I'd Fight the World: A Political History of Old-Time, Hillbilly, and Country Music

I'd Fight the World: A Political History of Old-Time, Hillbilly, and Country Music

by Peter La Chapelle

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Long before the United States had presidents from the world of movies and reality TV, we had scores of politicians with connections to country music. In I’d Fight the World, Peter La Chapelle traces the deep bonds between country music and politics, from the nineteenth-century rise of fiddler-politicians to more recent figures like Pappy O’Daniel, Roy Acuff, and Rob Quist. These performers and politicians both rode and resisted cultural waves: some advocated for the poor and dispossessed, and others voiced religious and racial anger, but they all walked the line between exploiting their celebrity and righteously taking on the world. La Chapelle vividly shows how country music campaigners have profoundly influenced the American political landscape.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226923000
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/09/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 579,842
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Peter La Chapelle is professor of history at Nevada State College.

Read an Excerpt


"Like Orpheus" The Nineteenth Century Encounters the Twentieth

In the beginning, it was amateur fiddlers who introduced what would become known as country music to the American political campaign. Robert Love Taylor — known as "Bob" to his supporters — was most probably the first, in 1878. Using the fiddle to entertain his guests after giving lengthy political speeches, Taylor would win a congressional seat representing his East Tennessee district partly on the merits of his ability to play fiddle. "Like Orpheus," one paper would later proclaim somewhat exaggeratedly, "he owes his success to his musical powers." Taylor would go on to be elected governor of Tennessee, helping to create a legend about campaign fiddling with his politician brother, Alf.

Four years later, in 1882, Tom Watson (the former country lawyer mentioned in the opening of this book) performed fiddle at barn dances in his efforts to win votes in his bid for seat in Georgia's state House; the Atlanta Constitution noted that Watson demonstrated "how potent the fiddle is." Watson would eventually shed his early affiliations with the Democratic Party, becoming known nationally as a perennial candidate and firebrand for the Populist Party.

The evidence surrounding these early campaigns is fragmentary, but we can make some generalizations. We know Taylor and Watson came from the upper economic echelons of their rural hometowns but had experienced at least some poverty, and had used music to attract a wider and more economically diverse audience. For Watson in particular, his music seemed to be linked, at least tangentially, with efforts to win over black voters. Both men seem to have been self-taught in their fiddling, and, though accounts vary, neither was a virtuoso. We also know that, regardless of how much or how often they actually played during these early campaigns, fiddling became an important part of their image — so much so that writers and journalists frequently invoked the image of their youthful fiddle playing even after they had long given up public performances and settled into more established, traditional roles as statesmen and career politicians.

Beyond these basic facts, there is something peculiarly modern about the way Taylor and Watson fused entertainment, celebrity, and politics, despite the fact that their issues — reining in the power of the railroad and standing up for sharecroppers, as Watson pledged to do, or fighting for the rights of small-scale moonshiners, as Taylor promised — might seem anachronistic to modern observers. Both quickly realized that their musicianship was a double-edged sword which could help them win votes but also opened them up to criticism that they were not serious candidates. Both sought at times to emphasize, and at other times to downplay, connections that might be made between their politics and the music. Both realized that even a few performances on the campaign trail could go a long way in creating a public image that connected them with a hardscrabble upbringing and an authentic rural life, and that, once unleashed, associations between themselves and their music might be difficult to shrug off when critics attacked them for their musicality. Their stories also demonstrate that association with performance on the campaign trail could connect them with voters from specific regional affiliations and from backgrounds often lower on the socioeconomic scale than they themselves came from. And finally, their stories provide evidence that country music politics, even at its birth, could be used to buttress a variety of political positions even if it also was susceptible to falling into a pattern of use by politicians of a more specific political stripe.

Bob Taylor, like many of the figures explored in this book, focused on painting his opponent as an elitist and used his music to entertain his constituents as well as to connect himself with a rustic identity that appealed to voters. Taylor was not, however, a rough mountain boy, as later press might bill him, but rather an adult of almost thirty who was the son of a prominent eastern Tennessee figure, Nathaniel Greene Taylor, a Congressman and Methodist preacher who had owned slaves and who had served as US Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Bob Taylor had in fact attended private schools for much of his early life and was exposed to cities and experiences most poor Appalachian boys could only dream of. Born in his father's home district, Happy Valley, Tennessee, Bob himself had attended the Pennington Seminary, a prestigious private elementary school near Trenton, New Jersey, while his father, a Whig and a Unionist, took refuge there during the Civil War. After his family returned to East Tennessee, he attended Buffalo Male and Female Institute, a private secondary school in the foremost northeastern Appalachian corner of the state. In their affectionate 1918 biography of Bob, his brothers claimed he taught himself fiddle while attending the institute, but that his skills were not noteworthy:

He lacked almost everything of being a good, common mountain fiddler, save in the rendition of a limited number of tunes, such as "Hole in the Kettle," "Turkey Buzzard," "Sally Ann," "Shoot Old Davy Dugger," and the old version of "Turkey in the Straw," or "Natchez Under the Hill." ... But to any audience cultivated in music, or to any musical artist of great merit, our performances would have been exceeding crude. Of course, Bob could "saw" on the fiddle, but that was about the extent of his proficiency, except as stated above.

After his time at Buffalo, Bob Taylor attended East Tennessee Wesleyan University. While in his twenties, Taylor had experienced some indebtedness and some poverty, never entirely succeeding at his attempts at farming or lumber and iron production after college. By the time he ran for Congress in 1878, he was studying law. Watson's family, in contrast, had seen its fortunes decline dramatically and knew poverty well. Born on his grandfather's plantation in Thomson in central eastern Georgia, Watson was a member of a well-to-do family of slaveholders. After the Civil War, Watson's father, a Confederate veteran, could not keep the grandfather's cotton plantation afloat financially and in 1868 was forced to sell, moving to a much smaller house and farm on the outskirts of town. The family eventually lost that property, too, and ended up running a boardinghouse and bar in nearby Augusta. Watson nevertheless attended a local grade school and end up briefly attending Mercer College to the south in Macon, Georgia, after his mother borrowed and scraped together funds (fig. 1.1).

Watson's father had fiddled and called dances, but Tom apparently did not pick up the instrument from his father, who may have been depressive and who, according to Tom's journals, was emotionally abusive. Watson told a newspaperman years later that he taught himself to play during a period after college when he was struggling as a country lawyer and the evenings out in the woods were lonely and boring:

I had no taste for dissipations and amusements with which men ordinary dispose of time which hangs heavily on their hands. So I bought me a fiddle. ... It was always a faithful friend alike in gray days and sunshine, and I grew to love it and appreciate its companionship.

Though this later account suggests he did not pick up the instrument until he was practicing law, he noted in his journal that he was playing the instrument well before then, occasionally being called on to play waltzes, cotillions, quicksteps, and hornpipes and his own special "Watson's Medley" at dances and barbecues while teaching school in Screven County. Fiddling at night alone also seemed to provide solace during a particular bleak period in his life in 1876 when his school job ended and he was trying to make a living as a plow hand. Whatever the case, by 1879 Watson established his own fairly law lucrative practice back in his hometown of Thomson in McDuffie County.

Once running for office, both Watson and Taylor seem to have instinctually decided that fiddling might be a good way to entertain the people who gathered to hear them speak. Wanting to sell copy, friendly newspaper editors and reporters followed up by describing their use of the instrument on the trail and making arguments that it connected them with average rural people — the mountain people of Taylor's East Tennessee and the poor whites, and to some degree the poor blacks, of Watson's rural Georgia. That the fiddle would have appeal to nonwhites is not surprising, considering that the South already had strong African American and Cherokee fiddling traditions. Watson and Taylor then reciprocated by using their images as performer-politicians to appeal to voters and brand their opponents as out-of-touch elitists.

In his 1878 race for Congress, Bob Taylor had used fiddling at some of his campaign events, mostly as a way of keeping the crowd entertained after speeches and other festivities took place. Taylor — by then a twenty-eight-year-old Democrat and former farmer who was exploring ambitions in law — had been urged to run after his brother Alf, a Republican, had been defeated in the Republican convention for the East Tennessee district, an area like many in the Appalachian South that tended to be pro-Union during the Civil War and Republican in politics. Eastern Tennessee had been influenced by early Quaker proselytizing and one of the first abolitionist movements in the United States. Thus it proved something of stronghold to the Whigs and then later to the Republican Party, even though it was located in a state that was largely in the hands of the Democrats. During the Civil War, several East Tennessee counties went so far as to break with the Confederacy and announce their loyalty to the Union and Republican president Abraham Lincoln.

Urged on by opportunistic Republicans and his disappointed brother's Democratic supporters, Bob, a registered Democrat and the younger of the two, ended up running against Major Augustus Pettibone, a Union army veteran and the chosen candidate of the powerful local Republican establishment. In running against a candidate who hoped to use the might of the East Tennessee Republican Party against him, Bob Taylor faced an uphill battle, but he found ways to capitalize on his outsider status. For instance, he charged Pettibone with being in league with the hated federal revenuers, who sought to collect taxes on small-scale distillation of liquor throughout Appalachia. Taylor, according to his own accounts, also had the fiddle on his side:

Many a time have I ridden horseback twenty miles to the place of speaking, spoke for two hours and then began to mix with the people. I had my fiddle hid out and as soon as night came some of the boys got up a dance. I would play fiddle and let the boys and girls dance. Sometimes I handed over the fiddle to some other fellow and then I danced with the girls on the puncheon floor. I had every woman in the district and every young man on my side.

His three brothers, who chided him for not really being a very great fiddler in their sentimental 1913 biography, nevertheless conceded that he "made good use of his fiddle" in the 1878 campaign. "The sovereigns would gather around him in large numbers at night, and he would mimic Brignoli, the Italian opera singer, and play the fiddle for them until the cocks crew for day," his brothers wrote. "The crowds would actually yell and launch themselves into a state of physical exhaustion."

Though it is difficult to establish how often Bob played on the trail or what he played, the press of the era took notice of Bob's aptitude for fiddling and used it to present the argument that he was not the son of a middle-class politician and bureaucrat, but a down-to-earth nature boy. The pro-Taylor Morristown Gazette, for instance, explained to readers (with a whiff of exaggeration) that Taylor was poor and that he was "one of our Mountain boys" who deserved support. "You are on a cold trail," the Gazette warned a third candidate who entered the race late and appeared to be a spoiler for Pettibone. "You can't play fiddle and we won't vote for you this time. Hurrah for Bob Taylor!" The New Orleans Daily Democrat similarly celebrated Bob Taylor's victory over Pettibone as another win in the effort to drive Republicans out of the South. "The young man proved to be just suited for his district, jovial and frolicsome, and so expert in the fiddle that in a very short time he had completely won over the rough mountaineers of East Tennessee."

Bob Taylor served his term but did not win reelection. Nevertheless, in September 1886 Democrat Bob and his brother Alf — also a fiddler, and by then a representative in the state House and a rising star in the state Republican Party — were nominated by their respective state party conventions and ended up running against each other for governor. This gubernatorial battle between brothers has gone down in history as "Tennessee's War of the Roses" in homage to the fifteenth-century British conflict because supporters wore a red or a white rose, as with the Lancaster or York supporters of old, depending on whether they favored Alf or Bob. Legend holds that Bob and Alf fiddled on the stump, dueling out their differences on stage. What really happened was that two had met up with a reporter at Chattanooga's Read House inn during their own respective campaign stops. Two fiddles were set on a table; the men "instinctively" picked up the instruments and began playing together in harmony. A news article about the event began to get some traction with the national press, although the follow-up stories often tended to jumble the particulars. By October, a cartoonist from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper got a hold of the story and depicted what has become legend since: two brothers playing fiddle on a stage in front of throngs of cheering and adoring voters who throw roses in support of their favored fiddler (fig. 1.2). Though one could interpret the Leslie image as depicting the political rivals in harmony, as the original newspaper reporter had, it could also be interpreted as portrayal of two brothers dueling it out in front of an audience of voters. Though entirely inaccurate, the image of the two brothers fiddling away on stage in front of voters served them well in politics, well beyond 1886. Bob won that election and then went on to represent Tennessee in the US Senate. Alf would serve in Congress later that decade and eventually became governor of Tennessee himself in the 1920s.

Like Taylor, Watson decided to introduce fiddling during his very first bid for office for the Georgia state House in 1882 as a means of simply entertaining those who gathered to hear him speak. However, there were important undertones of his home district's racial politics in his performing. Georgia, at this point, had not fully embraced Jim Crow laws that prevented blacks from voting. Watson, then a Democrat, saw it in his interest to approach the largely black local Republican executive committee for an endorsement that might very well sway the election. Impressed by Watson's promises to establish free schools for blacks and to end the convict lease system that especially victimized black inmates, the committee gave him its endorsement. His opponent, however, used the endorsement to accuse Watson of supporting the Republican platform and of using the black vote to overrun the will of white voters. Watson ended up having to defend himself at a public meeting shortly thereafter, where, according to historian C. Vann Woodward, he successfully walked a fine line between maintaining black Republican support and disassociating himself with the official Republican Party platform. He won that election by a slim margin of 392 votes.

Watson's use of music on the campaign invoked the more accepting vision he expressed to black Republicans. In his personal diaries, the young politician mentioned playing the fiddle at barn dances — sometimes with an interracial group of backing musicians — as a way of locking in votes during the 1882 race. Watson recalled one characteristic incident in Wrightsboro, Georgia, when he "played the fiddle for the girls." To set the scene, his young female acquaintances would promise to dance with a potential male voter "as long as he promised to vote for" Watson. Watson then took to playing, recalling that it was "a sight to see me standing up fiddling away for dear life" while a friend pounded out rhythm across the strings of his fiddle with thin sticks, a technique known as "beating the straw" or "fiddlesticks" that was used to add a bit more beat to dance songs. Rounding out the ensemble at the Wrightsboro barn dance were also "one negro playing 2nd fiddle, and another negro knocking the agony out of a tambourine."


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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Ghost of Tom Watson

Part I: Fire on the Mountain: The Initial Surge of Old-Time and Hillbilly Music Campaigns

Chapter 1: “Like Orpheus”: The Nineteenth Century Encounters the Twentieth
Chapter 2: Antisemitism and Henry Ford’s Old-Time Music Revival
Chapter 3: Sound Trucks and Radio Stars: The Arrival of the Nonperformers
Chapter 4: Pensions and Poll Taxes: Identifying a Style of Hillbilly Music Politics
Chapter 5: Utopian Buckaroo: Senator Glen Taylor and Country Music’s Left Tradition

Part II: Dixie-Bent and White House–Bound: Regional Culture, National Aspirations

Chapter 6: A Fiery but Fickle Faith: The Vanderbilt Agrarians, Southern Politics, and the Country Music Memoir
Chapter 7: The Nonperformers Take Over: Big Jim, the Little Judge, and the Nationalization of Country Music Politics
Chapter 8: Still Not Ready to Make Nice: The Legacies of the Country Music Campaign

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