I thought Ken Burns was going to explain Trump to me…


I’m basing this on the narration from the very beginning of the first episode of his new series about country music.

You hear Peter Coyote say:

Most of all, its roots sprang from the need of Americans, especially those who felt left out and looked-down-upon, to tell their stories…

Which sounds to me like the very words used over and over to explain Trump voters.

And since I’ve never understood that phenomenon, and never fully appreciated country music, either, I was thinking this would be a doubly educational experience for me. Lessons I needed to learn.

I’ve often felt kind of bad about the fact that I’m often on the opposite side of issues from everyday, working-class, less-educated folk, and I’ve always worried about the extent to which my strong objections to the things they like is based in some sort of class snobbishness. I always conclude that no, that’s not it — I have very good reasons to reject, say, flying the Confederate flag at the State House, or video poker, or the state lottery.

Or Donald Trump. But as much as I explain my revulsion objectively and analytically, there’s also that voice in my head that keeps saying, But can’t they see how TACKY he is!?!

And that makes me feel a bit guilty.

But just a bit.

Anyway, this series isn’t over yet, and I still hope for a revelation that helps me understand both country music and populism.

I’m ever hopeful…


13 thoughts on “I thought Ken Burns was going to explain Trump to me…

  1. Norm Ivey

    I’m loving this series. Ken Burns is thorough, and he does a magnificent job of tying each generation of artists and audiences to the next. I especially appreciate the way he is examining the full spectrum of country music, including its connections to blues and rock and roll.

    I imagine the reason some people don’t get or appreciate country music is that their life experiences are reflected in the songs they hear. I feel the same way about rap and hip-hop (though I’ve come across a few that i like), but I recognize the importance of that music to those who do recognize their lives in those songs.

  2. Mr. Smith

    Early on in the series , Country music scholar Bill Malone says, in effect, that Country music began as (and to a degree remains) a form of commercialized nostalgia.

    There’s part of your answer: bringing something back again. You could fit it on a baseball cap.

    But I think the line about being “left out and looked down upon” has an unnecessary hint of condescension. All that line is actually getting at is that the roots of the form didn’t come from art music.

  3. Bill

    Burns is more interested in the myths of “country” than the actual music,thus Peter Coyote’s dumb quote.He plays favorites,and leaves out so much,as he did with,”Jazz”.It’s a great series for neophytes,but true fans of the genre will be left scratching their heads at the omissions.Burns is not a fan of country music and it shows…Still,it’s an excellent series…

    1. Bob Amundson

      I haven’t listened to “The Gilded Palace of Sin” since college. My musical tastes changed to prog (Genesis, Pink Floyd, Strawbs, Renaissance, Camel, Gentle Giant, Kansas, Styx to name just a few). I should also mention some “fusion” I enjoy(ed), such as Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Chick Corea, Zappa, Bela Fleck. Thanks Bill for reminding me of the diversity of my musical tastes!

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    About this class thing…

    So many of the towering figures of country music have total cred as representatives of the downtrodden and “looked-down-upon.” Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn spring to mind.

    And that’s one thing that, as I sort of indicated earlier today about “Ode to Billie Joe,” tends to rule out Bobbie Gentry, a UCLA philosophy major, as a real country singer.

    But then there’s Minnie Pearl — not a singer, but very much an embodiment of the Grand Ole Opry.

    She was a lady of some refinement, and as Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon always kept one foot in the polite society of Nashville that tended to be horrified at what was happening to the image of their city.

    But her HEART was pure country. And I feel like I can get closer to the genre, and understand its human heart and soul better, looking at a photo of her face than I can hearing the songs.

    Look at her. She’s a human being that you want to know better, anyone with a smile like that…


    1. Bill

      You’re idealizing and romanticizing the music and turning it into something it’s not.There’s nothing wrong with not liking it…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Well, I DO like some of it.

        Like the Lefty Frizzell tune “Long Black Veil.” I’ve been singing that, when I’m alone, all week. Of course, I came to it through The Band, which is normally about as country as I get.

        And I like Johnny Cash. And Hank Williams. And a lot of Patsy Cline…

  5. Jim Catoe

    I have been particularly moved by the Hank Williams segment of the series. Having lived in Montgomery during the late 40’s up to the mid 50’s, I had a limited degree of exposure to Hank and Audrey. Hank had a very distinctive Cadillac convertible —one of many — and we would oftentimes see him driving around our neighborhood. As he fell deeper into his addiction to alcohol and pills, he would utilize Montogmery’s Red Cab for trips around town. My brother, a driver for the cab company, frequently picked him up.

    I believe Roy Acuff’s comment “Hoss, you have a million dollar voice and a ten cent brain.” described Williams to a tee.

  6. Doug T

    Great series. Tonight’s installment featuring Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Emmy Lou et al showed Burns and company did their homework and recognized great talent.


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