Country Music 
directed by Ken Burns.
PBS, eight episodes
Show More
Show More

In​ October 2017, two months after white supremacists held their ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Donald Trump’s (then) chief of staff, John Kelly, went on Fox News and delivered a history lesson. ‘The lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War,’ he said. ‘Men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.’ Kelly’s comments echoed the president’s remarks in the rally’s immediate aftermath. (‘Some very fine people on both sides,’ Trump said, comparing the marchers – who carried torches and chanted ‘Jews will not replace us’ – with those who had come out to protest against their presence.) In many quarters Kelly was taken to task. But when Trump’s (then) press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was asked about it, she concurred. ‘I don’t know that I’m going to get into debating the Civil War,’ she said. ‘But I do know that many historians, including Shelby Foote, in Ken Burns’s famous Civil War documentary, agree that a failure to compromise was a cause of the Civil War.’

Sanders was right: Kelly’s comments could have come straight out of Burns’s documentary, which gave a sympathetic hearing to the notion of the ‘Lost Cause’. ‘Basically,’ Foote said at the start, ‘it was a failure on our part to find a way not to fight that war. It was because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise. Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising. Our true genius is for compromising. Our whole government’s founded on it. And it failed.’

Foote was right, too, in a way: the history of federal compromise with the slave states went all the way back to America’s founding: Southern colonies refused to ratify the Declaration of Independence until Thomas Jefferson struck out a clause attacking the slave trade; the constitution counted each slave as three-fifths of a person in the Federal census, granting slave owners disproportionate representation in Congress; the Missouri Compromise admitted Missouri and Maine into the US as a slave and a free state, respectively; the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed settlers to decide whether or not slavery would be allowed in their territories; and so on. But what Foote didn’t say was that slavery lay at the heart of every one of these compromises, that all of them favoured the status quo, and that, when the process finally broke down, it did so despite Lincoln’s best efforts to preserve slavery in the South, on condition that it not be allowed to expand into new territories. By this reckoning (which most historians outside the neo-Confederate fringe agree on) the North didn’t fail to compromise; it compromised all the way to the edge of a cliff.

But the Lost Cause – which holds that the war was fought to defend states’ rights and so to save the Southern way of life – won out anyway in the South, where monuments to soldiers who fell in ‘the war of Northern Aggression’ still stand in town squares, because it allowed white Southerners to pretend that men on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line had fought honourably for their own noble causes. It won out in the North because, in theory, it paved the way for national reconciliation. Despite the best efforts of scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois, it worked its way into the textbooks, where it remained well into the 20th century. (When I was at school in New York in the 1980s, I was taught that the war had been fought over states’ rights; slavery wasn’t much mentioned.) Now Trump’s White House was invoking the Lost Cause again.

To his credit, Burns was quick to respond to Kelly’s statements. ‘Many factors contributed to the Civil War,’ he said on Twitter. ‘One caused it: slavery.’ By and large, his documentary had made the same point. But Americans who watched The Civil War (39 million of them when the series first aired, and many more since) could have been forgiven for drawing other conclusions – in part, because the avuncular Foote was given so much time to make the opposite case.1 It left the impression that reasonable people on both sides could have reasonable disagreements about the war’s causes.

None of this went unnoticed when The Civil War was released in 1990. Historians wrote papers. Symposiums were held. In 1996, Oxford published Ken Burns’s ‘The Civil War’: Historians Respond. Two of the essays, by Eric Foner and Leon Litwack, were scathing, but, for the most part, the book’s tone was measured; Burns and Geoffrey Ward, who had written the film’s script, contributed replies. But a funny thing happened as Burns made more documentaries: instead of making more of the views of historians, he shunted them to the sidelines. For all its faults, The Civil War featured 24 historians. Burns’s 2007 film on the Second World War, The War, had 15. The Vietnam War (2017) included two in its chorus of 79 talking heads,2 and Country Music – which premiered in the States last September and aired, in edited form, on BBC 4 two months later – has only one: Bill Malone, whose book Country Music USA: A Fifty-Year History (1968) provided the template for Burns’s documentary.

‘Going to a dance was sort of like going back home to mama’s, or to grandma’s, for Thanksgiving,’ Malone says, eight minutes in.

Country music is full of songs about little old log cabins that people had never lived in, the old country church that people have never attended. But it spoke for a lot of people who were being forgotten – or felt they were being forgotten. Country music’s staple, above all, is nostalgia. Just a harkening back to the old way of life, either real or imagined.

Burns’s producers interviewed Malone in 2014. Two years later, a lot of Americans who were being forgotten, or felt they were being forgotten, voted for Trump, who promised to return them to the ‘old way of life, either real or imagined’. They were the people country songs spoke to; the people Burns’s new film seems to speak for. ‘It depicts our entire history,’ the singer-songwriter Vince Gill said when he appeared with Burns at the 92nd Street Y in New York last September. ‘And what’s beautiful about the way it’s been depicted is that it’s finally given the respect that it’s never had. As someone that’s kind of given their life to it, to finally see our story told with that is – it’s amazing.’ The filmmakers ‘weren’t part of the culture’, Gill said. ‘They weren’t part of the fibre. They weren’t part of the history. But they told it in such a profound and honest way that it’s light years more compelling than if we could have told it ourselves. I think we would have lied.’

For the most part, they do tell it themselves: Bobby Bare, Garth Brooks, Roseanne Cash, Charlie Daniels, Little Jimmy Dickens, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Rhiannon Giddens, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, Randy Scruggs, Connie Smith, Marty Stuart, Dwight Yoakam – a who’s who of Nashville, Austin and Bakersfield turned out for Burns’s camera, 85 strong. They’re a pleasure to watch, and if they’re dishonest, they’re disarming about it. ‘Truth-telling,’ Ketch Secor says in the first episode, ‘which country music at its best is. Truth-telling, even when it’s a big fat lie.’ It’s the stuff in between interviews that’s a drag, because it’s dishonest, too, but in more insidious ways.

Take the film’s description of Fiddlin’ John Carson, whose 1923 recording of an old minstrel song, ‘The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane’, was country music’s first bona fide hit. Carson performed ‘wherever an audience could be found’, Burns’s narrator says. ‘Store openings and farm auctions, Confederate veterans’ reunions, and political events ranging from Ku Klux Klan gatherings to a rally in support of a communist union organiser.’ Immediately, the false equivalence is jarring – multiple KKK ‘gatherings’ against that singular ‘rally’ (and communists weren’t forming lynch mobs). But there’s also a backstory, which Burns doesn’t go into. Carson did more than perform for the Klan; he was a well-known Klansman. He’d made a name for himself, in the 1910s, when he set up shop with his fiddle outside Georgia’s state capitol, where Governor John Slaton was deciding whether or not to commute the death sentence of Leo Frank. Frank, a factory superintendent at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, had been convicted of the murder of a 13-year-old factory employee, Mary Phagan. The evidence against him was shaky. He was Jewish and a Northerner; the case had strong antisemitic overtones, and Carson’s ‘Ballad of Mary Phagan’ did a good deal to stoke public sentiment against him; but Governor Slaton commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Two months later, a handful of notable men, including the state’s previous governor, organised a lynch mob that broke into the prison farm where Frank was being held. The mob handcuffed the warden, took Frank, and drove him through several small towns on the way to Phagan’s hometown, Marietta. Carson’s song ‘Dear Old Oak in Georgia’ celebrates the tree from which Frank was hanged: ‘Two years we have waited and tales we have listened to,’ he sang. ‘But the boys of old Georgia had to get that brutal Jew.’

There’s more to say about Fiddlin’ John Carson (‘The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane’ mourns the collapse of an antebellum plantation), but Burns has moved on to the next thing already, and it isn’t only the Klan he leaves blurry along the way. It’s personal stuff, too, like the framing, six episodes later, of Dolly Parton’s break with Porter Wagoner, who launched her career by featuring her as the ‘girl singer’ on his TV show. By the start of 1974, Burns says, Parton had written and recorded ‘Coat of Many Colours’ and ‘Jolene’ – she was already a much bigger star than Wagoner would ever be – and he wasn’t about to let her leave. ‘Well,’ Parton explains,

I think Porter had a real hard time after other people started recording my songs, and I was writing, and I was getting to be pretty popular. And it was his show. I wasn’t trying to hog it. But I just kind of carved out a little, you know, place for myself. But it was a love-hate relationship. We fought like cats and dogs. We were just both very passionate people. There was no way that I wasn’t gonna do what I was gonna do, and no way I was gonna not do what he thought I was gonna do. When I was trying to leave the show, I had told Porter: ‘I’ll stay five years.’ It had been five. Then it was six. Then it was seven. He was just having a real hard time, ’cause it was gonna mess up his show. We were very bound and tied together in so many emotional ways, and he just would not hear it. And so, he was gonna sue me, he was gonna do this, he was gonna do that – and so, I went home. I thought, ‘He’s not gonna listen to me. ’Cause I’ve said it over and over.’ And so I thought: ‘Do what you do best, just write a song.’ So I wrote the song, took it back in the next day, and I said: ‘Porter, sit down. I got something I have to sing to you.’ So I sang it, and he was sitting at his desk and he was crying. He said: ‘That’s the best thing you ever wrote. OK, you can go, but only if I can produce that record.’ And he did, and the rest is history.

The song in question was Parton’s biggest hit, ‘I Will Always Love You’ – and that’s what the film leaves us with. But again, it isn’t the end of the story. For one thing, Porter didn’t get a producer’s credit on the song – Bob Ferguson did, because he’d already produced it, six months before the events Parton describes, in the summer of 1973. For another, Wagoner didn’t just let Parton go; he filed a $3 million lawsuit for breach of contract, and the suits and countersuits dragged on for years. That isn’t such a pleasing tale – and it may not be the story that Parton, who eventually reconciled with Wagoner, wanted to tell – but it’s what happened. Why not tell it straight?

There’s​ a lot more Burns gets wrong, or sweeps under the carpet, and that may be unavoidable, given the scale of his projects. (He tends to work on several at a time.) This one took six years to make, whittling six hundred hours of footage down to sixteen. The credits are 174 names long, not counting the interviewees. Surely, any mistakes must pale next to the effort and service that these films provide. (‘More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than from any other source,’ Stephen Ambrose is supposed to have said, and for better or worse, I believe him.) But you notice, after a while, that the errors all face in a certain direction, and serve to make the same points, while all the things that are supposed to stay under the carpet keep reappearing. That may be unavoidable, too, when you try to make apolitical films about highly charged subjects.3 But country music is about as politically charged as an American cultural subject could be because, in a sense, it’s the Lost Cause set to a I-IV-V chord progression: the broken heart longing for simpler times, mother and home, and some sense of stability (stand-ins for the old Southern manse, where the log cabins were also slave shacks); the lip-service paid to Christian values (coupled with belligerence, blood-lust, knee-jerk patriotism, and a native distrust of authority); the lingering persistence of minstrel-show stereotypes, melodies and songs.

For decades, until country’s star-making, gate-keeping, make-or-break barn dance and radio show, the Grand Ole Opry, moved out of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville (the ‘Mother Church of Country Music’) in 1974, performers looked up and saw a long wooden marker, fixed to the balcony, that said ‘Confederate Gallery’. The music sprang from the shared culture of poor whites and blacks in the South, but for decades the only African-American performer to appear on the Opry was DeFord Bailey, a harmonica virtuoso. Introduced on stage as ‘our little mascot’, Bailey was an Opry star for 15 years, until 1941, when he was quietly fired – and Burns doesn’t gloss over the story. ‘They turned me loose,’ he quotes Bailey saying, ‘to root hog, or die. They didn’t give a hoot which way I went.’ (Burns gives even this a rosy tint: Bailey ‘set up a successful shoeshine parlour in his house, and then expanded it to a thriving storefront in downtown Nashville’.) But the focus on individual triumphs and tragedies comes at the cost of addressing systemic abuses and failures. One of the notable things about Bailey, whose race was not advertised on the Opry, is that, for all his musical talent, he was the exception that proved a rule: black folks were all right, in their place, just so long as that place was out of sight, at the back of the line. Burns also features Charley Pride: the first black regular of ‘Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey decades earlier, the first black artist to have a number one country record and the first artist of any colour to win the Country Music Association’s Male Vocalist Award two years in a row.’ But that’s not quite the same as noting that it wasn’t until 1967 – 42 years after the Opry’s founding – that a black voice was allowed on the programme.

Think what you will of the Nashville establishment – and plenty of great artists, like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, didn’t think highly of it at all – it was Northern industry that caused Southern music to be segregated to such an extent in the first place. The process started in 1923, when Northern scouts such as Ralph Peer (who found Fiddlin’ John Carson) turned their gaze to Southern cities in search of raw talent. ‘Country’ at the time was just string-band music: songs played on violins, guitars and banjos. It didn’t have a name yet and, even in the South’s most segregated pockets, it didn’t always respect racial boundaries. It was a steam valve; a bit of grease in the gears. But record companies needed to market the music, and the paradigm they had to work with was ethnic. ‘We put out German records, Swedish records and what have you,’ Peer said. ‘And when the hillbilly came along and I quickly saw the analogy … I gave that a separate number series almost immediately.’ The companies auditioned several names for their new series: ‘Old Southern Tunes’, ‘Old Familiar Tunes’, ‘Old Time Tunes’ – like Benjamin Button, the music was old in its infancy – before they settled on ‘Hillbilly Music’, which eventually morphed into ‘Country’ and ‘Country and Western’.

But the category wasn’t as catch-all as all that, because the ‘race records’ series, for African-American artists and audiences, had come along a few years earlier. What was a record executive to do now with string-band music made by black musicians? DeFord Bailey had called it ‘black hillbilly music’, but it couldn’t be hillbilly music, because, by definition, the ethnic category for hillbilly was ‘white’. It couldn’t be race music, either, since it sounded like something that could have been made by a hillbilly band. A certain amount of confusion ensued: in 1927, when the producer Frank Walker put out a blues song by a white duo called the Allen Brothers on Columbia’s race records series, the Allens threatened to sue. ‘It would have hurt us in getting dates,’ Lee Allen said, ‘if people who didn’t know us thought we were black.’ When the dust settled, the lines were in place. Black artists made blues records and gospel records; white artists had more latitude, as long as the taxonomies were observed; and the black string bands withered, and went unrecorded, until they barely existed at all.

To this day, America’s record charts are segregated – Hot Country Songs, Hot Latin Songs, Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs – sparking racially inflected debates like the one, last year, about the proper place of Lil Nas X’s song ‘Old Town Road’. The blurring of lines in micro-genres such as Hick-Hop tells yet another story. But those aren’t stories that Burns tells, either, because he tends to cauterise his films at convenient junctures. The Civil War stopped just before Reconstruction (which turned the idea of the war as a unifying force on its head). Jazz ended around the time of Bitches Brew (leading to the film’s brutal dismissal of free-jazz artists such as Cecil Taylor, and cementing a regressive view of the jazz canon). Country Music stops in 1996, allowing Burns to skirt such subjects as the Dixie Chicks’ stand against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent, multi-year industry blacklist (along with the term ‘Dixie Chicked’, which means ‘fucked for espousing a liberal opinion’). By ignoring the last 25 years of the music’s development, Burns cuts himself off from musicians of colour, such as Priscilla Renea and Kane Brown, who have worked to upend the stock narratives (and have spoken, in public, about the persistence of racism within the country music establishment). Never mind Lil Nas X – whom Burns kept referring to as ‘the black gay rapper Little Nas X’ at the 92nd Street Y – who’s still very new on the scene. What of Darius Rucker, who got his start in Hootie and the Blowfish, but ended up as the third black performer, after DeFord Bailey and Charley Pride, to become a regular on the Grand Old Opry? Or Rhiannon Giddens, who’s a key interviewee in the film, but almost absent as a musician? Burns cuts himself off from a quarter of a century of scholarship, too – from writers such as Karl Hagstrom Miller, whose Segregating Sound painted a messier, more complex picture of places the music has been.

‘We are historians, not journalists,’ Burns and his co-producer, Dayton Duncan, write in a coffee-table book published alongside the films in 2019. ‘That means, as in other series we’ve done, like Jazz or The National Parks, that we need a historical arm’s length from our topic, the space in time that provides a perspective between what may have seemed popular or important at the moment and what was historically significant – about a generation’s distance.’ But as recently as last year, Burns said: ‘I’m not a historian, I’m a filmmaker.’ Out in the real world, it matters.

And Burns isn’t much of a filmmaker, either. All those static shots and slow pans over still images; the soothing pace of his films and their lulling, hypnotic effect make the viewer feel safe, smart and well cushioned whenever sore subjects are raised. Time and again, the sore subject is race, which Burns sees (again, to his credit) as central to the American story. But where a documentary filmmaker like Frederick Wiseman, who has his own long-standing relationship with PBS, questions things as they are at every turn, Burns makes films that are composed, entirely, of flat declarative statements. (Not once, in the course of Country Music, or any other Burns film I can think of, does the narrator pause to ask a question.) It’s not that his documentaries are as conservative formally as they end up being politically. It’s that, inadvertently, the two end up being one and the same. If you’re looking to question the status quo – which is to say, white supremacy – don’t.

‘If one would preserve the rural musical styles,’ Bill Malone said in 1970, ‘he must also preserve the culture that gave rise to them, a society characterised by cultural isolation, racism, poverty, ignorance and religious fundamentalism. It is doubtful whether anyone would seriously suggest a return to such a society, despite the simplicity and sentimental attraction which such a society might hold.’ I wish Burns had featured him saying the same thing, today, in this film where simplicity and sentimental attraction are the main draws. But nostalgia is Burns’s ‘staple above all’, as well – and untempered nostalgia is a tricky thing. A voice like Miller’s would have gone a long way in this film. But Malone could have done the job himself, if Burns had just given him a bit more space. ‘I think maybe I would have liked to talk a little bit more about the politics of the music,’ Malone said last year. ‘The politics isn’t always pretty, and it’s too tempting to just gloss it over and present the music as just, oh, a romantic view of working-class history.’ Overall, he was praising the series – and I’d like to praise it, too, for any number of wonderful moments. But I can’t.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 42 No. 22 · 19 November 2020

Any long-lived cultural phenomenon is a complicated thing, and in any particular treatment of the phenomenon what’s left out can be as important to our understanding as what is included. Alex Abramovich fills in some of the important omissions from Ken Burns’s documentary Country Music, but his own account, too, omits some important aspects of the story (LRB, 8 October). In particular, his association of country music with the Old South of plantations and racist exploitation skates over some significant cultural and economic distinctions.

Country music is rooted in the Appalachian Mountain communities, which contrasted with those of the lowland South in a number of ways. The ancestry of the Appalachians’ inhabitants was Scots-Irish, versus the English of the lowlands. The small, isolated, poor and largely subsistence farmers of the mountains (along with some coal miners) contrasted with the slave-based (and subsequently share-cropper-based) plantations of the dominant parts of the lowland South. There were free Blacks and slaves in the Appalachians, but not in large numbers. The mountain people could be fiercely independent and resentful of aristocratic lowland domination. Politically, the people of the Appalachians were Union supporters in the Civil War and subsequently Republican through the heyday of the segregationist Democratic ‘Solid South’.

During the Civil War, West Virginia split off from Virginia, and the mountain sections of western North Carolina, north-west Georgia, eastern Tennessee and eastern Kentucky, while too small to hive off, were similarly inclined. Country Music was white because it arose in, and represented, a region that was very white – but not anti-Black. As it spread it got caught up in the South’s racial divide, so had to be categorised as either ‘white’ or ‘black’ – a division that was then locked into place, as Abramovich noted, by the segregated charts produced by national record companies. But country music’s roots and resonance remained in the mountain ‘Hollers’ and not in the plantation South.

David Kronenfeld
University of California, Riverside

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences