Sunday, March 22, 2015

Southern man

Not unlike Foo Fighters' recent Sonic Highways project (of which I saw only the New York episode, sadly), Reginald D Hunter's Songs Of The South looked at the peculiar and powerful connections between music and place - and did so to illuminating and entertaining effect.

The first programme in the three-part BBC series saw comedian Hunter travel around Tennessee and Kentucky, inevitably paying a visit to Nashville but also giving sympathetic depictions of the European folk-influenced rural bluegrass and hillbilly traditions so often derided as ignorant or racist. It served as a great introduction to The Handsome Family, a band I've been meaning to investigate for years, and to the convention of the murder ballad (through 'Knoxville Girl').

Blackface minstrelsy was considered, too, in keeping with Hunter's view that that dark stain is part of the South's history and can't - and shouldn't - be airbrushed out of the picture. Even there the programme offered a nuanced perspective, implicitly endorsing the opinion of one interviewee that Stephen Foster (compositor of Southern classics 'Old Folks At Home' and 'My Old Kentucky Home') sought to effect change from within the tradition by attempting to provoke compassion for the slaves as opposed to mockery.

Alabama and Hunter's home state Georgia were next - but, as he noted, the lyrical obsession with home remained constant despite having crossed state lines. The episode began with an encounter with Lynyrd Skynryd, creators of 'Sweet Home Alabama' whose home is the rather less poetic Jacksonville in Florida, before moving to consider the FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals which played a huge part in battling against the artificial racial divides by uniting black vocalists like Aretha Franklin with white session musicians.

The importance of gospel music to various Southern musics was underlined during a visit to a chapel, Hunter noting how many soul singers started off in religious circles before crossing to the other side of the tracks, so to speak. Speech of Arrested Development argued that gospel is what lends Southern hip-hop the soulfulness that distinguishes it from the harder-edged styles of New York and LA, while Ludacris told Hunter that he feels the distinctive solidarity and togetherness of Atlantan rap is ultimately evidence of the legacy of the civil rights movement.

In the third and final installment, Hunter explored Mississippi and Louisiana, delving into the roots of blues - both the delta blues of Charlie Patton and the hill country variety popularised by R L Burnside. Along the way he visited a juke joint (added to my list of places to call in on when I get round to my own trans-American road trip), introduced me to another splendid slice of Southern Gothic (Bobbie Gentry's 'Ode To Billie Joe') and argued that Stax rather than the more legendary Sun should be regarded as Memphis' most significant record label for promoting race interrelations in the same way as FAME in Muscle Shoals.

It ended, perhaps inevitably, in New Orleans - for Hunter, "the most unAmerican American city, and America is much the richer for it". The impact of Hurricane Katrina was an obvious focus, with Alain Toussaint suggesting that, rather than allowing things to just drift along (as is their wont), New Orleans natives have been spurred into a show of strength by the disaster, with a "spike" in the quality of the city's musical output.

The series was largely celebratory in tone; on occasions, though, there was anger and disgust behind Hunter's words. Take, for instance, his comments about the way Beale Street in Memphis was allowed to die but has since been revived, transformed into a marketable commodity and sold back to tourists as a cultural mecca - "what America does best", he observed bitterly. The fact that he was shown exploring the recreation of Dolly Parton's childhood Tennessee home at her Dollywood theme park rather than the original building made much the same point. In the final programme, Hunter expressed his bemusement that the crossroads where Robert Johnson is alleged to have sold his soul to the devil is now surrounded by places you can buy fried chicken. Originally, music in the South was all about self-expression, community and a connection to the old country - all things that have now been largely eroded or commodified.

As the title suggests, the series wasn't only about music; it was also inevitably about the personal journey taken by its genial presenter. Hunter freely admitted to hating the South when he left for England to study drama, and initially I felt he seemed a little hamstrung by his own (historical) prejudices rather than by any directed at him by those he met along the way. However, during the course of filming, those prejudices were cast aside and, particularly in the final episode, it became evident that he had rediscovered his Southern pride.

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