Agnes Cunningham died at the end of June, at age 95. She was the accordion player for the Almanac Singers, a Depression-era folk group that also included Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Later she and her husband started the folk music magazine Broadside, which published lyrics by Bob Dylan before he had a record deal. Like Guthrie, Cunningham was from Oklahoma. Her family really did lose its farm in the Dust Bowl. And she was radicalized by attending Commonwealth College in Arkansas, an institution started by the organizers of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.
I must confess that when a sharp-eyed Sojourners editor passed on the news of Cunninghams death to me, I was mostly surprised to learn that anyone besides the apparently immortal Seeger was still alive from that scene in which rural culture and radical politics merged. Today it seems like something that happened on another planet.
"Once a way of life gave rise to a type of music," wrote Arkansan Johnny Cash in his autobiography. Today, Cash continued, "a type of music gives rise to a way of life." The "way of life" Cash was talking about was the one his family, and Agnes Cunninghams, lived in the rural South where they labored side by side in the fields with black neighbors, and everyone listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night and went to church on Sunday morning. The type of music that emerged from that way of life was hillbilly, blues, and gospel thrown into a blender.
When that music moved to town, someone named it rock and roll. And rock and roll did give rise to a way of life, one that required commodities other than a mule and a plow. So along came a global pop music industry, which became an all-encompassing commercial pop culture.
Fifty years down the road, the cultureI hesitate to call it a "way of life"mined from popular music has become virtual. It floats in the air-conditioned ether, under recessed lighting, detached from any connection to the actual world of earth and sweat. And in that virtual culture, most of the passion and significance have drained away from the stuff that Elvis made.
But a virtual culture is profoundly unsatisfying, so its inhabitants seek charges of authenticity wherever they can be found. Thats why the harshest rap musicin sound and lyrical contentis usually the biggest selling. Thats also why, for some white suburbanites, old-time country music has become the new punk rock. Thats why the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was such a huge phenomenon. Its also why Johnny Cash was as popular at the end of his career as he was at its beginning. The bare-bones, primitive, and emotionally direct music he was playing cut through the turn-of-the-century cultural chatter the way that "Anarchy in the U.K." did in 1977.
I DONT HAVE a problem with this. Im a pretty retro kind of guy myself. But I also know that the cultural channeling of authenticity is no substitute for an actual, rooted, and integrated way of life. Recently I saw that channeler extraordinaire, Gillian Welch, play before a crowd made up mostly of Ole Miss students. Welch is a Southern California suburbanite who is periodically possessed by the spirit of Maybelle Carter. On the day I saw her, she played a set with which Agnes Cunningham, or any other Dust Bowl Okie, would have felt at home.
I enjoyed Welchs performance, too. But I couldnt help but wonder what this 1930s-vintage country music means todayto the performers and the audiencenow that it has been so utterly uprooted from the vanished world of its birth. Is it just another cool sound to sample from another faraway planetlike the snatches of Arabic music that sometimes turn up on dance records? Or is it really the sound of something human and real struggling to emerge from the virtual? Maybe old musicand perhaps old religionis all we have left from which to concoct a new way of life.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.