“Over the last couple of decades, you have turned Rural America into a scene of devastation which can now best be described as ‘Forgotten America.’”
This is the opening sentence of the liner notes on Moneyland, a new bluegrass collection assembled by bluegrass master Del McCoury. It is directed at Washington politicians under a heading of “Obligatory Disclaimer.” The words stake out strong territory, territory once inhabited by Woody Guthrie and later by Pete Seeger. It’s the role of social prophet in a musical voice.
The prophet hears the voices of the oppressed and forgotten and lifts them up, but isn’t necessarily obligated to offer a prescription for social change. The prophet seeks a hearing and calls for justice.
It’s the politicians entrusted with the responsibilities of governance who ought to serve the people and Moneyland makes it abundantly clear that politicians have failed working folks wholesale. It frames the case in an interesting way. The opening and closing cuts are taken from Pres. Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats.
Roosevelt began his chats in 1933 when the country was in the throes of the Great Depression and radio in its infancy. The chats revealed his remarkable ability to communicate with the masses, especially working people, despite his patrician background. To put it mildly, it’s an ability that’s been long absent among politicians with roots in Roosevelt’s social vision and belief in progressive government for all the people.
Sterner and more angry voices today call the treatment of working people contemptuous neglect wrapped in hypocrisy and exploitation. And these themes are vocalized in Moneyland.
McCoury sings of greed and forgotten people. As if to nail down the point, the same week the album was released former Sen. Phil Gramm said we’re a nation of whiners concerned about a “mental recession.” He virtually ignored the real, down-to-earth dislocation that is tearing apart lives in the heartland.
Also included is Merle Haggard’s What Happened?, an unsparing critique of popular culture that asks where the America we once knew has gone.
Haggard says mainstreet has gone the way of Walmart. Jobs have gone offshore. Houses and double wide trailers are going back to the mortgage companies, and more and more families are going bankrupt. And it’s seemed as if no one is listening.
A poignant report in the New York Times by writer Michael Powell recounts the experience of Jeana Brown, a Georgia woman working two jobs. She tells Barack Obama about the sacrifices she and her husband are making to keep up payments on their double wide trailer after they went from $670 to $1,378.
Powell contrasts Ms. Brown’s story with the dissonance of Obama going from this conversation to fundraising events in elegant surroundings with wealthy patrons. Obama wrote in the Audacity of Hope it’s difficult to stay in touch with the hard edge of life when wealth provides both a cushion and distance.
It’s this disconnect that McCoury focuses on with clarity and sharpness. Both McCoury’s album and Ms. Brown’s story hint at something stirring in the heartland. It’s the stewpot of betrayal that a lot of people are feeling–economic exploitation, hypocrisy, greed, a toxic culture of consumption and unresponsive politicians.
I heard a man say recently, “This is not the country I grew up in.” When McCoury and Haggard put this disaffection into song it means there’s an audience for it. Something’s afoot.
Ms. Brown told Powell she hasn’t voted in 32 years, but she’s going to vote this year. Now that they’re being directly affected by the greed and neglect, folks who have felt they weren’t being heard and have little stake in the civic process are sounding like they’re ready to join in making change.
Whether it’s hope or desperation, it doesn’t matter, this is a time of opportunity that could re-energize the democratic process if this renewed interest can be harnessed and given active expression.
But it’s not only politics that has failed these folks. (I know this essay is too long and I’ll stop after this.) Much of the mainline religious community has been equally neglectful, sometimes even holding them in disdain, our only contact being when they repair our air conditioners or tune up our cars–despite the fact that some of us are them. We are working class but we got educated and got above our raising, as another Haggard song puts it.
In the process, mainliners lost the the ability to talk with working people and they figured out that mainline churches were no place for them and, maybe, religion was irrelevant anyway. Those who did reach out to them (fundamentalists, evangelicals and religious entrepreneurs) offered biblical interpretation devoid of social justice alongside a privatized expression of faith that was in some cases coopted by political operatives who wed right wing politics to conservative religion and claimed it was family values.
As I see it, the distance of the mainline from working folks is even more serious than the politicians because it’s a fundamental betrayal of the biblical admonition to stand for justice and express concern for your neighbor, especially the excluded and forgotten. (Matt. 25:35-40.)
So McCoury’s album is a prophetic poke at mainline religion as well. Mainline theologians and preachers could do worse than listen to McCoury, Haggard and others on this album and reflect on its themes. It expresses a deeply human, and therefore, deeply religious yearning for respect, dignity and community that deserves to be heard and given attention.
They also show us how the deepest yearnings of the human spirit can be expressed through story and sound, and in doing so point us toward recovering the ability to communicate with folks who are taking it on the chin right now and about whom we should be urgently concerned.
For some of us, “they” are us, but we need to close the gap.