Smile When You Call Me A Hillbilly: Country Music’s Struggle For Respectability, 1939-1954
On the one hand, Jeffrey Lange, a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois, has written “a very good summation of country music’s history during the crucial years from 1939 to 1954” (as scholar Bill C. Malone phrases it in his jacket blurb).
The book elucidates well the ways in which country music, and the country music business, evolved during this period. The influence of the big radio barndance shows (and how they differed one from another); the effects wrought by the introduction of the jukebox and by the different musical styles that traveling southern soldiers encountered during World War II; the rise of country subgenres such as honky-tonk, western swing, and bluegrass — Lange rigorously documents all of these developments, and many more, in prose that is, if a bit dry, always reader-friendly. This is a book that any student of country history will want to spend some time with.
On the other hand, it doesn’t deliver on the discussion promised by its provocative title. Smile is a book about the struggle for respectability by a form of music created by the white southern working-class — yet it’s also a book that has very little to say about class at all, and exhibits no real class consciousness.
For instance, Lange reminds readers that southerners, on the hunt for better jobs and better lives, migrated in great numbers from farms to cities all across the nation during the decades surrounding WWII. But he has next to nothing to say about the economic and technological developments that made these moves necessary — nothing to say, to cite just one example, about the forces behind the in-many-ways planned demise of the sharecropping system.
Similarly missing is a discussion of the way Jim Crow laws and customs were employed to reinforce the “proper” place of not only black southerners but of poor white ones, too — that is, of the very fan base that rendered country music so disreputable in the first place. After all, one reason Ernest Tubb warned folks to “smile when you call me a hillbilly” was because he knew the term often revealed disrespect on the part of middle-class city folks toward the working-class and poor white southerners who had migrated into their midst.
Smile also fails to establish to what extent a desire for “respectability” was a motivating factor for country music at all. And, for that matter, “respectability” on whose terms? The music and musicians? The fans? The listeners who sneered when they called someone a “hillbilly”? Did respectability mean the same thing for all of these groups, and what price did anyone pay for achieving it?
Addressing such questions head on might have transformed Lange’s welcome and revealing book into one that was downright revelatory.