Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. He is the author of the novel White Boy.
Posts By This Author
Books for Giving and Receiving
A holiday collection.
Facing Up to Tragedy
Bruce Springsteen dives straight into the pain…and the ambiguity.
Life During Wartime, Again
I'm reluctant to mouth off about something like the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in and all that followed. It makes me feel old.
Don't Get Above Your Raisin'
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 birth—is 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.
The Outlaw Rebel
When I heard about the death of country singer Waylon Jennings in February, my mind flashed back to the day I first bought one of his records.
How to Live Forever
The Rockabilly Movement
During the month of March, PBS affiliates will be airing a documentary called Welcome to the ClubThe Women of Rockabilly.
Why "Imagine"? Why Now?
Harry Potter Comes Home
‘‘The [Harry Potter computer] game will feature a series of challenges, all inspired by the original book's storyline..."
For more than 20 years, Elie Wiesel has been America's official bearer of memory, keeper of accounts, and arbiter of propriety regarding the Holocaust.
Rock's Little Secret
Flagging Racial Progress
Mississippi votes to keep the 'Stars and Bars.'
Country music has always been cruel to its purest products.
Keeping it 'Real'
Disney's 'urban' experience is cleaned-up, dumbed-down, and smoothed-over.
The Bottom Line on the Beatles
This collection has no reason to exist, except as a shameless exploitation of the Lennon-McCarney catalog.
Free Citizens or Spoiled Children?
The Democratic Dance
The Telecommunications Land Rush
In the 19th century, with much sweat and blood, immigrant labor gangs pushed a railroad across the newly continental United States.
I heard it in passing on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered one afternoon; it was a blurb for an upcoming story.
To the River Together
Family and community at the Bruce Springsteen show.