Country music

Nobody knows what country music is, or if someone does he has concealed it from me. I took it for an aerial collision of hillbilly boogie and cowboy swing, crashing into a honky-tonk bar with a banjo and a scatter of Gaelic fiddles. But I could be wrong.

As a lad I took to country and folk, in opposition to rock and metal, by the same instinct that drew me to Bach and Purcell and Mozart. It was musical. In retrospect I see that it was also religious, in the very broad sense of being animated by spiritual “concerns,” starting from a tragic view of life, yet hopeful, at the boundary of sin and redemption. As opposed to just sex and drugs. In that country universe, a melodic and harmonic and often comic joy carries a narrative in which things do not always work out; in which people don’t always get what they want, or even what they deserve; in which one mistake leads to another, until something bad happens. But as good narrative, it does not preach. It just sits back and describes.

I also took to jazz, with the help of my father, but I am writing here of low-class popular music, such as was shared and actually sung by e.g. my fellow high school students in an Ontario small town, dangerously close to a big city. Some time in the late ’sixties they began to divide into two camps. I will call this in my ignorance the country/rock divide. The rock people would migrate to the city, where they would live prosperously sterile lives; the country people would stay home and get hard jobs and raise children.

Not always in practice, or course, but consistently in principle: rock was from the outset an expression of alienation, starting from one’s family and immediate neighbourhood, and ending with an alienation from music itself. (To say nothing of sanity.)

Counter-currents should not be discounted, entirely: there were rock bands whose members had some musical training and might know, sort-of, how to play their instruments — the band Chicago swims into memory; along with irrepressible poets like Dylan, Simon, Cohen, or even a Beatle or two — a folk stream within the stone rock that broadened its melodic and lyrical capacities and made it, sort-of, compatible with country music.

Something should be mentioned of rhythm here, and the thumping base that inculcated “tribal.” It was barbaric, but also, hypnotizing. It pulled things into itself, like a black hole, dislocating the brain; it required drugs other than alcohol to appreciate. It should never have been tolerated. It went with lyrics that were rude and lewd, and I would guess some learned person, with tremendous stamina, or indifference to pain, could trace the further decline through punk and rap.

One could also hear, as the years passed, country music being lured into this hole, by the scent of money — into this death trap of contrived “relevance,” with its inevitable “rights” posturing, and the lifestyle that was rich and famous. But I know so little of popular music, today, that I cannot trace this history myself, and will be content with a swathing condemnation.

The music of the Church is another matter. Chant is its natural condition, and the Baroque assimilation of the new, “classical” genres worked only when they were carefully adapted to the strict requirements of the liturgy (of course, usus antiquior), and the internal, spiritual movements of the Mass. Modern hymns (Romantic era and forward) have, to my mind, no place in a church, though lots of room outside it. They are instead part of an “outreach,” or Christianizing of the world beyond the narthex, which we re-enter going down the steps. In a healthy society (one that is not poisoning itself) the “secular” music, or music of the streets and the taverns, will be shot through with nutrient religion.

For the musical mission of the Church Catholic is, as I see it, two-fold at the present day. First, to chase irreverent music out of the sanctuary, in the spirit of Christ whipping the money-changers. Then second, to invade their larger “marketplace,” systematically, with a view to eradicating godlessness entirely. We need, in effect, to re-invent country and folk traditions, from the hymn to the ballad, and the dancing jig, as loving expressions of life itself. And this, I suppose, is where Protestant and other converts can help us, for as a result of the desecration of the Mass (novus ordo), inside, we Catholics have also become deaf and unmusical outside the Church. Music is crucial to the binding of family, and neighbourhood, and to the direction of the human soul. We cannot simply surrender it to the Devil, in the Islamic manner.

This does not mean a cheap moralizing music, but a recovery of the poetry that embraces life in all of its facets, including sin and its explication. Great music, as great literature and art, conveys truths. It is the theatre of the world, in which the truth happens; or more succinctly, “the music of what happens” (Seamus Heaney quoting an ancient Irish definition of poetry, I think).


Woke this morning with an old country song in my head. Not that old: less than forty years, and therefore from the terminal phase of this art in its decadent, Nashville form. But it is good in its kind and will do as an example of something that embodies “truth to life,” without a heavy hand. I transcribe the lyrics below, minus repetitions, from the way Emmylou Harris sang it, back when she was young and before she became a “landmine commie.” (My crush on her is incurable, however.)

I’m sure she didn’t write it. (Gentle reader can do my homework for me.) She just knew how to sing it, perfectly with the fiddles.

Note, that the movement of the language is Shakespearean. Which is to say, like that of the later Will Shakespeare, it plays recklessly over the demands of drawing-room syntax and scansion, to convey movements of association, thought and feeling, that formalized language would only stiff. Colloquial, one might say, but not what the liberal academics mean by that. Rather, sharply elevated colloquial, tuned to serve the dramatically explosive:

Mary took to runnin with a travellin man,
Left her momma cryin with her head in her hands:
Such a sad case; so broken hearted.

She say, “Momma gotta go, gotta get outta here,
“Gotta get outta town, tired a hangin around:
“Gotta roll on, tween the ditches.”

Lord, she never woulda done it if she hadden got drunk,
Hadden started runnin with a travellin man,
If she hadn’t started taken … those crazy chances.

She say, “Daughter, let me tell yabout the travellin kind,
“Everywhere they goes such a very short time:
“He’s a long gone, before you know it.”

She say, “Never have I known it when it felt so good,
“Never have I knew it when I knew I could,
“Never have I done it when it looked so right.”

Down in the swampland, anything goes;
It’s alligator bait and the bars don’t close:
It’s the real thing, down in Lou’siana.

Didj y’ever see a Cajun when he really got mad?
Really got trouble like a daughter gone bad?
Gets a real hot, in Lou’siana.

Oh, the stranger better move it or he gonna get killed,
Gonna hafta geddit or a shotgun will:
Ain’t no time … for lengthy speeches.

Just an ordinary story bout the way things go,
Round around and no body knows
But the highway: goes on forever.