A thought, on countries and country

Listening to Johnny Cash at the moment, I’m reminded of a thought I’ve had a few times, which is that one of the odd differences between Britain and America is that for all British people like to think of themselves as nature-lovers (“England’s green and pleasant land” and all that), and think of America in terms of its big cities, the rural is almost completely missing from our music in a way it isn’t in the US.

Oh, we have lots of songs *about* the country — you’ll only find Cliff Richard out in the country, the Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, and so on — but all those songs are about the country as a place to escape from the city, and they’re as idealised as the California of the Beach Boys.

What we don’t have, and what a lot of American music has always had, is music where the rural life is taken for granted as a background for the songs, so in Busted Johnny Cash or Ray Charles can sing “I got a cow that’s gone dry and a hen that won’t lay/And a big stack of bills getting bigger each day”, or in Movie Magg Carl Perkins will offer to take his date to the cinema on horseback. And this is the background for almost all blues and country music right through the 60s (not quite all — there’s an urbanised strain of blues that comes along in the 50s, but a *lot* of blues still assumes knowledge of the rural lifestyle as a background). And this is still true today for a lot of it — listen to Steve Earle and a lot of the songs are about things like trying to cope when the farm is repossessed, and the same goes for a lot of the music I hear on the radio when I visit my in-laws in Minnesota.

I know Britain is far more urbanised than the US, but it’s surprising that I can’t think of *any* British songs taking rural life as an everyday background assumption, rather than as a subject of the song. The closest I can think of is Love On A Farmboy’s Wages by XTC, and even that is clearly set in a DH Lawrence past (“shilling for the fellow who brings the sheep in” twelve years after British currency went decimal). Other than that… well, there’s “I Got A Brand New Combine Harvester” by the Wurzels…

I wonder why this is?

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16 Responses to A thought, on countries and country

  1. Andrew Rilstone says:

    I suppose this doesn’t count? http://youtu.be/zTQ-KtCe2bc

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Again, it’s more about the country than taking it as a background fact — although I did realise that Jake Thackray is precisely the kind of thing I was talking about…

  2. Iain Coleman says:

    There’s always “Jollity Farm”. Apart from that…

    …I was sure you must be wrong. If nothing else, surely early Genesis and Jethro Tull. But on reflection, although they (and other progressive rock groups) often use pastoral elements in their music, I can’t think of a clear example of the lyrics invoking a rural setting in the way that you describe. You might find the woods in which a witch lurks, or a stone circle, but these are abstracted, archetypical settings with little or no contact with the day-to-day realities of rural life.

    An interesting observation.

  3. Possibly because America is simply so much bigger, with such great distances between even minor settlements, so it’s still quite easy for some to live their entire lives without setting foot inside a city, even in 2015. There is still wilderness here and on a large scale, and even digging my own garden I am aware of the possibility that the number of people to have turned the soil over prior to my arrival is probably not yet in double figures. The rural has room to be an entity in itself, as opposed to subsidiary to the economy of the town or city. That said, there’s English folk music of course, although how much of it could be regarded as authentic (as opposed to an exercise in supposed heritage) I couldn’t say.

  4. TAD says:

    American Country & Western and Hillbilly music and bluegrass has its roots in old English folk songs, to a large extent. So old rural England lives on artistically, in that sense. It had to be transplanted to North America to survive, ironically.

  5. Larry S. says:

    Andrew, have a listen to to the third and final album by Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance, “One For The Road”. I believe that falls under the rubric of English Country Music…

  6. Hollistic Tendancies says:

    I still think it’s because you keep your poor people in cities. They don’t lose the farm, they lose council houses. People with farms diversify into ice cream and organic farm shops and petting zoos. They’re not like the farms I grew up on and around.

  7. Isn’t there some in the folk tradition end of pop: Jethro Tull’s “Heavy Horses”, “Good Morning Weathercock” and even the ‘northern folk’ aspects of Broadsword and the Beast and Stormwatch?

  8. Gavin R says:

    (Not using my WordPress account because of reasons.)

    You’re right that Britain is more urbanised than America. It’s probably also significant that Britain started to get urbanised much earlier than America. The problems with London you’re always complaining about are nothing new: England has been skewed towards London for hundreds of years. London was already disproportionately important in the middle ages as England’s largest port. Its population exploded in the 16th and 17th centuries because it was the biggest centre of manufacturing trades, so the demand for labour pulled in migrants from all over England and this more than compensated for high mortality in the city. There were times in the 17th and 18th centuries when up to 10% of England’s population lived in London. So England was already very urbanised when the English were only just starting to colonise America. Even in the 18th century there were only a few big cities in British America. They were all ports on the east coast and none was as big as London. The American colonies depended heavily on imports of manufactured goods from England, and English businesses depended on the American export market, which meant that American boycotts of British goods were an important part of the Revolution. Americans didn’t colonise the mid-west until the 19th century, so they were still moving into the country when Britain was very urbanised and industrialised (by this time the industrial revolution had shifted a lot of manufacturing from London to the West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Lancashire, and these areas had become very urbanised). This ties in with Lawrence’s point about America being so big, and feeling like not many people have worked the land.

    Because of all this, the majority of English people have been cut off from rural culture for longer than even urban Americans. I don’t want to look like I’m arguing that culture is entirely determined by economics, but the economic structure of society must have had some influence on what was culturally available and how meanings might change. The way that English popular culture tends to treat the countryside as an Other rather than just normal is probably somehow related to England’s long history of urbanisation. There must have been an authentic rural folk culture at some time, but probably a very long time ago, and none of it survives now. The folk revival from the mid-20th century onwards is more like VGPS: people getting nostalgic about something they’ve never actually known (although mostly without the self-criticism of VGPS). Maybe even Thomas Hardy was imagining things that had already gone or never existed. Also worth noting that the trope of going off to the big city to seek your fortune has been well-established in English culture at leat since Dick Whittington.

    As to Holly’s point, we do have poor people in the country (seasonal labourers who don’t own land; long-term unemployed people; old people on stat pensions) but they tend to be erased because the urban establishment isn’t interested in the countryside, and the country establishment isn’t interested in poor people. The Countryside Alliance claims to represent the countryside but mostly represents rich Tory landowners who like foxhunting. A basic income, an increase in the supply (and therefore reduction in price) of housing, and more public transport would benefit lots of country people, but not the landowners, especially because a basic income would most likely have to be funded by a Land Value Tax. Again, there’s a long-term historical difference: England is still living with the indirect effects of feudal land tenure but America isn’t so much. I’m not naive enough to think that the distribution of land in America has ever been egalitarian – it’s obviously skewed towards white men – but the way that homesteads were claimed in the (supposed) wilderness has probably led to more small farms. This difference might be partly because there’s so much more land in America than in England, as well as when it was carved up.

    Another random thought: the old English ballads that we know about because they were printed a long time ago are often not particularly rural. There are lots of fairy stories and military/naval adventures. There’s a huge sub-genre just about women dressing up as men to join the army or navy. When ballads introduce the characters, they might well live in a town and work in manufacturing.

  9. Sharon Frederick says:

    Even if we’re excluding the whole of the various traditions of tad British folk music, there’s still quite a lot being written..?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, the Carthy would definitely count. Actually, thinking about it, so would much of the first Imagined Village album, too. So maybe I was talking rubbish. It happens.

      • Gavin R says:

        I think you’re onto something because regardless of lyrical content or “authenticity”, country music has been a big commercial success in America for almost as long as there’s been broadcast and recorded music, but I don’t think Britain has anything like it, at least in commercial terms. That probably has something to do with the reasons discussed above. I wonder if commercial radio is also part of it. Britain didn’t have it until the 1970s but I assume America had it much earlier. Radio advertising is a way of making money from rural people who like country music, even if they’re too poor to buy the records. That makes songs about the concerns of poor rural people commercially viable. Also, by the 20th century the US had a much larger population than the UK, which probably made it easier for two or more musical mainstreams to exist side by side.

  10. Home Counties Escapee says:

    Well, Bernie Taupin spends large amounts of time talking in his lyrics for Elton John about his upbringing in Lincolnshire (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is the obvious one). But he hides this within a pastiched Americana, so you don’t immediately spot it’s there.

    Also in radio-friendly mode, Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ and Peter Gabriel’s ‘Solsbury Hill’ seem to me to both be about the outer-commuter-belt experience… they reference rural (or semi-rural) locations, but (if you want an approach that is like that of country-blues) they are both emphatically middle-class, neither has any understanding of agricultural work.

    In addition, there was a good strain of British bands in the 90s who were effectively bored disaffected quirky indie kids from rural areas … I can’t remember who half of them were now, but I propose Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci as representative of the sort of thing I’m on about. The thing is, most of these bands’ approach to lyrics was not realist, depictive, but surreal, random, allusive. That is a key issue; when British musicians from rural areas decide to write about their experience, it is not a given that they do so in a way you can understand exactly what they’re on about.

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