What’s Making Me Happy: Country Music

This is an occasional series following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment. I use some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

I grew up listening to a lot of country music, both the recent vintage from the 1990s and classic artists like Johnny Horton. To this day, I regularly put on country albums or songs when I want to scratch a nostalgic itch, so I was thrilled to learn that the latest Ken Burns project is the history of country music, now airing on PBS.

The first episode of the series explores the origin of country music and the associated instruments, including the fiddle, the banjo, and the acoustic guitar before turning to examine the first stars of the genre, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. The second episode continues the story westward to Texas during the Depression.

Burns makes a couple of specific choices in the first episode that make it one of my favorite installment in any KB documentary.

Burns chooses to identify all of the talking heads––an all-star mix of writers, singers, and musicians from Merle Haggard to Roseanne Cash to Ketch Secor to Rhiannon Giddens to John McEuen––by their state rather than by their job, profession, or title. Although he goes away from it for the second episode, this decision makes country music a national genre rather than uniquely Appalachia and underscore the power of place. At the same time, it underscores other themes of the episode such as how groups like the Carter Family came from rural Appalachia, others, like the Atlanta factory worker Fiddling’ John Carson, consciously adopted a rural aesthetic––a presentation that the record companies later encouraged their stars to do.

Another thematic point that I appreciated in the first episode is how Burns explores intersection through its connection to the Blues and early Jazz. Some of this was negative like Henry Ford anti-semitic diatribe against jazz that accompanied his decision to sponsor country dances of his youth, but much more was neutral or even positive. Burns examines how A.P. Carter (the problematic character behind Sarah and Maybelle Carter) acquired music for the group, including from black churches and how Louis Armstrong performed on Blue Yodel #9 with Jimmie Rodgers.

In addition to the substantive intersection between these genres, Burns also explores the power of the record labels and radio stations (complete with John R. Brinkley and the station he created to promote his xenotranplantation procedure that restored male performance by putting goat testicles in humans). In Burns’ telling, the earliest record labels that put out country music were the labels that put out music for ethnic minorities. The original Grand Old Opry radio show on NBC, by contrast, followed immediately after performances classical music and opera.

Suffice to say, I am not disappointed. This is a recognizably Ken Burns production, complete with Peter Coyote and slow panning shots of old pictures, and, for all of its detail, there are points where he has to leave out the complexities of early pioneers in order to tell the story of the people whose contributions most shaped the genre. The second episode largely picks up where the first one leaves off, but gave back a couple of the subtle points like the identification of people by place. Nevertheless, the first two episodes are a richly-textured story of a genre interwoven with the currents of American history.

Errol Morris’ “The Unknown Known”

“I bet Rumsfeld is one hell of a poker player.” –my first comment walking out of Errol Morris’ documentary about Donald Rumsfeld.

Before seeing the film I had heard Morris talk about sitting down with the former defense secretary and he contrasted the experience with that of filming McNamara for “A Fog of War.” McNamara, he said, grappled with the consequences of his policies in Vietnam while Rumsfeld was glib, disingenuous, empty, and not someone who was at all relatable. A review in the Atlantic follows this same tact by saying that Rumsfeld was unsuccessful in his verbal jousts and that Morris’ true target in the film was smugness.

I do not totally agree. Don’t get me wrong, Rumsfeld was absolutely smug and does not vindicate himself in the film, but focusing on this surface attitude overlooks some larger points.

The issue is that Rumsfeld appeared to have three modes: toeing in the party line, coyly defending Rumsfeld against the rest of the Bush-administration appointees, and the truth, from his point of view. My contention here is that Rumsfeld was telling the truth more frequently than he gets credit for.

One theme Rumsfeld repeated in his answers was his unflappable faith in rational actors. He is a realist, through and through and the great failing of realists is their faith in rationality in the face of an irrational world. Take two examples:

  1. With the prisoner abuse scandals Rumsfeld tried to justify the sequence of events and defend the D.o.D. by pointing out that 1) the interrogators went further than permitted and 2) they failed to heed a memo that retracted the order. On one hand, this is Rumsfeld passing the blame on down the line where another person would express remorse. On the other, I do not doubt that Rumsfeld believed that his responsibility was done with once he sent the memo. Does this absolve Rumsfeld? No, but given the situation, his power was a good deal more limited than many people would like to think and I can understand why he might have believed himself not responsible for the prisoners and certainly not solely responsible for the military decision in the Bush administration.
  2. In a line of questions that dealt with the capture of Saddam Hussein, Rumsfeld said he had no interest in talking with the Iraqi leader. Rumsfeld had met him in the 1980s and found him to be a pompous blowhard (in so many words), but had connected with one of Saddam Hussein’s lieutenants on that same trip. Rumsfeld said that that was who he wanted to talk to, rational actor to rational actor to learn how he could let Iraq get into a war with the United States–he was genuinely perplexed as to how the two sides got to the point of war, but it was clear that he expected Iraqi decision making to be based on the same rational process as his own.

But the world is not made of rational actors, on either side, which was one of Rumsfeld’s grand delusions. Likewise, there is a persistent glossing of WMDs (chemical, nerve, atomic) and a Nuclear Program that was used as justification for the invasion of Iraq, and The Terrorists were characterized as some sort of unified front against which the US and Co. fight against as the Defenders of Freedom. These are two of the great myths of 21st century political discourse that Rumsfeld used in his answers and Errol Morris slipped into his questions. Thus, a final point: n both the film and the clips of press conferences from Rumsfeld time at the D.o.D., Rumsfeld only answered the questions asked, and not all the questions were good.

“Unknown Known” didn’t do Rumsfeld any favors in terms of his legacy because he was smug, clever, sometimes coy, and unrepentant. But to dismiss him as such gives Rumsfeld both too much and too little credit.