Liberation Themes in

Country Music

Kenneth Cauthen

Copyright © Kenneth Cauthen 2004. All Rights Reserved.

First, a word from the sponsor! My autobiography is now available under the title Born into the Wrong World: My Life and Thought  (Rochester, NY: John Wilfred Press, 2004). For information about how it can be obtained email me at:
Please remove * from my e-mail address before sending. The * was added to prevent spamming. Thank you.
My E-Mail Address
                                                   Alone and forsaken by  fate and by man
                           Oh, Lord, if You hear me please  hold to my hand
                                                          Oh,  please understand.                                                           
                                                   Hank Williams

I keep my nose on the grindstone, I work hard every day
Might get a little tired on the weekend, after I draw my pay
But I'll go back workin, come Monday morning I'm right back with the crew
I'll drink a little beer that evening,
Sing a little bit of these working man blues
                                                                                                                   Merle Haggard

And he went to the hungry and the lame;
Said that the poor would one day win this world,
And so they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.
                                                               Woody Guthrie

Liberation has been the most widespread theological theme on the global scene for more than three decades. Its central motif is that the Gospel is a liberating Word for the poor and oppressed. Liberation theology comes in many varieties, depending on who the oppressor is. We are familiar with black, feminist, gay, and Native American specimens in this country, to name the most prominent. The developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have produced their own versions. In each case the Gospel is seen in terms of hope and promise for groups who have experienced injustice and misery at the hands of dominating groups. Each variety has its own conversation partner in the particular oppressor at whose hands they have suffered. For black theology it is white people; for feminist exponents it is males and patriarchal civilization; for gays the heterosexist society; for Native Americans it is American, mostly white, power and culture; for developing countries it is the rich industrial nations and native political and economic elites. In each can be found a dualism between oppressors and oppressed. Third parties, if there are any, receive little notice. While the eschatological note is present, the emphasis is on emancipation on this earth at some unspecified time in the future from the ills of this life. The liberated life to come includes triumph over poverty and injustice but embraces the whole range of civil and human rights and the full flowering of a new humanity. It is the social gospel from the point of view of the beaten down in which the central informative category is the division between oppressors and the oppressed. It has little to say about moral dimensions of life that pertain to all human beings not involving the roles of non-oppressed, non-oppressors in their normal routines.

Liberation theology has been a refreshing, prophetic note that has sounded neglected notes. However, not all marginalized groups have been the beneficiaries of spokespersons for their cause.   I refer in this country in particular to Southern, poor and working-class whites. These are not people for whom most seminary professors who write books on the subject know or care much about. Most professors in divinity schools outside the South and in many of the more elite ones in the South are either non-Southerners or come from a middle-class or affluent urban environment where working-class Southerners are not much in evidence. In fact, when in focus they are mainly villains in the piece thought of as racists functioning mainly as culturally-backward examples of humanity to be censored not pitied. A typical image associates poor whites of the South with white sheets, hyper-patriotism, white-supremacy politics, ignorance, retrogressive religion, and a retrograde outlook regarding women, guns, gays, and God in and Darwin out of schools. Such images are not without evidence, I might add. The result, however, is that the real problems as well as the redeeming features of a large group of people who have known their own hard times and afflictions are neglected. Yet there is not much formal theology coming out of seminaries proclaiming liberation themes for this population of Americans.  Exceptions to this neglect come to mind, however, not all of them in seminaries. Will Campbell is a notable author, preacher, and activist. Tex Sample taught in a seminary, and David Fillingim teaches in a college.

For liberation themes in working-class  white Southerners:
White Working-Class Southerners

It should be added, to keep things in perspective, that the laboring classes of people everywhere in the country have been neglected in elite religious circles, and the labor movement has unfortunately fallen into disrepute with many in the academic world. Working-class whites whether union or non-union are often thought of in many of the same terms as are poor whites in the South - racist, homophobic, anti-feminist, for prayer in schools, against abortion everywhere, and generally not in tune with the latest forms of political correctness. It is just that poor whites from the country and working-class urbanites in the South are the worst of the lot.

Country music is one place where the troubles, trials, and tribulations of Southern poor and working-class white people have been given attention. Liberation themes of a distinctive sort can be found in this genre of artistic expression. I am broadening the term to include reflections on the inner agonies and real world afflictions of poor and working class white Southerners, sometimes with references to God or Jesus. I will be concerned with their hopes for justice and a better life, not only for themselves but for all who suffer deprivation and wrong. Sometimes these take the forms of utopian dreams for a universal emancipation of all the poor and the troubled in the world from all the social ills that afflict humankind. In this modest effort I want merely to point to a few examples of a type of thinking that has been neglected by intellectuals in theological seminaries and graduate schools of religion, based on my own experience at least. I am not making a universal indictment. I simply want to indicate an area of life that needs more attention among theologians than it has received thus far.

Southern Gospel and country music are my heritage. I grew up hearing and singing both. I listened to the Grand Ol' Opry and to hillbilly programs on WSB Atlanta, attended singing conventions, and listened to professional traveling gospel quartets. I can write a description of these musical genres in two ways - consult the academic authorities or my own experience. I get basically the same information from both, although I get introduced to facts and analytical categories from the books that enlighten and supplement my own memories and insights.

Country music must be understood in light of the historical and cultural context in which it occurred. The English-Scotch-Irish culture brought from Great Britain plays an important role. Southern whites carry the memory of losing the Civil War and the moral burden of slavery. Their land was devastated and their economy ruined. Poverty was severe and pervasive and continued through most of the 20th century and is not yet overcome everywhere. The Populist movement gave momentary promise of redeeming poor and struggling farmers and laborers but was soon crushed viciously by establishment Democrats. Then came the demagogues who offered emotional rhetoric but few specific programs to the down and out in a politics of bombast, but once in office frequently conspired with the rich and powerful to preserve the status quo. In addition, the South has long been vilified by Northerners and generally regarded as America's problem. White Southerners have known a lot about losing. Southerners, white and black, were poorly educated, suffered more disease, and in general were the worst off of any American population, except maybe for Native Americans.

They were, as Wayne Flynt says, "poor but proud." The sense of independence, of being able to make it on your own, wariness of all controlling powers, a scorn for hierarchy, a sense of pride, dignity, honor, and basic equality - being as good as anybody - the desire to just be left alone, fierce loyalty to family, community, race, and country, a the notion of fate or God determining your place in life, disdain for snooty elites, a feeling of helplessness in the face of social factors that kept them down, and living sometimes with a chip on the shoulder daring you to knock it off- all of these enter into the ethos of poor farmers and working class whites. A sense of honor tempts them when they are insulted to take the law in their own hands and wreak their own personal vengeance, especially in matters of sexual infidelity. County and working people of the Souther were and are deeply religious, and their faith is expressed frequently in their music. Many performers include gospel music in their repertoire. All these features reflect their inherited culture, their historical experience, their religion, and their own creative ways of responding to the world around them in ways that are beyond my ability to sort out with precision. I am not forgetting that blacks had it even worse than whites and lived with the threat of violent retaliation if they challenged the prevailing order.

Rural Southerners and urban working-class whites are stubbornly independent, suspicious of authority, vaguely aware that rich and powerful interests run the world and leave them out but don't do very well in getting specific about political strategies to change things. The South never developed a set of political institutions or the necessary cultural and intellectual infrastructure to insure justice for the poor and marginalized. This was complicated by the all-pervasive factor of race. Marginalized white people fell prey to the poisons of white supremacy doctrines and politics that assuaged their deprivations with the comforting thought that they were better and generally better off than black Southerners. Elite whites exploited these prejudices to their own advantage.

Tex Sample throws  light on Southern working-class whites and farmers when he notes that they are neither conservative nor liberal by some definitions of those terms. (1) They have no sympathy with conservative free market capitalism that puts great sums of money in the hands of powerful corporations and the wealthy. Neither do they resonate with liberals who want to give individuals wide ranges of freedom to follow ways of life they find abhorrent, e. g., with relation to family values, sexual license, and homosexual love. They are opposed to unrestrained self-expression and the unlimited freedom to create alternative life-styles. Rather, they are traditionalists, which means living by the traditions they inherited. They are prepared to defend them and to oppose transgressors. They value a cultural way of life handed down from the past with its morality, mores, and practices. It is a holistic view that sees institutions - family, church, school, and government - as mutually-supportive parts of an organic whole. There is a moral order that will eventually inflict its retribution if you defy it. Farmers and working-class Southern whites are conservative with regard to certain cultural values that flout tradition with relation, e. g., to prayer in school, gun control, abortion, marriage, gender roles, sexuality morality, and same-sex love. This explains in large part their attraction to the Republican Party in recent decades. On the other hand, they will respond to a liberal economic populism that exploits class issues and promises better job, better pay, and a better life when times are hard and race is not a central factor.

In a similar analysis Bill Malone notes that no consistent political ideology can be found in country music or musicians, but if there is one at all,  it is populism in the double-edged sense of the word.(2) On the one hand is a resentment of economic privilege and the oppressive power of wealthy and powerful elites. This can be seen in the multitude of songs praising the New Deal and Franklin D. Roosevelt. On the other hand is a prejudice against outsiders and deviants within who violate their traditional cultural values. This can be seen in the songs and artists supporting George Wallace, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the current President Bush. Country and working-class white Southerners resent draft dodging, pot smoking, free love advocates, as well as lazy welfare bums, gays, uppity women, flag burners, gun controllers, defenders of abortion, prayer in school opponents, and the like.

Country music came out of the mountains of southern Appalachia and the farms of the rural South. (3) Its locale matches pretty well the states of the Confederacy but includes Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas. It builds on musical traditions brought from the British Isles and got mixed with musical forms developed in the African American community, especially the blues. Once called "hillbilly," it features simple songs and tunes sung to the accompaniment of guitars - Spanish, dobro, and steel, fiddles, mandolins, banjos, and bass fiddles. Spirited fiddle tunes for dancing are prominent. Its distinctive style arises out of ordinary life and depicts the sojourn of farmers and wage laborers in their sorrows and joys, tribulations and triumphs, struggles and suffering, sometimes winning but more often losing in this life. The dignity and integrity of poor and struggling people are depicted in positive terms, even though life is hard and full of trouble. Religion is important for the faithful and for those who have strayed from the narrow way. Family, friends, the honky-tonks, and church are a source of joy, fun, and happiness in the midst of it all. "Drinkin,' lovin, cheatin, losin,' and dyin' are major themes. Often it sentimentalizes and romanticizes the simple, hard family life of farmers and working people. Despite the fact that things are often bad, there is a note of survival, even triumph, in the midst of it all, although laments of despair are not absent. Southerners can be fiercely individualistic. Hank Williams says, "I'm so lonesome I could cry," but life also has a social setting, especially in the family and local community. What has been said about Southern literature can with some justification be applied to country music:

The second major theme of the Southern Renaissance, the individual's relationship to his or her community, is closely linked to the burden of the past. In Northeastern American literature, identity is proudly and defiantly individual in the Puritan and Transcendental traditions. In contrast, the Southern individual's identity or honor is based on his or her standing in his community, and that standing is largely based on the family, whose standing, in turn, is determined by the burden of the Southern past. Although its burdens can be great, this emphasis on the societal over the individual can lead to the positive sharing, caring, values of community and to heroic Southern stoicism, in which individuals face decline and defeat with a public face of bravery, fortitude, and nobility. (4)

Trains, highways, fishing holes, hunting grounds, homes, trucks, honky-tonks, churches, dirt roads, jails, farms, and factories are its habitat. This is the music of marginalized people who reflect on their experiences, sorrows, hopes, dreams, failures, love affairs in the dust and grit of ordinary life. It embraces many tensions and dualities: between individualism and communal identity, freedom and fate, a belief that failure is your own fault and a sense of being oppressed by powerful economic and social forces beyond ones control, resignation and hope, the comforts of home and the desire to roam, worldliness and religious piety (Saturday night rowdiness and Sunday morning repentance, the bottle and the Bible), limited government and a willingness to use state power to enforce traditional morality and achieve economic justice, fierce patriotism and anarchic resistance to national authority, authentic folk traditions and crass commercialism, and, above all, the heaven and hell of romantic love. Another tension relates to politics. On the one hand is a suspicion of government and a preference for low taxes and to be left alone. On the other is a willingness to seek help from political powers when things get desperate. The latter is seen in the Populist movement and in the love of poor Southerners for the New Deal. Power elites in the past exploited their racism to thwart the union of working class blacks and whites in a common quest for economic justice. Lately Republicans have used race and the traditionalism of ordinary white Southerners with respect to cultural values to get their votes while pursuing economic policies hostile to their economic interests. Caught in these ancient contradictions, white Southerners frequently feel frustration and helplessness. This may explain why they are so vague about the specific social forces that make life hard for them. It just seems like that's the way things are and leads to laments about the sad lot of the poor in their music. From Hank Williams to Garth Brooks many examples of songs that fit this description can be found. Recently, however, the scene has shifted toward an urban, more prosperous environment and audience, but the laments of the working class are still in evidence in music that often sounds like a lot of current rock and pop, though still with steel guitar accents. This will have to do as a description, although much more could be said, especially about its major players and its history with its changing settings and motifs.

Country music is closely related to Southern Gospel music but with differences that should be recognized but not overdrawn. Both picture this life as full of trouble, woe, unfairness, and disappointment. Both accept this matter-of-factly, as the way the world works, even as a kind of fate. Little analysis of causes is to be found though the situation is often described with eloquence. Both can be overly sentimental and tend to romanticize the rural past and the country life. To the discredit of both in the era of segregation there was a massive absence of explicit references to racism and black suffering, although latter-day versions contain exceptions. There are, of course, constant references to the sorrows and tribulations of this earthly life, which by implication would include African Americans but only in that way. The differences between the two are important as well. The sorrows of this life are described in general terms in Gospel music, whereas country music gets very specific, down to earth and nitty-gritty - lost job, lost love, loneliness, hard work with low pay, death of a parent, friend, child, or lover. Country music is more this-worldly and speaks in terms of survival and even victory in the midst of hard times and failure in life, often with the help of booze and a lover. Gospel music tends to be more otherworldly, seeking relief in heaven where we will understand at last and be free from all the suffering, trials, and tribulations of this world, yet all this is accompanied by the joys of Christian living and the common life. In the center are authentic Gospel notes of sin and grace, forgiveness and reconciliation, and resources of spirit rooted in faith to sustain believers in their times of tribulation while they live in hope of redemption beyond this world.

While the emphasis on heaven is prominent, it is going too far to maintain that this life is "of no value." (5)This fails to allow for the rhetorical excesses of country music, gospel songs, and evangelical preaching. In any case, whatever may be said about the lyrics of gospel music, it does not accurately describe the experience of country people I knew as a country boy in rural Georgia in the 1930's and 40's living among farmers and mill workers. True, they testified in prayer meeting that this life is just a dressing room to prepare for the life to come. Nevertheless, this earthly sojourn mattered a lot to me and them. I saw a lot of joy around me but heard a lot of preaching that told us that life was not a bed of roses. Meaning and satisfaction were found in family and community life and in ordinary things like eating, worldly pleasures and amusements, fishing, hunting, working, playing, churchgoing , and life in general, even when the work was hard and the days were strewn with tribulations and sorrows aplenty. Of course, they wanted and worked for an easier and better life. Nevertheless, the people I grew up with generally had a positive outlook and felt at home in this world, even while they looked forward to release from earthly tribulations and sang "This world is not my home; I'm just a' passing through." It must be recognized that country and white Gospel music appealed to a wide variety of common folks in the South from the white rural and urban underclass, to farmers with land and social status, and to wage earners with steady jobs with low but family-sustaining incomes. Hence, few generalizations will fit everybody.

Country music is a vast territory, and I will take a few examples to illustrate the motifs I have described. I will try to avoid the academic jargon that is the occupational hazard of my academic class of people and make my analysis in simple terms. I will not claim that the themes I pursue are universal in country music. I will insist that examples are not lacking to illustrate my claims. As we come closer to the present more accents are to be heard in country music that reflect the mainstream of the culture and the aspirations of African Americans, women, and gays. Are there unresolved tensions and conflicting themes in country music? Yes, of course, just as there are in real life. Is there a lot more in country music than I will describe, much of which will lack liberative themes or run contrary to them? Yes, of course, but that is outside my specific intent in this essay.

The Human Condition

Country music reflects the fact that country and working people in the South were fiercely individualistic and yet lived in deep union with family, clan, community, and nation. Songs speak of solidarity with family and others like them and even occasionally with the poor and marginalized everywhere world over. The human condition is often pictured in bleak terms, especially for the down and out. Hank Williams, one of the pioneers, wrote songs about the poverty, loneliness, and anxiety of the poor man who has had a lot of luck, all of it bad, and who lives with the blues. He sings of the hard times he has known in which everything goes wrong from love to work and persists without any hope or solution in "I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive." Death provides a final release with only hints of heaven beyond.

Your lookin at a man that's gettin kinda mad
I had a lotta luck but it's all been bad
No matter how I struggle and strive,
I'll never get out of this world alive.

He laments that the whole world seems sad - the birds, trains, the moon and stars - along with him. In the face of it all he says:

I'm so lonesome I could cry.
I've never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by.

Decades later Merle Haggard, while taking pride in who he is, still laments that "A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today" sings the "Workin Man Blues." Hard work gets you nowhere, you just have to keep at it to feed a wife and nine kids. Proud, stalwart independent guy that he is, he will not go on welfare nor give in to the temptation to roam but will just keep drinking his beer and working as long as his two hands work. The music of Johnny Cash exemplifies as well as any the plight of folks who have been beaten down life the vicissitudes of life and sometimes victimized. In "Man in Black," he explains that he always wears black because of his compassion for those who suffer. Everything will never be right, but we need to make some steps in that direction.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.

He adds to the list the sick and lonely old people, for what might have been in lives that were lost, and pledges that until things get better for the down and out, he will wear nothing but black in the hope that we can learn that, as Jesus said, the path to happiness is by loving each other.

Unlike the liberation theology of the seminaries, most often in country music no specific oppressors are named. Mainly it is the rich, it seems who keep the poor down. Rich, powerful elites get the best of things. The plight of the poor and the down and out struggling masses often seems like a kind of fate, just the way things are and not to be changed much in this life. Contemporary artist. Alan Jackson sees the "Little Man" pushed aside by big business. He looks around his town and finds that the family-owned stores of his childhood that offered you personal service have been swept away by big chain stores. Modernizing forces have crushed the little guy and created an impersonal environment that he does not like when compared to the warm, friendly neighborliness he used to know. Yet there is no sense that anything can be done about it.

Now they are lined up in a concrete strip
You can buy the whole world with just one trip
And save a penny cause it's jumbo size
They don't even realize They're killin' the little man

All he can do is celebrate the ordinary citizen in sadness and offer God's blessings.

Long live the little man
God bless the little man

We might add that here is another tension. Working people bemoan the loss of small, family-owned business but shop at Wal-Mart. Tradition conflicts with modernizing commercialism.

Nevertheless, while this general condition seems beyond help, individual and families will hope and plan for better times. Merle Haggard sings that "If We Can Make it through December," the summer will come in a warmer place. It's Christmas, and he has been laid off at the factory and can buy no presents for his little girl. But

. . . . If we make it through December
I got plans of bein in a warmer town come summer time
Maybe even California
If we make it through December we'll be fine


Liberation theologies are written from the underside, from the point of view of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, and the weak contending against powerful forces that dehumanize them. They urge those in the mainstream to express solidarity with those who have been put down and left out. Similar motifs within the context of white Southern existence can be found in country music. White Southerners identify with family, locality, their own kind, and their nation. They have a strong sense of place and community. "Where are you from?" might the first question asked when meeting a stranger. As underdogs themselves, the have a feeling for the little guy. Country artists proclaim their own identity with poor and working people. In a sad, sad song, Hank Williams sings of "Men with Broken Hearts." He urges compassion for the suffering who know sorrow and pain because they could be you or might be you soon.

Life sometimes can be so cruel that a heart will pray for death.
God why must these living dead know pain with every breath?
So help your brother along the road, no matter where he starts
For the God that made you ,made them too. These men with broken hearts!

Johnny Cash wears black as witness to his solidarity with all who suffer. Sometimes country singers reach out to include all colors and races in the American or human family. In "America" Waylon Jennings combines love of country with a sense of a common humanity in all Americans past and present, including war resisters:

And my brothers are all black and white, yellow too
And the red man is right, to expect a little from you
Promise and then follow through, America
. . . And the men who could not fight
In a war that didn't seem right

Garth Brooks knows that family matters, for blood is thicker than water, but he knows also of a bond with all humanity for "Love is Thicker than Blood." Disaster can strike us all, and war denies that we sons and daughters of something greater than ourselves.

Why can't we see the walls we can't see through
And see what God's been telling me and you
(and that is) blood is thicker than water
Oh, but love, love is thicker than blood

In "One Hundred Children" Tom T. Hall sings of hopeful children from all over the world united with each other in search of harmony with nature, peace among nations, and justice for all. In "I Want to See the Parade" he  expresses his inability to understand why anyone would hate civil rights marchers.

Kris Kristofferson, a native of Texas and a Rhodes scholar, lacks the working class background of many country singers but is a star of country music. In a radical statement he expresses solidarity with the revolutionaries in El Salvador and Nicaragua who are fighting for their freedom from oppressive regimes, even if they are communists. We may lure them with money or employ them to do work we don't want to do, but we cannot kill their spirit.

You can't defeat him - he's fighting for freedom
That's all he wanted - that's all he needs
You'll never beat him with weapons and money
There ain't no chain as strong as the will to be free

Jimmy Dean wrote a gentle song letter to "Dear Ivan," a Russian farmer like himself, seeking to find a community of interest that could save the world from nuclear disaster and achieve peace.

Described as the most important folk singer of the first half of the 20th century, Woody Guthrie until 1940 was a hillbilly singer.  Born in Oklahoma, he had known poverty and hardship. He was radicalized by the  Dust Bowl  powerfully pictured in John Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath. He became a part of a New York circle of radical-intellectual  social activists and championed  the cause of the struggle of workers,  migrant farmers, and wanderers looking for a better life. In "I Ain't Got no Home in this World Anymore," he sings of

My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road
A hot and dusty road that a million feet done trod;
Rich man took my home and drove me from my door
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.

In "Deportees" he represents the plight of Mexican workers deported back home after they had harvested the crops.

The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting
The oranges are filed in their creosote dumps
           They're flying 'em back to the Mexico border  
To take all their money to wade back again  
Radio said, "They are just deportees"

Contemporary Tob Keith can proclaim a jingoistic patriotism but sometimes sounds a note familiar in academic liberation theologies. Like Woody Guthrie he sings of the solidarity of Jesus with the poor.

                                       I'd have some friends that were poor
                                       I'd run around with the wrong crowd, man I'd never be bored
                                      Then I'd heal me a blind man, get myself crucified
                                      By politicians and preachers, who got somethin' to hide.

Jesus would be a hippie type who turned water into wine at parties and offered forgiveness from the cross. In a similar mood Tom. T. Hall indicates that Jesus saves sinners, drunks, and losers, stands by the afflicted, and enlists the poor to assist him.

    We can't afford any fancy preachin'.
We can't afford any fancy church.
We can't afford any fancy singin'.
You know Jesus got a lot of poor people out doin' his work.


Like liberation theologies country musicians have a keen sense that things are not right as they are. The rich get the best of things, the poor the worst. Injustice is rampant. Things need changing. In response country musicians exhibit a tension between resignation and hope. Hank Williams illustrates resignation.

Cause nothin's ever gonna be alright no how
No matter how I struggle and strive

One of the saddest songs I know is Ted Daffan's "Born to Lose."

                                             I've lived my life in vain
                                         Every dream I dream has only brought me pain
                                          All my life I've always been so blue
                                          Born to lose,  And now I'm losing you

 Hope is sometimes modest as in Johnny Cash.

Well, there's things that never will be right I know,

But we can begin to change the situation if we learn from Jesus the way of love. The world can be brighter though not yet. Tom T. Hall tells children "There is a Miracle in You."

If anything at all in life is true there is a miracle in you
You can be anything a president of course
A nurse or a fireman or someone important on a horse
There's adventure and a future bright and blue there is a miracle in you

Tom T. Hall's beautiful "I Washed My Face in the Morning Dew" is another example of a positive hope for a better future. He goes from town to town and finds that a lot is wrong with the present. In one a man was being hanged, and nobody cared. In another a poor crippled man was begging on the streets. In the next town things were calm, but the rich prospered and the poor languished as inequality grew worse. It doesn't seem right, and he doesn't understand as he keeps moving on But change is coming soon, and each injustice will be put under judgment.

Then I'll wash my face in the morning dew
Bathe my soul in the sun
Wash my face in the morning dew
And keep on movin' along

Sometimes hope is related to a call to action. No examples are more powerful than those found in the songs of textile mill workers  during the 1920's and 30's. The story of Ella May Wiggins tells us much about the plight of the mill workers. She was a 29 year old union organizer in North Carolina during the great strike of 1929. She had given birth to nine children. Four of them had died. She was born to an itinerant logging family in the mountains. She married a not-too-successful man who eventually deserted her. So Ella May supported her family by working in a mill at Bessemer City. She made speeches and sang union songs. Her most famous ballad was  called "Mill Mother's Lament."  She spoke of the hardships of a mill worker with barely  enough money to provide food. Then she concludes by urging workers to join the union. The bosses don't care . . .

But understand, all workers,
Our union they do fear,
Let's stand together, workers,
And have a union here.(8)

She was subsequently killed by a bullet through her heart. Only after the governor forced the issue was there a trial, and her alleged killers were acquitted, although the murder took place in daylight with many witnesses. Soon after that the strike ended.

Sometimes hope is extravagant and visionary, as we will see next.

Utopian Dreams

Liberation theologies typically teach that a day is coming when justice, peace, freedom, equality, and prosperity will triumph over the oppressions of the present. This hope is vivid especially when their particular revolution finally succeeds with all its full potential. Utopian dreams are also a part of country music. In more recent versions this hope embraces all people regardless of race, class, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation.

Garth Brooks in "We Shall Be Free" is a particularly inclusive version. It has echoes of the "I Have a Dream" speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. Although speaking as an ordinary man, Brooks identifies with the ancient prophets who foresaw a day of universal justice, peace, and well being. In a future seen by faith, there will be no more poverty, racial barriers, intolerance, despoiling of the environment, or condemnation of same-sex love in this universal community of brothers and sisters who live free and equal as one humanity that embraces diversity without prejudice.

And when money talks for the very last time
And nobody walks a step behind
When there's only one race and that's mankind
When we're free to love anyone we choose
When this world's big enough for all different views
When we all can worship from our own kind of pew
Then we shall be free

No one outdoes Tom T. Hall in dreaming of a transformed future. No song is more eloquent in this regard than his "The World the Way I Want It." If he could have his way, he would feed the hungry children, give the old their youth, heal the blind and crippled, free the poor from debt, give them all decent work, give health to the sick, spread the wealth, overcome poverty, give hope to the hopeless, give joy to the sad, bring the warring soldiers home to family, and in general set the world free from all its ills.

If I could have the world the way I want it what a day tomorrow could be
If I could have the world the way I want it I would set these children free

Similar themes are found in "One Hundred Children." Marching children from all over the world plead with their elders not to blow the world up, to preserve a world with forests and flowers, and urges them to live in harmony.

Your God may be dead but ours is alive
We think without him we cannot survive
Punish all the bad men, praise all the good
Talk to your neighbors about brotherhood

Thinking about right and wrong one night, he realizes that the proper response is to join them.

I thought of good things that still could be done
The marchers now number one hundred and one


Especially in the early days, liberation theologies complained that other varieties left out something essential. Black theologians attacked white theology for neglecting the experience of African Americans. Feminists noted that black and white male theology left out the oppression of half the human race. Black women found white feminism at fault because it spoke mainly for middle-class white women. Latin Americans argued that nearly all North American liberation theologies paid too little attention to class and the domination of developing countries by the rich ones. Each form noted one or more hegemonies (to use their language), but was chastised for leaving out others. Here is one more. American theology - whether feminist or male - has neglected the experience of poor rural, and working-class white Southerners. Where present at all, they were mostly condemned for their racism, sexism, and retrogressive morality on cultural issues. Let us note that there is plenty of guilt to go around. We Augustinians operate on the assumption that all men and women, black, white, yellow, brown, or red are sinners and fall short of perfection in some important respects. Given the parochialism of theologies, the suggestion that there might be feminist motifs in country music will be thought by some to be oxymoronic on the face of it. However, if we recognize - as academic liberation theologies do - that we must start with the concrete experience of the marginalized, then elements of feminism can be found in the women of country women and even in a few men these days. It will have its peculiar form and emphasis based on the specific experience of rural and working-class women.

Early women musicians sang not only of the powerlessness and poverty of the rural class but also of the hazards of childbearing that frequently led to early death. "Single Girl, Married Girl," written by a man (Alvin Carter) " and sung by the Carter Family in 1927 sets the tone:

Single girl, single girl she goes to the store and buys . . .
Married girl, married girl she rocks the cradle and cries

This can be seen as the typical lament about the hard life of country women, but it can also be seen as containing the seeds of a more radical feminism that came later protesting the limitations put on women by marriage that confines them to the home. The Carters, of course, were quite traditional people.

A further development occurred when Hank Thomson's "Wild Side of Life" pointed a finger at bad women.

I didn't know God made honk-tonk angels
I might have known you'd never make a wife
You gave up the only one that ever loved you
And went back to the wild side of life

Kitty Wells, a pioneer woman in country music and a traditionalist in style, protested that "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels" Men, especially married ones who pretend they are single, make unsuspecting good girls go wrong.

It's a shame that all the blame is on us women
It's not true that only you men feel the same
From the start most every heart that's ever broken
Was because there always was a man to blame.

The old notion that men can't help themselves and must sow their "wild oats" is rejected. Equal moral responsibility is the new principle of gender relations.

Loretta Lynn was reared in extreme poverty, married at age thirteen, and had four children by the time she was eighteen. She wrote songs from "a woman's point of view." Without breaking with traditions that would offend her audience, she rejected sexual double standards and demanded that the concerns of women be taken into account in "Don't Come Home a' Drinkin' (with Lovin on Your Mind)" and "Your Squaw in on the Warpath." "The Pill" freed women from reproductive bondage. Here is an ethic of resistance to oppressive practices and an assertion of the dignity of working-class life. "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "You're Lookin' at Country" are representative.

I'm about as old-fashioned as I can be
                                     And I hope you're likin' what you  see                                                       'Cause if you're lookin' at me
You're lookin' at country.

Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man." is often taken as proof of the cultural backwardness of country music. When Bill's sexual transgressions came to light in 1992, Hillary Clinton asserted that she didn't consider it mandatory to do what Tammy advised and then proceeded to stand by her man all the way. I have trouble forgiving her for that remark, along with her condescending remark that she could have stayed home and baked cookies, as if homemaking were not a worthy calling. This gives us a clue about how working-class women are regarded by the cultural elite. Wynette's song can be interpreted in various ways: 1. as traditional female submissiveness and passivity, 2. as loyalty to wedding vows to stick it out "for better or worse," 3. an act of desperation for a woman who would be worse off if she abandoned her husband, or 4. a statement of maternalism and superiority, since he would be helplessly lost without her, since after all "he's only a man."

Dolly Parton never decided whether she wanted to be a sweet innocent country girl or a Hollywood sex pot and has ended up being both. She sings sentimental traditional songs about the rural poor in "A Coat of Many Colors" but reflects modern, urban concerns of women as well. In line with her independent self-assertion she said that women should choose what they wanted - go out a get a job or stay home and raise her family. In the movie and the song "Nine to Five," Parton rebels against the corporate exploitation of working women.

Nine to five, they've got you where they want you;
. . . It's a rich man's game, no matter what they call it;
And you spend your life putting money in his pocket.

Hazel Dickens and Iris DeMent, both with Southern backgrounds,  have shown a passion for social justice and the down-trodden in a series of  class-conscious songs. Dickens was especially concerned with the hardships of West Virginia miners typified by the album “Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People.” “Lost Patterns” sets the tone:

And it's hard luck, hard times, and too many rainy days
Hard workin' people who just get by from pay to pay.
Yes it takes it's toll upon us, we sometimes drive away the ones who care
From all the wearin' and the tearin' the carin' just walks right out the door.

She showed her working-class sympathies in the soundtracks she made for Harlan County USA and Matewan. Iris DeMent’s point of view is represented in  her “Wasteland of the Free.”

We got CEO's making two hundred times the workers' pay
but they'll fight like hell against raising the minimum wage
and If you don't like it, mister, they'll ship your job
to some third-world country 'cross the sea
and it feels like I am living in the wasteland of the free

Reflecting the changing times and the current interests of an urban population, more recently women have tended to leave behind the traditionalism of the pioneers like Kitty Wells and the ruralism of Loretta Lynn. They have asserted even more explicitly the sexual freedom of women and exposed considerably more of their flesh in concert appearances and videos. Martina McBride in "Independence Day," a song full of patriotic and civil rights imagery related to revolution and freedom, exhibits a tragic, ambiguous moralism in which a woman burns down the house with her drunken, abusive husband and herself in it.

Let Freedom ring . . .
today is a Day of reckoning
Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong
Now I ain't sayin' it's right or it's wrong
But maybe it's the only way
Talk about your revolution
It's Independence Day

Was there another path to freedom? If not, should she have stood by her man? If this fiery path to liberation is the only way, that is tragic and self-destructive. When justice is served by violence, is it right or wrong? Ambiguity reigns.

The same theme is played out in "Goodbye Earl" by the Dixie Chicks. Two friends, May Anne and Wanda plot the death of Wanda's abusive husband and feed him poisoned black-eyed peas. They dump his body in the lake, and Earl became a missing person that nobody missed. This time no ambiguous moral questions are raised. In their quasi-humorous treatment, they simply get by with no regrets. Was it justified?

. . . and they don't lose any sleep at night
'cause Earl had to die
Goodbye Earl We need a break
Let's go out to the lake Earl
We'll pack a lunch And stuff you in the trunk Earl

In both these songs women are asserting themselves against male aggression and saying in violent acts they will not take it anymore.

Shania Twain exposes generous areas of skin sensuously/sexually and plays a game of role reversal in her video "Honey, I'm Home." She complains about womanly frustrations - visible panty line, run in the hose, forgotten purse, broken nail - in a boring, low-paying job and demands that her husband serve her needs with food, a back rub and a beer.

This job ain't worth the pay
Can't wait 'til the end of the day
Honey, I'm on my way

These complaints from Kitty Wells to Shania Twain do not exactly match the typical complaints of mainline theological feminism, but within the context of rural and lately urban working women, they assert female dignity, sexual equality, self-determination, and resistance to male violence, and corporate exploitation.

Conclusion, the Bargain, and the Tragic Dimension

My claims are modest. I do not insist that these themes are universal in country music. There is much that is contrary to them even in the same artists I have included. But, after all, the Bible has a lot of retrograde morality itself. It is mostly a sexist and patriarchal book. Slavery is never explicitly condemned and is everywhere accepted. Women are assigned a secondary role, while men are dominant in power, prestige, and value. No one should claim that the Book of Joshua or the ninth chapter of Esther are texts in liberation theology.

Finally, it has to be said that the liberation themes I have indicated are beset with a serious weakness.(6)   Anger, resentment, and class consciousness are present, but it is mostly resolved in personal responses to the oppressive conditions rural and working-class white Southerners face –  live with it in unrelenting struggle, escape in whiskey, love and sex, or religion, beat  the system, or try to find a way out on your own. Lacking is any effective analysis of the social structures that keep them down. Wealth and big business are sometimes listed as enemies, but it leads to no movement or political strategy. Government is just as likely to be source of the problem not its solution. White Southerners have never expected much from politics. Why should they, given their historical experience? It is hard to find a call for a collective engagement in a social and political struggle to overcome the oppressive structural causes of injustice.  Hence, in the end, we have to speak of liberation themes in country music that have a liberating potential that is only partially realized.

But is it not a contradiction for me to call for political engagement when politics has never offered  poor white Southerners much? Yes, and the explanation lies in the  tragic element found in the bad side of  the traditionalism and the populism referred to earlier.(7) In the old days it was the racism of poor white Southerners that prevented an effective alliance with poor blacks to effect better economic conditions and opportunities for them both. Added to this was the poverty of the region as a whole that would have limited their achievements in any case. More recently it has been the adherence of working-class Southerners to traditional cultural values that attracted them to the Republican Party that is the problem. Republicans offer very little for poor and working people anywhere. This poses the final question: Can there ever be a New South in which neither racism nor non-liberating tradition stands in the way of justice for the masses of Southerners black and white, a "New" South that is still "the South?"


1. Tex Sample, White Soul: Country Music, the Church, and Working Americans (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 92-3, 81-134.
Will Campbell has also written about the culture and mindset of white Southerners in "The World of the Redneck," Christianity and Crisis  (May 27, 1974): 111-8.

2. Bill C. Malone, Don't Get above Your Rasin' :Country Music and the Southern Working Class (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002),  211-61.
3. The standard history of country music is Bill C. Malone, Country Music USA, 2nd ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002).

4. Veronica Makowsky, "Walker Percy and Southern Literature." Written for The Percy Walker Project (1996). See:

5. David Fillingim, Redneck Liberation: Country Music as Theology (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2003), 30.

6. See the following: Malone, Don’t Get Above Your Raisin,’ 48-9, 246; Sample, White Soul, 121-34; and  Fillingim, Redneck Liberation, 40-2. 

7. See my "I Don't Care What the Bible Says": An Interpretation of the South  (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2003), in which I use the categories of the unjust, the tragic, the ambiguous, and the  demonic to interpret the darker side of Southern history.  A satirical version is as follows:

Old Bargain according to Lillian Smith: Rich whites say we will make the money and run things; you poor whites can feel superior to blacks. You will be poor but not as poor as blacks, and we will keep them out of schools, churches, and garden clubs, and we will go easy on the lynching thing. Deal?

New Bargain according to Ken Cauthen: Republicans say we will make the money and run things. For you working people we will support prayer in schools, keep Ten Commandments in court houses, oppose sodomy, abortion, and gay rights, and maybe(if business interests do not compel us otherwise) keep the Confederate flag flying on state capitols. We won’t raise your wages, see that you have health care and child care when both parents have to work, but you can join the volunteer army  and get the rewards of being patriotic while the  children of the rich stay home and get MBA’s. But you will have to fight wars oversees to kill Muslims (check with Jerry Falwell and  Lt. Gen. William Boykin on that), protect our business interests, and destroy countries so we can give fat contracts to rebuild them to Halliburton and Bechtel who will give us lots of money so we can stay in office and fight for your old-fashioned values. Deal?

The tragedy is that poor and working-class whites fell for both deals. The explanation is complex but lies not primarily in the lack of rational capacity to discern self-interest.  However, rationality operates within a culturally relative perspective. So we have to find a clue, at least in part, in the demonic power of racism and other factors related to their long cultural past so powerful that they were tragically unable to act effectively to secure their own best interests or to discern and act on the deeper implications of their own religious faith.

Since I first wrote this a couple of years ago, I have come to see that
the above is too simplistic. While it is not wrong, it needs qualification. Many working-class and middle-class Southerners have voted their moral and cultural values instead of for economic interests narrowly defined. Self-interest is the broadest sense means what the self is interested in. Many Southerners have voted for Republicans because they  (Republicans) seem more devoted to to their moral and cultural interests. Moreover, their economic status has improved over the decades so that ecnomic values do not have the primacy they once had. Finally, add to this the traditionalism and individualism of Southerners and you find that their preference for Republicans is fully rational and expressive of their self-interests in the wider sense of the word of including moral and cultural values.

8. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, James Leloudis, Robert Korstad, Mary Murphy, Lu Ann Jones, and Christopher B. Daly, Like a Family: The  Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 215, 226-7.

I invite your comments, criticisms, and suggestions.

This is one of many essays on theology and ethics on this site. The best place to begin is:
Essays in Theology and Ethics

Many of the essays that were originally on this site have been subsequently published. Since the copyright is now held by the publishers, I have deleted the whole article and replaced it with a brief summary. Information is provided in each instance regarding the published location of the complete article.

I invite comments, criticisms, refutations, suggestions, and corrections.

Please remove * in my e-mail address before sending. The * was added to thwart spammers. Thank you.
My E-Mail Address

If you want to take a break for some fun before you get to the serious stuff, the links below will take you to some short videos  of a humorous nature that I made. They poke good-natured fun at some funny aspects of religion, churches, theology, right-wing Protestant religion, and the mixture of right-wing religion and politics. They are designed purely for entertainment and laughter. I hope you enjoy them.  For a a list of my videos  See:  Essays

Presently, the following essays on theological and ethical topics are available:
About the Author
A List of my Books
Interpreting the Bible Today
The Authority of the Bible
Using the Bible with Integrity
Theology as Religious Belief
What I Believe
Natural Law and Moral Relativism
What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?
A Doctrine of God (Short Version)
A Doctrine of God (Long Version)
Trinity: God, Christ, Spirit
God as Masculine and Feminine
Theodicy: the Problem of Evil
Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative
The Many Faces of Evil
A Contemporary Christology
Christ and Christians
A Critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture
The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization
Christian Ethics
Process Christian Ethics
The Ethics of Belief
Relativism, Morality, Belief
Religion and Politics: Relating Jesus to Jefferson
Liberation Themes in Country Music
Liberation Themes in White Southerners
Southern Tragedy
Capital Punishment
Physician Assisted Suicide
Prescription Drugs and the Little Red Hen
Bioethical Decision-Making
Drug Policy
Theology and Ecology
Religion and Politics
Science and Theology
Church and State
A Short Biographical Sketch
For an updated version of Mother Goose for the modern age, visit
Mother Goose Goes Electronic

From the Back Cover of my autobiography:
Born into the Wrong World is the story of a country boy from the rural, segregated South who grew up among farmers and millhands. Kenneth Cauthen has spent a  lifetime trying to make sense of life and its mysteries. He has always been troubled that there is so much suffering and injustice and puzzled that  we do so little about it. He defends the view of a limited, suffering God as the only credible way to explain why the world is not better than it is.

Born in 1930, Cauthen’s life covers a span from the Great Depression to the Age of Terror. This memoir  views his seventy plus years  in the context of these tumultuous decades. His evocative descriptions of childhood in the country are marked with humor and appreciative feeling as he talks about outdoor toilets, life in a small Baptist church, the eccentricities of colorful individuals, the family grocery store, and the sights, sounds, and smells of that rustic time long ago. He speaks candidly of early sexual trauma and the pain caused by parental conflict.

It is all here –  his life experiences with all their sorrows and joys,  inner struggles, his brief  career as a pastor who barely escaped dismissal over the race issue, his four decades as a professor of  theology and author,  his first marriage, family life, episodes of depression,  a devastating divorce, a happy second  marriage, his theological development and mature thought, his ambivalence about the church, and his social and political views.

The author says, “I have laughed a lot and cried a lot. Humor and tears have  kept me sane. I wanted to conclude with an account of my funeral, but I was not willing to meet the publisher’s deadline.”

Kenneth Cauthen is the John Price Crozer Griffith emeritus Professor of Theology, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Rochester, New York. He is the author  of eighteen books, including The Impact of American Religious Liberalism, which was the standard text in the field for a quarter of a century.

Having a Web site is becoming a family enterprise. First to have a Page was my son.
Paul Cauthen
The latest entry is that of my son-in-law and daughter.
Ric Brown and Nancy Cauthen
These sites are very different, but both are creative, imaginative productions. They would welcome a visit.
Please remove * in my e-mail address before sending. The * was added to thwart spammers. Thank you.
My E-Mail Address

Visitor count since  May 9, 2009:

Website Hosting
Website Hosting  

Created: Thursday, February 12, 2004