A culture in flux. The magnificent Edward Hopper show currently at the Seattle Art Museum focuses on his portrayal of women as they leave the home and enter the urban workforce during the 1930’s-1950’s. Women alone in the world even when they’re together, mostly eating, not meeting the gazes of men, their faces white and emotionless. The paintings are mostly still life. Alongside the paintings are photographs from Imogene Cunningham and Walker Evans depicting women and couples at leisure from the same period. The similarities are striking in the world they capture. Everyone a stranger in a strange land.
Now, what in the world does any of this have to do with country music? While walking through the exhibit I couldn’t help but think of the post WWII rise of Honky Tonk music, which is essentially rural hillbilly music brought to the city. The bars were noisy and bands were large. They had to be loud to be heard over the din. After amplification though, smaller 3 and 4 piece units could be used consisting of typically a rhythm guitar, lead guitar, doghouse bass and fiddle and maybe a lap steel player if they were lucky. Musicians like Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman defined this new sound. E.T. backed by Smitty Smith on guitar changed the way country music was played. Smitty’s single string guitar licks have been copied for generations. Show me a country singer who can’t sing Walkin’ the Floor and I’ll show you a pop star.
After the war, a new rural industrialization begin to change the face of farming in America. Merle Haggard’s father spoke of his moving out of Oklahoma because when the tractor could do the work of 40 men, 39 of them found themselves in need of a job. The cities beckoned. Men and women found themselves in cities, out of place and lonely and wanting to remember better times. Honky tonks provided that and more. Here they found their people, their songs, maybe louder and more sinful than they remembered them, but you could dance to them and forget for awhile the aches of the factories and cramped rooms they rented by the week. What bands like the Maddox Brothers and Rose provided was a respite from the cold cities these honky tonkers found themselves in and a reminder of the homes left behind.
Home folks think I’m big in Detroit city,
From the letters that I write they think I’m fine,
But by day I make the cars,
by night I make the bars,
If only they could read between the lines,
I want to go home, I want to go home
Detroit City – Danny Dill & Mel Tillis
A side note on Chop Suey – Though we can’t be entirely sure, chop suey or “shap sui”, literally meaning bits and pieces or mixed pieces, was perhaps invented by Chinese immigrants working on the transcontinental railroad by using vegetables, pork, beef, or chicken bound in a thick sauce and poured over steaming rice or noodles. Chop Suey restaurants sprinkled the urban landscape and were immortalized in Edward Hopper’s 1929 painting.