Webmaster Ken Smith and I are extremely fortunate in that we get emails
from across the country telling the personal stories and views of
working Americans. Every once in a while we receive a letter so dead on
accurate about the American condition that it leaves us damned near
speechless. This is one.
-- Joe Bageant
It was with great pleasure that I plowed through Deer Hunting With Jesus. I thought you did a nice job of splitting the difference between Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter With Kansas" and Jim Goad's "The Redneck Manifesto." Reading your book, I had the same sort of reaction I have when I think about the folks I left behind in my own middle of nowhere hometown. I lurch between feelings of sympathy for their plight on the one hand, and disgust ("How can they be so god-damn stupid!") on the other. I can tell you are familiar with these sorts of thoughts. I was also glad to see you address the role that small-town politics plays in maintaining the status quo. The big city liberals (of which I am now, thankfully, one) think that voting for Obama or Hillary is going to make any sort of difference in this country. Like real estate, politics is local.
But overall I don't know which struck me more -- the quality of your writing and observations or just sheer disbelief. You see, as a former small-town midwestern farm boy turned atheist godless socialist commie heathen, I have to say, I thought I was the only one. The number of people who grow up small town and working class and who escape that mind-set are few. Some may go on to be more "successful" in an economic sense, but I meet very few who go on to experience the world outside the fishbowl of the US of A mindset. Fewer still who actually question the things they've been brought up to believe and accept. So, hats off to you from a fellow-traveler, just for having the sheer orneriness to pull it off, much less write about it so effectively.
Maybe a little background is necessary to describe where I'm coming from. It may be a cliché but I have to say that rock n' roll saved my life. I was especially struck by the description of your friend, the one you thought was a better musician and artist than you in your more youthful days. The one who completely abandoned his creative efforts in his attempts to scrape by, and is now an embittered ditto-head and Republican. The small-town mindset can be death to any kind of non-mainstream ideas or action, creative or otherwise.
Me, I had no desire to stay on the farm, but growing up in a tiny town in the Ozarks (I'm pretty sure I can win any "I'm more redneck than you" pissing contest -- my school was actually too small to have an FFA chapter!) my worldview was severely limited, and I had no idea what the hell to do with my life. Getting out of there was a priority, but otherwise I had no clue. The idea of being a musician seemed about as realistic as running off to join the circus. I think most kids would have started some kind of garage band in high school but for me there was simply nobody else to play with. Hell, I had to drive 50 miles to the next town just to find somebody to take guitar lessons from. Music served to open my mind up to what was going on outside my little grease-stain of a town, and the blinders started to come off, but it was a slow process that took many years.
When I got to college (state college; school of agriculture, natch) I finally did start my first band, a rootsy punk rock outfit that was equal parts Link Wray, Hound Dog Taylor, and The Kids. By an unlikely twist of fate, we got picked up by a little German record label, and next thing you know we got to tour Europe for a couple of months. Now, as you probably understand but many people higher up on the economic ladder may not, my family never once took a vacation. Ever. Dairy farming is one of those 24/7/365 propositions. Also, I never would have had the money to spend a couple of months in Europe backpacking and using my Eurorail pass like many kids from wealthier families. So while these tours involved playing a show every night and were definitely "work", they are the only way a working class redneck punk such as myself would have had a shot to see the world. And what I saw blew my freaking mind.
My band had done some tours in the states, in typical budget-rock circumstances. Sleeping on people's floors and such. We did the same thing in Europe, but what blew my mind was that the quality of the floors was vastly improved. The difference in the quality of life of the average "socialist" western European compared to the average working class American was not only obvious, but also contrary to everything I had been brainwashed to believe while growing up in the greatest country in the world. I know these sorts of observations are neither original nor surprising to most educated and rational folks, but coming from where I was I could hardly be classified as either. Also, being from Missouri, I guess ya really do have to "show me" before I'll believe it. Quite frankly, it took a few years of cognitive dissonance to even come to terms with the idea. But, I had seen it myself. Explaining it to others, well, forget about it. They don't want to hear it. Rural America doesn't really even believe that Europe exists, except as maybe where a rich cousin went on vacation.
I eventually got the hell out of Missouri and down to Austin, Texas, where I have managed to shake off most of my religious and cultural programming. I can't say that I'm that much smarter than the average Joe back in my hometown, I just had a few more lucky breaks (parents that read and valued education, for one) than other folks down there. Fast forward a decade, and now I've put out a few records and made numerous trips all over Europe, as well as to Australia and New Zealand. I don't make a living from playing music, that's nearly impossible nowadays. But I've been able to indulge my creative impulses and use them to finance my travels. As for the small town world I left? If anything, things have gotten worse. The European Union has raised the fortunes of much of western Europe, while the decline in small town America has been even more pronounced. Of all the places I've traveled that reminded me of my home the most, I'd have to say it was -- Serbia! Hell, a small village there isn't that different in feel from a little one in Missouri or Arkansas, and they had a damn WAR there. But try to tell that to the average liberal, in Europe or the states, and they won't believe you.
I can sometimes get pretty irritated at my European friends. It gets old constantly hearing how dumb Bush is, even if you happen to agree. And I guess it's my inner redneck coming out, but my orneriness is sometimes aroused when I hear bitching about rich, fat, and stupid Americans. Most Europeans, though they would be loathe to admit it, have their consciousness shaped and molded by the media just as much as their US counterparts. From the constant portrayal in the media, they seem to have bought the line that all Americans are loaded. I've had a hard time understanding this, it's not like I think all Mexicans are rich just because the characters on Univision soaps have nice houses. But that's what seems to have sunk in over there. If they come over to the states for a holiday, they never make it to the rural backwaters where I grew up. They don't understand being one medical problem away from bankrupt. They don't understand the reality of no social safety net whatsoever. If you look at the list of the worlds wealthiest nations, the USA ranks above Switzerland. But only a dumb redneck who couldn't find Switzerland on a map (or a liberal, Euro or American, who's never been to Niangua, Missouri) could possibly believe that the average American was better off than the average Swiss citizen.
Unlike you, I have no plans on ever going back to a small town, my hometown or anywhere else. The rampant racism, bible-thumping, and ignorance are too much for me to handle. But just as the Europeans can rankle me, I can also see where the typical American liberal rubs common folks the wrong way. To illustrate I'll go back to music, which got me started on this rant in the first place. At any American university worth its corduroy blazers and suede elbow patches you will find an ethnomusicology department. You will find intense study devoted to Javanese Gamalen or the music of the Baka Pygmies. But you will have to look very hard to find anyone who considers American indigenous music worthy of academic study. Grad students can travel to a remote village anywhere in the world to study a musical style, but you will never find one venturing out to East Bumfuck in America to see what the "natives" here listen to. Though you wouldn't know it from looking at the academic world, America has a rich musical tradition of poor folks who created interesting music. Poor white folks have actually made cultural contributions to this country, really! But throw a rock at a university music school in the states and you'll hit a dozen people writing papers on Fela Kuti before you'll find somebody who even knows who Merle Travis is. The simple fact is that the music of poor white trash isn't sexy enough to merit study, just like the poverty of poor white trash isn't a cause for hand wringing in the liberal world. Rednecks can tell that none of these rich liberal types gives two shits about them, not even as a cultural curiosity, and they vote accordingly.
I can sympathize with your buddy who is too busy with simply making ends meet to be able to pick up the guitar anymore. Even though I've got no interest in bling, and I live pretty small, it's sometimes hard to keep the fire burning. I never had any illusions that I was going to make it big, but I used to be able to at least cover my expenses. Now, hell, gas costs four times as much, but an unknown band on the road is still lucky if they get paid a hundred bucks for a weeknight show. That won't even fill up the van now. Fewer buy records or CDs anymore, they download everything. And the housing bubble drove up the price of houses, so good luck being able to afford a place to practice. Hell, when I first moved to Austin there were plenty of house parties in run down pads. Now, all the slackers living there got kicked out so granite countertops could go in and a flip could be made.
I was glad to see you address the housing bubble in your book. Cheap living space is an important thing to have in order to do anything creative, especially music. So now a musician has gotta spend a few thousand on a home studio, to record some stuff to post for free on a web page? Needless to say, you gotta be able to afford the expensive house to put that studio in, with the equipment and high-speed internet connection besides. You've gotta have the education to grasp the technical know-how needed to set up your Pro-tools workstation and update your internet site. You've gotta be able to lose money on the road for weeks at a time. Now that you can download any song for free online, the days of dreaming of a big record contract are over. You have to finance all this yourself. No poor bastard can afford that.
Working class now means you only have time enough for working. Creativity? Forget it. We've got cable. Easier to consume than it is to create, especially when you get home from a twelve hour shift. Don't even get me started on music education in this country, it's as bad as art education. Take away the time to do something creative, the space to do it in, and the education to even know such things are possible, and you get what we've got now. What passes for American culture.
I guess my fear is that the age of working class art is over. That there won't be another Woody Guthrie comin' down the pipe. Or Roger Miller, or Lee Hazelwood. All small town midwestern boys who went on to make some legendary American music. It's been this way for awhile in the world of visual art. Even "folk art" is made by the well-heeled at this point. Music held out a little bit longer but it is going the same direction. If things continue at this rate, the only people making music are going to be the sons and daughters of the idle rich, squandering the family fortune. Soon enough finding a redneck who can strum a guitar will be as likely as finding one who does charcoal sketches in his spare time. Hell, that's too damn faggy anyway. Why waste your time with that when there's money to be made? As for entertainment, again: hell, we got cable.
Meanwhile, one more aspect of American life gets pissed away. It's enough to make ya move to Belize, right? Me, I've considered moving outside the US, but I haven't been able to bite the bullet on that just yet. Of course thanks to my stellar public education I have no foreign language skills (hell, my school didn't offer foreign languages. My school didn't offer GEOMETRY!) so relocating to Holland or Germany would be mighty difficult. But frankly it looks more appealing every day.
Well, Joe, it's been a long rant and I haven't solved anything by it, but I just wanted to let you know that your book has provided a bit of a light in these dark American days. Nice to know that there are folks out there who share some thoughts similar to my own.
Oh, one more thing: Broke commie that I am, I checked your book out from that socialist institution that is the public library. But I'd be glad to send ya a couple of my records as a token of appreciation. Keep writing 'em, and I'll keep reading 'em.
"Doing the work of five men all by my own damn self"