March 16, 1974 wasn’t a particularly special day in America; Vietnam was ongoing, there was clear weather here in NYC, gas prices were still climbing after the ’73 embargo, etc. About the most exciting thing anyone my age was up to was listening to hits like Terry Jacks’s “Seasons in the Sun” or Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were.” Either that or getting high.
Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Or has time rewritten every line?
If we had the chance to do it all again
Tell me, would we, would we,
Could we, could we?
But had I been in my hometown in Tennessee, things might have been a bit more interesting. That evening the Grand Ole Opry, the world-famous country music radio show, was celebrating a relocation from the Ryman Auditorium to its new home on the edge of the city. Unsurprisingly, it was packed. Had I been alive, I might have tried to snag one of the few last-minute tickets, but my efforts would have been in vain. The elites of Southern politics and country-western entertainment obviously got first dibs on any (if not all) tickets. The last two remaining seats were taken by Dick and Pat Nixon on March 2.
While the status of the Prez and First Lady is indisputable, I reckon I would have been better suited to have those tickets. I mean the Nixons don’t have any real reason to be there, do they? What connection do they have to Nashville? Dick isn’t from the South or anything. He’s from SoCal. He’s not a New Dealer proletarian-type or an “Okie” (a migrant from the American South or dust bowl etc. Think Ma and Rose of Sharon in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath). He grew up a Quaker and went to a bourgie west coast liberal arts college. To top it off, he’s a Republican walking into in a room full of loyal yellowdog Democrats.
The evening’s events seem innocuous enough, but the pace of the proceedings was curiously rushed. Opry hosts Billy Grammer and Roy Acuff held forth, but didn’t make too many jokes or tributes. The country industry’s shining stars performed elaborately, though noticeably efficiently – so efficiently that there was a bit of spare time for Dick to take the stage. This wasn’t a quick appearance; the next show of the evening (the Opry always did two shows a night) started over an hour late. After being taught how to use a yo-yo by Roy Acuff (I mean, really?), Dick sat at the honky-tonk piano to lead a rousing rednecky rendition of “Happy Birthday” for Pat (who hated country music, by the way). In true Nixon fashion, he dominated the stage and turned the evening into a publicity stunt.
Correction: Nixon led a rendition of “God Bless America” (as footage proves), though Roy Acuff’s account of the evening states that he played “Happy Birthday” for Pat.
It’s cute and in retrospect not all that surprising. Dick needed some goodwill. There was a lot going on that week back in D.C. Yeah, you got it. Watergate. On March 1, 1974, the Watergate Seven were indicted on charges including conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. Dick is publicly labelled a co-conspirator by the Grand Jury, heralding the imminent demise of his presidency.
Goodbye to you my trusted friend
We’ve known each other since we were nine or ten
Together we’ve climbed hills and trees
Learned of love and ABCs
Skinned our hearts and skinned our knees
So if Dick is in such deep shit on March 1, why make arrangements on March 2 to head to Tennessee?… To walk into a room full of people who didn’t vote for him in the first place?… To hear a concert of country music? It’s as if he’s literally placed himself in the most self-alienating politically position possible (well, except for maybe wiretapping the DNC). It’s a weird situation for sure, but it’s not inexplicable. Dick had courted country music performers for his ’68 campaign and even gotten a little bit of endorsement from Roy Acuff. It was a calculated effort on behalf of his campaign to court the Southern Democratic electorate following its electoral disibtegration in the wake of the civil rights movement.
But why would this have been an issue? Surely those disaffected by social progress could just transfer loyalty to the Republican Party? See, this is where it gets complicated. The parties we have today look super different from the parties did just after the Second World War. The South was not the safe haven of free-trade nincompoops that it is now (though racism and Jesus were very much in vogue). In fact the South, like most of the country, was completely transformed by the New Deal, by FDR, by Democratic Party policy. For Roosevelt’s political offspring, Barry Goldwater’s brand of anti-unionism was not to the taste of hundreds of thousands of men granted manufacturing jobs in an area formerly only offering employment in lackluster agriculture. William F. Buckley’s determination to privatize America’s commodities spat in the face of the inhabitants of the Tennessee Valley, whom the TVA had granted reliable electricity for the first time. Pseudo-intellectuals like Ayn Rand and their opinions on the “uselessness” of cultural identity affronted the hundreds of musicians and folk artists given the means to support themselves and distribute their art. Indeed, Opry host Minnie Pearl and many of her compatriots on stage that night spent the 1930s working with the Public Works Administration. Though they had a good deal of success in 1968 election, the Republican Party did not ideologically hold the answers for Dixie, the poster child of New Deal economic and social progress (that is, if you’re white).
In an editorial for National Review, William F. Buckley ironically labelled this mindset “country-western Marxism,” laying criticism upon the South’s refusal to veer wholeheartedly towards the Republican Party because of its seeming respect for a federal govenernment with any ounce of economic initiative. In particular, Buckley pointed out George Wallace as the embodiment this continual geo-political discrepancy in the American party system.
Famous for attempting to defy federal desegregation rulings during his gubernatorial tenure in Alabama, Wallace ran against Nixon on an independent ticket in 1968, taking handfuls of Opry musicians with him on the campaign trail. Such was his popularity with the Opry that one Nashville reporter claimed to have seen “more Wallace stickers in the Ryman Auditorium parking lot than in Alabama.” Wallace’s campaign with the “Dixiecrat” Party garnered him more than 13.5% of the popular vote in 1968, having presented the South with a more home-grown, organic alternative to Dick. Wallace’s popularity was Dick’s benchmark in 1968, helping not only to reshape campaign tactics, but to usher in that particular Southern, Christian, acceptably racist strand of conservatism – ya know, the one that got George W. Bush into the hotseat?
As time would soon tell, Buckley’s assertions were not so much ironic as they would be prophetic for the path his party would soon take: a full-on assault on reason and decency. Wallace’s rhetoric on race and state sovereignty would come to shape Republican discourse in the same manner as Goldwater’s attitudes towards economics and Roy Cohn’s lawsuit machine. The activities of of these three men have culminated in one of the most unsettling political figures in U.S. history, Donald Trump. Countless commentators have compared Trump to one or all of these three men. This series aims to take a musician’s eye (and ear!) to these three men to look at what gave rise to a lunatic. His sheer rage is unrivalled except for George Wallace (or maybe Newt Gingrich) who was until now, perhaps the most hated politician in America.
While Wallace’s ideology was not undertaken wholeheartedly by Richard Nixon, he adopted its more endearing manifestations – such as country music – to gain power and public goodwill. Like Buckley, Nixon could also sense that the South was making waves and thus spent both his campaigns and his presidency courting the white Southern electorate with an obsession that only he could muster. On March 16, 1974, the only seat more favorable that Richard Nixon’s box seats was the George Wallace’s wheelchair on the front row.
The night goes on and on,
Another lonely song, I’m singing.
Lord, don’t think bad of me,
Don’t get mad at me,
You know I’m weak.
Next on Harping On: “Sounds of the Silent Majority” continues with a further exploration of the persons on stage on March 16, and the emergence of a politically active commercial music industry.