That sentence is the title of historian Bill Malone's new book about country music (the subtitle is Country Music and the Southern Working Class). Before that, in 1981, it was the title of a hit record by country music neo-traditionalist Ricky Skaggs. In 1951, it was recorded by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. But long before any of this, it was (and still is) a common piece of folk wisdom among lower-class white people, especially in the South.
For many people of other regions or social classes, the saying may sound odd, counter-intuitive, and even un-American. In America, we're often told that "getting above your raisin'"transcending the circumstances of birthis the main point of existence. If Abe Lincoln had stayed in the log cabin, who would care? If Elvis had become a sincere but flat-broke folk singer, we wouldn't know his name. Americans don't buy stories about virtuous poor boys who stay poor, and we're offended at the suggestion that there might be something wrong with individual self-realization. The impulse to rise above our origins is buried deep in our national DNA. Immigrants have always come here to escape poverty and persecution and become rich and powerful. The right to perpetual self-invention might as well be enshrined in the Constitution.
The heretical wisdom embodied in "Don't get above your raisin'" suggests that roots, family, communal identity, and solidarity are all more important than individual striving or success. This is a way of thinking that most American intellectuals would associate with "traditional" or "pre-modern" cultures. But Malone, a professor emeritus in history from Tulane University, is also a good old boy from East Texas who knows that the preference for group loyalty and solidarity has lived on in modern America among rural people and blue-collar workers. In Don't Get Above Your Raisin', he argues persuasively that, in the last half of the 20th century, country music, which expressed the daily concerns of white Southern working people, broke out of the Southern region to become the cultural voice of America's white working class.
Country's appeal has been rooted in lyrics that tell real (or real-seeming) stories about the lives of ordinary people. As Malone identifies the country worldview, the people in the songs are often caught between polarities such as domesticity vs. the open road (think of the Carter Family vs. Jimmy Rodgers); hedonism vs. evangelical faith (think Jerry Lee Lewis vs. Jerry Lee Lewis); and super-patriotism vs. a keen sense of injustice and grievance (the Merle Haggard of "Okie From Muskogee" vs. the Merle Haggard of "A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today").
According to Malone, relief from these irresolvable tensions is found chiefly in the nightlife of dancing and/or drinking and in a sense of humor that pervades daily life. Malone also sees contemporary Nashville, and the music's fans, caught, like all working Americans, between the traditions of family, faith, and community and the allure of consumerist culture. The evidence in the malls, at Wal-Mart, and on Top 40 country radio suggests that tradition is suffering a one-sided rout.
Still, in country music, and in working-class culture, the greatest sins are pretense and snobberygetting above your raisin', to be precise. It is okay to be fabulously wealthy (as most of the country music singers are), but it is unforgivable to give the impression that wealth, fame, or worldly success actually counts for anything. Whether they believe it or not, country singers always ascribe their good fortune to "the Lord," and maybe luck, and insist that they are still the same people they always were, and not really very different from their fans.
Among Southerners of the white working class (and, I suspect, among most working-class Americans of every region), the desire to maintain ties to family and communal origins is deep. It is why so many of our number drive pickup trucks they don't really need, wear cowboy boots to the office, and continue to listen to the music that calls itself country. Cut off from our roots in most real ways, we buy consumer emblems that suggest continuity with them. Even if we make our living reading and writing or talking on the phone, a part of us is still afraid to be seen getting above our raisin'.
Danny Duncan Collum, aSojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.