Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The Grand Ole Opry and the Urban South

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The Grand Ole Opry and the Urban South

Article excerpt

One Saturday evening in 1927, George D. Hay, the program director of Nashville radio station WSM, was preparing to introduce the evening's local program, the WSM Barn Dance. Not really a barn dance at all, the program's succession of what was then called "old time" or "hillbilly" musical acts interspersed with comedy routines made it more akin to vaudeville or minstrelsy. Hay had begun the program soon after arriving at the then one-month-old station in November 1925, and the heady brew of traditional string-band music performed by musicians drawn from Nashville and its hinterland proved extremely popular with radio audiences across the South. On that night, the Barn Dance followed an NBC network presentation of symphonic music from New York. The conductor, Walter Damrosch, stating over the airways that he was making an exception to his rule that "there was no place in the classics for realism," ended his program with a performance of a brief orchestral composition depicting a locomotive. As the program went on the air, Hay announced, "For the next three hours we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the earthy." Thereon, DeFord Bailey, harmonica virtuoso and the sole African American performer of the program, laid into a rousing rendition of "Pan American Blues." After Bailey's opener, Hay sought again to differentiate his program from its high culture predecessor and bragged that "for the past hour we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera, but from now on we will present 'The Grand Ole Opry.'" And that is how the "mother church" of country music, and Nashville's best-known and most enduring contribution to the nation's popular culture, got its name. (1)

At first glance, the Grand Ole Opry stands as the clearest example of how, as one prominent historian of the urban South has argued, "rural values dominated southern cities." Few institutions in modern America so completely reflect the culture and sensibilities of the white rural South as the Opry. Despite the diversity of performers over the years, the Opry has consistently developed a stylized vision of white rusticality leavened by a powerful strain of Protestant Christian fatalism--what country music scholar Curtis Ellison has described as "from hard times to heaven." This vision has been the core of the Opry's appeal. After World War II Opry stars like Roy Acuff helped spawn a recording industry that broadcast what was dubbed "country music" well beyond the region. (2)

Yet the story is more complex. The Grand Ole Opry and the many radio barn dance programs like it emerged during a time of tremendous demographic, social, and economic change in the South. Across the region millions of rural people-blacks and whites, men and women--were leaving the countryside to live and work in southern cities. In 1890 a bit more than 10 percent of the region's population lived in urban areas; by 1930 this figure had swelled to nearly one third. Nashville, the home of the Opry, underwent tremendous growth in the 1920s as rural people poured into the city from the towns, hamlets, and farms of the Tennessee countryside. This "southern great migration" came to transform the region, laying the foundations for today's modern, urban South. (3)

The origins of the Opry show clearly how the program functioned as an urban institution that worked to reshape both the rural and urban South, redefining white southern life and fostering what Southern Agrarian Andrew Lytle termed "the urbanization of the countryside." Developing out of the close interaction between the culture of the rural South and imperatives of twentieth-century business enterprise, the radio program was both a product of and an agent in the modernization of the rural South. In creating a rural vaudeville show for the radio, Hay constructed a radio stage upon which white southerners could project their nostalgia for elements of a fading rural culture as well as their anxieties about urban life without actually surrendering their desire for the products and ways of modernity. …

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