My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Fri, 24 Dec, 2004

Country and Christmas Fantasy

I'm back from my travels in Tennessee and Virginia. I did not go to North Carolina as originally planned because my prospective hosts had a death in the family and could not host me. So after visiting friends in Lexington, Virginia, I headed down to Chattanooga, Tennessee to visit an artist friend of mine, and then went on to Nashville where I spent restful time in a luxurious private guest suite in an upscale house owned by two more friends of mine. It's good to have friends! One of my Nashville couple is a real estate enthusiast and I volunteered to drive this aspiring homeowner and developer around on an extensive tour of many different suburban neighborhoods. We visited everything from decrepit bungalows, to hip neighborhoods under construction, to comfortable middle-class spreads, to freshly built McMansions which have sprouted like mushrooms all over the landscape. We also visited the mind-boggling palaces built by Nashville's richest, whether they are old-family industrialists or big successful country music stars. Those palaces have their own recording studios along with six-car garages and horse stables. I don't feel any sense of resentment toward someone who made big bucks in country music having a palace like this. It wouldn't be what I would spend the money on, but I'm not a country music performer, to say the very least.

We visited one of the clothing shops where country and western music people get their performing clothes, the inimitable "Katy K's Ranch Dressing." This hilarious establishment sells everything you need to look the part, whether you really are a performer or not. You can get decorated cowboy boots, all sorts of those wide-brimmed hats that all the country guys wear, and a wide variety of Western style shirts. I liked one in particular which was black with glitter bronze paisley lame' on the shoulders and glitter trim on the pockets. I would not be caught dead wearing this, though. There were also outfits for other types of music, such as southern rock (black T-shirts with rude slogans and pictures printed on them) and soul (sequined sheath dresses for ladies) and blues (two-toned shoes and wide-lapel jackets). You could also get a silver and gold metallic fabric jacket, if you just HAD to have the Elvis look.

Classical musicians don't get to wear this kind of stuff, unfortunately. Your average male string quartet musician, orchestra player, or concert pianist is locked into a black and white music box, though the lady soloist or singer can wear a fancy formal gown (but no sequined sheath dress and spike heels).

I drove quite a bit through Tennessee, to and from Nashville. I had a library of my own CD's with me, including modern classical, jazz, and ambient. I suspect that I was the only person listening to Hindemith, at least while driving, in the entire state of Tennessee. Occasionally I turned on the radio and listened to country music. I like listening to the words of country songs. Country music is not entirely about misery. A lot of it is about nostalgia for an idealized rural world now gone by. Many songs are about happy, devoted couples who still love each other after many years. What other type of music, or any art form, dares to write about this theme?

Of course there was plenty of Christmas music of various kinds, including country Christmas tunes. I must confess something (no, not shocking, this is a proper and decent Blog). What is it? I love anything that is "country." I grew up in the suburbs and have lived in cities for most of my life. But I love old country stores, country cooking, rural scenes and architecture, woodstoves, calico calendars, country crafts, hayseed music, tractors, old splintery barns, kerosene lamps, silos and feedlots, rocking chair porches, cattle, window box flowers, and other manifestations of rural Americana.

I am well, well aware that everything that I love about "country" is a fantasy. I have never lived or worked in anyplace rural, and have never experienced the drudgery, squalor, and impoverished misery of real rural life. I hope I never will. Every time I go down one of those old country roads, I am the city not-so-slicker from the outside who sees only the image and not the reality. But I don't care! It is that idealized fantasy, celebrated in country songs, which I believe in. The fantasy is packaged for us city travellers in the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain which despite its bad reputation among intellectuals, is my favorite roadside eatery. Where else can I get deliciously greasy country ham biscuits, glutinous chicken and dumplings, stewed greens with ham shreds in them, and stewed pinto beans with ham chunks? Make these things myself? Are you kidding? If there was a Cracker Barrel near me, I would weigh three hundred pounds.

Cracker Barrel does the country fantasy perfectly. They have displays of real artifacts, a crackling wood fire to warm folks in the winter, rocking chairs on a "porch" to sit on in summer, real barrels with checkerboards on the top and oversize checkers for kids to play with. They have a "country store" laden with fresh-made nostalgic stuff and old-style country music playing on their soundtrack. They've got everything nice, without the pig stench and the cow manure. The waiters and waitresses and cooks and maintenance people do the hard work. All you do, for a modest price, is eat. Even if you live in the big city, this can be your totally artificial old country home.

Just as "country" is a fantasy, so is "Christmas." Christmas comes in two main fantasy scenarios: the retro-American and the Victorian, or medieval, English. Have any of you ever seen, let alone heard the jingle bells of, a one-horse open sleigh? I was astonished when one of my co-workers told me that horse-drawn sleighs are still used as winter transportation, items of civic pride in the small New Hampshire town of his parents. You mean sleighbells really exist? What about wassail? What about silver bells, nutcrackers, toy soldiers, Yule logs? As far as I'm concerned, all the things I hear about in Christmas songs are ritual mythology, frozen into existence from some previous century when they may have existed, but now brought out only as a kind of collective cultural drug to get us through the dreadful dark days of the Winter Solstice. What I find even more weird is the use of winter motifs such as snow, evergreens, icicles, and furry hats to celebrate Christmas in tropical areas like South Florida. Fake snow among the palm trees! I don't even want to get into the religious mythology of the Christmas fantasy, what with its bizarre worship of the baby God (I've already said too much right there).

You may rightly gather from the paragraphs above that I don't like the "Holiday season." I don't just not like it, I detest it. I want to hibernate in a cave until it is over. I don't want to eat more sweets. I don't want to be rolled in the sticky frosting of the Holiday Season. Somewhere out there are physicists and mathematicians, probably from China or India where the quickly globalizing fantasy has only just begun to corrupt their solstice time. I bet there are even some from the "West," ignoring the season. They are sitting with their experiments or their theories and are unmoved by snowmen or candy canes or tinsel or trees or ornaments or pretty wrapping paper or the idealized simulation of Victorian England or snowy imaginary small-town northern America. My sentiments are with them. (God) rest ye merry gentlemen of science!

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