The English Roots of Potlikker Greens

The dish known as ‘potlikker greens’ is often presented as a uniquely Southern phenomenon, and as a clever innovation of the slaves. To make the dish, strong leafy greens (often collard greens) are cooked slowly with meat such as bacon or a ham hock. The pot liquor left over after the greens have been eaten is then ‘sopped up’ using cornbread. The dish remains popular within both Southern cooking and African American ‘soul food’, and certainly stands out as having a particularly strong regional identity. However, when we dig deeper into the history of potlikker greens, and how it came to be a Southern staple, it is, in fact, found to have its origins in England.

Bacon and greens was long a well-established dish throughout England, enjoyed across social classes. A witness in a 1739 report on court cases in the City of London reports that a criminal ‘and several others’ were eating bacon and greens.[1] Edward Moore, in his book The World (1761), writes of ‘the wonders of Yorkshire’, noting that ‘the best people in the country… say that they never eat so heartily as of the parson’s bacon and greens’.[2] The greens grown in Yorkshire, noted Isabella Beeton (1861), included ‘the Wild Cabbage, or Colewort’ (known in the United States as ‘collard greens’).[3] In 1863, Nathaniel Hawthorne – an American touring England – published an account of his travels titled Our Old Home and English Note Books, in which he recalled a visit to ‘one of the rustic hostleries’ in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire. Hawthorne ate bacon and greens, mutton chops, and a gooseberry pudding, and considered the meal ‘good enough for a prince’.[4]

Bacon and greens was a standard meal for English farmers. The 19th century English nature writer Richard Jefferies wrote a number of accounts of rural life in his native Wiltshire, with his 1892 book The Toilers of the Field providing, as the preface to the 1898 edition notes, a valuable ‘picture of the life of all classes of the cultivators of the soil in the early [eighteen] seventies’.[5] In the book, Jefferies writes that ‘[t]he traditional bacon and greens dinner is passing away, though still the usual fare in the small farmhouses’, and defines the ‘middle-class farmer’ as ‘the man who is neither an independent gentleman, nor obliged to live on bacon and greens’. As for the farm labourers, Jefferies reports the following:

On ordinary days he dines at the fashionable hour of six or seven in the evening—that is, about that time his cottage scents the road with a powerful odour of boiled cabbage, of which he eats an immense quantity. Vegetables are his luxuries, and a large garden, therefore, is the greatest blessing he can have…

To dine in an English labourer’s cottage would be impossible. His bread is generally good, certainly; but his bacon is the cheapest he can buy at small second-class shops—oily, soft, wretched stuff; his vegetables are cooked in detestable style, and eaten saturated with the pot liquor. Pot liquor is a favourite soup. I have known cottagers actually apply at farmers’ kitchens not only for the pot liquor in which meat has been soddened, but for the water in which potatoes have been boiled—potato liquor—and sup it up with avidity. And this not in times of dearth or scarcity, but rather as a relish…

They never buy anything but bacon; never butchers’ meat. Philanthropic ladies, to my knowledge, have demonstrated over and over again even to their limited capacities that certain parts of butchers’ meat can be bought just as cheap, and will make more savoury nutritive food; and even now, with the present high price of meat, a certain proportion would be advantageous. In vain; the labourers obstinately adhere to the pig, and the pig only.

Exactly what this ‘detestable style’ of cooking cabbage might have been is suggested in other writings of the period. In 1863, Dr Edward Smith conducted a detailed survey of labourers’ diets, and found that ‘where fat was available, cabbage was usually cooked in it’.[6] Another 19th century observer noted that ‘bacon fat… served to relish farm labourers’ “potatoes and cabbages, which was all they got for dinner”’.[7] Indeed, Jefferies writes that the farm labourer ‘believes in the fats expressed from meats, and prefers lard or dripping’. As for the farm labourer’s children, Jefferies notes that while they might get a little cheese or bacon, they subsisted mainly on ‘a good deal of strong cabbage, soddened with pot-liquor’.

Such food had a long history in England. In the 17th century:

The poor ate rye or barley bread, those better off manchets of white wheat flour. Bacon, souse, brawn, powdered (salted) beef or mutton, and barrelled (pickled) herrings, or other fish, were the mainstay of the table in winter. Brewis was eaten largely [‘bread soaked in pot-liquor’]…. Common people ate with wooden or latteen spoons from wooden trenchers.[8]

In 1795, the Revd. David Davies published The Case of Labourers in Husbandry. In his book, Davies included a study of ‘The parish of Barkham, in the county of Berks, Easter 1787’, and reports the ‘weekly expenses of a family, consisting of a man and his wife, and five children, the eldest eight years of age, the youngest an infant’. In 18th century Berkshire, writes Davies, a farm labourer would feed his family with a pound of bacon, ‘boiled at two or three times [a week] with greens: the pot-liquor, with bread and potatoes, makes a mess for the children’.[9]

This English diet was brought to the United States during the colonial period [10] and persists to this day, particularly in the Southern states, where a ‘mess’ of collard greens cooked with bacon or other pork products is a much-loved dish, the pot liquor (‘pot likker’) being ‘sopped up’ with cornbread. The ‘sop’, of course, dates back to medieval England [11] and was defined in the 1761 Royal English Dictionary as ‘bread steeped in liquor or dripping’.[12]

Gloria Lund Main writes that in colonial Maryland:

Marylanders ate an American diet cooked in old English style… White and black, servant and master – all liked their meat and vegetables cooked together in the large pot over the fire, and the corn bread baked on the hearth.[13]

‘G.W.W.’, a Kentucky gentleman, writes in 1859:

In very early Kentucky times, the universal dinner, winter and spring at every farm house in the state, was a piece of middling bacon, boiled with cabbage, turnips, greens, collards, or sprouts, cabbage sprouts, according to the season. The pot, if the family was a large one, contained about ten gallons, and was nearly filled with clean pure water, the middlings and the greens were put in at the proper time, to give them a sufficient cooking.[14]

The Virginia writer George William Bagby notes in his The Old Virginia Gentleman: And Other Sketches (1877) that ‘the cabbage’ is ‘sacred to the Virginia dinner-table’ and that bacon and greens were cooked together. Bagby identifies the greens in question as ‘the ugly pot-herb of the sea-cliffs of England’.[15] As such, he is clearly referring to ‘collards’, the coleworts first brought to Virginia by English colonists. In her famous book Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), the English cookery writer Isabella Beeton writes the following:

On the cliffs of Dover, and in many places on the coasts of Dorsetshire, Cornwall, and Yorkshire, there grows a wild plant, with variously-indented, much-waved, and loose spreading leaves, of a sea-green colour, and large yellow flowers. In spring, the leaves of this plant are collected by the inhabitants, who, after boiling them in two waters, to remove the saltness, use them as a vegetable along with their meat. This is the Brassica oleracea of science, the Wild Cabbage, or Colewort, from which have originated all the varieties of Cabbage, Cauliflower, Greens, and Brocoli.[16]

Returning to the South, we find that ‘bacon and greens’ was seen as a hearty meal prepared by good wives. A character in the nineteenth century Virginia writer Beverley Tucker’s novel George Balcombe (1836) states that ‘highly educated wives’ are generally ‘left to men of cultivated but effeminate minds’, while ‘those whose names live in the mouths of men, prefer the plain housewifely girl, who reads her Bible, works her sampler, darns her stockings, and boils her bacon and greens together’.[17]

This was a universal meal, consumed in the South by master and slave alike. Daniel Hundley’s Social Relations In Our Southern States (1860) reports that ‘the usual fare of the slaves is bacon and greens’.[18] Slave narratives, likewise, state that children on the plantations were fed with pot liquor:

These children were fed cornbread and milk for breakfast and supper, and “pot licker” with cornbread for dinner.[19]

Likewise:

Dey wuz six uv us chillun an dey would feed us in a big wooden tray.
Dey’d po’ hot pot liquor in de tray an crumble braid in hit.[20]

Yet, while it was the case that bacon and greens was a meal eaten by the slaves, an article in an 1860 issue of The Southern Cultivator magazine states that ‘people of all classes, sexes, ages, and conditions’ in the South consumed large quantities of fat bacon and pork, and ate ‘boiled bacon and collards at dinner’.[21]

The Southern states were largely agrarian, and had been from the colonial period, when Englishmen – ranging from the planter gentry to small farmers and indentured servants – first settled Virginia and established it as a British colony. These Englishmen brought their culture, traditions, and foodways with them, so it is entirely unsurprising to find that the common English dish of bacon and greens gained a foothold in the South, or that English rural labourers’ practice of eating pot liquor and bread, and seasoning strong leafy greens with bacon fat, should have entered the slave diet (especially given the fact that, early on, English indentured servants worked in the fields alongside slaves).[22]

Fried Chicken Recipes, 1736-1922

As noted in a previous post of mine on the English origins of Southern fried chicken, there is a widespread notion on the Internet (and, indeed, in books as well) that Southern fried chicken is the result of the combining of ‘Scottish frying techniques and West African seasoning techniques’. However, when English and American cookery books from the colonial period onwards are examined, it becomes clear that fried chicken was an English dish (one of a great many fried dishes to be found in English cookery of the time) that gained popularity first in the British colony of Virginia, and then spread out across the southern states. The English influence can even been felt in the gravies recommended for serving with fried chicken. As seen below, the Southern Housewife books all feature a cream and parsley gravy to be served with the chicken (which later became simply a cream gravy in southern cooking). Anyone familiar with English cookery will immediately recognise this as parsley sauce, which is still commonly served today with fish or gammon (see a nineteenth century English recipe here, and a modern one here).

The supposed existence of a Scottish tradition of fried chicken – which seems to be based on confusion over the Scottish dish ‘Friar’s Chicken’ – is routinely cited without evidence, and I have yet to find a single period cookery book identifying fried chicken as a Scottish dish. The second half of the popular myth of the origins of Southern fried chicken claims that slave cooks employed ‘African seasonings’ in the fried chicken they sent to their masters’ tables. Yet, when fried chicken recipes spanning three centuries are examined, the chicken is found time and again to be seasoned simply with salt and pepper, and no supposed ‘West African seasoning techniques’ can be found.

All this is illustrative not only of the fact that all too many who write popular articles and books on culinary history barely bother to look at historic source texts, if indeed they do at all, but is also part of a wider trend of minimising or ignoring the powerful and central role played by English culture and English cookery in the development of the culture and cuisine of the South. The South and its culinary traditions simply cannot be understood without a proper knowledge of English cookery, particularly the cookery found in the kitchens of the gentry of England.

The following collection of recipes trace the evolution of Southern fried chicken, beginning with recipe books written for the cooks of the big houses of England, and moving on through multiple Southern sources. A later English example is also included.


ENGLAND:

Nathan Bailey (1736) Dictionarium Domesticum: Being a New and Compleat Household Dictionary, For the Use Both of City and Country

A Marinade of Chickens

Cut the chickens into quarters, and marinade them in the juice of lemons and verjuice, or with vinegar, salt, clove, pepper, chibols: or a bay leaf or two: Let them lie in this marinade for the space of three hours, then having made a sort of clear paste or batter with flour, white wine and the yolks of three eggs, drop the chickens into it, then fry them in lard, and serve them up in the form of a pyramid, with fry’d parsley and slices of lemon.

ENGLAND:

Hannah Glasse (1747) The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy

To Marinate Chickens (p.58)

Cut two chickens into quarters, lay them in vinegar for three or four hours, with pepper, salt, a bay-leaf, and a few cloves, make a very thick batter, first with half a pint of wine and flour, then the yolks of two eggs, a little melted butter; some grated nutmeg and chopped parsley; beat all very well together, dip your fowls in the batter, and fry them in a good deal of hog’s lard, which must first boil before you put your chickens in. Let them be of a fine brown, and lay them in your dish like a pyramid, with fried parsley all round them. Garnish with lemon, and have some good gravy in boats or basons.

VIRGINIA:

Mary Randolph (1836) [1824] The Virginia Housewife

Fried Chickens (p.75)

Cut them up as for the fricassee, dredge them well with flour, sprinkle them with salt, put them into a good quantity of boiling lard, and fry them a light brown; fry small pieces of mush and a quantity of parsley nicely picked, to be served in the dish with the chickens; take half a pint of rich milk, add to it a small bit of butter, with pepper, salt, and chopped parsley; stew it a little, and pour it over the chickens, and then garnish with the fried parsley.

KENTUCKY:

Lettice Bryan (1839) The Kentucky Housewife

Fried Chickens (p.119)

Chickens are nicest for frying when they are about half grown. Cut off the wings and legs, separate the back from the breast, cut it across, and split each piece, divide the breast, clean the giblets, and rinse them all in cold water; season them with salt and pepper, dip them in batter, and fry them a yellowish brown in lard, which should be boiling when the chicken is put in. Thicken the gravy with brown flour, chopped parsley, pepper and cream; serve up the chicken, and pour the gravy round.

SOUTH CAROLINA:

Sarah Rutledge (1847) The Carolina Housewife

Fried Chicken (p.72)

Having cut up a pair of young chickens, lay them in a pan of cold water to extract the blood; wipe them dry, season them with pepper and salt, dredge them with flour, and fry them in lard: both sides should be of a rich brown. Take them out of the pan, and keep them near the fire. Skim carefully the gravy in which the chickens have been fried, mix it with half a pint of cream, season with a little mace, pepper and salt, adding some parsley.

ENGLAND:

Isabella Beeton (1861) Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management

Fried Fowls (Recipe no. 947)

Cut the fowl into nice joints; steep them for an hour in a little vinegar, with salt, cayenne, and minced shalots. Make the batter by mixing the flour and water smoothly together; melt in it the butter, and add the whites of egg beaten to a froth; take out the pieces of fowl, dip them in the batter, and fry, in boiling lard, a nice brown. Pile them high in the dish, and garnish with fried parsley or rolled bacon. When approved, a sauce or gravy may be served with them.

NORTH CAROLINA:

Maria Barringer (1867) Dixie Cookery 

To Fry Chickens (p.23)

Cut up the chickens, and let them lie in salt and water twenty minutes; drain them, and season with salt and pepper. Dip each piece separately in flour, and drop into a frying-pan of hot lard. When well browned, turn the other side to fry. Take up the chicken, and pour into the pan a little warm water, and a thickening of milk and flour, some salt, and a little butter. Let it boil a few minutes, and pour over the chickens.

VIRGINIA:

Marion Cabell Tyree (1878) Housekeeping in Old Virginia 

Fried Chicken (p.186)

This dish is best when the chicken is killed the same day it is fried. Cut off the wings and legs, cut the breast in two, and also the back. Wash well and throw in weak salt and water, to extract the blood. Let it remain for half an hour or more. Take from the water, drain and dry with a clean towel, half an hour before dinner. Lay on a dish, sprinkle a little salt over it, and sift flour thickly first on one side and then on the other, letting it remain long enough for the flour to stick well. Have ready on the frying-pan some hot lard, in which lay each piece carefully, not forgetting the liver and gizzard. Cover closely and fry till a fine amber color. Then turn over each piece and cover well again, taking care to have the chicken well done, yet not scorched. Take the chicken up and lay in a hot dish near the fire. Pour into the gravy a teacup of milk, a teaspoonful of butter, a saltspoon of salt, and one of pepper. Let it boil up and pour into the dish, but not over the chicken. Put curled parsley round the edge of the dish and serve.

Fried Chicken (p.186)

Kill the chicken the night before, if you can, and lay on ice, or else kill early in the morning. When ready, wipe dry, flour it, add pepper and salt, and fry in a little lard. When nearly done, pour off the lard, add one-half teacup water, large spoonful butter, and some chopped parsley. Brown nicely and serve. Meal mush fried is nice with the chicken.

ALABAMA:

Gulf City Cook Book (1878)

To Fry Chicken (p.53)

Beat two eggs, to which add a little milk; pepper and salt your chicken, dip it in the eggs and milk; then roll in powdered crackers, and fry in lard or butter until brown.

ALABAMA:

Abby Fisher (1881) What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking

Note: Abby Fisher was a former slave.

Fried Chicken (p.19-20)

Cut the chicken up, separating every joint, and wash clean. Salt and pepper it, and roll into flour well. Have your fat very hot, and drop the pieces into it, and let them cook brown. The chicken is done when the fork passes easily into it. After the chicken is all cooked, leave a little of the hot fat in the skillet; then take a tablespoonful of dry flour and brown it in the fat, stirring it around, then pour water in and stir till the gravy is as thin as soup.

MARYLAND:

ML Tyson (1886) The Queen of the Kitchen

Fried Chicken (p.162)

Joint the chickens, and lay them in salt and water for ½ an hour; drain them, and wipe them perfectly dry with a coarse towel; sprinkle them with pepper and salt, and a little flour; put them in boiling lard, until they are of a light brown, being careful to turn them. Take them out, and put upon a dish; cover it and set near the fire; pour into the skillet a little water, and a cup of cream, stirring it briskly; garnish the chickens with parsley, and pour upon the gravy. Mush cut into thin slices and fried is an improvement, if added to the dish when served.

VIRGINIA:

Bessie E. Gunter (1889) Housekeeper’s Companion

To Fry Chicken (p.50)

This dish is best when the chicken is killed the same day it is to be cooked. Cut off the wings and legs, cut the breast in two and also the back. Wash well and throw in weak salt and water to extract the blood. Let it remain for half an hour or more. Take from the water, drain it and lay on a dish; sprinkle a little salt over it and sift flour thickly first on one side and then on the other, letting it remain long enough for the flour to stick well. Have ready in the frying-pan some hot lard, in which lay each piece carefully, not forgetting the liver and gizzard. Cover closely and fry till a fine amber color. Then turn over each piece and cover well again, taking care to have the chicken well done yet not scorched. Take the chicken up and lay in a warm dish near the fire.

KENTUCKY:

Mary Jane Goodson Carlisle and Matilda Gresham (1893) Kentucky Cook Book

To Fry Chickens (p.59)

Chickens should be killed, dressed and laid in cold water; when thoroughly cold cut up and dry well with a cloth; salt and pepper them, roll in flour and drop in a kettle of boiling lard; put in a small sauce-pan, add flour to thicken and a pint of milk or cream; pour this gravy over the nicely browned chicken and garnish with celery.

KENTUCKY:

Minnie C. Fox (1911) [1904] The Blue Grass Cook Book

This book is based on the recipes of black cooks.

Fried Chicken (p.88)

Prepare young chicken and sprinkle with salt and lay on ice 12 hours before cooking. Cut the chicken in pieces and dredge with flour and drop in hot boiling lard and butter – equal parts – salt and pepper, and cover tightly and cook rather slowly – if it cooks too quickly it will burn. Cook both sides to a rich brown. Remove chicken and make a gravy by adding milk, flour, butter, salt, and pepper. Cook till thick, and serve in separate bowl.

KENTUCKY:

Mary Harris Fraser (1903) Kentucky Receipt Book

To Fry Chicken (p.84)

Cut up the chicken and put in cold water with a little salt; let it stay 1 hour, then wash off in clear water. Dip pieces of chicken in sifted flour with plenty of black pepper. Have hot lard in a skillet; fry a light brown. Make a biscuit dough and cut in long straight pieces and cook.

To Make the Gravy – When the chicken is done take out and put in the skillet 1 tablespoon of flour; when it is well mixed add 1 cup of sweet milk, salt and pepper, stirring all the while. This is to be served with the chicken.

SOUTHERN:

Laura Thornton Knowles (1913) Southern Recipes Tested By Myself

Fried Chicken (p.18-19)

Cut chicken up, sift a little flour over it, salt and pepper. Have lard boiling in frying pan, drop chicken into this, fry until well browned and cooked through, from fifteen to twenty minutes, according to size of the chicken. Pour off the top of the lard after all the chicken is fried leaving in the pan any gravy of the chicken that might remain. Put in cup of cream or milk with butter and flour enough to thicken a little. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with chicken.

SOUTHERN:

Martha McCulloch Williams (1913) Dishes & Beverages of the Old South

Fried Chicken (p.169-170)

Cut into joints two tender young chickens, wipe the pieces dry, season with salt and pepper, red and black, then set on ice. Fry a pound of streaky bacon in a deep skillet, take out when crisp, roll chicken in flour, dip in beaten egg, then roll again, and lay in the fat, which must be bubbling hot, but not scorching. Cook, turning often, to a rich brown, take out, then pile in a pan, set the pan over another with boiling water in the bottom, and put all in a very hot oven for fifteen minutes. This cooks the chicken through and through without making it hard. The pieces must not touch in frying so there will be two skilletfuls. When all the chicken is fried, and in the oven, dredge in more flour, stir it well through the fat, then add a cup of cream, stirring hard all the time, and letting it barely simmer—boiling curdles it. Or if you want a full-cream gravy, pour off the fat, stir the cream in double quantity in the skillet to take up the flavors, then pour it in a double boiler, add pepper, salt, minced celery, a little onion juice, and one at a time, lumps of butter, rolled well in flour. Cook until thick and rich, and serve in a gravy boat.

MISSISSIPPI:

The Delta Cook Book (1917)

Fried Chicken With Puffs (p.49)

Select a fat, half-grown chicken, and disjoint neatly, cutting into 9 or 10 pieces. Season each piece with salt and pepper, roll in flour and drop into enough boiling lard to cover it. Cover skillet closely and set back where chicken will cook slowly. Turn the pieces occasionally and when they are a rich golden brown in color, take them out and keep in a warm place until ready to serve.

For the puffs, make a rich biscuit dough, roll thin and cut in diamond shape pieces. Fry quickly in the lards and use as a garnish for the chicken.

To make the gravy, pour off all the lard, strain it and put away for future use. Put a tablespoonful of butter in the skillet with a tablespoon of flour, stir until smooth and of a light brown color, add a cupful of boiling water and let boil up once.

SOUTHERN:

Emma McKinney and William McKinney (1922) Aunt Caroline’s Dixieland Recipes 

This book is based on the recipes of black cooks.

Fried Chicken Virginia Style (p.63)

Cut a young tender dressed fowl into small pieces. Salt well and let stand several hours. Then wash and drain, dip each piece of chicken in flour, to which has been added salt and black pepper, and fry a golden brown in deep hot fat. Let chicken fry slowly.


Post-script:

The much-celebrated book The Taste of Country Cooking, written by the esteemed African American cook Edna Lewis – the granddaughter of freed slaves in Freetown, Virginia – and published in 1976, contains a recipe for fried chicken that, again, is seasoned simply with salt and pepper and fried in hog’s lard. As late as 1976, then, the supposed use of ‘West African seasoning techniques’ in Southern fried chicken was unknown to a cook with slave ancestry. While a white entrepreneur –  Harland Sanders – had incorporated a ‘secret blend of 11 herbs and spices’ into his ‘Kentucky fried chicken’, such a complex blend was notably absent in the cookery of the Old South, where salt and pepper were the standard seasonings.

Did Macaroni and Cheese Come to America from England?

‘Mac ‘n’ cheese’ is a very popular side dish in the United States (just as ‘macaroni cheese’ is a popular main dish in Britain), particularly in Southern and ‘soul food’ cooking, but how macaroni and cheese entered into American cuisine is somewhat obscure.

Thomas Jefferson is often cited as the source for the American love of macaroni and cheese, as he enjoyed the dish in Italy and even had a pasta machine imported from Europe. The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia doubts this, however: ‘Jefferson was most likely not the first to introduce macaroni (with or without cheese) to America, nor did he invent the recipe. He did, however, probably help to popularize it by serving it to dinner guests during his presidency’.[1]

If not Jefferson himself, then perhaps Mary Randolph – raised by Thomas Jefferson’s parents and author of the seminal book of Southern cookery, The Virginia Housewife (1824) – might be responsible for the dish’s entry into the canon of American cookery? This is unlikely. While Randolph’s inclusion of a simple macaroni and cheese recipe in her book [2] may well have inspired many Southern cooks to make the dish, it is likely that its presence there is the result not of any innovation on Randolph’s part but, rather, because it was already a known dish in wealthier Southern circles (Randolph’s book is less a collection of original recipes than a compilation of the kind of dishes a Virginia cook might be expected to be able to prepare).

Perhaps the answer to how macaroni and cheese first entered American cuisine may be found in an English cookery book. In the colonial era, American cooks relied heavily on cookery books from England and, along with Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) was one of ‘the most popular cookbooks in colonial and postindependence America’.[3] Raffald’s influential book includes a recipe titled ‘To Dress Maccaroni [sic] with Parmesan Cheese’.[4] At least as early as 1769, then, an ‘experienced English housekeeper’ was aware of a macaroni and cheese dish, as would be her many American readers. While we may never know how macaroni and cheese entered Southern cuisine and, by extension therefore, African American soul food cooking and the wider American culinary tradition, there’s a good chance that, as with other iconic dishes such as fried chicken,[5] England may ultimately be the source.

Love Powders in American Folk Magic

‘Love powders’ – the use of which is purported to assist with attracting and maintaining the affections of a person of romantic interest – have a long history in the folk magical traditions of the West, particularly in Britain. In seventeenth century England they were sold by ‘quack astrologers’, in the eighteenth century they were found on the shelves of apothecary shops, and by the nineteenth century, mass-produced versions were advertised in the back pages of newspapers.[1] Such powders were originally made using traditional recipes that called for the use of various plants and animal parts, but in the age of commercial folk magic, where patent ‘medicines’ were peddled by quack ‘doctors’ via catalogues and advertisments, they were more commonly concocted using substances such as talcum powder. Of course, because ‘love powders’ do not in fact have any scientific or medical basis at all, the ingredients are ultimately irrelevant as it is the belief in their efficacy that matters.

Unsurprisingly, many of the beliefs, practices, and items found in the folk magic of the United States are derived from British and European folk magic traditions. Just as the settlers brought their language, culture, foods, and so on to the New World, so also came a variety of magical practices and items, some of which lingered on in mass-produced form well into the twentieth century.

Daniel Drake (1785-1852), founder of Cincinnati’s first medical college, was aware of the sale of love powders. Otto Juettner writes:

Drake narrates with much glee the success which two phrenologists had who opened a shop on Lower Market, and for some time did a land-office business. One of their specialities was the sale of ‘love powder’ which the young folks bought from them by the pound to adjust affairs of the heart.[2]

Seven years after Drake’s death, a book published in New York, titled Humbug: A Look at Some Popular Impositions, includes the following:

[T]he ‘love-power men’ do quite an extensive business, – advertising their stuff by means of cheap, trashy books, that are sold by catch-penny advertisements.[3]

This is reminiscent of an account found in The British Essayists (1803) by the Scottish writer Alexander Chalmers, who reported:

Some few years ago there was publicly advertised, among the other extraordinary medicines whose wonderful qualities are daily related in the last pages of our newspapers, a most efficacious love-powder; by which a despairing lover might create affection in the bosom of the most cruel mistress.[4]

In 1873, Gustav Lening wrote in his book The Dark Side of New York and its Criminal Classes:

Love powder and the power of magic are offered by very many swindlers especially in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Michigan, as well as in New York, to abstract money from the superstitious.[5]

An 1886 edition of The Western Druggist, a Chicago-based trade publication, answers a letter from J.H. Ferris of Carthage, South Dakota, who ‘inquires if there is such a thing as “love powder,” and how it is to be used’, as follows:

Yes, love powder is a standard article, and is said to be a powerful remedy in the hands of designing maids. Its composition is of little consequence, except that it be red – a deep bright red… The powder is made of chalk colored red with carmine.[6]

In another trade publication, Meyer Brothers Druggist, Volume 13 (1892), published in St Louis, Missouri, a reader named R.E. Bertholf of Cherokee, Kansas, asks, ‘What are the so-called love powders?’ The journal’s editors respond:

Love powder is a relic of witchcraft and superstition of the dark ages. The negroes and many white people believe that physicians and pharmacists are acquainted with medicines that have the power of exciting the emotion of love in the heart of the person to whom they are administered…[7]

This reference to ‘the negroes’ having faith in the power of love powders diverges from all the previous accounts, which make no comment regarding the race of the purchasers of love powders, strongly implying that the majority of those who purchased them were white. The reference to the dark ages shows that, even here, the assumption is that love powders are of European origin. Indeed, the Practical Druggist and Pharmaceutical Review of Reviews, Volumes 17-20 (January 1905 – December 1906) similarly links love powders to the European past: ‘Love powder is a relic of the Dark Ages, when it was believed the representatives of the heathen deities could put some miraculous powers into inert powder’.[8] In the nineteenth century, then, love powder was a known product in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, South Dakota, Kansas, and Missouri, and was not widely associated with the black population by white writers.

The 1896 edition of the journal of the International Folk-lore Association, titled Papers Read at Memphis, Atlanta and Chicago, however, notes the following:

One of the most popular kunger bags in the South is filled with love powder. It is generally made by a white man, a druggist, who is supposed to have a charm about him that he can place into the love powder and that will enable a negro youth to to win the heart of the most desperate coquette among the negro girls. The youth goes to the druggist and calls for love powder. The druggist takes a small quantity of carmine and mixes it with powdered sugar, the result being a powder of a delicate pink, more attractive to the negro eye than red lemonade when the circus is in town.[9]

Even here, we see the strong association between whites and love powders. In Newbell Niles Puckett’s 1926 study, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro, we find information regarding the use of love powder in the South amongst the African American population, and again, whites are found to be strongly connected the product. Puckett argues: ‘Love powders were mentioned in the old English chap-books, indicating a European origin’. [10]

Puckett notes a number of examples of the use of ‘love powder’ from Louisiana, and particularly New Orleans. Given the strong French connection in New Orleans, it is unsurprising to find that love powders were here particularly associated with France. Puckett cites an example of a black suitor paying five dollars for a ‘French love powder’ that was supposedly ‘smuggled over from France’.[11] In another case reported by Puckett, ‘A New Orleans “hoodoo-man” sold a suitor some “French Love Powder” (sugar of milk in this case) for $5’.[12]

Puckett also reports the following:

On the counter of one drug store, operated by white people, but located in the heart of the Negro district of New Orleans, I saw a big can labeled LOVE POWDERS. The owner was suspicious and could not be prevailed upon to tell me what It contained, but from the talk of the Negroes in the locality, I gathered that courtship, after all, was not purely a matter of pretty words and flowers. In fact, very often the unwilling object of the heart’s desire may be won over by these ‘good love powders’ obtained from the drug store or provided by the hoodoo-doctor.[13]

Love powders in the United States arguably find their origins in the folk magic of Europe. The particularly long history of the use of such powders in Britain may well explain how they came to the New World. While various cultures have traditional powders, oils, amulets and so on that are supposed to assist with attracting a mate, up until the twentieth century the primary sources for American folk magic were the traditions of Europe (and to a much lesser extent, those of Native Americans). We see in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that an association between African Americans and love powders began to be noted, although such an association is absent in earlier sources that refer to love powders. Even here, the person who concocts and sells the love powder is often white (although black ‘hoodoo doctors’ also offered similar items for sale) and love powders marketed to African Americans were seen to be especially powerful when they were associated with whites and with European culture.

How I reckon ‘I reckon’ became a ‘Southern’ expression

In Britain (and also in Australia), the verb ‘reckon’ is used very often in everyday speech. We look at the sky and ‘reckon’ it will rain. When it does, we ask, “How long do you reckon this will last?” We plan a trip and ‘reckon’ we should leave early. A friend phones us to ask, “What time do you reckon you’ll get here?” We ‘reckon’ a repair job will be expensive and ask, “How long do you reckon it’ll take?”

Earlier this year, the current British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, wrote in an article for The Telegraph: ‘I reckon I speak for millions of people on all sides of the debate when I say that after almost three years of Brexit I am fit to burst with impatience’.

Henry Mance writes of the Queen in the Financial Times: ‘I reckon she will forgive Mr Johnson all his past indiscretions’.

James Kirkup has written in The Spectator: ‘I reckon that in a secret ballot it would pass the Commons quite easily’.

In the United States, however, this use of ‘reckon’ is commonly associated with the Southern states and, disparagingly, with the speech of ‘rednecks’ and ‘hillbillies’. There is seen to be something quaint, archaic, and perhaps ignorant about ‘reckoning’. Lynne Murphy, an American scholar who is currently a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex in England, writes:

Something that my American visitors often find surprising about British English is the copious use of the verb reckon…

Since my American visitors have all, like me, come from the Northeast, the use of reckon is noticeable because it’s a word we associate with the Southern US or with rural dialects.

Likewise, the Online Etymology Dictionary notes that I reckon ‘formerly was in literary use… but came to be associated with U.S. Southern dialect and was regarded as provincial or vulgar’.

A Southern Living magazine article on ’24 Phrases Only Southerners Use’ states:

“I reckon” can replace any number of phrases, such as: I guess, I suppose, I think, and I imagine. It is a quintessential Southern phrase, said by friends and family on porches and in rocking chairs all across the South.

Previously, I have noted that old English speech ways live on in the Southern states and have argued that more than any other region of the United States, the South has most closely preserved its origins in the England of old. ‘I reckon’ may indeed be a ‘quintessential Southern phrase’, but that is, of course, because it is a quintessentially British phrase, and an old one at that.

The earliest written use of ‘reckon’ in this sense is considered to be found in a 1603 letter penned by the English statesman Sir Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury: ‘and he is, I reckon, no wise man that looketh this way to heaven’.

Across the Atlantic, in 1697, the Englishman Francis Nicholson, then Governor of Maryland (who went on to be Governor of Virginia and then of South Carolina), wrote: ‘To make tenable forts would cost a great deal of money – I reckon that one good one would cost £4000’.

Back in England, the Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift (whose father came to Ireland from Herefordshire in England), employed ‘I reckon’ in a letter he wrote in London in 1712: ‘I reckon the Queen will go to Windsor in three or four weeks’.

Again in the United States, the Virginia Parson Anthony Gavin, writing to the Bishop of London in 1738, stated: ‘I go twice a year to preach in twelve places, which I reckon better than 400 miles backwards and forwards’.

In 1748, the English author Samuel Richardson wrote in his celebrated novel Clarissa: ‘I shall have a good deal of trouble, I reckon’.

Both in England and in the Southern Colonies of British America, then, ‘I reckon’ was used by literary figures and those of higher social rank. However, use of the verb was not a specifically higher class or solely English phenomenon. Indeed, it was thoroughly British.

James Beatie’s 1787 compilation of ‘Scoticisms’ (words and phrases commonly used in Scotland) includes an entry for ‘I reckon’:

reckon it will be rain to-day. – I think, conjecture, am of opinion, apprehend, &c.

Mary Palmer’s 1837 book A Dialogue in the Devonshire Dialect states:

I Reckon, I Guess, v.a. are idiomatic in Devonshire, illustrating a remark that has more than once been made, that most of the dialectical peculiarities of our transatlantic neighbours are probably to be ascribed to the exportation of local provincialisms from the mother country.

Interestingly, Palmer seems to share the northern American view that ‘I reckon’ is somehow a rustic expression (Devon, it should be noted, is indeed a very rural county), despite the fact the word was widely used across Britain by all social classes. Her point about the origins of the ‘dialectical peculiaries’ of American English is nonetheless interesting and valid, especially where the English of the southern states is concerned. Also of interest is the fact that Devonians in the nineteenth century were using ‘I guess’. As we have seen, in the United States, ‘I guess’ is far more common than the ‘Southern’ phrase ‘I reckon’. In contemporary Britain, ‘I guess’ is very much seen as an Americanism. I grew up in Devon in the 1980s and 1990s and cannot recall hearing ‘I guess’, even among older farmers. ‘I guess’ was also unknown to James Beatie.

In 1886, Frederick Thomas Elworthy published The West Somerset Word-Book; A glossary of dialectal and archaic words and phrases used in the west of Somerset and East Devon. In the book, Elworthy provides numerous examples of the use of ‘I reckon’, given in the context of dialectical sentences. For example:

I’ve a-drawd a load o’ apple-pummy up in the copse, I reckon they (the pheasants) ‘ll zoon vind it out.

And:

Hant a-zeed’n to-day, I reckon he’s ‘pon the fuddle agee-an.

The latter, in modern speech, would read: ‘I haven’t seen him today, I reckon he’s on a drinking binge again’. To be ‘fuddled’ was to be intoxicated.

John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1848) states:

FUDDLED. Tipsy; drunk. This word is common in England and the United States, but is only heard in familiar language.

Russell was not entirely correct. In The Southern Literary Journal Vol. III, published in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1837, we read: ‘General Tolliver Grinaway had become pretty much fuddled – his speech got thick and his mind oblivious of the particular subject under discussion’. So ‘fuddled’, like ‘I reckon’ before it, was employed both in literature and in common speech.

From this examination of the history of ‘I reckon’ on both sides of the Atlantic, a few questions arise: Who brought ‘I reckon’ to the United States? Why did ‘I reckon’ fall out of use in the northern states? And why did ‘I reckon’ come to be seen as a phrase used by rural people?

Regarding who first brought ‘I reckon’ to the United States, we can safely assume that both the wealthy upper class colonists and the indentured servants they brought with them were familiar with this expression. We know from writings from colonial Maryland and Virginia that those of higher social rank made use of ‘I reckon’, but we also know from British authors that ‘I reckon’ was used everywhere from the West Country to Scotland.

The early colonial settlers of the southern states came in large numbers from the southern regions of England, and from the Midlands. Their speech ways influenced the dialect of both Southern whites and blacks alike. The indentured servants they brought with them were also drawn particularly from the southern counties of England. Of those servants who sailed from Bristol in the period 1654-1659, the largest number were drawn from Bristol, Somerset, and other West Country counties. As we have seen, Somerset speech included much use of ‘I reckon’. Both the colonists and their southern English indentured servants, then, were likely the first to introduce ‘I reckon’ to the Southern dialect.

The next group to bring ‘I reckon’ to the South were the much talked of (and derided) ‘Scots-Irish’, who came to the United States from Ulster but whose origins lay in Scotland and the northern counties of England. ‘I reckon’, according to James Beatie, was a ‘Scoticism’. Given the Scots-Irish settled in large numbers in Appalachia, it is unsurprising to find ‘I reckon’ referred to as an Appalachian expression. An article on ‘The way we talk’ in the Waynesville, North Carolina, newspaper The Mountaineer, for example, includes the following:

Reckon (Believe): “I reckon Cousin Charlie is too sickly to come this year.”

Traditionally close-knit, Appalachian communities have arguably preserved some older forms of English than are found in the speech of the wider American population. The Appalachian term ‘booger’, meaning ghost, for example, likely shares a common root with the Scottish word ‘bogle’. Likewise, the Scottish word ‘agin’ (against) is echoed in the Appalachian word ‘agen’.

Arguably, more than any other group of white Americans, Appalachian ‘hillbillies’ have been, and continue to be, subject to ridicule, even as mockery of other groups of Americans has become socially unacceptable. The major chain store, Target, for example, sells a novelty stereotypical ‘hillbilly outfit’ (as do other retailers); Amazon sells items such as ‘Billy Bob’ teeth; many horror films portray ‘backwoods’ people as inbred, perverted, homicidal, and even cannibalistic; professional party planners offer ideas for ‘redneck-themed’ parties, replete with all the worst stereotypes and class-based mockery. You can find plenty of other examples of ‘white trash’ party ideas (another example here) with a simple internet search.

In the twentieth century, huge numbers of Appalachians moved into the wider United States, taking up jobs in the growing manufacturing sector, and Appalachian migration routes came to be known as the ‘Hillbilly Highway‘. These Appalachians were often looked down upon as backward, ignorant, and uncivilised. A 1934 article in The Nation, titled ‘The Hill-Billies Come to Detroit’, states:

The hill-billies, with their extremely low standard of living and lack of acquaintance with modern plumbing, are looked down upon by all but the most intelligent local workers, both native and foreign-born.

Undoubtedly, their traditional manner of speaking would also have been scorned, and this is likely the origin of the notion that ‘I reckon’ is somehow ‘rural’ or ‘Southern’ (and Southerners are often erroneously assumed to constitute an undifferentiated mass of rural simpletons). Chi Luu, writing for the scholarly site JSTOR Daily, notes the following:

[W]hile the Appalachian dialect can be paradoxically praised for being “pure,” and for preserving a prestigious archaic form of the language, the people who speak it are frequently socially stigmatized as ignorant and uneducated for using “incorrect” English, just as other non-standard varieties of English are, such as African American Vernacular English (or AAVE). A verb like “reckon” (as in, I reckon it’ll take five minutes) is regularly used in Australian and British English vernacular, yet the exact same usage in Appalachian English is stigmatized as backwards hillbilly talk. American language attitudes show a marked disrespect and prejudice for marked dialects like Appalachian English.

The AAVE comparison is interesting, as AAVE also preserves older modes of speech brought to the South in the colonial period (examples include ‘I be’ for ‘I am’ and ‘yo’self’ for ‘yourself’).

When Northerners have encountered the speech of Southerners, they have often assumed that expressions such as ‘I reckon’ are somehow specifically Southern. It obviously wasn’t always that way, as British settlers in the northern regions would undoubtedly also have used ‘I reckon’. The Boston gentleman and business leader Thomas Brattle, for example, writing in 1692 on the Salem witch trials, states ‘they are possessed (I reckon) with the Devill’ and ‘I reckon that the only pertinent evidences…’ In an 1858-9 edition of The New York Coach-makers Magazine, we find ‘I reckon’ still in use (‘I reckon you are right’). At some point after that, ‘I reckon’ seemingly fell out of favour in the North, with ‘I guess’ becoming the standard expression. By the time the ‘hillbillies’ arrived from Appalachia in the twentieth century, ‘I reckon’ was considered backward and characteristically Southern, as it is to this day. I reckon this a shame, as well as being historically ignorant.

 

Country Music and the Construction of ‘Authenticity’

I’d like to preface this post by stating that I love traditional country music, bluegrass, and string band music. I spent much of my youth living in the countryside (albeit in England, not the American South) and have a deep love of rural culture and history. However, I’m also interested in looking at how cultures are constructed, both consciously and unconsciously. When neotraditionalists claim there is such a thing as ‘true’ country music, and when they claim that today’s radio country sound is ‘inauthentic’, I would argue that they are presenting a notion of country music that is disconnected from its actual history.

Country music’s deepest historical and cultural origins lie in the folk music of the rural South, which in turn was derived and developed in large part from the folk music of the British Isles. There were, of course, other influences that affected the development of this music, and African Americans also played an important role in its evolution. While there were black as well as white musicians who played in string bands, country would go on to forever be a largely white musical phenomenon when, in its early commercial period, a segregated recording industry emerged, presenting music by black musicians as ‘race records’ and those of whites as ‘folk’ or ‘hillbilly’ (later renamed ‘rhythm and blues’ and ‘country and western’).

While country music finds much of its roots in the music of the mountains, made by and for the people as part of an organic expression of everyday life, from the earliest moments of its transformation into a commercial commodity, a degree of artifice was present, which increased as the years went by. Even in the 1920s, as radio executives marketed ‘old time’ music as a product to be consumed by listeners in the form of radio ‘barn dances’, a deliberate process of myth-making was under way:

The barn dances tried hard to project an aura of wholesome, down-to-earth, family-style entertainment, and radio program directors and advertisers often insisted that hillbilly performers affect rustic attire and rustic names, even though the performers might have preferred to dress in a more urban manner.

Simon Bronner notes that a similar marketing strategy can be found in the ‘hillbilly’ music of the 1930s and 1940s:

The 1930s and 1940s became the “hillbilly” period in commercial folk music. But whereas the old-time music had close connections to nineteenth-century folk traditions, hillbilly music was, in the words of one reporter, “a conscious, calculated form of commercial expression.” On the hillbilly image, he commented, “Although, for the purpose of atmosphere, the performers wear blue jeans, checked shirts and gingham frocks, they live with all the conveniences of modern life.”

A similar phenomenon can be observed in the construction of an imagined ‘cowboy’ identity in the ‘Western’ genre of music that eventually fused with ‘hillbilly’ music (rebranded as ‘country music’) to become ‘country and western’, and, finally, simply ‘country’. Bill C. Malone and Tracey Laird note that before the 1930s, a few western musicians recorded songs that genuinely reflected the cowboy heritage, but that soon gave way to an ‘authenticity’ manufactured by the music industry to appeal to consumers. Indeed, many of the most successful ‘cowboy’ singers had no connection to the western ranching life at all:

The farther Americans became removed from the cowboy past, the more intense became their interest in cowboy songs and lore. Hillbilly singers and musicians did much to implant the romantic cowboy image in the minds of their American audiences…

Since the western attraction was irresistible, even young hillbilly singers from the Deep South or from the southeastern mountains, whose associations with cowboys came only through story and song, embraced the western image and imagined themselves “way out west in Texas for the roundup in the spring.”

Hollywood played a part in this, with singing cowboys such as Gene Autry becoming household names throughout the United States. This in turn led to the creation of ‘cowboys’ who never were:

Largely as a result of Hollywood exploitation, the concept of “western music” became fixed in the public mind. After the heyday of Gene Autry, the term “western” came to be applied even to southern rural music by an increasing number of people, especially by those who were ashamed to use the pejorative term “hillbilly.” Not only did the public accept the projection, but even most hillbilly singers became fascinated with the western image and eventually came to believe their own symbols. Autry was the first of a long line of country singers who clothed themselves in tailored cowboy attire; in the following decades, the costuming became increasingly elaborate and gaudy, with the brightly colored, bespangled, and rhinestone-laden uniforms created by Nudie the Tailor (Nudie Cohn, born Nuta Kotlyarenko in the Ukraine in 1902) in Los Angeles being the most favored fare. Eventually, most country performers, whether they hailed from Virginia or Mississippi, adopted cowboy regalia–usually of the gaudy, dude cowboy variety…

Along with the clothing, country bands and singers ─ particularly in the Southwest and on the West Coast ─ adopted cowboy titles. Singers with names like Tex, Slim, Hank, Red River Dave, the Utah Cowboy, and Patsy Montana, and groups with such titles as the Cowboy Ramblers, Riders of the Purple Sage, Radio Cowboys, Swift Jewel Cowboys, Lone Star Cowboys, and Girls of the Golden West (Dolly and Millie Good) abounded on radio stations (and record labels) all over the nation. Radio and record promoters, of course, were very much alive to the appeal of the western myth, and they often encouraged musicians to adopt appropriate western monikers.

Amongst these singers who adopted ‘cowboy’ stage names, we find Woodward Maurice ‘Tex’ Ritter, Sollie Paul ‘Tex’ Williams, Ottis Dewey ‘Slim’ Whitman, Clarence Eugene ‘Hank’ Snow, Henry William ‘Hank’ Thompson, Garland Perry ‘Hank’ Cochran, and, of course, Hiram King ‘Hank’ Williams.

COWBOY MYTH

Hank Williams is a particularly interesting example. Since his death, a mythic vision of Williams has emerged, which casts him as a tortured rural artist who expresses the essence of ‘true’ country music. However, the real Williams was very much driven by a desire for commercial success. He grew up as a member of the rural poor, but was not directly connected to the traditional rural economy, being the son of a railroad engineer. He also got out of that world as quickly as he could, entering the music business in Montgomery, Alabama, while still only a teenager. Hiram Williams went on to become ‘Hank’, donning cowboy attire and gaining success with his ‘Drifting Cowboys’ band (none of whom were cowboys or had a Western ranching background). Throughout his career, Williams was following the rags-to-riches American Dream and, far from being a voice of an authentic ‘rural’ America, was in fact a clever marketeer:

Although many writers and fans later came to consider Williams principally a creative artist who remained above crassly commercial considerations, in not one article published during his lifetime is there any mention of his artistic ambitions. Rather he is presented, and he presents himself, as a consummate professional entertainer who measured success entirely in terms of chart standings and record sales. Almost no one yet wrote of him as anything more than a successful radio and recording artist and songwriter. Now-familiar interpretations of Williams – as the folksy populist poet or the tortured, destructive outlaw – emerged later, after he had drawn his last breath.

None of that diminishes the musical talent and creativity of Hank Williams, but it does put into perspective the claim that he represents some kind of ‘true country’ musician, wholly different in nature and outlook to today’s Nashville country pop stars. Hank Williams has arguably become, as David Cantwell writes at The New Yorker, ‘not so much a country-music legend as a country-music deity’. In the process, he has taken on a mythical status unconnected to the real man who was very much a participant in the music business. Nor was he a representative of some ‘pure’, unadulterated music. While seen by many as the epitome of a ‘true’ country musician, Williams’ music, as Tom Pinnock notes, ‘is one of the great deltas of Americana, a place where country, gospel and blues first converged’. Indeed, a significant blues influence can be discerned in his work and this is no surprise, given he was taught to play by a black bluesman named Rufus ‘Tee-Tot’ Payne, of whom Williams stated: ‘All the music training I ever had was from him’. Williams sometimes mentioned ‘that old colored gentleman’ when performing on stage.

Hank Williams (and other singers of his generation) began his career at a particularly fortuitous time. While at the very start of his career, records earned little for most singers, who instead made their money primarily through radio performances and personal appearances, all this was to change in the 1940s, when ‘hillbilly’ music went ‘pop’:

During World War II… bolstered by southern working-class migrations to Midwest and West Coast cities, hillbilly music soared to unprecedented popularity. Professional opportunities for singers and musicians multiplied, and record production expanded to accommodate rising demand from fans, jukebox owners, and, eventually, disc jockeys. Following the war, what was increasingly known as “folk” or “country-and-western” music flourished as it entered what many historians have described as a “Golden Era” of commercial and creative success.

This phenomenon was covered in the national media of the day:

In 1943, Time Magazine declared that “the dominant popular music of the U.S. today is hillbilly.” Sales for the music accounted for 40 percent of all single popular music records. In 1949, Newsweek observed that New York and Pennsylvania residents rivalled the South for buying the most hillbilly records.

Confirmation of the hillbilly wave came from the Saturday Evening Post on February 12, 1944. The national magazine headlined a feature story with the announcement, “Hillbilly Boom.” The story documented the growth of the hillbilly music audience estimated at 25 million, the record-setting sales of songs such as “Pistol Packin’ Mama” by Al Dexter which had sold more than 1,600,000 copies, and the spread of hillbilly radio programming including three shows picked up by a major network, NBC, for national hookup.

Simon Bronner notes:

And neither was the music appealing narrowly to a rural market. Pointing to the music’s attraction to rural migrants and their sons and daughters in the cities, Good Housekeeping reported that hillbilly music was especially popular in “the big towns – in Cleveland, St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and even conservative Boston.”

As the Good Housekeeping writer put it: ‘Mountain music has left the mountains and gone down to the plains’.

That ‘hillbilly’ music had a very large urban audience is no surprise, given the massive migration of Southerners out of the countryside and into towns and cities, leaving behind a rural life and entering into the industrial workforce. However, it should not be assumed that this was solely a post-war phenomenon, for industrialisation had already had a profound effect on rural communities prior to World War II, as Patrick Huber notes. Huber quotes an article by journalist Bruce Crawford, reporting in the New Republic in 1933 on his visit to the White Top Folk Festival in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. Crawford reported:

Many of the present generation, having moved to mill towns and coal camps, are being cut off from their inheritance of traditional music. But they are beginning to make ‘ballets’ of their own… They have, in fact, little in common with with the older folk-songs sung in the hollows where coal mines and textile mills haven’t yet invaded.

Already, then, hillbilly music was a ‘new’ music, with traditional musicianship in evidence to be sure, but undeniably shaped by modern change.

As the migrations continued post-World War II, a large segment of the hillbilly music audience was not only dwelling in urban environments and working in factories and other industrial settings – they were also entering the middle class:

Hillbilly music, as the product of the rural South, conveyed the conflicting impulses and images of the region that gave it birth. It was a melding of rural and urban influences; it was simultaneously southern and American; and its performers and audience were torn by opposing desires, clinging to a self-image of rustic simplicity while at the same time striving to be accepted in an urban, middle-class milieu.

A fascinating New York Times article from 1973, looking at the Appalachian community in Detroit, illustrates this tension between a growing urban identity and the desire to hold true to tradition and to rural roots. The article notes that the self-described ‘hillbillies’ of Detroit were not for the most-part dirt poor ghetto-dwellers, but instead had good incomes and were putting down roots in suburbia: ‘Although there remain pockets of Appalachian poverty near downtown Detroit, most of the migrants from the hills are evidently suburbanites today’, states the article. It goes on to profile various urban hillbillies who the author encountered in a honky-tonk, drinking beer and listening to live country music:

“My wife and me make more’n $25,000 a year now,” Joe Petrey said, although he doesn’t brag about such things and dislikes people who do.

He operates a radial drill for a company that makes spot welders for use on auto assembly lines. His wife, Eva, 22‐years‐old from back home in Corbin, Ky., with a shy smile, a nearly flawless complexion, luminous blue eyes and long, light‐brown hair, sews vinyl seat upholstery at a Ford Motor Company plant…

The Petreys now live in a spotless three‐room apartment in Madison Heights, with a color television set and a combination radio and eight‐track stereo tape player that Mr. Petrey uses to record and play country‐Western music.

Joe Petrey expressed a wistful desire to return one day to the countryside, as did others. Even while living a suburban, middle class life, Petrey expressed his identification with his rural heritage by placing a ‘Hillbilly and Proud of It’ sticker on the rear window of his Chevrolet pickup truck. While some, such as Joe Petrey dreamed of one day leaving suburbia, as the article notes:

If he does go back, he may be a bit unusual. For although many say, that is their intention, Dr. James. S. Brown of the University of Kentucky, one of the relatively few social scientists who have studied the migrants, says that “once they’ve been gone six months, they’re gone for good.”

Others, however, had no intention of giving up their suburban life, even while seeing maintaining a cultural identity grounded in their roots as important:

There is, for example, Ernest Trent, who sings country and Western music here under the name of Joe Pain. He is a native of Harlan County in Kentucky, a coal‐mining region with little of the farming appeal of Joe Petrey’s neighborhood.

“Even if I weren’t having such a good time singing,” Joe Pain says, “I’d never go back. There ain’t nothin’ there for me but a hole in the ground—I don’t mean a coal mine—and I can get that here.”

And there are many, many women who have gotten used to the amenities of urban life and are not anxious to give them up. Mrs. Linda Keelen, formerly of West Virginia and now of Warren, is proud of being a hillbilly and is teaching her 3‐year‐old son to be proud, too.

But, she says, “I can’t picture bein’ back on some farm, churnin’ butter.”

Trent released a number of country records as Joe Pain, and followed an example we see in country music today. Trent had embraced the suburbs and had no desire to return to coal country. However, his music looked back to an idealised vision of the countryside. In his song ‘Sugar Creek Bottom’, released by the Nashville label Spar Records in 1969, Joe Pain sings:

I’d like to be back on the farm in Sugar Creek Bottom
Mowing cotton, plowing corn with folks I love so well
And Amy Brown waits for me there in Sugar Creek Bottom
But I’m here locked up in this prison cell

We were poor but we were thankful for our bottom land
All of us worked hard and I was proud as any man
And I could hardly wait for harvest time to roll around
‘Cause when we sold the cotton I would marry Amy Brown

All of this was romantic nonsense, of course, as Trent came from a coal mining community, rather than this type of rustic background. However, it would have sat well with the suburban hillbilly music listener, who worked within the modern industrial economy but sought to maintain a sense of identity grounded in the rural past.

Many of the big names of country music’s past provide examples of how country music was increasingly a product of people raised in a non-agrarian background. While some, such as Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, did indeed start their lives on farms, many did not: Lefty Frizzell was the son of an oilman and spent some time working in the oil fields with his father before finding success in the music industry; Johnny Paycheck was the son of a barge worker; George Jones’s father worked in a shipyard; Merle Haggard’s father worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. Country music, then, was the music of a people in transition, moving from agricultural work to industrial jobs, often ending up living in urban and suburban communities as a result. It was therefore increasingly not the music of the country, but of people who had roots in the country. As new generations of country fans were born, whose parents and grandparents raised them with tales of the countryside and instilled in them a ‘country’ identity – but who had no direct experience of life in the countryside – country music was increasingly as much an urban as a rural phenomenon. Arguably, given Nashville became the epicentre of the country music industry, and was consequently a magnet for aspiring musicians, country music itself was now integrally intertwined with urban society. When rural singers made their way to Nashville to seek fame and fortune, those who succeeded became integrated into an urban environment and into urban living. Nashville created stars, played host to numerous professional songwriters, and carefully managed the image of singers to make them commercially appealing. ‘Authenticity’ certainly helped, but where it was lacking, it could always be invented.

As we have seen, in the 1920s, barn dance performers were told to adopt ‘rustic’ names and wear ‘rustic’ clothes, and in the 1930s and 1940s, western singers were told to adopt ‘cowboy’ names and dress up in Stetsons, and hillbilly singers were told to wear blue jeans and checked shirts (work clothes) for atmospheric purposes. The music itself, while rooted in some authentic mountain and cowboy traditions, was at the same time very much a modern creation, influenced both by the dislocation from traditional musical styles caused by migration, and also by the tastes of the mass market. From early on, country music’s relationship to the ‘true’ countryside (in the old agrarian sense) and to ‘true’ music of the countryside was complicated. As the decades passed, it became ever less connected to the folk music that gave it birth, and its performers and audience increasingly came from industrial backgrounds and lived in urban areas.

It is worth noting that, outside relatively isolated enclaves in Appalachia, American rural culture had for a long time been integrally linked with commerce and the Capitalist enterprise that was headquartered in the big cities. In a 1956 article on the American agrarian myth, Richard Hofstadter noted that these changes had increased nostalgia for an imagined rural idyll:

The more commercial this society became… the more reason it found to cling in imagination to the noncommercial agrarian values. The more farming as a self-sufficient way of life was abandoned for farming as a business, the more merit men found in what was being left behind. And the more rapidly the farmers’ sons moved into the towns, the more nostalgic the whole culture became about its rural past. Throughout the Nineteenth and even in the Twentieth Century, the American was taught that rural life and farming as a vocation were something sacred.

This sentimental attachment to the rural way of life is a kind of homage that Americans have paid to the fancied innocence of their origins.

This sentimental vision of the countryside obscured the fact that American rural society was increasingly run as a business environment.

What developed in America, then, was an agricultural society whose real attachment was not, like the yeoman’s, to the land but to land values. The characteristic product of American rural society, as it developed on the prairies and the plains, was not a yeoman or a villager, but a harassed little country businessman who worked very hard, moved all too often, gambled with his land, and made his way alone.

The roots of farming as ‘agribusiness’, then, go back a long way. Farmers and rural labourers increasingly made use of the products of the industrial age:

Between 1815 and 1860 the character of American agriculture was transformed. The rise of native industry created a home market for agriculture, while demands arose abroad for American cotton and foodstuffs, and a great network of turnpikes, canals, and railroads helped link the planter and the advancing western farmer to the new markets. As the farmer moved out of the forests onto the flat, rich prairies, he found possibilities for machinery that did not exist in the forest. Before long he was cultivating the prairies with horse-drawn mechanical reapers, steel plows, wheat and corn drills, and threshers.

In the twentieth century, the notion of a sharp distinction between rural and urban America was greatly eroded:

The final change, which came only with a succession of changes in the Twentieth Century, wiped out the last traces of the yeoman of old, as the coming first of good roads and rural free delivery, and mail order catalogues, then the telephone, the automobile, and the tractor, and at length radio, movies, and television largely eliminated the difference between urban and rural experience in so many important areas of life. The city luxuries, once do derided by farmers, are now what they aspire to give to their wives and daughters.

In the twenty-first century, this difference between urban and rural America has become ever smaller. As Steven Thomma notes:

The small town of legend has largely passed into the pages of history. Today’s small-town children are exposed to the same Internet, the same games and pop music as city kids. Its people shop in the same chain stores and eat in the same chain restaurants as those in the suburbs…

Interstate highways connected small towns to cities. Cable TV connected rural living rooms to Hollywood. The Internet connected everyone to everywhere.

Small-town teens play the same video games as their urban and suburban cousins. Readers buy books from the same online outlets. Students study much the same curricula from small town to suburb to inner city.

As all these changes have taken place, mainstream country music, as found on radio stations throughout both rural and urban America today, has also radically changed. The sound is now very far removed from that of Appalachian string bands and even from that of singers such as Hank Williams, who rose to prominence during the post-war wave of migration from agricultural to industrial, and rural to urban and suburban. Contemporary country pop music that is the product of the Nashville-centred country music industry is constantly changing to incorporate new sounds, with the main sound now being more pop rock than country in the old sense, supplemented by new elements derived from hiphop and EDM, amongst other sources. Radio country is also a national phenomenon, and country is now arguably far more simply an American musical genre than one of the South, the West, or even the countryside itself. Looking at the history of commercial country music, and the social changes that have taken place in America over the last century, this should come as no surprise.

As we have seen, country music’s audience and musicians came to be increasingly found amongst workers who were part of the industrial, rather than agricultural, world. These changes were increasingly reflected in the lyrical themes of those musicians of the post-war period and beyond who have gone on to be seen as representatives of what is now commonly referred to as ‘classic country’. Merle Haggard, for example, the son of a railroad worker, expressed little in most of his songs that relates specifically to a rural life. There are plenty of songs covering the ups and downs of relationships and the hardships of life, but these are not dependent in any way on a rural setting; indeed, quite the opposite. In ‘If We Make It Through December’, Haggard sang:

Got laid off down at the factory
And there time is not the greatest in the world
Heaven knows I been workin’ hard
I wanted Christmas to be right for daddy’s girl

In ‘Big City’, he sang:

I’m tired of this dirty old city
Entirely too much work and never enough play
And I’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks
Think I’ll walk off my steady job today

Turn me loose, set me free
Somewhere in the middle of Montana
And give me all I’ve got comin’ to me
And keep your retirement
And your so called social security
Big city, turn me loose and set me free

This was music for a largely urban audience who dreamt of escaping to the imagined freedom of the countryside, and it was also nostalgic:

I wish a buck was still silver
It was back when the country was strong
Back before Elvis
Before the Vietnam war came along

Before The Beatles and ‘Yesterday’
When a man could still work, still would
The best of the free life behind us now
And are the good times really over for good?

The supposed ‘free life’ that existed prior to Elvis and the Vietnam war was, it should be remembered, only a free life for some. Haggard’s audience here were clearly sentimental white Americans, for who amongst the black community could feel any great affection for the era of Segregation? Haggard presented a fantasy image of a ‘free’ America, which was also a time in which a woman’s place was in the kitchen, back ‘before microwave ovens, when a girl could still cook and still would’.

Then there was George Jones, the son of a shipyard worker. Again, his songs relate largely to general themes surrounding relationships and are not specific to a rural setting. One key exception is found in his song ‘White Lightning’, which looks back fondly to the moonshiners of old:

Well, in North Carolina, way back in the hills
Me and my old pappy and he had him a still
We brewed white lightnin’ ’til the sun went down
Then he’d fill him a jug and he’d pass it around
Mighty, mighty pleasin, pappy’s corn squeezin’

The song, however, was not autobiographical and was written for Jones by J. P. Richardson, a pioneering rockabilly musician. Already, the ‘purity’ of the country sound was giving way to outside influences. As Nick Tosches argues in an article for Texas Monthly: ‘Though Jones would never acknowledge it, the rockabilly impulse of the early fifties had affected his sound as much as the lingering voices of Acuff and Williams’.

The growing influence of rock music on country can be heard in the songs of Waylon Jennings, another musician whose work is often cited as ‘true’ country music. As Andrew Dansby put it in Rolling Stone‘s obituary for Jennings:

All apologies to Gram Parsons — who played great, straight country wrapped in a dope-smoking hippie cloak — but should one wish to find the embodiment of the always amorphous term that is country-rock, Waylon Jennings is it. He was weaned on Ernest Tubb and Elvis Presley, he was buddies with Buddy, and he became the face of Seventies country by skillfully folding rock & roll elements into a literate rootsy mix. It’s simply impossible to imagine southern rock, from Allman to Van Zant, and fringe country from Steve Earle to Uncle Tupelo without Waylon Jennings.

When it comes to the lyrical content of Jennings’ music, there is again little to be found that is indicative of immersion in rural and agricultural life. Instead, Jennings appears in his songs as a product of the ‘sexual revolution’. Far from advocating the kind of family-orientated conservative values associated with rural America, he sang about living a rootless ‘outlaw’ lifestyle, complete with casual sexual encounters and bringing trouble to the lives of ‘good women’. In ‘Waymore’s Blues’, Jennings sang:

Well, I got a good woman, what’s the matter with me?
What makes me want to love every woman I see?

In ‘I’ve Always Been Crazy’, he sang:

Beautiful lady are you sure that you understand
The chances your taking loving a free living man

Then there’s ‘Ladies Love Outlaws’:

Bessie was a lovely child from west Tennessee
Leroy was an outlaw wild as a mink
One day she saw him starin’ and it chilled her to the bone
And she knew she had to see that look on a child of her own.

‘Cause ladies love outlaws like babies love stray dogs
Ladies touch babies like a banker touches gold
And outlaws touch the ladies
Somewhere deep down in their soul.

And, again, in ‘Ramblin’ Man’:

Oh, girl
I’m a ramblin’ man
Don’t give your heart to a ramblin’ man…

You better move away
You’re standing too close to the flame
Once I mess with your mind
Your little heart won’t be the same

Willie Nelson, another country legend, sang about similar themes. For example, in ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys’ (originally released by Waylon Jennings):

I grew up a-dreamin’ of bein’ a cowboy
And lovin’ the cowboy ways
Pursuin’ the life of my high-ridin’ heroes
I burned up my childhood days

I learned of all the rules of the modern-day drifter
Don’t you hold on to nothin’ too long
Just take what you need from the ladies, then leave them
With the words of a sad country song

My heroes have always been cowboys
And they still are, it seems

Then there’s Nelson’s hit ‘On The Road Again’:

On the road again –
Just can’t wait to get on the road again
The life I love is making music with my friends…

Like a band of gypsies, we go down the highway
We’re the best of friends
Insisting that the world keep turning our way

None of this is about the ‘country’, even if the music continued to incorporate traditional musicianship associated with country music’s history. These are the songs of the ‘Free Bird‘-listening, birth control-using ‘liberated’ generation, not those of the countryside of old. They present a dream of escaping the world of work and responsibility and embracing a fantasy of old West ‘freedom’ and individualism. As such, these songs arguably related more to the outlook of white urbanites and suburbanites than those of the people operating the farms and fields of actual rural communities.

Haggard, Jones, Jennings, and Nelson, then, were all representatives not of a timeless, unchanging tradition, but rather of the shifting sound and identity of country music. Perhaps no musician has been more significant in this regard than Hank Williams Jr, the son of the legendary Hank Williams, as David Cantwell chronicles in a thought-provoking 2016 article for The New Yorker.

While Hank Jr. was originally groomed to become a kind of second coming of his father, or a good Hank Sr. cover artist at least, he eventually went his own way, as documented in his song ‘Family Tradition’:

Country music singers
Have always been a real close family,
But lately some of my kinfolks
Have disowned a few others and me
I guess it’s because
I kind of changed my direction
Lord I guess I went and broke their family tradition

And later in the song:

I am very proud
Of my daddy’s name
Although his kind of music
And mine ain’t exactly the same

Indeed it wasn’t. Hank Jr. developed a sound that was, as Cantwell puts it, ‘Southern-and blues-rock guitars and boogie-woogie pianos atop country-soul-rockin’ and honky-tonkin’ rhythm-and-blues beats’. While Hank Jr. was far from the only artist to take country music in a direction that moved it distinctly away from the traditions of old (indeed, as noted above, many of his contemporaries such as Waylon Jennings were doing just that), his influence has in fact been significant. ‘Family Tradition’, Cantwell writes, ‘created the Hank Williams, Jr. we’ve known ever since’:

The follow-up single, “Whiskey Bent and Hellbound,” reprised the approach, except louder. “Kawliga,” from 1980, reinvented one of his dad’s songs as country funk. 1984’s “All My Rowdy Friends (Are Comin’ over Tonight)” eventually became, with new lyrics, the “Monday Night Football” theme. Three years later, the comic and self-mythologizing “Born to Boogie” became country radio’s hardest-rocking hit ever. It was the title track to an album that also included arena-rocking versions of hits by both the Rolling Stones and the Georgia Satellites.

Country music quickly followed Williams’s lead—from Shania Twain’s rock-guitar attack in the nineties to the rise, in this century, of hick-hop (a cross, basically, between Bocephus’s music and his good friend Kid Rock’s). Williams’s DNA is deep down in countless key records, from “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)” and “Friends in Low Places” to “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” and “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” not to mention nearly every hit in the Toby Keith catalogue. The new “It’s About Time,” meanwhile, features appearances by three more of his progeny, the hard-rocking contemporary country stars Eric Church, Justin Moore, and Brantley Gilbert, and this summer Williams will tour with another descendent, the Great White Soul Hope of our country moment, Chris Stapleton.

Even the likes of country pop superstars Florida Georgia Line (a polarising act, to say the least) can be seen, argues Cantwell, to owe a debt to Hank Jr.:

Williams also complains on the new album that he’s had it with today’s “weird pop country sound.” This is unsurprising: old folks routinely express frustration with kids these days. But it’s ironic nonetheless, as bro country is just one more of Williams’s children. Take the lines “I like happy and I don’t like sad … I like the sweet young things and Old Grandad” from Williams’s “Women I’ve Never Had.” Then switch out the whiskey for beer and add “We like our country mixed with R. & B.,” a line from another hit off “Born to Boogie,” “Young Country.” Behold: a mission statement for Florida Georgia Line, one of the biggest country acts of the current decade.

Indeed, ‘Young Country’ centres on the idea of a new country music and new country people:

We are young country, we like all kinds
Of music and people, cuz we don’t draw no lines…

We like old Waylon, hey we know Van Halen
We like ZZ Top, we like country and rock
Old Hank would be proud and Elvis would too
We like our country mixed with some big city blues…

Old Hank would be proud and Elvis would too
Cuz we like our country mixed with some rhythm and blues

The incessant online debates and polemics over what is and isn’t legitimate in and as country music sometimes give the impression that it’s only a recent bunch of country artists who have created a sound based around a mixture of influences and genres, yet here was Hank Jr., singing in 1988 about that very thing. ‘New country’, it turns out, is not so new.

While Hank Jr.’s generation embraced a form of country music mixed with elements taken from ‘big city blues’ and R&B, many of today’s younger country listeners like their country mixed with some rap and EDM. The use of rap and hiphop influences in contemporary commercial country music has drawn the ire of traditionalists, but, given how culture works in the real world, it was an inevitability. As Jon Caramanica of the New York Times notes:

By the mid 2000s, thanks to the successes of the labels Bad Boy and Death Row, built upon by the dominance of Jay-Z, 50 Cent and others, rap had become the lingua franca of American popular music, especially for young people.

Young people who listen to country music are no exception to this. For generations, young people raised in the inner city, the suburbs, and rural areas have all had access to exactly the same cultural influences: MTV, TV shows, movies, and then the Internet all made up key parts of this shared cultural experience. Rural youngsters were just as familiar with rap as their urban counterparts, and just as enthusiastic. As pioneering country rapper Bubba Sparxxx put it, he was part of ‘a generation of people that love 2Pac and Hank [Williams]’. Likewise, David Peisner, reporting on his experiences at a mud bogging event in Georgia, writes:

More than a dozen off-road vehicles line the outside of the track, blasting a hazy mash-up of songs that’s pretty typical of what the music fans here play all weekend: Brad Paisley’s “Old Alabama,” Young Jeezy’s “Where I’m From,” Sam Hunt’s “House Party,” Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem,” Young Thug’s “Best Friend,” the Lacs’ “Kickin’ Up Mud.”

Country rapper Upchurch states: ‘I almost drowned in the river where Hank said we can survive’. Country rapper Swamp states: ‘Them city boys better understand, that a country boy can survive’. And then there’s this report on country rapper Yelawolf:

When I walked into his two-story condo, he was sitting on the couch, clutching a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels and blasting Waylon Jennings through his Apple TV.

Clearly, then, rural young people see no contradiction between a love of country and a love of rap. Indeed, in the age of streaming and playlists, they – as with young Americans in general – often don’t see these genre distinctions as particularly important. On the mainstream side, Florida Georgia Line have been highly successful through combining country pop with hiphop and other influences. As they put it in their smash hit ‘This Is How We Roll’: ‘The mixtape’s got a little Hank, little Drake’. And in ‘Sun Daze‘: ‘I’m gonna play some flip-cup and rock a little bit of hip-hop and Haggard and Jagger’. Even country veteran Tim McGraw put out a track in which he sings:

Got Lil’ Wayne pumpin’ on my iPod
Thumpin’ on the subs in the back of my crew cab…

Our party in the club is a honky tonk downtown
Yeah that’s where we like to hang out…

Got a mixed up playlist, DJ play this
Wanna hear a country song

Back in 2010, Chet Flippo, wrote an interesting post for CMT titled ‘Why the Term “Country Music” May Disappear’. Flippo writes:

Genre divisions in music have always existed, but they became an important marketing development over the last 100 years as the commercial recorded music industry grew and flourished and sold actual, physical product in huge numbers.
Now, as that enterprise dwindles and transforms into a song-dominated download industry, genre distinctions are becoming blurred and even non-existent for many listeners. As songs trump the notion of artists, artist loyalty may become eroded as well…
I suspect it’s pretty much a given that when albums finally disappear, so will genres, as genres… [W]hat has been defined as country will be a free-for-all.
And what about the future of country radio? They will find a way to survive. However devious it may be. They always do.
Flippo wasn’t entirely correct, given that downloading has increasingly given way to streaming, but the essential argument has turned out to be true. Mainstream country music may not yet constitute a free-for-all, but it is inching ever closer. And if country radio has indeed employed a ‘devious’ strategy of sorts, it is simply following the same strategy employed by the big Nashville record labels. That strategy has involved releasing numerous records classified as ‘country’ which manifestly either borrow heavily from other genres, or arguably really belong in other genres altogether – largely rock and pop.

The success of Sam Hunt – a hugely polarising figure in the country music blogosphere – gives an indication of how far ‘country’ music has now moved towards pop:

In Nashville, country music has been importing hip-hop flourishes since about 2012, generating signature hits for Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, among others. Before abandoning this approach in favor of neutered warm-bath ballads, Florida Georgia Line built a career on it: The remix of its megahit “Cruise,” featuring Nelly, was the pioneer of the form.

But country did not truly have a modern pop star until the breakthrough of Sam Hunt four years ago. An intuitive melodist with hip-hop in his DNA, Hunt is a fully hybrid performer, and his 2014 debut album, “Montevallo,” is the new-sound prototype. He’s recently been joined by Kane Brown, who is part country traditionalist, part genre disrupter. Country stars have been mega-popular before — Garth Brooks, Shania Twain — but the music has not sat at the leading edge of pop ideology until now.

Numerous songs of recent years that have been classified as country and played on country radio are transparently more pop than anything resembling what was previously understood by the term ‘country’. Consider, for example, the 2017 hit ‘Meant to Be‘, performed by Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line. It was classified as country and as such received heavy airplay on mainstream country radio, yet this is clearly simply an urban pop song. It’s hard to see how Kane Brown’s ‘Good as You‘ is country music. Dan + Shay’s ‘Speechless‘ is pop. Thomas Rhett’s ‘Look What God Gave Her‘ is pop. Kelsea Ballerini’s ‘Miss Me More‘ and ‘Dibs‘ are pop. Maren Morris’s ‘The Bones‘ is pop.

Even the singers who are held to be more ‘traditional’ on country radio are arguably producing music that at the very least is of mixed genre. Blake Shelton’s ‘God’s Country‘ is really a Southern rock track; Justin Moore’s ‘The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home‘ is a rock song and even his recent ‘Why We Drink‘ is really rock music with a little twang; Jason Aldean’s ‘Rearview Town‘ is rock with a Southern accent, and ‘Big Green Tractor‘ is country-themed pop rock; Luke Combs’ ‘Beer Never Broke My Heart‘ is a rock song and he has collaborated with country rapper Upchurch; Chris Stapleton is essentially a soul singer and has collaborated with Justin Timberlake.

There are a number of reasons for this significant shift in the sound of mainstream country music. Firstly, these songs are produced for the simple reason that they are popular and they sell (or stream). Despite what some online writers might lead you to believe, there is no grand conspiracy afoot here – it’s simply old fashioned American Capitalism in action. The Nashville machine isn’t churning out these records because it has some secret hatred of ‘traditional’ country music; if that style could sell hundreds of thousands of records then they’d still be promoting dozens of Hank Williams Senior soundalikes. The country radio audience’s tastes have shifted, just as they always have. The rock-influenced Waylon Jennings and co sounded very little like Appalachian folk music, and neither, in fact, did the blues-influenced Hank Williams. Hank Williams Jr brought R&B sounds into country because his generation liked that sound – and to make money. Sam Hunt brought influences from artists such as Drake into his music because he is part of a generation raised on hiphop and because there is a ready audience for that style. Florida Georgia Line mixed country rock with rap because younger generations enjoy both styles and, like them, listen to playlists with ‘a little Hank, a little Drake’. Record labels put out records that will sell. If the new country audience likes pop, rock, and rap, then that is what they will get – and have.

Secondly, massive social changes have taken place in America over the last two centuries, during which a largely rural country has shifted to being a largely suburban country. As Kenneth Johnson of the University of New Hampshire notes:

More that 90 percent of the U.S. population was rural in 1790. By 1920, that number had dwindled to just under 50 percent. Today, only 15 percent of the population resides in rural counties.

Today, farmers and ranchers make up just 1.3% of the employed US population, totalling around 2.6 million people out of a population of more than 329 million. More than a third of rural counties have a shrinking population and the rural population growth that is occurring is increasingly non-white:

Hundreds of rural counties have far fewer people today than they did a century ago. In many, young adults have been leaving for generations, so few young women remain to have children. As a result, deaths exceed births in these counties, producing a downward spiral of population decline…

Other demographic changes are underway in rural America as well. The population is rapidly becoming more diverse. Minorities represent 21 percent of the rural population, but produced 83 percent of the growth between 2000 and 2010. Hispanics are particularly important to this growing rural diversity.

Children are in the vanguard of this change. The rural minority child population has grown significantly recently, while the number of non-Hispanic white children diminished.

This should come as no surprise, as rural whites have largely abandoned the land. While most farmers remain non-Hispanic white males, hired farmworkers (who make up less than 1 percentof all U.S. wage and salary workers) are mostly Hispanic, many of them migrants, about halfof them in the country illegally. The US Department of Agriculture notes:

Farm laborers are considerably less well educated, more likely to be Hispanic of Mexican origin, and less likely to be citizens than are workers in other occupations in agriculture, or than the U.S. wage and salary workforce as a whole.

The US rural population in 2015 was around 46 million, yet according to CMA Research, over 129 million Americans listen to country music (51% of US adults). Farmers make up a tiny proportion of the US population and most of the people they employ are Hispanic. The majority of Americans, then, now live outside rural areas and do not work in agriculture. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the majority of country music listeners also live in non-rural environments and have no involvement in agriculture. Country music has always been altering in the light of these social and economic changes. The idea that country music is in the main a manifestation of a living white rural culture that somehow exists in a state of separation from mainstream American culture is no longer plausible.

When country musicians sing about the rural life, they are providing a largely urban audience with a modern version of the agrarian myth. It’s nostalgia, not reality. Consider the case of North Alabama farmer J.D. Booker, who is cited in an article on the reliance of US agriculture on migrant labour:

J.D. Booker has owned his farm in Toney for 14 years. Booker is a former Marine and is not afraid of hard work. He said long hours is one of the reasons why there is a shortage of farm workers.

“It’s hard, hard work. Long hours. Sun up to sun down.”

Florida Georgia Line have sung:

Born and raised in the South
American and proud
Where the lost gets found
Livin’ off the land
And workin’ with our hands
Till the sun goes down

And likewise:

You see my roots are buried deep down in the South
And these boots don’t get muddy from sittin’ around
Out here in the holler, we work hard for a dollar,
From sun up to sun down.

Of course, in reality, farmers like J.D. Booker are not employing the singers from Florida Georgia Line, but Mexican workers instead, who don’t balk at the prospect of actually working on a farm ‘from sun up to sun down’.

As noted earlier, country music has documented the mass exodus of rural whites from the countryside and the rural economy into first a working class industrial life, and then into the suburbs. Increasingly, those Americans who vaguely look back to rural roots are actually university educated and working in white collar jobs. Modern country music illustrates this fact.

The first major transitional period in country music occurred after World War II, as ‘country’ people increasingly moved to urban areas to work industrial jobs. This period was defined by a sense of dislocation and is reflected in the often chaotic lives of singers of the time. With the shift to industrial society came relationship troubles and marital breakdowns, combined with a reliance on alcohol and other substances to get by. Looking at the lives of various key ‘classic country’ singers we see this played out in their personal lives.

Hank Williams was a twice married alcoholic who abused prescription drugs and died aged 29. Lefty Frizzell was an alcoholic and died at 47. Johnny Cash was twice married and abused alcohol and amphetamines. Johnny Paycheck was a drug user who spent time in jail and developed advanced-stage alcoholism. George Jones was married four times. Another alcoholic, Jones also abused amphetamines and cocaine, and was twice institutionalised as a result of his drinking. Merle Haggard was married five times and abused alcohol and cocaine. Such were the lives of these icons of country music.

The second major transitional period in country music has taken place in recent years, with the music’s audience shifting from being predominantly made up of members of the industrial and rural working class to being suburban, educated, and middle class. Recent CMA research confirms this shift: Country fans own their own homes at a higher rate than the general population, are employed full-time at a higher rate, are employed as executive/professional at a higher rate, and live in households with children at a higher rate. They are only marginally less likely to be graduates than the general population (35%/36%). Their average household income is more than $81,000 per annum (as opposed to $60,336 among the general population).

Today’s mainstream country stars live lives that are radically different to the blue collar divorce-ridden substance abusing singers of the past. Many country stars have attended university: Dierks Bentley (Vanderbilt), Lee Brice (Clemson), Luke Bryan (Georgia Southern), Eric Church (Appalachian State), Tyler Hubbard (Belmont), Sam Hunt (University of Alabama at Birmingham), Brian Kelley (Belmont), Dustin Lynch (Lipscomb University), Maren Morris (University of North Texas), Jake Owen (Florida State), Chase Rice (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Thomas Rhett (Lipscomb), Cole Swindell (Georgia Southern), Carrie Underwood (Northeastern State), Brett Young (Ole Miss), and Chris Young (Belmont). The singers weren’t studying agricultural subjects, but, rather, subjects such as Business Administration, Marketing, and Communications. In other words, higher education courses that would normally lead to middle class white collar work.

Many country singers are also happily married: Dierks Bentley (married since 2005), Lee Brice (married since 2013), Luke Bryan (married since 2006), Eric Church (married since 2008), Tyler Hubbard (married since 2015), Sam Hunt (married since 2017), Brian Kelley (married since 2013), Justin Moore (married since 2007), Maren Morris (married since 2018), Thomas Rhett (married since 2012), Carrie Underwood (married since 2010), Brett Young (married since 2018).

Today’s country singers and country listeners are increasingly successful and ‘respectable’ members of the American middle class. Yet, despite this shift into middle class society, the singers and fans are still drawn to an idealised image of the ‘country’. Joe Petrey lived in the city but drove a Chevrolet pickup truck with a ‘Hillbilly and Proud of It’ sticker. Many modern country fans arguably follow in that tradition. Indeed, the pickup truck remains an important signifier of a ‘country’ identity. James C. Cobb, writing for Smithsonian Magazine, argues:

With even the entry-level Dodge Ram 1500 stickering in the neighborhood of $65,000, many of today’s pampered pickups stand little chance of hauling cotton, hay, livestock, or much of anything else likely to scratch them. Though pickups continue to have some practical applications in theory, in practice, a great number of them serve their owners primarily as “lifestyle vehicles” or some might even say “lifestyle statements.” Indeed, for a sizable contingent of Americans, the pickup truck has emerged as a means of establishing their ties to a distinctly blue-collar identity in the course of flaunting their bourgeois prosperity.

Cobb compares the pickup truck of classic country with that of today:

More than 40 years later, the rusty rattletrap [David Allan] Coe had in mind is little in evidence in songs by Luke Bryan and others about good ol’ boys and gals dancing the night away to a deafening mix of country rock and hip-hop, or just sitting and sipping on the special “diamond plate” tailgate protector of a lavishly accoutered “big black, jacked-up” pickup, likely a Chevy Silverado, which Bryan himself favors.

Luke Bryan is not alone. References to Silverados turn up in the songs of, amongst others, Lee Brice (‘See About A Girl’ ), Billy Currington (‘Summer Forever’), Tyler Farr (‘Redneck Crazy’), Florida Georgia Line (‘Get Your Shine On’), and Tim McGraw (‘Lookin’ For That Girl’ ). However, auto market research shows:

The average household income of a new Silverado owner is about $76,000 per year and like the F-150, despite those romantic country images you see in advertising, the majority of new Silverados are owned in large and medium-sized cities.

Just as Cobb sees pickup trucks as ‘lifestyle vehicles’, Jon Smith argues:

Southern or otherwise, when a bourgeois man who doesn’t work with his hands affects a pickup truck or work boots, he generally expresses not an identity but a yearning for one.

This yearning for an identity is, of course, a particularly white phenomenon. Contemporary country music provides a way to claim an identity that is based largely on myth, nostalgia, and an idealised notion of ‘real America‘. It is no longer so much a manifestation of a rural culture than it is a fabrication of rural life and identity for mass consumption. Mainstream country songs do not focus on farm closures, the effects of tariffs on farmers, farming as agribusiness, the rise of the ‘mega farm’, the lives of migrant farm workers, and so on, nor do they focus on rural poverty and unemployment, or the opioid epidemic. The countryside of country music is filled with happy small towns, where people spend much of their lives partying and driving down dirt roads. The worst thing that happens in these small towns is having to deal with the aftermath of a couple breaking up. The small town, then, like the pickup truck, is more a symbol than it is a reality. It arguably represents another element in the construction of an identity for an increasingly urbanised white population.

Florida Georgia Line are particularly good at conjuring up the small town image. In ‘Y’all Boys‘ they sing:

Y’all boys with that Southern drawl, boys
Hell before you naw, rollin’ off just right
Man, that town is small, boys
But you have a ball, boys
Homemade alcohol on a Saturday night

In ‘Small Town‘:

If you leave your doors unlocked
If your garage is your body shop
If your dog’s got room to run
You might be from a small town
And if you’ve ever kissed a girl
Spinnin’ round on a Tilt-A-Whirl
At the county fair in the summer sun
You might be from a small town

And in ‘May We All’:

May we all get to grow up in a red, white, and blue little town
Get a won’t-start, hand-me-down Ford to try to fix up
With some part time cash from driving a tractor
Find a sweet little thang, wears your ball cap backwards
Kinda place you can’t wait to leave but nobody does
‘Cause you miss it too much

In reality, band members Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley grew up in Monroe, Georgia, and Ormond Beach, Florida, neither of which is a particularly small town. They met while studying at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Far from not leaving their ‘red, white and blue little towns’ because they would ‘miss it too much’, Hubbard currently lives in ‘a lavish estate outside Nashville’, while Kelley lives in a $6.24 million compound outside Nashville that ‘features three separate homes, a 500 sq. ft. recording studio and a bevy of bars’.

In ‘Thank God For Hometowns’, Carrie Underwood sings:

Thank God for hometowns
And all the love that makes you go round
Thank God for the county lines that welcome you back in
When you were dying to get out
Thank God for Church pews
And all the faces that won’t forget you
Cause when you’re lost out in this crazy world
You got somewhere to go and get found
Thank God for hometowns

Carrie Underwood grew up in Checotah, Oklahoma, a genuinely small town. However, she sings of how she was ‘dying to get out’ of small town life, and she succeeded, winning the fourth season of American Idol in 2005. Following her TV success, Underwood embarked on a career in pop country music and has a net worth of around $80 million. She has recently moved from a 7,000 square-foot Nashville mansion, valued at over $1 million, to a $3 million 400-acre property in ‘the scenic and semi-rural suburbs of Nashville’. Underwood’s hometown may well ‘welcome her back in’, but she’s apparently got no interest in living there.

For both country music stars and urban and suburban country listeners, then, the ‘small town’, like the pickup truck, is about identity, not lived reality. The small towns of country music are not the small towns where Main Street is shuttered and most people shop at Dollar General or Walmart. They are not the small towns with high unemployment and large numbers of residents living below the poverty line. They are not Tchula, Mississippi, which has a 95% black population and 54% of its residents living below the poverty line. They are not the small towns where residents abuse oxycodone and crystal meth. They are not Clarksburg, West Virginia, AKA ‘Methburg’. They are not the small towns where a third of poor whites have abandoned church-going.

But the point of contemporary country music is primarily to entertain, not to strictly reflect reality, and that has always been the case in commercial country music. When country artists adopted cowboy names and clothing in the past, and sung about a world in which they had never lived, they were no less hypocritical or deceptive than Florida Georgia Line might be seen to be today.

The history of commercial country music is ultimately a history of white American identity, or the quest for one. It features mythical notions of the Old West, mythical notions of the family farm, mythical versions of the American small town. Its history also documents the changing tastes of white Americans and their changing social status and lifestyles. Early commercial country music called forth All American images of agrarian living and the iconic symbol of the cowboy. Country music after World War II began to incorporate elements from African American blues music, then African American rock ‘n’ roll music and R&B, and now African American hiphop music. Its history illustrates the long-running white interest in non-white music, yet these interests were rendered easier to ‘identify with’ when given the ‘country’ label and presented to whites by fellow whites. The fact that contemporary mainstream country music is now effectively a mashup of pop, rock, and hiphop is a reflection of the new world of white America. It is not so much the death of ‘true’ country music, as purists argue, but rather the inevitable evolution of a genre that has long been only vaguely related to the agrarian society in which it has its earliest roots.

The increasing marginalisation of ‘traditional’ country music styles in modern country music illustrate not so much the death of ‘true’ country music, but rather the passing away of older eras of white America and white American identity and their replacement with a new, more diverse, and less insular world: a world of shared cultural influences, of the Internet, of increasing racial tolerance (despite what the doom merchants may say in the era of ‘Trump’s America’), and even of increasing acceptance of those who are not heterosexual. Commercial country music still looks to an idealised vision of small town rural America as an image of American authenticity, complete with hard-working patriotic citizens who enjoy a cold beer or three and driving down old dirt roads in pickup trucks, but the citizens of this mythical small town are no longer racist and no longer live in a world so different from that of the suburbs. Whether or not country music can ultimately survive as a distinct genre in an increasingly urbanised world – and a world in which new methods of music consumption such as streaming and contextual playlists are continuing to take over from the traditional radio and album-based past – remains to be seen.

The Myth of the Christian South

The South was not always the deeply religious place it is known as today. This was to change after the American Revolution, as evangelists spread out across the region, with great revival meetings making numerous converts. Initially, this was a counter-cultural movement:

Although the American Revolution swept away the institutional structures of the Anglican Church in the South, the itinerant evangelical preachers who subsequently flooded the region at first encountered resistance from southern whites, who were affronted by their opposition to slaveholding and traditional ideals of masculinity, their lack of respect for generational hierarchy, their encouragement of women’s public involvement in church affairs, and their allowance for spiritual intimacy with blacks.

However, in order to become firmly entrenched in the South, the evangelicals eventually shifted from opposition to the status quo to accommodation, thus embedding evangelical Christianity deeply into the life of the region:

[T]hese evangelicals achieved dominance in the region over the course of a century by deliberately changing their own “traditional values” and assimilating the conventional southern understandings of family relationships, masculine prerogatives, classic patriotism, and martial honor. In so doing, religious groups earlier associated with nonviolence and antislavery activity came to the defense of slavery and secession and the holy cause of upholding both by force of arms–and adopted the values we now associate with the “Bible Belt.”

As the Confederacy was formed and the Civil War approached, Christian ministers increasingly presented white supremacy and slavery as being central to God’s plan for the South. The ‘providential trust’ held by the South, stated a South Carolina minister a few weeks before the state seceded, ‘is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing’. As the Civil War raged, another South Carolina minister preached: ‘The triumphs of Christianity rest, this very hour, on slavery; and slavery depends on the triumph of the South’. Slavery and white supremacy, he insisted, were ‘the will of God’. This was fully in line with the ideology of the Confederacy. As Alexander Hamilton Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, stated of the Confederacy in his famous ‘Cornerstone’ speech on March 21 1861:

[I]ts foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

After the Civil War was lost, the myth of the ‘Lost Cause’ started to take hold, with the war being presented as having been fought to preserve a unique ‘Southern way of life’. This ideology presented the South as a God-fearing, agrarian land, which stood in opposition to perceived irreligiosity of the industrialising North:

Defenders of a self-consciously “southern” civilization after the Civil War came to use the term “way of life” to indicate an ideological defense of a peculiar pattern of institutions and attitudes associated with the South. Whites saw their system of paternalistic white supremacy as the essence of a southern civilization, but the “way of life” included countless specific attitudes and customs rooted in cultural beliefs and practices and reified as a constructed social identity. Religious institutions and leaders gave a spiritual gloss on the “southern way of life,” infusing it with transcendent significance and blurring the lines between Christianity and southernism. Above and beyond religion’s defense of a self-consciously southern ideology, religion in the South was indeed distinctive within national patterns of religion, and it was a central part of life for many people.

Key elements of the ideology of a ‘Southern way of life’ included the centrality of fervent religious faith, the notion of Southerners being a people of the land, and a lack of interest in secular education. These features of Southern life continue to be clear today. The ‘agrarian myth’ has always been important to how Americans in general view themselves and their history. As Richard Hofstadter noted: ‘This sentimental attachment to the rural way of life is a kind of homage that Americans have paid to the fancied innocence of their origins’. But perhaps nowhere has this idea been more durable than in the South. David French of National Review, writing in 2018 on ‘What Democrats Don’t Get About the South’, argues that contemporary Southern politics are ‘about the South as it sees itself’. For French:

Southerners love God. They respect the traditions of faith and family–including manners and respect for elders. Southerners are connected to the land.

He explains:

The majority of the people don’t hunt or fish or farm, but they feel connected to people who do. A Tennessee lawyer may never leave a paved road, but he’ll drive a truck that can haul hay. Even people who don’t own guns value the South’s gun culture.

Yet this notion of Southerners being ‘connected to the land’ is founded in a mythical view of the past, as the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture notes:

Although the romantic mythology of the Old South likes to depict planters and plain folk alike as down-home people rooted in the southern soil while transient and money-grubbing Yankees visited the destructive forces of industrial capitalism on the northern landscape, the environmental havoc wreaked by white southerners of all classes was, if anything, greater than that caused by the industrializing North. Extensive soil exhaustion and erosion, deforestation, the hunting of species to near extinction, ramshackle dwellings that reflected the transience of much of the southern population, the preponderance of destructive feral hogs, the often careless use of fire in agriculture – these were the hallmarks of much of white society in the antebellum South.

Another hallmark of the culture of the Old South that has persisted into the modern era is a lack of emphasis on the importance of education. In the antebellum South:

Southern elites showed little interest in public education and and allowed only limited opportunities for advanced schooling beyond their own ranks… Southern elites also remained indifferent to if not opposed to funding primary educational opportunities for those outside the gentry ranks, even as public schools for children proliferated throughout northern states in the early nineteenth century.

Education was for the wealthy elite and was ‘less practical than ornamental’:

The southern gentry’s determination to use education to groom future patriarchs and affirm class status even shaped the curriculum and rituals of university life… Classical studies remained central to most southern universities’ curricula even as scientific and practical instruction supplanted it in European and northern schools.

Where educational opportunities for the lower ranks did exist, they were often sub-standard. Frederick Law Olmsted was appalled by what he found as he travelled across the South in the 1850s. Writing of the ‘ignorance and torpidity’ of the people of North Carolina, he noted:

The teachers are, generally, totally unfitted for their business; young men, as a clergyman informed me, themselves not only unadvanced beyond the lowest knowledge of the elements of primary school learning, but often coarse, vulgar, and profane in their language and behaviour, who take up teaching as a temporary business, to supply the demand of a neighbourhood of people as ignorant and uncultivated as themselves…

This was very different to the situation in the northern states:

In the 1840s, the growth of state funded public education was blossoming in states from Connecticut to Illinois. However, the Southern states did not have a tradition of public education to build on, as the North did, and in fact, it was well after the Civil War before the South legislated for state supported schools.

Needless to state, educational opportunities for blacks in the South were even more dire.

This poor level of education across the board is arguably a factor that contributed to the intense religiosity of the South, for a lack of education can be seen to correlate with a high degree of religious fundamentalism. Looking at the modern South, Alabama and Mississippi are tied for the most religious state in the US, and they are also found within the bottom ten states for high school graduation and higher education. Likewise, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee all make the bottom 10 list for education and the top 10 list for the percentage of adults who are ‘highly religious’. Outside the South, similar correlations can be seen in Oklahoma and West Virginia, both of which appear in the two lists.

Throughout the antebellum period, then, deep religious commitment was a defining feature of the ‘Southern way of life’, and this continued into the postbellum and contemporary eras. Southern religiosity, of course, was not simply about the maintenance of white supremacy or a worldview that filled the void left by a lack of educational opportunities, as it also served an important communal purpose in a largely rural region:

A church, particularly a Southern church, used to be a community center.

It was where you made friends and kept up with friends, where you ate supper on Wednesday nights, played on a softball team, sent the kids after school, fulfilled your community service duties, made business connections, got your musical fix in the choir and maybe joined a reading or knitting club.

And being a part of a church once was, essentially, a status symbol for many people in the South.

The ‘black church’ in particular had a vital communal purpose, providing an oasis from white racism and a focal point for community activities, as well as playing a key role in the Civil Rights movement.

Identifying as a Christian and attending church have long been central to the life of the South, as has the contention that Southerners, inhabiting a large chunk of the ‘Bible Belt’, are deeply committed to family and to ‘traditional morality’. Indeed, a standard stereotypical image of Southerners holds that they are a bunch of Bible-thumping religious zealots, who advocate strict sexual standards, and spend half their lives in church. Increasingly, however, this picture is starting to look very inaccurate. It is worth examining how much contemporary Southern religiosity is actually about a deep ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, and how much of it is largely rooted in cultural norms and regional identity.

Matt Moore, writing for the Christian Post, recounts his experiences of growing up in Louisiana:

I was born and raised smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt. Almost everyone I knew intellectually assented to the truths of the Bible, had prayed a prayer at some altar in some church as a child, attended worship service regularly, voted Republican, and blessed the food at dinner…

As I continued to see the vast differences between the kind of Christian depicted in the Bible and the kind of Christian I observed in my church-on-every-corner culture, I began to question whether a profession of faith in the Bible Belt really even meant anything…

The lips of these moral, conservative, church-going Southerners knew the Christianese language. Their butts were acquainted with the church pews. They lived in close proximity to the things of God, but their hearts, from my limited perspective, couldn’t have been deader toward the Author of Life.

When Moore came to an evangelical faith himself and started talking to people about Jesus, he found that this did not elicit positive reactions, and that the conservative evangelicals around him ‘seemed utterly disinterested in the actual person of Jesus’.

Moore is far from alone. A 2017 Financial Times article on evangelical support for Donald Trump quotes Wayne Flynt, an Alabaman Baptist minister and emeritus professor of history at Auburn University. The article’s author writes: ‘I wondered how a thrice-married former casino owner — who had been recorded bragging about grabbing women by the genitals — had won over the faithful’:

Flynt’s answer is that his people are changing. The words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, are less central to their thinking and behaviour, he says. Church is less compelling. Marriage is less important. Reading from a severely abridged Bible, their political concerns have narrowed down to abortion and issues involving homosexuality…

Flynt says evangelical Christians are mainly mobilising against the sins they either do not want to commit (homosexual acts) or cannot commit (undergoing an abortion, in the case of men). They turn a blind eye toward temptations such as adultery and divorce that interest them.

A look at statistical data collected by Pew Research seems to bear this out. In Mississippi, 82% of adults say they believe in God with absolute certainty, although the number who attend church weekly (or claim to) is 49%. 54% of adults surveyed believe homosexuality ‘should be discouraged’ and 61% oppose or strongly oppose gay marriage. 59% believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. Despite the sizeable number of Mississippians with strong views on homosexuality and abortion, when it comes to morality in general, there seems to be much more flexibility. Asked about their belief in absolute standards for right and wrong, 38% agreed in their existence, but 60% said that ‘right or wrong depends on the situation’. Similarly, 48% of respondents cited non-religious sources for their understanding of right and wrong, such as ‘common sense’ (50% said religion). These are hardly positions we would generally associate with a strict religious worldview, suggesting the high level of religious identification is not linked to an equally high level of pious behaviour. Mississippi ranks highest out of all the states for births to unmarried mothers, second for states with high rates of pregnancy among women aged 15–19, and third lowest for number of married people. It is also the tenth most violent state in the US, and ranks fifth highest for incarceration rate. So, while Mississippi ranks highly for belief in God, and for church attendance, the majority of Mississippians hold morality to be situational, rather than absolute (except when it comes to homosexuality and abortion), and almost half do not cite Christianity as the primary source of their understanding of right and wrong. Heterosexual sex outside marriage, and not being married at all, are clearly seen by many Mississippians as acceptable behaviour, even though this violates the ‘traditional values’ they profess to uphold, and the violence and large prison population stand in contradiction to the notion that Mississippi is a deeply religious place in terms of people living in accordance with Christian moral standards (the long history of religion being used to justify slavery and then segregation also calls into question the notion that Mississippi was even historically especially Christian, except in name).

The statistics follow a similar pattern in neighbouring Alabama (joint most religious state) and Louisiana, with high levels of belief in God, high levels of church attendance, and high levels of commitment to ‘traditional values’ existing side-by-side with a belief that morality is situational, not absolute, high rates of teenage pregnancies and unmarried mothers, high rates of violence, and very large prison populations.

What all of this suggests is that the supposed deep Christian devotion of the South is in fact more a case of a deeply ingrained cultural identity in which claiming a belief in God and certain narrow moral standards, combined with going to church, are for many Southerners essential components of what it means to be ‘Southern’. As David French put it, ‘Southerners love God’. To be ‘Southern’, then is to be Christian, regardless of whether or not that religious affiliation has any significant impact on the way individuals actually live their lives. To be ‘Southern’ is to attend church (even though many admit they do not do so weekly) and – often – to give money to that church (indeed, the claim that the more religious states are more charitable than the less religious states falls apart once donations to churches and religiously-identified organisations are removed from the equation).

Perhaps, rather than viewing the South – and the Deep South in particular – as being uniquely and deeply Christian, it is more accurate to state that the South is uniquely religious. On the white side, that religion most strongly manifests itself as what might be termed ‘Southernism’. It has a God, it has churches, but it is also fundamentally ideologically grounded in the ‘Southern way of life’. This way of life is not inspired by the Bible and by the teachings of Jesus, but is instead nominally Christian and its primary beliefs are more grounded in ‘tradition’ than in the Bible itself. This is how slavery was able to be seen as being a Christian phenomenon and the ‘will of God’; it is how white preachers could give moral credence and a Christian stamp of approval to segregation, and why white Southerners saw no contradiction between expressing devotion to a Jesus who says “Love your neighbour as yourself,” while at the same time treating black Southerners as a sort of subhuman. And today, it is how large numbers of Southerners who identify as evangelical Christians can express a deep devotion to a President who engages in personal attacks, revels in the accumulation of worldly goods, has boasted of his sexual promiscuity, and is manifestly insincere in regard to his supposed ‘Christian’ beliefs.

Meanwhile, on the black side, Southern Christianity manifests itself as a community support network and political advocacy movement wrapped in the garb of religion. That is not to say black Southerners are not very religious, but rather to suggest that this form of Christianity is more based on black identity, black community, and social justice than it is on Biblical notions of sin and redemption. To give an obvious example, the majority of black children are born out of wedlock and raised in single parent households. So, while the ‘black church’ may have many adherents, it is clearly less interested in traditional notions of Christian morality than it is in offering support to black communities and an outlet for joyous singing and dancing.

Ultimately, then, the notion that the South is deeply Christian is debatable to say the least. The South is – overall – still deeply religious, both in terms of professed belief in God and church attendance, and there are various historical and sociological factors that underpin this, but the notion that the South is a key part of a ‘Bible Belt’ rests on a misunderstanding. Despite outward appearances, religion in the South is not Bible religion – it is Southern religion, and indeed it is religion of the South.