American vs. Australian Country Music

I recently heard Keith Urban’s new song, “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” It’s got a catchy tune and the title makes a great lyrical hook. The title itself evokes several recurrent themes in country music. John Deere is symbolic of grit, farm/country life, and general Americana. Many (too many?) country songs make the pickup truck that central symbol, but a John Deere tractor works just as well. Sandwiching our tractor is John Cougar (Mellencamp), an avatar of rock n’ roll rebellion, and John 3:16 as a reference to evangelical religiosity.(1) In any case, pick one or two of those three themes and you’ve pretty much summarized any American country song.

Which makes it deeply odd that Keith Urban sings it. He was born in New Zealand and spent his teenage years in Queensland, Australia. After minor success as a country singer Down Under, he moved to Nashville and to much greater success in the States. Indeed, as long as you only listened to his music, you wouldn’t know from his accent that he wasn’t born in America. This is a fairly common pattern, see Russell Crowe, Mel Gibson, and Nicole Kidman (Urban’s wife).

Still, it’s strange when Urban sings about quintessential American experiences that he never had. He couldn’t have been a “blue jean quarterback saying ‘I love you’ to the prom queen in a Chevy” because he would’ve been playing rugby and gone to a school formal. Australia did have John Deere by the time Urban was born, but via a merger with the more traditional Australian tractor company Chamberlain. And in Australia Urban would’ve been more likely to drive around in a ute rather than a pickup truck (and it probably would’ve been a Ford, Toyota, or Subaru rather than a Chevy). It’s self-explanatory why it’s odd for him to refer to the Mississippi, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Wheel of Fortune, and Texaco.

Of course, Urban didn’t write the song and, as he’s said in interviews, he absorbed a great deal of American culture from exported film, television, and music.(2) And it’s certainly true that America doesn’t own a monopoly on music celebrating place, family, and tradition. This post isn’t meant as a criticism of Urban; it is an opportunity to mention some of the distinctions between American and Australian country music.

But really I just want to talk about my favorite Australian country singer, John Williamson. I spent eight summers in Australia as a teenager. Two nuffy (good) mates introduced me to Williamson and I immediately fell for what seemed like a very exotic blend of influences for someone with very little exposure to global popular music.

Visiting the Outback in 1998

Visiting the Outback in 1998

The first thing I’d like to note is that in Australia, country music and folk music aren’t the almost completely distinct genres that they are in America. In the States, contemporary country music is strongly rock and pop influenced, plugged in, and rarely references anything pre-WW2. Folk music, on the other hand, eschews “over-produced” sound, roots itself in the blues and pre-WW2 country, and is the preserve of the hipsters and progressives who listen to NPR. (Full disclosure: my wife is a volunteer host for “The Folk Show.” I myself have a hermit beard and have been known to wear flannel year round.) American artists have played with the line between the two genres from time to time especially during the first folk revival (think Bob Dylan) and the second (think Mumford and Sons), but these moments are the exception that prove the rule.

In Australia, country and folk overlap more. John Williamson is a perfect example. Williamson usually performs on acoustic guitar, but he’s not averse to plugging in for albums. You’ll hear lots of harmonica and didgeridoo. He writes most of his own songs, which cover quite a few topics from early twentieth century Australian history. You’ll hear that mix in many of the examples of Williamson’s music that I’ll mention below, but you can certainly see it in his first hit single from 1970, “Old Man Emu.”

It’s not uncommon for Williamson to use the didgeridoo in his tracks and his embrace of the traditional aboriginal instrument indicates his wider advocacy for aboriginal rights. Even from my short time in Australia as a white man, I routinely overheard offensive sentiments about aboriginals. Imagine that all the animus in America towards blacks AND Native Americans was focused on one group and you’ll have some idea of what Australian aboriginals face. Which makes Williamson’s support for the aboriginal music scene all the more remarkable. American country music isn’t exactly known as a bastion of civil rights activism let alone for possessing any appreciation of Native American culture and music.

Like in America, Australian country music is deeply nationalistic. That nationalism is complicated however by Australia’s status as a member of the British commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth the Second is ceremonial head of state for Australia, albeit one with very little political power. That gives Australian nationalism a bit of bite that is lacking in American patriotic songs. Take John Williamson’s ardently republican “A Flag of Our Own,” in which he advocates for replacing the Australian national flag with its embedded British flag. The song just drips of Australiana. Framing story that appeals to beloved national hero? Ned Kelly, check. Epithets for foreigners? “Frogs,” “POMs,” “Yankees,” check, check, and check. And all are rooted in specific foreign policy clashes between Australia, Britain, France, and the US during the early 1990s. Like I said, this has way more bite than rather anodyne American songs like “God Bless the USA.”

“A Flag of Our Own” includes a touch of another motif in Williamson’s music: the importance of environmental conservation. One of my favorite songs is “Rip Rip Woodchip” in which Williamson describes the shortsighted, unsustainable destruction of Australian forests. It expresses a conservationist rather than preservationist ethos with its nostalgia for 19th century woodcutters, but it’s unlike anything in mainstream American country music.

Finally I’d like to touch on what I believe is a significant source of the difference between Australian and American nationalisms. For both nations country music is the musical expression of nationalist sentiment, a feeling that naturally flows into appreciation for the military service of their veterans. But the two nations have had very different encounters with war. American songs celebrating military service tend to highlight our victories over fascism and communism while downplaying colonial misadventures and defeats. Australians are much more attuned to the dark side of war.

Here’s a simple comparison that might help us understand the distinction between these national experiences. Ask an American about the most important moment in American military history and there’s a pretty good chance they’ll mention the D-Day landings in Normandy. American soldiers stormed the beaches while suffering awful casualties, but they successfully broke through Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall.”

Australians on the other hand also remember a beach landing, albeit one with a very different outcome. At the behest of over-confident British officials(3), some 78,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers (ANZAC) landed at Gallipoli in an ill-advised attempt to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. The landings were a disaster as initial efforts became bogged down in the same kind of trench warfare that bedeviled the Western Front. Except at Gallipoli the allied soldiers were less well-supplied, had less artillery, and were fighting in much more rugged terrain. The generals just kept pouring more and more reinforcements into the meat grinder. After eight months of brutal fighting and more than 141,000 ANZAC casualties, the Allied forces withdrew in defeat. To put that in perspective, Australia suffered approximately the same number of battlefield deaths during WW1 as the United States despite having less than 1/18th the total population.

What does that kind of tragedy do to a nation’s remembrance of war? Well, they still celebrate their veterans just as vigorously but without the assumption that their soldiers died in the defense of Australia. Those young “Diggers of the Anzac” died instead in the service of a callous British government.(4) Instead of focusing on the “goodness” of the war, Australians honor the personal bravery and integrity of its soldiers. Under horrible conditions, these men fought for each other even as the generals sent them over the top into almost certain death.

Those themes–individual heroism, soldierly comradery, all in the service of a questionable cause–are the subject of several Williamson songs, including “Diggers of the ANZAC.” Notice the mention of “men like Simpson,” a reference to Jack Simpson Kirkpatrick. Although his story quickly became myth, the real Simpson was a hero who ferried some 300 wounded soldiers down the steep cliffs at Gallipoli on the back of his trusty pack-mules before being shot in the back less than a month into the battle.

I really just can’t fathom an American country music star successfully combining these diverse instincts–folk music, indigenous rights, environmentalism, nationalism. We couldn’t handle a little criticism of the Iraq War let alone someone as interesting as John Williamson!

 

(1)  The sinner and saint juxtaposition is common in country songs and this song highlights that tension. What more perfect pairing than the personification of concupiscence, Marilyn Monroe, with the state of original innocence in the Garden of Eden??

(2) Hey, it’s a fact of empire from Hellenism through to Pax Americana.

(3) Including Winston Churchill, who was the rather strategically incompetent, warmongering First Lord of the Admiralty. I share the general Australian contempt for the man. American conservatives idolize him, but then Americans do tend to be as ignorant of WW1 as they are fixated on WW2, a weighting that works in Churchill’s favor.

(4) British officialdom never comes out looking good in Australian films and television. Here’s a clip of a young Mel Gibson in his first major movie role. Note the individual heroism and British incompetence. It’s as emotionally brutal an end to a film as I’ve seen. This quote from Gibson’s press tour does a nice job summarizing Australian cultural memory of the battle: “Gallipoli was the birth of a nation. It was the shattering of a dream for Australia. They had banded together to fight the Hun and died by the thousands in a dirty little trench war.”

Woody Guthrie Turns in His Grave, or, How Jeep Sells Jeeps by the Seashore

Automobile brand Jeep paid ~$4.5 million to air a commercial during the Super Bowl yesterday. The ad, which features a montage of grand American vistas followed by landmarks from around the globe, is accompanied by two stanzas of folksinger Woody Guthrie’s classic, “This Land Was Your Land.” On the surface the connection between Jeep and Guthrie’s song makes perfect sense.

Guthrie penned the song in 1940; the first Jeep came off the line in 1941. It makes sense to pair rugged and remote locations with the message of those two verses of the song, that if you want to see the land which the Lord your God will give you was made for you and me, then drive that “ribbon of highway” in a Jeep from sea to shining sea. Jeep sells luxury vehicles to those who want to off-road in comfort. (Although I saw far more Jeeps in Philly’s urban streets than I have out here in rural Pennsylvania. Perhaps we should say it sells luxury vehicles to those who like the idea that they could off-road in comfort if they ever got a break from trading derivatives or preparing legal briefs).

Yet the pairing is completely incongruous once you look at Guthrie’s original intent with the song. Guthrie wrote it in 1940 because he was frustrated with all the airplay given to Irving Berlin’s 1938 hit “God Bless America.” Berlin, a Russian immigrant, was thankful for his adopted country and the success he had enjoyed as a songwriter in the US which would have been barred to him as a Jew in much of the rest of the world. For Berlin, America was free, fair, and God-guided.

To Guthrie, Berlin’s lyrics were naive. Guthrie was native-born in Oklahoma and the son of a moderately successful businessman and local politician. In the 1930s he became a communist (although he did not officially join the CPUSA). While Berlin saw freedom and opportunity in the American expanse, Guthrie saw its limits. He originally titled his response, “God Blessed America,” with the emphasis on the past tense. Yes, America was a beautiful gift, but a gift given to a select few.

The original six verses of the song brought the listener along with Guthrie as he traveled across the country, all the way “from California to the New York Island” (v. 1). When he looked out over the valleys (v. 2), wheat fields (v. 5), and deserts (v. 3), Guthrie realized that this land, which had been made for all, had become the preserve of the few. Verses 4 and 6 were the heart of the song. (The original title was later crossed out and the familiar phrase put in its place.)

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing–
God blessed America for me. This land was made for you and me.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people–
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me. This land was made for you and me.

Guthrie wrote the song to protest the economic inequality of American society. As a communist, he blamed that inequality on private property and believed individual ownership of the means of production had resulted in the poverty and scarcity which plagued America during the Great Depression. If God had blessed America with abundance for all, why were so many struggling without? All this wealth and land and yet people were standing in soup kitchen lines.

Guthrie died in 1967, but his song–sans verses 4 and 6–became a popular anthem in the 1960s when a variety of folk revival groups covered it, from Bob Dylan to the Kingston Trio. But by removing the politically-charged verses, the song became just another generic paean to the beauty and greatness of America. It had become the very thing it had been written to critique.

Jeep’s 2015 ad takes that defanging to an extreme. It ends with Jeep’s new slogan, the first words of which seem quite fitting: “The World is a gift.” Well, Woody wouldn’t disagree with that. Okay. But then the second half of the slogan was revealed: “Play responsibly.” Apparently, this land is a playground for those wealthy enough to afford a brand new Jeep. A song meant to critique inequality is now a celebration of privilege. And Guthrie’s rejection of private property has been turned into an ad to convince people to buy luxury cars.