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Country Music and the Limits of Nostalgia

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books and culture

Country Music and the Limits of Nostalgia

Ken Burns’s latest documentary evokes a past unfamiliar to many core PBS viewers. January 31, 2020
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

I have a framed photograph of my aunt’s first wedding, which took place in 1966 in the Southern Illinois town where my mother was raised and where I was born. My aunt was a beautiful and difficult woman, restless and not terribly agreeable; I doubt that she had a happy life. Though the photo commemorates a marriage that didn’t last—one that my grandparents disapproved—it somehow remains a happy image. The marriage ceremony is designed to overcome your misgivings. 

All the people in the photograph, perhaps two dozen in all, are now dead. The familiar relatives are gone, and the older faces crowding the edge of the frame—friends of my grandparents in their provincial burg’s insular society—belong to people who cannot possibly be living now. While some attendees, including my mother, are still alive, the picture itself has entered a remoter past.

The nostalgic feelings evoked by our pasts are easy enough to understand, especially those times that enjoy a special retrospective glow, like a first romantic relationship or the infancy of one’s child. Subtler and more difficult to place are the feelings that attach to a past that isn’t quite our own. Such emotions are evoked by the photographic panning and zooming technique known as the “Ken Burns Effect,” after the celebrated documentary filmmaker of The Civil War, Baseball, The Roosevelts, and, most recently, Country Music

Burns’ father, a psychologist, locates the origins of his son’s career in the death of his mother when Burns was just 11. Burns says that his father told him that his whole career was “an attempt to make people long gone come back alive.” What ties Burns’ films together, perhaps even more than technique, is the search for a usable past.

Psychologists once frowned on nostalgia, seeing it as evidence of pathology. The nostalgist was said to be living in the past, as did the tragic and macabre figure of William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” who slept for decades beside the corpse of her father. But a romantic reverence for the past lay at the core of Faulkner’s outlook, and psychologists seem to have caught up to him, seeing positive, adaptive dimensions in nostalgia. In this view, nostalgia can make present reality more bearable by slightly weakening our engagement with it. Snatches of old songs, memories of an aunt who carried licorice in her purse: human beings will create meaning out of the most meager materials.

Nostalgia is also a humanistic tendency, thickening our sympathies. Our longing for an Edenic past may have increased with the dramatic changes in American life that continue to erode our communal ties. With the family in decline, the idea of “family” grows, rather than diminishes, in potency. As Don Draper had it: “Nostalgia is delicate—but powerful.”

We desire a healing narrative, and some measure of self-deception about our personal histories may even be healthy. But a deeply false narrative about the past—whether personal or collective—can’t be good for us. Burns himself has been criticized from the Left for offering a narrative of American history that obscures lingering differences and absolves us of our sins.

The Carter Family, 1927 (Photo: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

The Burns presented in PBS pledge drives is a man of warm spirit and homely virtues, the resident of a New Hampshire town in the Grover’s Corner tradition. Some sleight of hand is involved here. Burns is an exceptionally sophisticated narrative artist and a man of deep ambition, a seductive storyteller who invites you to believe that you have assembled meaning yourself from the humble materials he has offered.

In Country Music, Burns shows a photograph of the Carter Family in front of their home in rural Virginia as the soundtrack plays their signature song, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” The image and the music are moving, but what collective experience am I participating in? The cultural past that Country Music seeks to evoke is by no means my own. Born in that Southern Illinois town, I have since become the sort of person that country music has always set its teeth against: urban, educated, a drinker of craft cocktails. Mine is a life materially abundant and somewhat spiritually arid.

No sepia-toned photograph can entirely overcome this cultural distance—or the fact that Burns has made a film that is in some sense “against” his own core PBS audience. Burns’ strategy for overcoming this problem—for convincing us that country music belongs equally to us all—is exhaustiveness. Over 16 hours of programming time works its magic. At some point, you either stop resisting or turn your television off.

Historical scenes from Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, formerly host of the Grand Ole Opry and country music’s permanent spiritual home, are a leitmotif of Country Music, linking generations of performers and their fans. In the earlier photos, the audience is filled with country people—wearing church clothes, far from home, and maybe a little uncomfortable—overdressed in the heat and surprised to find themselves in a louche part of the city. In later episodes, Burns gives us extended video clips from a Garth Brooks concert, and the crowd is altogether different—more affluent, more cosmopolitan, and expressively drunk rather than habitually sober. The contrast speaks for itself.

My aunt’s wedding photograph may lie at some optimal midpoint between a past that is too remote from my experience to be useful and too close to be held at arm’s length. Our relationship with the dead is perhaps often less fraught than it is with the living. My life in New York—in some ways, an exemplary modern life—seems very tenuous: my small nuclear family; a handful of close friends; at-will employment; and little else in the way of civic or communal ties. Is it enough? Country Music reminds us of what we left behind on our national journey toward the self.

Top Photo: Filmmaker Ken Burns (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

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