The Ghost of Tom Watson
Country music was political even before it became country music. When nineteenth-century Americans came together at camp meetings, medicine shows, mountain hoedowns, and plantation gatherings to dance and make music, the resulting satire, grudges, visions, and desires couldn’t help but spring up. American politics, too, couldn’t help but take on a show-business air with its dramatic stump speeches, lurid smear campaigns, and theatrical torch-lit parades. Indeed, for many rural Americans, a passing political campaign was the only entertainment in town, metaphorically and literally.
Perhaps more than others, Tom Watson, a fiddler-politician who would later emerge as a leading populist, seemed to sense that political campaigns and musical performances appealed to common aspirations: a desire to escape one’s woes, to indulge fantasies about vanquishing tormenters and foes, and to find fellowship with like-minded individuals who dreamed of brighter times. “In the old days long ago, when I was as poor as a church mouse, struggling to earn enough to keep myself fed and clothed, the evenings were almost in- tolerably lonesome,” Watson said about his bleak beginnings in the 1870s as a country lawyer.
So I bought me a fiddle and I can never tell you how much comfort and consolation and satisfaction I got out of it. When the outlook was gloomy and clients were few once in a while I would strike a bright chord which would fill me with hope and the vexations and trials of the day would vanish.
A decade later, when Watson was running for a seat in Georgia’s House, he performed a few songs at a debate. He realized that his fiddling could speak to similar longings in others and that this might make it a potent political weapon against his opponent: “You should have seen the look of silent despair on that good man’s face as he stood in the corner of a room, while I sat on a box, like a king on his throne, and made my own fiddle talk, while the boys and the girls danced to my music,” Watson said. “I tell you a fiddle is a big help in fight.”
Watson was to become a household name for his fiery brand of populist politics. He railed against the bullies of the day—monopolist railroads; banks; rich, corrupt politicians—and worked with the Colored Farmers Alliance to promote the idea that blacks in the South should be allowed to vote. He argued that poor whites and blacks had been set against each other by the ruling classes to keep them both economically disenfranchised. Later, in the face of consumerism and modernism’s invasion of the quiet rural wood, Watson would make a 180-degree turn, setting his wrath against Jews and blacks and making conspiratorial accusations against Catholics, even as he drew closer to pacifist and socialist thinkers. Watson’s life yields a story like none other.
What is most stunning about his story is its resonance with the themes that arose when country music became involved in politics across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Watson’s early overtures of racial harmony were echoed in the mid-twentieth century by racially liberal performer-politicians such as Idaho’s singing cowboy senator Glen Taylor, and Alabama governor “Big Jim” Folsom, who rarely ventured out on the trail without a string band. Watson’s defense of the poor and the disempowered reverberated in the 1930s in a groundswell of “country music campaigners” such as promoter-songwriter W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, who fought for pensions for the elderly and attacked poll taxes for holding back poor whites. Senatorial candidate and car manufacturer Henry Ford—who financed a revival of old-time music and square dancing in the late 1920s partly with the aim of curtailing Jewish influences on American culture— seemed to draw much of his own playbook from Watson’s antisemitic screeds and conspiratorial yellow journalism. Watson’s penchant for scapegoating African Americans and defending segregation during his 1920 campaign for Senate went places that segregationist candidate George C. Wallace and his Grand Ole Opry campaigners did not in his gubernatorial and presidential races in the 1960s and ’70s, but the same spirit seemed to animate both men. Near the end of his career, Watson seems to have hired others to play on his behalf, and he was memorialized in a recorded song (Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “Tom Watson Special”). Today, recorded music is the norm at rallies. Campaigns seem incomplete without appearances and endorsements by super- stars such as Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., and Ralph Stanley, who sometimes find that, yes, a fiddle can still be big help in a political fight. Country music politics is still haunted by Tom Watson.
That specter continues to hang over those who use country music to further their political careers. In the twentieth century, country music was not just a campaign tool but a valuable political asset and, at times, a central component of a politician’s image and identity, not just among Southern politicians, but also westerners, midwesterners, and an even a few fleeting easterners, such as hair tonic salesman Edward “Doc” Bowen, who ran for Congress in the 1930s in the counties just north and east of New York City. In the wrong hands, though, country music could be used by opponents to assail a candidate’s seriousness or fitness for office.
Scholars have filled volumes on the connections between “cultural politics,” political activism, and genres and subgenres ranging from early Tin Pan Alley to late hip-hop. Some have dismissed country music as largely parochial and conservative or even apolitical, while extolling the political messages of these other forms. Yet the actual historical record shows that, when politicians have used music to get elected and push issues, country music was by far the most politicized. Between 1878 and the turn of the twenty-first century, country music and its predecessors and related genres—old-time fiddle, cowboy, hillbilly, and bluegrass music—were central aspects of campaigning for more than a dozen major-party governors, several congressmen, at least seven US senators, a Senate minority and a Senate majority leader, as well as major third-party candidates. Watson and Senator Glen Taylor were vice presidential candidates for the Populist and Progressive parties, respectively, and Governor George Wallace was the presidential nominee of the American Independent Party. By the 1970s, Richard M. Nixon officially welcomed country music into the White House when he inaugurated a National Country Music Month, and country music influenced one of his television commercials in his bid for reelection. Every president since has used country music or associations with country music in some way or another during their campaigns.
Understanding the connection between country music and electoral politics gives us a glimpse into how politicians used celebrity long before the rise of the “movie-actor president” and the “Twitter president,” and it offers both lessons and warnings about the way politics and entertainment interact in our ever-expanding media universe. Indeed, several generations before the rise of Hollywood performer-politicians such as Helen Gahagan Douglas, Ronald Reagan, and George Murphy in the mid-1940s and 1950s, country music politicians had become an established part of the national political system, especially in the West and the South.
The use of country music on the campaign trail has changed over time. Transformations in technology are an important part of this story. The earliest practitioners, like Watson, were country lawyers with dreams of high political office who also happened to have amateur fiddle skills. They were country politics’ experimental pioneers, relying on word of mouth and the sound of a fiddle to draw or hold a crowd. Over time, new technologies such as phonograph recording and radio created opportunities for performers to professionalize; some of these performers then sought to capitalize on their celebrity and run for office. Other new technologies, such as the sound truck in the 1930s, provided opportunities for politicians to draw larger and more enthusiastic crowds.
By the 1940s, the growth of a national country music industry allowed nonperforming candidates to latch on to particular hit songs to sell their message, or to hire nationally renowned stars from the Grand Ole Opry to pitch for them at rallies and campaign stops. Television, too, reshaped the way candidates used country music, allowing them to not only celebrate the genre but also use recorded songs at broadcasted rallies. Specially prepared slogan songs in TV spots became part of their media barrage.
Though technological advances opened new ways to campaign with country music, politicians and performer-politicians have shaped American history with their policies. Some country music politicians made courageous policy decisions. There is also much to regret— choices that were made for political expediency, prejudiced reasons, and personal benefit, and not for profound moral or ethical reasons. What marked them all was combativeness. Indeed, the title of this book stems from a 1962 country song by top Nashville songwriters Hank Cochran and Joe Allison, in which the singer pledges he would “fight the world” for the woman he loves, regardless of how others see him. That song, first popularized by Jim Reeves and later covered by a host of country and soul performers, has a kind of inward-looking domestic focus, like many songs of the period (perhaps with a thought toward the threat of an atomic attack that might, as the song says, turn the moon to ashes). Yet it also embodies defiance, not backing down, standing up for one’s views but also being obstinate—a quality present among many country music politicians. Some politicians have pushed forward with risky, courageous, forward-looking stances, while others clung to positions that now seem vindictive, incendiary, and callous.