So I’m still stuck on Nixon. It is possible that the Opry appearance was unconnected to the President’s watery predicament in early 1974, but we are talking about Nixon after all. This was the King of public image, and it wasn’t the first time he’d played the piano for some political capital.
Is it really likely that the Opry appearance was an apolitical visit, or more specifically that it was irrelevant to the Watergate fallout?
What was it about the Opry itself? Sure he and other political candidates had recruited some musicians from the Nashville crew, but was the show itself an explicit political platform? With millions tuning in every week (it was after all, one of the most popular radio entertainment shows of the twentieth century), what would an appearance on the Opry have signalled to the average listener? Who was the average listener? Was the Opry really just a southern show?
Who’s listening to country music? And why?
April 1, 1964
Things were heating up. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. The country was still recovering from JFK’s assassination. Come April, the Democratic primary was nearing its end and LBJ was clearly in the lead. Alabama Governor George Wallace had put his name into the ring after the notoriety he gained for literally standing in opposition to desegregation at the University of Alabama. Worryingly, the responses to his actions were not universally negative. There was enough support from those in his state and around the South that a Presidential campaign, even if purely symbolic, could give weight to Jim Crow’s barbaric yawp.
Symbolic or not, Wallace’s campaign faced the uphill battle of physically getting out of the Southern states to cultivate an electorate. Funds were limited, and he was reliant on local unions and political organizations to put him up, pay for venues for rallies, and find musicians to warm up the crowd. This is all well and good when you’re campaigning around the South, the plains or even California – country music and the cultural symbols of white disenfranchisement had spread out as Southerners and Dustbowlers moved west for work. California, once known as a bastion of Catholicism and Theosophy, became the future home storefront evangelical religion, mega-churches and neo-Pentecostalism. Indeed films like Grapes of Wrath did not tell a one-off tale of intra-national migration, but rather the opposite: as thousands and thousands of men and women headed, a broad yet distinctly white and protestant culture started to geographically expand.
But a less reported phenomenon is that the Midwest also received a flux of migration – the South not only moved West, but North, fast ascending the ranks of urban Midwestern society. On February 19 1964, Wallace delivered a speech at the Rotary Club in Madison, Wisconsin, where audience members showed their support for Wallace by breaking into a rendition of “O Suzanna,” the state song of Alabama. Though these Southern migrants were fewer than their continental European immigrant counterparts, their influence and sway over local politics and economics were disproportionately high by comparison.
Yet, there were parts of the Midwest which remained largely untouched by rural Southern culture. In particular, the working class inhabitants of industrial centers such as Milwaukee, Detroit, and Gary were still primarily of Continental and Eastern European extraction. Hence, despite Wallace’s success in Madison, getting the message across in other Midwestern cities posed a problem. Wallace was entering territories dominated by Catholic parochial institutions, European customs and the folk music of Eastern Europe – not steel guitars and mandolines. We’re talking polkas, not barn dances. Though much of America still believed in the cultural melting pot, Wallace’s firebrand evangelical style of delivery, reminiscent of a preacher at a revival, was still rather foreign to the first generation Americans the rust belt. If you’re having trouble imagining the problem confronting Wallace, imagine a scenario in which Dolly Parton or another Southern caricature is invited to speak in your city, and a polka band was hired to liven things up. It doesn’t quite compute – there’s a certain incongruity to it all. Jolene simply doesn’t have an oom-pah-pah groove.
But in Milwaukee, cultures collided in Wallace’s favor, where a largely Polish metalworker’s union organized a rally in Serb Hall, on the south side of the city. Wallace’s own description of the evening sums it up pretty well:
“Thousands of Polish-Americans had come to hear me and with them was a very fine band that kept playing, “Way Down upon the Swanee River” over and over, to everyone’s delight. Then, when we were least expecting anything new, the band struck up “Dixie”, and three thousand or more voices sang “Dixie” in Polish. They never got beyond the first verse, but it certainly sounded good that cold night in South Milwaukee.”
Wallace wasn’t exaggerating – news of the evening made it over the wire to Life and WSJ who both reported the same phenomenon: several thousand Milwaukee industrial workers stood to sing “Dixie.” In Polish. To George Wallace.
While this was certainly charming (yikes) in a certain way (and also probably very flattering to Wallace), it was also pretty significant of the ways in which Democratic Party politics were getting shaken up around the country, and not just in the South. The musical evening in Serb Hall exposed a sharp divide within the Democratic Catholic voting consensus, only four years after the election of John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first Roman Catholic President. But months before Wallace’s arrival in Milwaukee, leaders in the Roman Catholic Church began to protest against Wallace’s visit. Why? They knew the extent to which racial prejudice against African-Americans plagued their parishes. In Milwaukee and abroad, the enforcement of civil rights legislation in Northern and Midwestern cities lay not with the federal mandates, state laws or city ordinances, but in the hearts and minds of the European immigrants who viewed African Americans as racial inferiors and economic competitors.
Indeed, the events of April 1 1964 were no coincidence, including the musical choices. Historian Francisco Panizza aptly note that, “[Wallace] drew them into the collective identity he described, articulating their interests as whites who were being betrayed by the federal government and made vulnerable to blacks, who by definition became their political enemies, just as they were his.”
But renditions of “Dixie” and “Sewannee River” were just the beginning; they set the scene for the hecklers which had been hired to be placed in the audience. It was common that the local Wallace campaigners also were designated to find and hire African American man, and lead them into Wallace rally under false pretences. Indeed, three African American men were planted at the Milwaukee meeting for the sole purpose of being removed by the rally’s audience. According to the press reports from the evening, these men were not only violently kicked out, but told to “go back to Africa” for refusing to sing the National Anthem.
In speaking on his time as a Former Wallace aide, Pete Matthews said that the presence of hecklers, picketers, and racial “others” only increased the luster of message being delivered, as it encouraged the audience to “perform with Wallace” just as they were encouraged to sing to foster a collective spirit. Matthews said that the rallies were carefully orchestrated performances, as the very effectiveness of Wallace’s oratory was “completely dependent” upon the presence of both stereotypically white music (that is, country music) and racial opposition (the physical presence of an “other”).
The Serb Hall rally proved to Wallace that racial resentment was not confined to the South, and that this violent rage had a country-western soundtrack. From Rotary Clubs in Madison to meeting-houses in Milwaukee, country music was starting to take on a political significance which transcended the divides between WOP and WASP. Nobody could pretend any longer that race, culture and economics were separate matters, to be considered in isolation. They were intermingled, intertwined and interdependent. It was messy. In a second interview, Wallace proudly reported that “there were at least 100 Confederate flags being flown in the Serbian Village Hall in South Milwaukee. And you know, the band played “Dixie.” Even the Milwaukee Journal had to report this – they played “Dixie” and 3,500 people stood and sung it in Polish. And I tell you that “Dixie” sounds good being sung in the Polish language…”
Questions still remain. How the hell did these men know Dixie? Was it radio? Was it coordinated? Where did they get 100 Confederate flags? Considering the complex relationships between Nazism and KKK culture, how was Polish identity navigated through all this? In an environment so racially charged, what means of coercion were used to plant African Americans at an event in which they would inevitably be verbally abused and physically harmed? Considering the concentrated activism undertaken by all levels of the Diocese of Milwaukee Wallace (including a letter from the Bishop of Milwaukee forbidding the attendance of Wallace rally), how is it that nearly 4,000 parishoners stood to support Wallace, but not JFK’s vice-president? Historians have yet to provide answers, but mostly because in the end the story would be same: this event was pretty whack.
Historian Dan Carter goes so far as to call Serb Hall the place of Wallace’s epiphany. While Wallace suspected his political appeal held sway outside of the south, he now had proof that his constituency was the lay in the majority of white Americans who perceived that they had either been “left behind” by the federal government, alienated in the process of mandated integration schemes. “He had been right all along: these chunky Serbs and Hungarians and Poles, these hardworking Catholics, these Yankees, had embraced him with the same adoration that marked his passage among the masses of white Alabamians.”
But what’s key for me is that the indicator of this solidarity came in the form of music. White music. Angry Music. The music of straw men and self-proclaimed underdogs. The music of Nixon’s Silent Majority.
For Part II of the series:
And Part I: