Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Embarrassed by Old Things

My mother's generation had a love/hate relationship with the past. I suppose we all do. We choose carefully what we'll talk about--the early triumph that grows larger with each telling, or the early victimization, which grows similarly more decisive, more defining, every time we think of it.

But back to my mother's generation. My mother is nearly 80. She spent her early years on a farm in Indiana, and for a while there was not even any indoor plumbing. After her Dad died in an industrial accident at the Cummins Engine plant in Columbus, her mother moved the family into town. In other words, she took part in the massive demographic exodus from country to town that marked the first few decades of the twentieth century.

In doing so, they came up against good old fashioned social prejudice. Being "country" in the Columbus high school was a label you wanted to avoid. Country meant out-houses, gingham dresses, no phone, and infrequent trips to the theater (thus no knowledge of the latest fashions, the latest heart throbs, etc.). So, when you moved to the city, it was best to put country things behind you forever. And to some extent that city snobbery may have seemed to make some sense. Just imagine a child's awe at progressing from a sometimes snake-infested outhouse to flush toilets in a warm gleaming bathroom where hot water emerged magically from the tap upon command.

Perhaps that's part of the reason that my mother's generation held so strongly to their belief in technological progress. New inventions would make life easier and easier. To cling to "the old ways" was completely counter-logical to them. Even canned vegetables purchased at the grocery store was progress. For another example, I can remember when we got our first color TV. From that day on my parents would not watch a black-and-white movie. Why watch black-and-white when you can watch color?

My mother grew up hearing the Grand Ol' Opry on the radio every Saturday. But in high school she learned to love Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, etc. They were modern, whereas the Opry was backward. They were city, the Opry was country. Zoot suits vs. straw hats.

See, this was something more than simply disliking country music. This was a kind of embarrassment about the past, and an eagerness to put it behind us. So, whereas country music was extremely popular in the 30s (think Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family), right alongside big band and swing, by the late 40s it was only a regional phenomenon, associated by northerners with the "backward" South.

But embarrassment with the past is, by definition, embarrassment with our roots. My mother always seemed a little embarrassed by her Hoosier accent, for example, and tried without success to kick over the traces. For a country girl in the town, facing the threat of social ostracism by your classmates because your mother made your dress by hand, it became important to brush over those traces of your past. Never show your roots. Never get caught trailing behind in the parade to a glorious future.

But the next generation, growing up in the 60s, was deeply troubled by the modern. There is a cliche about that generation rebelling against their parents, but for some that rebellion meant a rediscovery of the "hidden" past. We would rediscover the things of the past that our parents had seemed to want to bury forever. It was the young folkies and hippies, after all, who unearthed the roots of rock music (when much of that music had grown slick and glittery), and in so doing re-invigorated country, blues, and bluegrass. Old blues and bluegrass players who had been cutting records as far back as the 30s found their careers revived on the college circuits. It was the most important musical contribution of my generation, in my opinion.

Listening to bands like the Stones and the Animals (and soon the Allman Brothers), we began to understand that rock 'n' roll had its roots in the Blues. I can well remember buying Lightnin' Hopkins records (and Muddy Waters, and B. B. King) from the discount bins at the local department store, simply because I'd read on the back of an Animals record that these men were among that band's musical influences. Blues music was a revelation to our generation, and it came to us straight out of the past. And discovering the Blues, we inevitably discovered its close cousin, country music.

Bob Dylan was hanging out with Johnny Cash. Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, and even the Grateful Dead were dusting off old bluegrass numbers. Not to mention The Byrds, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, as well as songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, all of whom helped to turn a younger generation to a form of music that our parents had repudiated. When Ray Charles sang Hank Williams, when Janis Joplin sang Kristofferson's Bobby McGhee (first performed by country singer Roger Miller), when the Byrds sang Merle Haggard, and when Willie Nelson shucked his tie and grew out his hair, country music was clearly no longer a relic of the past.

As I've grown older, I've grown less and less "contemporary." I discovered old movies, old books, and old music when I was a teenager, but my love has only deepened with the years. For many, nowadays, embarrassment with the past has been replaced by nostalgia for old things and old ways. Too much, it seems, has slipped away. And quite remarkably, we live now in an era when a new generation of musicians, not having to work through embarrassment to appreciation, is freely experimenting with "old time" music. We're living in a wonderful moment for lovers of traditional music.

The past is alive and well. If we take off our "presentist" glasses, we might learn to appreciate that. Last year I took my mother back to her hometown of Columbus, Indiana. We saw the movie theater where she used to watch double features for a quarter (provided she'd done her chores). We saw the Cummins plant where her dad, my grandfather, was killed. And we stopped by the ice cream parlor which was the place to be for a teenager in the 40s. It was a wonderful journey for all of us, and it reminded me that the palimpsest of history is all around us.


nance marie said...

it is nice to hear
the old songs
sung by
the young.

Bob said...

Simple as that, Nance. It really is nice, and it's not because they are dogged traditionalists, but because they are adventurous and creative searchers!

Milton Stanley said...

Beautiful. Thank you.