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Proud to Be an Okie

Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California

Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 364
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  • Book Info
    Proud to Be an Okie
    Book Description:

    Proud to Be an Okiebrings to life the influential country music scene that flourished in and around Los Angeles from the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s to the early 1970s. The first work to fully illuminate the political and cultural aspects of this intriguing story, the book takes us from Woody Guthrie's radical hillbilly show on Depression-era radio to Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee" in the late 1960s. It explores how these migrant musicians and their audiences came to gain a sense of identity through music and mass media, to embrace the New Deal, and to celebrate African American and Mexican American musical influences before turning toward a more conservative outlook. What emerges is a clear picture of how important Southern California was to country music and how country music helped shape the politics and culture of Southern California and of the nation.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94000-0
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    Sometimes the germs of a new social movement are found in the most unusual of places. Los Angeles in the late 1930s was one of those places. Twice a day on radio station KFVD, singer-guitarist Woody Guthrie joined vocalist Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman for a program that featured “old-time hill country songs.” Both transplants from the Dust Bowl, a region of the southern Great Plains that had sent hundreds of thousands of displaced “Okies” to California, the two started out by singing nostalgically about their home states. Before long, they began criticizing the Los Angeles Police Department for its harassment...


    • 1 At the Crossroads of Whiteness: Antimigrant Activism, Eugenics, and Popular Culture
      (pp. 21-44)

      If Dwight Yoakam is correct in insisting that the cultural ethnicity of country music is the “Grapes of Wrathculture,” then we must begin by considering how that “ethnicity” came into being. In some respects, Okie country music emerged on a sour note in the mid- to late 1930s: a time of privation, worrisome migration, and intense media scapegoating in California. Although much of this book is concerned with the images and sounds that migrant musical performers created, this chapter focuses on the images that others produced to malign the migrants. So relentless were these attacks, in fact, that migrants’...

    • 2 Refugees: Woody Guthrie, “Lost Angeles,” and the Radicalization of Migrant Identity
      (pp. 45-75)

      Conjuring up an image that seemed to revel in every squalid detail, Kenneth Crist’s May 1939 report on Okie trailer camps for theLos Angeles Times Sunday Magazinewas typical “migrant horde” slander. The “trailerites” who resided in these camps on the outskirts of the city, Crist argued, were “loafers,” “career men in relief,” and pinball-playing “relief chiselers.” Their trailer homes were “virtual hovels where sanitation flirts with the legal margin.”Worse yet was “the police problem” posed by the even poorer “jungle camps” of shacks and old tents in county river bottoms. These camps were periodically “cleaned out” by sheriff’s...

    • 3 Rhythm Kings and Riveter Queens: Race, Gender, and the Eclectic Populism of Wartime Western Swing
      (pp. 76-110)

      Coworkers Gustav H. W. Sudmeier and Vince “Little Fox” Waldron lived in two worlds. By day, they were industrial workers who cut, ground, honed, and crafted some of the most sophisticated aviation components of the 1940s. By night, they drew on their age-old inheritances as western swing musicians. Sudmeier, a tool-and-die maker at Longren Aircraft Company in Torrance, California, had left a life as a truck farmer in Baden Station, Missouri, a burg so thick with Germans that Sudmeier, the son of immigrants, never lost his accent. Waldron, a machinist, was a member of the Blackfoot nation who had been...


    • 4 Ballads for the Crabgrass Frontier: Suburbanization,Whiteness, and the Unmaking of Okie Musical Ethnicity
      (pp. 113-158)

      For a pop music disc jockey, the Los Angeles radio personality Art Laboe was unusually dispassionate in assessing the competition posed by country music. In a 1951 interview withWestern Music, a new fan magazine whose very existence demonstrated the strength of the local country music market, Laboe lavished praise on the genre. He told the writer from the magazine that he frequently mixed country with pop songs during his daily radio program, and predicted a glowing future for the local country music industry. “It seems that western music has arrived and is here to stay,” he said.¹

      Today, in...

    • 5 Playing Second Fiddle No More? Country Music, Domesticity, and the Women’s Movement
      (pp. 159-179)

      Country musicians rarely made the society page, so when theAntelope Valley Pressasked to interview Spade and Ella Mae Cooley at the couple’s massive new ranch home in 1960, the couple quickly consented. Newcomers to the Antelope Valley, an area that was rapidly becoming the rural playground of the Hollywood jet set, the Cooleys showed off their twelve-hundred-acre ranch and talked about the television bandleader’s plans to build a fifteen-million- dollar Disneyland-style water theme park in the area. The newspaper’s reporter admired the surrounding chaparral, the family powerboat, and other toys Cooley and his sons paraded before thePress...

    • 6 Fightin’ Sides: “Okie from Muskogee,” Conservative Populism, and the Uses of Migrant Identity
      (pp. 180-207)

      Merle Haggard was not only a bit bewildered at the reception of his first public performance of “Okie from Muskogee” but also under the impression that he was being attacked. A thirty-two-year-old country music artist from California’s Central Valley, Haggard was said to have written the song while touring the southeastern seaboard in 1969. He introduced the newly penned composition to a live audience at the noncommissioned officers club in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “It was a small club and the crowd had been exceptionally dead,” Haggard later told a reporter. “But then we sang ‘Okie’ and the whole place...

  8. Reprise: Dueling Populisms: The Okie Legacy in National and Regional Country Music
    (pp. 208-222)

    In the years following “Okie from Muskogee,” Southern California remained influential in the world of country music, but more as a site for consumption than one of production. In the mid-1970s Capitol Records began conducting its country music studio sessions in Nashville, a trend that finally became obvious in the 1990s when the West Coast giant, in a conspicuous, symbolic gesture, renamed its country music division Capitol Nashville.¹ Also during the 1990s, as audiences aged and times changed, legendary country music nightspots such as Nashville West, the Palomino, and the Foothill Club fell victim to economics and closed their doors.²...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 223-312)
  10. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 313-328)
  11. Index
    (pp. 329-350)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 351-351)