dwelling capitalist soccer dad!

    One last thing, I have to stoop low for a moment (sorry). To Matt (COMMENT #34) , you must be very young and impressionable. Listening to your friend who studies music “theory and production” at Berklee (so what? I have a dozen friends who went there!), learning to appreciate “every genre of music”? There is this thing called a song, which has these things called melody, emotion, and feel, to name a few. You both need to go back to the school of life. With the exception of some of the new country, “Country is rock-n-roll for retards”? “…Dumb? – look in the mirror to find that!

  40. Solnit’s pitiful attempt to assume that a preference for “country music” has anything to do with “environmentalism.” This is a tenuous thread indeed. Her article is a travesty. I would like to think that there’s a possibility John Muir could rock to Elvis, and that a redneck could grove to Bach’s
    B Minor Mass, and could both walk the same trail.

    Solnit’s excessive verbiage (‘Grubby, furry, childless pseudo-nomads…”) only furthers the gulf between different unrecinlable ideologies. She isolates just about everyone.

    What’s “good for the planet” is a subjective quagmire when we can’t even agree on what an “environmentalist” is. Let’s bury the word. I suggest we stop all this damned rhetoric and examine what English writer Richard Jefferies wrote— “I look at the sunshine and feel that there is no contracted order: there is divine chaos…” And in this divine chaos may be our salvation…

  41. This is a great article and shoul be proliferated widely to everybody on all sideS!

  42. I liked Rebecca’s analysis and have only one small but important point to add. With a few exceptions such as the ancient forest movement, environmentalism started mostly in large towns and cities, and in those dreary in-between areas called suburbs. It was spurred by specific corporate and government projects and proposals. From the time I got involved personally and professionally in the late sixties, and even today, I am still struck by how many people who call themselves environmentalists do not act out of a profound love of or familiarity with nature but out of political, economic and social concerns. They care deeply about their environment and the threats to it, but know little about ecology, habitat, evolution, ecosystems, and most would probably be hard pressed to identify the most common flora and fauna in their area. This is of course NOT true of rural folk, and I think it is a serious handicap to the movement, not least because it can give rise to the “classism” Solnit refers to, and thus create a chasm between city and country. This was not always true as those who know the early (19th and early 20th century) history of the movement, which was inspired by people like Thoreau, Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and later Aldo Leopold and Dave Brower. How many people have read the incredibly powerful work of Loren Eiseley? How many read Edward Abbey when he was still alive? How about the books of Peter Matthiessen? Carl Safina?
    For all of these nature was the inspiration and the crimes against it were what spurred them to action. Today I suspect few Sierra Club hikers know very much about nature or ecology. And we suffer from this.

  43. Todd and Allen have already had a spirited exchange regarding Todd’s post. However the lead assertion of Todd’s initial post that Elvis was a “racist and bigot” should not be left uncountered. Hopefully this article will help illuminate things for Todd and others who hold this unfortunate and unfounded assumption about the complicated person, persona and legagcy vis a vis race perspective and relations of Elvis.

  44. Oh boy, how frustrated I get with the way this discussions go. The earth ship is in trouble and the lemmings are self congratulating themselves for a job well done.
    Wake up!
    Robama, billary or Macain is the same old bunch of non starters.
    The earth and other species are suffering. We are in the grip of another war (by deception).

  45. As a musician who understands that music is supposed to MOVE people, to make them think, learn, discuss, AND dance, I am thrilled to find this article (thanks to Mike of for the link.) I also suggest the magazine Acres, USA for sustainable agriculture. If it’s not sustainable, whether agriculture, education, or worldview, it’s lifespan is short and that makes it wrong for these times.

  46. I’m torn. I’m one of those white southerners being defended, but I’m also gay and a flaming liberal living in Kentucky (Louisville, thankfully). So, while I understand that one should not paint an entire group with such a broad brush, it has been my experience that education is not valued in my home state and throughout much of the south. I know that there are folks all over that are like me in many ways, but I think “Dick” had a valid point for the majority. When Obama spoke of folks turning to guns and religion, he hit the nail on the head. So, yes, let’s not be so blinded by hatred and ignorance to assume everyone is a certain way based on geography, but let’s also not turn away from facts. If you can find a liberal in deepest Appalachia, you should probably win a prize (yeah, I know they exist, but openly? I wonder…)

  47. This was an excellent, well thought out column. As we watch the Democrats decline, and the right wing become more powerful, you have to wonder how much those of us on the left are, at least partially, to blame for the current situation. A lot of us have had our fun, making comments about the rural “rednecks”, and those unsophisticated Middle Americans. And that is no different, in the long run, than making racist comments, or fearing more immigrants. It is strange that so many of us are afraid of our fellow Americans. Is it any wonder that the Democrats are becoming political dinosaurs, and that the Blue States are outnumbered? We helped to do this. Mea culpa.

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