Every now and then, somebody tackles the question of what “country” music is, as opposed to other varieties. Does it mean “the music of our country”—meaning America, or just “from out in the country,” as opposed to “city music?”
I’m no expert on this, but I’d guess that country music is what you could make for yourself in case the need came up. Sort of like everything else rural folks had to do in the days before you could buy “boughten” fence posts and factory gates, much less a pre-assembled school house. Country people made these things, from which we got the words “homemade.”
Most rural people didn’t make musical instruments, but you could always send off for a guitar, harmonica, fiddle or banjo from Sears and Roebuck—things little and light. Then you could produce “homemade country music” yourself.
Obviously, you had to keep the weight down for shipping, so we didn’t go in for pipe organs, tubas, accordions, or harps much—and very few trombones because you could put an eye out with one of those. You hardly ever saw a Sousaphone or kettle drum in a parlor, because they took up more room than the piano, heating stove or Uncle Globus.
In the Ozarks of Missouri, we had additional problems. The steep hills, rough roads and creek crossings made delivering even a mandolin hard, let alone a piano, which would arrive sounding like it had come off a bluff and was full of channel cat, which was sometimes the case.
So, what we did down here, when the need for music became urgent, was make our own instruments like the smackola—an octave of different-sized chickens played with a hand paddle. We also invented the swinette, which you could make from a young pig and a section of inner tube. And there was the shotophone—a wind instrument played by blowing over the barrels of a shotgun with corncobs in the breech to vary the notes. We used a number of percussion instruments that are still popular, like washboard, spoons, jawbone, knife whetting and slat-clapping. We have come up with others such as the Buford swat (also called the “stop that!” by some musicians), and a fingernail ticking rhythm called “poly-tickin,” which some say was inspired by listening to speeches on the radio.
I really think that “country music” depended on what we had to play at the time, which would leave out things like those Swiss horns that were longer than a political administration, and, like an administration, played just one note, or high tensioned things like harps that had more wire than a bicycle and were always threatening to implode and hurt somebody.
My take on the music argument is that if you hum it all day, it’s “country;” if you know all the words, it’s “pop music;” and if the kids like it, it shakes the ground, breaks the windshield in your truck, stunts the crops and sours milk, it’s “city music.”
Longtime Today’s Farmer contributor Mitch Jayne passed away in 2010. We run this column in his honor.