Legendary country western singer Jerry Jeff Walker died a few weeks ago at age 78. Somehow a column I wrote on Walker began circulating on the Internet after his death. A friend of mine sent me the link. I had forgotten I had even written it 43 years ago as a college sophomore. In memory of Jerry Jeff, who gave me a lifetime of musical pleasure and human insight, I am reprinting it 43 years later from the Nov. 1, 1977 edition of the Harvard Crimson.
When Jerry Jeff Walker came to Harvard Square a week and a half ago, few people from outside the South gave much thought to his concert.
Most Harvard students did not know who Jerry Jeff was. Progressive country music —much less real country western — has never been very popular in this area. But on Friday, Oct. 21, thousands of expatriates from Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and other rural states poured into the Harvard Square Theater to stomp their feet and clap their hands at some of Jerry Jeff’s fiddle music and heave an occasional sigh at his more melancholic tunes about home and the good life away down South.
There was a spirit of conviviality and unity among the audience that was in no way contrived or superficial. People felt at home and at ease.
Everyone in the auditorium had a common bond — a bond not shared by strangers outside the theater, walking around the Square, more than a thousand miles away from the nearest cotton fields.
Inside, the air almost smelled of cotton. Boots, cowboy hats, girls with lots of makeup, Southern accents and other signs of the South abounded. Everybody there felt, well, just real good.
When Jerry Jeff said something about grits, country living and the good life, everybody started whooping and hollering in agreement.
During a break, my roommate from New York City yawned incessantly and made snide comments about rednecks, but I struck up a conversation with the girl sitting next to me.
She was a pretty girl, and it was obvious she worked hard at it. She came from Texas, had gone to boarding school in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and now she was a freshman at Hampshire College.
She hated it. It seems her roommates made fun of her makeup, her politics, her attitudes towards sex, and the flirtatious, coy way she acted around men.
“All my friends went to Ole Miss,” she said. “I don’t know why I wanted to come up here. I guess it was pressure from my parents.
“I’m different. I’m not like everybody else up here, and all I want to do is get the hell out and go to school somewhere in the South.”
Then Jerry Jeff sang another slow, sad song relying on a plaintive steel guitar, and lyrics that struck a common chord in all Southern hearts.
He was singing about being displaced and socially alienated, about wanting to leave the cold, impersonal city to go home to friends, family, farms and lovers.
In another song Jerry Jeff tells of a man who leaves his home to earn fame and fortune in the big city, only to realize that his ties back home were far more important to him than the money he hoped to win.
Again and again Jerry Jeff sang about men lost in the shuffle of modernization and mobility, men incapable of forming roots and finding stability and meaning in life, men no longer a part of a tightly-knit social unit but standing completely alone instead.
Jerry Jeff and fellow country western singers differ from other songwriters telling about alienation because the characters in the country songs still have one place to go, a place where the community is still close-knit — the rural South.
In rural states like Mississippi where there are few large cities and many small, fairly isolated towns, the sense of community is still intact. Most people work on small farms or in some small commercial enterprise. Work is organized at a personal level; everybody knows everybody else.
There is a common set of social mores and values rooted in Biblical faith. The community offers its members a clear distinction between right and wrong and a model lifestyle which, if followed, will guarantee a stable, happy life.
Very few students in these rural states choose to leave their cozy existence to seek adventure in the urban world outside. Of those who seek higher education at all, most attend local or state universities to learn a little, party a lot, get married and come back to their home towns.
Many marry as soon as they graduate from high school and immediately settle into a life of moderate work, church functions, child-raising, putting on weight, and sitting on the front porch on summer evenings.
Living a secure, contented life, these people become part of a strong, tightly-knit community of people who share the same values, mores and life philosophies, a community they feel a part of and are able to influence in turn. Surrounded by friends who will help them in times of crisis, and objects that are familiar and safe, they find little enticement in the world outside.
It is this kind of life that the characters in Jerry Jeff’s songs long to return to. It is a life of close contact and strong bonds with others. It was something closer to the small town lifestyle that the Hampshire College freshman was searching for. She was looking for people who share her small-town values and mores, instilled at an early age by a self-confident community certain that its Biblical interpretation of life is right.
It was the same desire to be with others who share an outlook on life that made the audience at the Harvard Square Theater such a happy group that Friday night.
The philosophical differences are not simply the result of different levels of intelligence. The Hampshire freshman probably had much the same intellectual capacities as her classmates. It is a question of culture.
The fact that so many very bright people from tightly-knit communities cling to so many values and traditions of dubious rationality is a monument to the incredible power of their communities to shape their outlooks on life.
Certainly this is a rural-urban phenomenon, not something simply geographical. People continue to flock to the suburbs where neighbors move in and out so fast that any social bonds cannot last.
The work force there is mobile. The chief mode of business is the monolithic, impersonal corporation, in which ties between workers are weak, and the alienation is intense.
The only social unit becomes the family, not the community. And without the community to instill respect for conjugal ties, families often dissolve. Men, women and children are left alone and isolated in a volatile, confusing world.
Suicide rates jump. Young people search for meaning in life. Unemployed divorcees with small children sit at home and drink and cry. Corporate leaders are able to ruin thousands of lives on the other side of the globe without seeing a single tear that their actions cause to be shed.
It’s nothing particularly new. It’s modern society with all its mobility, freedom, independence, economic prosperity, loneliness, alienation, centralization and exploitation. It’s the anonymous world.
Maybe we will adjust and in the end the world will be a better place for all. Maybe new values and mores will spring up that allow man to face this new world.
But in the meantime small, stable Mississippi communities will continue to offer their members something so good that few want to leave. These communities will continue to claim to know the secret of happiness and moral living and will continue to instill more than an adequate set of values, rooted firmly in religion. These communities will continue to look after old folks, widows and probably the poor, if they can only keep the big market and modernization out of the way.
And just as de Tocqueville once mourned the demise of what he considered the idyllic, paternalistic system of feudal society in Europe, Jerry Jeff and all his friends sing a lament for the disappearance of small-town society and Sunday church picnics.