November 16, 2018
MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey
What Country-Legend Roy Clark’s Death Symbolizes for America in 2018
The news came Thursday, November 15, that country music legend Roy Clark had passed away at age 85. For those either too young to know who Clark was, or who perhaps never cottoned to “country” music, for a whole generation, for twenty-four years, he was in many ways the heart and soul of the popular country music variety television program “Hee Haw.” Beginning in 1969, along with co-host Buck Owens, he emceed and performed regularly on that popular extravaganza, and also demonstrated a finely-honed sense of superbly shaped humor.
For its first season, 1969-1970, “Hee Haw” was a staple of CBS’s Sunday night line-up. But CBS had begun to kill off its “rural” programming, including such popular offerings as “Petticoat Junction” (with the inimitable Edgar Buchanan and former Gene Autry side-kick “Smiley” Burnette) in 1970, and most notably later on the long-running “Gunsmoke” series in 1975 (despite consistently high ratings). Corporate bosses decided they would shift their focus to more urban, “socially-conscious” and more contemporary themes, as exemplified in the sit-com “Maude” (one is tempted to see the roots of our present cultural putrefaction in those decisions, just as the killing off of “higher brow” programs dedicated to classical music and art forms, “The Voice of Firestone” and “The Bell Telephone Hour,” had a similarly deleterious effect at the other of the viewing spectrum).
By 1971 “Hee Haw” went into syndication where it remained popular until its demise in 1993.
As anyone who has read installments of MY CORNER knows, I was trained in classical music, grew up with it, and I’ve written about it admiringly—and lovingly—on various occasions. But I also grew up with an appreciation of my traditions in rural North Carolina and the South and its historic musical inheritance, incorporating superb ballads and songs, many of which derive from ancient Scots-Irish or English sources, and many of which found a New World home in Appalachia and in Tennessee and the Carolinas, and eventually in other Southern states, and, finally, on the advancing American frontier in the mid to late 19th century.
I never believed there was anything strange about that. After all, historically, classical music, certainly in Europe was in many cases deeply influenced by the music of the “folk,” by the traditional songs, chorales of the local peoples, as well as by the music of the Church, which itself oftentimes incorporated popular melodies and song into worship. The music of the country folk fed the classical masterworks of Bach and so many other composers.
Anyone who has ever heard Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Christmas Eve Mass,” with its popular French peasant tunes will know what I’m talking about.
And in the United States, perhaps the most “popular” classical orchestral piece, Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” (1944), uses as its base the old Shaker tune “ ‘Tis the Gift to be Simple.” Carlisle Floyd’s noted “American” opera, “Susannah” (1955) uses folk melodies. And not to forget George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” with themes based in jazz and American Negro musical traditions.
A major success of what I would call revolutionary cultural modernism in our time has been to sever, in large part, the essential connection between what we call popular music and historical European-inherited classical culture. The creation of and inspiration for “classical” music appears increasingly limited to a small group of incestuous intellectuals and academics who essentially write for each other and for a self-consciously limited audience, and, despite the efforts of classical music groups to effect “cross overs,” with classical and rock musicians and artists appearing jointly, the general audience for classical has decreased considerably since the 1960s.
By the late 1960s, in place of coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland on the Sunday night “Ed Sullivan Show,” we had “The Beatles.” Indeed, while my mother and grandmother could tune in on Monday nights on radio in the 1950s and hear the New York Philharmonic, or on Saturday, and hear the Metropolitan Opera—and on the major network stations—now such performances are restricted to PBS and have become rarer by the year.
This same bifurcation has occurred, if not as marked, with country and blue grass music. Indeed, country music has managed to survive and, in fact, prosper, despite the lack of the kind of major television programming that existed a half century ago. I can still recall when Johnny Cash had a prime-time television program. Today we have "niche" programming. There are televised “specials” from Nashville, and major country artists are covered regularly by the major media. And, what’s more, country artists sell and have a steady audience for their work.
Yet, I think it can also be argued that, just as in classical music but more successfully, there has been some homogenization and over-the-top commercialization in country music that has enabled this to happen. Many country artists and performers, and their songs, sound far more “rock” than they once would have. “Cross over” is the apparent key in attracting listeners and to eventual success, including monetary success.
I remember four or five decades ago sitting down with my father on Saturday night to watch “Gunsmoke” and then on Sunday, “Hee Haw.” There was the inimitable “Grandpa” Jones on banjo with some of the best Kentucky “blue grass,” and, of course, Roy Clark with his mellifluous voice, and, our favorite, “The Barbershop,” usually with Clark playing off as a foil to Archie Campbell’s hilarious word-twisting comedic skill! Was anything ever more humorous than “Cinderfella and her three suggly blisters”? Or, Junior Sample’s profound philosophical comment: “I don’t know much, but I suspect lots of things?”
My classically-oriented mother, however, also had her way, and when the long-running “Friends of the College” classical concert series functioned at North Carolina State University, she and I always went (when I was not away at university); and on such occasions I was privileged to see and hear Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Birgit Nilsson, Richard Tucker, as well as Karl Bohm and Vienna Philharmonic, and Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Symphony, among others. And when the Royal Marines Tattoo came, with their massed Scottish pipes and British bands, my father eagerly accompanied us.
Nixon was president, Vietnam was still going on, and the old America I had grown up in was still visible, still palpable, although we did not perhaps realize at the time that in a few short decades those of us who cherished that old America and its traditions would find ourselves excoriated as “deplorables” and “irremediables,” looked down on with scorn and disdain by the media, by Hollywood, and by academia as boobs and rednecks, who probably kept our racist KKK sheets secreted away in a closet for use on Saturday night.
Roy Clark was an indelible symbol of a cultural legacy; he made people smile using the best elements of traditional country artistry and entertained millions of viewers for nearly a quarter century. Today we live in—we swim in—a deeply divided and feculent society, an America where cultural anarchy and decay reign. In such times, I look back to Roy Clark, to Archie Campbell, to Grandpa Jones—as well as to the familiar voice of Milton Cross announcing over national radio as he had done since 1931 (until his death in 1975) the Metropolitan Opera, proudly broadcast by the major station then in Raleigh, NC, WPTF, every Saturday. Thank goodness Cross did not have to witness what we are surrounded with and call “kulchur” in 2018.
Today, as Roy use to say, “I’m-a-picking, and I’m-a-grinning,” as I remember him and those days, those good days, but also those days when too many fateful and terrifying choices were made (or left unmade), intellectually, academically, and culturally. We did not then recognize or see what that would mean. And now America is dying, in part, for the lack of a Roy Clark and a Milton Cross.