Gomer Pyle and the Music of Southern Poverty

Sometimes, you need to go halfway around the world in order to make a point, especially if the point to be made is not a simple one.  This is one of those times.  Also, it’s probably past time that I should explain the difference between a Yankee and a Northerner.  “Northerner” is a geographic term that refers to anyone not from the South, and not all Northerners are Yankees.  Many times, Northerners and Southerners alike share the same hallowed American philosophy of “leave me alone and we’ll get along just fine,” and I have a multitude of friends who are Northerners, great people, and trusted confidants.  However, “Yankee” is a conceptual term that applies to anybody who can’t stand for people to live differently from them.  Although it’s true that Yankee thinking is most closely associated with Puritans and New England, you can find it anywhere.  Yankees are threatened by anything alien to them, and their whole life purpose is to conquer and force change on everyone else to conform to their “hive” mentality.  The very fact that someone is out there living happily and differently is totally unacceptable to a Yankee, and it must be stopped.  In Star Trek terms, Yankees are like The Borg, and resistance is futile.

For me, one of the most satisfying things about Southern music is that there is no Yankee alternative, or even worse, Yankee replacement.  And trust me, if Yankees had any music of their own, they would have forced it down our throats decades ago, and Southern music would be extinct by now.  However, they’ve got nothing to offer, so Southern music gets to remain authentic and Southern.

I have written before on a couple of occasions that music has a magical ability to transport you directly into the mental state of the musicians.  You don’t just learn what they know, but you get to feel what they feel.  Literature can’t really do that to the same extent, because the writer must necessarily be literate and therefore educated and somewhat privileged.  I once heard a joke that went something like this: “What do you call an illiterate writer?  A musician.”  In addition to that, music is also a performance art, which makes it able to communicate more effectively than painting or literature.  Nobody ever walked up to Mark Twain and said, “Hey man, write Tom Sawyer again.” A crowd of people never gathered at William Faulkner’s home, held up a bunch of BIC lighters, and chanted, “Barn BurningBarn BurningBarn Burning!”  Once they wrote it, it was finished.  Music is never finished.  Every single time it’s performed, it is rewritten and reinterpreted.  And that is a HUGE advantage for Southern culture.  Through ongoing performances of our music, people all over the world get to build contemporary relationships with our ancestors.  And not just the selected, privileged, literate, celebrated, historically important ancestors, but ALL of them.  The uneducated, the unsophisticated, the good and the evil, the profound and the profane, the black, the white, and everything in between all get a voice. Southern music is a direct backdoor entrance to raw, authentic Southern culture without having to go through any culturally filtered nonsense. “Come on in, y’all, the door is open.  Help yourself.  Over there is what it’s like to work in a coal mine in Kentucky.  That area over there is what it’s like to be so lonesome I could cry.  And over here, this is what it’s like to be born and raised in Sylacauga, Alabama, and end up with your own hit television show.”

As a graduate student, I learned that I had a real talent and gift for statistics, of all things.  In fact, one of my most beloved instructors was my statistics professor, and he used to regularly tease our class by saying, “If the red-headed guitar picker can understand all this, why can’t the rest of you?”  It really was kind of weird to accidentally discover a love of statistics, but music and math have always had kind of a freaky connection throughout history, anyway.

In that class, we read through and analyzed tons of previously published behavioral science research, and designed some fictional studies of our own in order to learn how to use all the analytical tools at our disposal.  Designing a study is one thing.  Collecting data is one thing.  UNDERSTANDING the significance of that data is a whole different ball game, especially when it comes to human subjects.  The factors that make us human such as gender, age, education, income, ethnicity, etc., all overlap each other, which can make it difficult to determine which variable has the most statistically significant impact on a study.

If you designed a study in agriculture, you could make sure that the water was the same, the sunlight was the same, the air was the same, the soil was the same, and so on and so forth.  You would be “controlling” for these different variables by making them all the same so that they had no impact on the outcome of the study.  You can’t do that with humans.  Gender, age, education, income, ethnicity, and all of those other things cannot be “controlled,” and therefore they have overlapping effects.  The statistical trick is to determine how they overlap, rule that part out, and then interpret which variable or variables still have a unique significant impact on the outcome.

What has the biggest impact on the reading comprehension of 2nd graders?  What can explain the differences between IQ scores of kids in Alabama and kids in Connecticut?  Is it gender?  Is it ethnicity?  What is it?  As it turns out, the most important thing we learned in those statistics classes would have an enormous impact on my overall understanding of Southern music and Southern culture.

Time and time again, we learned that there was always one variable that kept popping up either at or near the top every single time.  Without question, it is the one variable that has more impact on anything involving human society and culture anywhere in the world.

And if you guessed “race,” you’d be dead wrong.

It’s poverty.  In behavioral science, we call it “socio-economic status,” but in the real world, we simply call it poverty.  Trust me, in practically every situation where race seems to be the most significant factor, I bet you that poverty is a bigger and much more accurate factor.  In fact, I guarantee it.  That’s what impacts the reading comprehension scores of 2nd graders, the IQ scores of kids from varying states, and pretty much anything else you can imagine.  To suggest that these differences are caused by race is to admit a total lack of understanding of humanity, and you don’t need to look any further than Southern culture for verification.  Anyone who promotes the belief that skin color is what pre-determines the outcome of any situation is trying to sell you something.  You can’t make the numbers fit the narrative no matter how passionate you are.  

So, does race still have an impact on life and society?  Of course it does, good grief.  I never said it didn’t.  What I’m saying is that there is a much more important variable that plays a bigger role in our society, and it is tragically overlooked and ignored due to all the sexy headlines generated by race conflict.  If you want to fix any problems caused by racial injustice, then start by fixing the problems caused by poverty, and you’ll find that racial justice will tag right along for the ride.

My Southern ancestors were poor farmers.  They didn’t own any plantations, and they certainly didn’t own any slaves.  In all of my gigantic family tree I’ve researched and documented, I haven’t found a single ancestor that owned a single slave.  In all fairness, I did find one ancestor in Texas who “rented” the slave of a neighbor for childcare purposes for a few months and returned her, but never purchased her.  But heavens above, my ancestors certainly did make music.  Lots and lots of it.  They performed music, they wrote music, and they taught music all over the South.  And perhaps the most significant thing about their music is that it was NOT driven by race, but by poverty.  They created the music of poor Southern farmers, and not “white folks.”  My ancestors played, sang, wrote, and taught Country music, Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Sacred Harp, and everything else in between.  In the South, I don’t believe in the concept that there is “white music” and “black music.”  Yankees follow this concept, and in typical Yankee fashion they assume everyone believes the same, but in the South it’s just not true.  Instead of “black music” or “white music,” we simply have Southern music.  And just like the example earlier about 2nd grade reading comprehension, the most significant factor in Southern music is not skin color – it’s poverty.

I have written before that another perfect example of this can be found in a simple plate of peas, greens, and cornbread.  To a Yankee, that’s called “soul food,” which is their euphemism for “black people food.”  But in the South that same plate would be called “Southern food,” which means, to us, that it’s OUR food.  It’s not “black food,” “white food,” “soul food,” or anything else like that.  It’s OUR food – it’s Southern food.  Now, if a Yankee saw a white person eating “soul food,” then they would think of it as an anomaly, an outlier, or something out of place and unusual.  It would probably be the punchline to a joke.  But to a Southerner, it’s so common and normal that it’s not even worth noticing.

The exact same thing applies to music.  I’m not stupid; therefore, I recognize that the majority of Blues pioneers certainly were black, but I also recognize that my white ancestors weren’t the only white folks playing and singing the Blues.  Or Jazz.  And the same thing happened in Folk music, Gospel, Sacred Harp, etc., etc., etc.  In the South, there is no color barrier in all of those types of music.   Music doesn’t have a skin color, no matter how badly Yankees want to put it there.  As written a few paragraphs earlier, wherever you believe that skin color is a significant factor, I guarantee you that poverty is a bigger and much more accurate factor.

The music of Appalachia is the music of poverty.  The Blues of the Mississippi delta is also the music of poverty.  It’s the same all over the South.  The Southern aristocracy did not have their own unique, iconic sound, but practically everybody else did.  Blues, Jazz, Country, Appalachian, Folk, Bluegrass, Cajun, Tejano, etc., is all the music of poverty.  But not just any old poverty – it’s all the music of Southern poverty, which is a shared poverty that runs across the color line. And all we need to understand this would be to consider good old Gomer Pyle. 

Can you remember the first time you saw that episode of The Andy Griffith Show where Gomer Pyle sang for the first time?  Do you remember your reaction to hearing a poor, white-trash gas station attendant singing Santa Lucia with perfect clarity, diction, tone, and pitch?  Well, no matter how you actually reacted, you were supposed to react with shock and disbelief, because poor Southern folks aren’t supposed to be sophisticated like that.  And here’s the critical question – would the desired comedic reaction have been any different if Gomer’s character had been black?  Nope.  The punchline had nothing to do with skin color, but was all about poverty.  Gomer didn’t have privilege because of his ethnicity.  He was poor, and therefore, it was funny.  What made all of it so authentic was that the actor playing Gomer Pyle – Jim Nabors from Sylacauga, Alabama – was really singing.  It wasn’t a Hollywood trick.  The people of Mayberry were shocked that Gomer could sing so well, and Yankees all over America watching television were equally shocked to learn that Jim Nabors could also sing so well. The man had a beautiful baritone voice, and I always loved those rare episodes when he got to show it off.  The exact same thing actually happened one season earlier on The Andy Griffith Show in an episode called Rafe Hollister Sings.

Rafe Hollister was a poor white-trash, overall-wearing local farmer and moonshiner who surprised everyone with his incredible singing voice.  He was forcibly entered into a formal singing presentation for some stuffy old blue-haired ladies, and they tried desperately to “clean him up,” only to find that he provided the necessary authenticity to his performance when he climbed back into his old, dirty overalls.  As with Gomer, the actor playing Rafe Hollister was a Southerner – Jack Prince from Shreveport, Louisiana – and he was really doing all his own singing, too.  Also, as with Gomer, the punchline still involved a poor Southerner possessing sophistication.  It wasn’t, “Hey, that white Southerner can actually sing.”  It was, “Hey, that POOR Southerner can actually sing.”  Isn’t that just hilarious?

I am discouraged at the current marketing trends that are attempting to force music into racial categories.  I’m assuming Yankees are behind this, because only Yankees see skin color when they hear Southern music.  However, I am equally encouraged by musical acts such as Florida-Georgia Line, even though they are much-maligned by Country music purists. If you’re not familiar, they are Southern boys who sing a blend of Country and Hip-Hop – they call it “hick-hop.”  There’s no way anybody would ever confuse their music with either George Jones or Tupac Shakur, but their music doesn’t appeal to race.  It never has, and it never will.  If you managed to stay awake through this whole post, then you already know the answer.  To be fancy, it’s called socio-economic status, and it’s the music of Southern poverty.

About Tom Daniel

Tom Daniel holds a Ph.D in Music Education from Auburn University. He is a husband, father of four cats and a dog, and a college band director who lives back in the woods of Alabama with a cotton field right outside his bedroom window. His grandfather once told him he was "Scotch-Irish," and Tom has been trying to live up to those lofty Southern standards ever since. More from Tom Daniel

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