My dissertation examines everyday interactions between two groups of white people in the US who to all appearances should get along but don’t, despite their sustained efforts towards solidarity and a shared musical practice. They are divided by class. One group consists of rural working-class musicians who play in an informal amateur musical circuit in western North Carolina. The other group consists of transplanted musicians from coastal cities—mostly leftist activists—who have relocated to the area to pursue what they call ‘traditional music’ (more or less, the music that the working-class white people play: bluegrass, old-time, classic country). I show that their constant disagreements and misunderstandings emerge from classed differences at the rather profound level of ethics of sociality: what they think it means to be a good relational subject, or person.
I describe in and through musical sociality the ways that divergent and even antagonistic white racial identities (or ‘whitenesses’) were co-constituted with class difference, and came to powerfully shape people’s understanding of themselves and others in everyday life and politics. This differentiation is vital to understand in order to contextualize and respond to populism and ethnonationalism. In fact, for the rural working-class white people I describe, the primary cultural ‘other’ against whom they agonistically defined their own sense of good personhood was in fact urban middle-class white people. For the middle-class white people in question, working-class lifeworlds were a space where they projected many of the desires and anxieties of life in late capitalism.
This dynamic, needless to say, has historical antecedents. As such, page 99 of my dissertation is smack in the middle of a very long history chapter that ranges from Herder and the German counter-enlightenment to the particular ways that the long history of European folklore arrived in Appalachia proper. The page concludes with a quote from Cecil Sharp, a British folklorist and revivalist who exemplified a kind of fin-de-siècle leftism, combining his anti-modernist sentiments—derived in part from the British Fabian Socialism of the day—with a racial-cultural essentialism familiar in the lineage of Herderian thought.
Sharp writes about white Appalachian settlers of northern European descent, from whom he spent several years of World War I collecting putatively British folk songs:
“That the illiterate may nevertheless reach a high level of culture will surprise only those who imagine that education and cultivation are convertible terms. The reason, I take it, why these mountain people, albeit unlettered, have acquired so many of the essentials of culture is partly to be attributed to the large amount of leisure they enjoy, without which, of course, no cultural development is possible, but chiefly to the fact that they have one and all entered at birth into the full enjoyment of their racial heritage. Their language, wisdom, manners, and the many graces of life that are theirs, are merely racial attributes which have been gradually acquired and accumulated in past centuries and handed down… It must be remembered, also, that in their daily lives they are immune from that continuous grinding, mental pressure, due to the attempt to ‘make a living,’ from which nearly all of us in the modern world suffer. In this respect, at any rate, they have the advantage over those who habitually spend the greater part of every day in preparing to live, in acquiring the technique of life, rather than in its enjoyment” (Sharp, 1917: 24).
As I show in the rest of the work, this danger—the re-inscription of white racial virtue—remains a stubborn peril of a white middle-class leftism that is unreflexive about and uninterested in class difference. Whether it’s contemporary white middle-class leftists purifying their own whiteness by ascribing the evils of racism or white supremacy solely to working-class voters, or folkloric paeans to the virtuous agrarian whites of the heartland: class is the spectre that haunts white liberalism.
Flood, David. 2017. Classed Cultural Ethics: Understanding Class Difference in the Contemporary US through Traditional Musical Performance and Radical Leftism. University of Virginia, PhD Dissertation.
Sharp, Cecil J. 1917. English Folk Songs From the Southern Appalachians, Comprising 122 Songs and Ballads, and 323 Tunes. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s sons.