(Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of weekly guest posts by Kurt Newman.)
Preparing for upcoming exams, I recently had occasion to reexamine Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics and some related secondary sources: David S. Brown’s excellent 2006 Hofstadter biography (which dwells at great length on the question of the “paranoid style”) and Lisa McGirr’s now-classic Suburban Warriors (2001), still the site, I think, of the best contemporary critique of Hofstadter’s notion.
I haven’t always known how to feel about the backlash against the idea of the “paranoid style.” Certainly Hofstadter’s writing on the topic is a kind of vulgar Freudianism. On the other hand, “paranoia” really is present in many scenes of American history, and it sometimes seems that anti-Hofstadter polemics have made it more difficult to understand certain reactionary formations, conspiracy theories, and outbreaks of “ordinary psychosis.”
The end result, in any event, is that “paranoia,” as a historical category, ends up locked away in a cabinet of forbidden analytical tools.
My proposal is this: we should all become a little more “paranoid.” In the process, we should think carefully about whether historiography can really do without the concept of “paranoia.”
Samuel Weber notes that “Beziehungswahn”—a German synonym of “paranoia”—has some interesting connotations that the English word lacks. “Beziehungswahn” is made up of two component words: “Beziehung,” meaning “relation,” and “Wahn,” meaning “delirium.”
So “paranoia” might be rendered a “madness of relation” wherein the paranoiac “gets completely carried away in making links and connections.”
Presumably, Weber suggests, the madness lies in “never knowing where to stop.”
We who work on the history of the Left often find ourselves confronted with strange failures of this “madness of relations.” Where the Right easily connects fluoridation, the “loss of China,” and rock and roll music, the Left’s “madness” seems to lie in never knowing where to start.
Consider the most famous case of failed recognition—of Leftists “missing” the proletarian character of a popular art form––of the twentieth century: “film noir.”
As Robert Pippin writes:
The story of this designation is well known. After a long wartime period during which no American movies could be shown in Paris, French critics were astonished at what they saw when the films returned. They especially expressed amazement at what had happened to the American gangster film or crime melodrama or private-eye thriller, and some argued that the movies being produced were qualitatively different, as if a new genre altogether, much darker and stranger than those previously made. In 1946, the journalist Nino Frank compared the films to the série noire novels and coined the name “film noir.” Eventually Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton published a very influential book in 1955, and the convention was firmly established: the Americans had been making film noir, even though all during the classic period of the 1940s no one had any idea that they were making such film noir. (Robert Pippin, Fatalism in American Film Noir).
Why did it take the French to discover this exemplary form of the “proletarian grotesque”? Why couldn’t most American radicals discern the political potency of these movies, even though many of the masters of film noir were card-carrying leftists (many even went to jail over their political commitments)?
Those are questions for a different essay, although they guide us to the happily paranoid reading we are pursuing here: a reading that insists that the music of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos of Bakersfield, California, from the late 1950s to Owens’s decision to assume hosting duties of CBS’s Hee Haw in 1969 constitutes one of the richest aesthetic projects in the history of proletarian literature.
I would go a step further, in fact, and insist that the Bakersfield conjured in Buck Owens and the Buckaroos’ ritournelles is a key node in the psycho-geography of American working class culture—the product of a miraculous series of coincidences of time and space that brought a large cohort of the last generation of southern sharecroppers to Kern County at precisely the moment that working class culture was both literally and figuratively electrified.
Unlike the pastoral landscapes of the republican homesteader ‘heartland” so often associated with country music, Owens’s Bakersfield is the site of buzzing, crowded, sweaty ambiences. Owens’s music is a lyricism of “rented spaces” (to borrow Amy Kaplan’s description of early twentieth century literary realism). Owen’s Bakersfield is organized not around the factory’s clock, but rather around the aleatory time of wildcat trucking and seasonal work. Owen’s Bakersfield is a space that emerges after the momentous event described by Jonathan Crary in his new book 24/7—when capitalism decided that the world should be awake twenty four hours a day. And thus gave birth to a whole new series of desires and pleasures of self-fashioning to be chased in neon rooms in places like Bakersfield.
To my ears this is straightforward, almost mundane. But the music of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos in the 1960s is not heard this way. In fact, it is heard as just the opposite—and will remain unheard as long as we refuse the “delirium of relations” that is required if we are to know how to retrieve our repressed, collective memories of radical desire.
Just as the 1940s and 1950s intellectuals did not see “film noir” for what it was, so, too, when the New Left looked around in the 1960s, they did not see that Bakersfield country was in fact a fount of radical affect.
Left political observers in the Johnson Era wrote articles like “To the Nashville Station,” as if the New Right’s ascent as vanguard party would naturally launch from the Grand Ole Opry.
In different ways, historians like Bruce Schulman, Jefferson Cowie, and Peter La Chappelle have seen commercial country music as part of a cultural fabric in which the “southernization” of American politics was swathed. The last hopes for the Woody Guthrie-ite southern songster as cultural leader, in this reading, was extinguished with Merle Haggard’s turn to Nixonian politics with “Okie From Muskogee.”
This reading is, in almost every particular, imaginatively impoverished and politically illogical. Or, to put it another way—it is not nearly paranoid enough.
Such readings derive from what Alain Badiou calls a “didactic schema” for interpreting art. Art, in this schema is supposed to teach: if one does not leave a concert hall slightly less stupid than when one entered, the performance must register as a political failure.
Art, as “semblance of truth” must be—according to the “didactic schema’s” rubric––a “phenomenon either to be condemned or to be strictly supervised.”
Art, properly, “serves to verify a truth imposed from outside its own practices.”
“Acceptable art,” in this view, “must be subjected to the philosophical surveillance of truths.”
More appealing, I think, is a properly “paranoid” schema.
I propose that we take advantage of a certain mystical coincidence.
Let us consider the overlap of two “Crystal Palaces,” separated by an ocean and more than one hundred years. The first Crystal Palace is, of course, the Crystal Palace built in London for the Great Exhibition of 1853, the glass phantasmagoria that announced the arrival of full-fledged commodity culture and the society of the spectacle.
The second Crystal Palace is, of course, the Crystal Palace concert venue/tourist attraction that Buck Owens opened in Bakersfield in 1996.
As Bruce Fink writes, building on Freud’s 1909 “Notes Upon A Case of Obsessional Neurosis”: “Symptoms often disguise their meaning and origin by taking advantage of … homonyms to form ‘verbal bridges’ between one idea or wise and another that is seemingly unrelated” (Bruce Fink, Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique, 98).
In the history of critical theory, the Great Exhibition’s Crystal Palace is perhaps most famous as the central figure in Walter Benjamin’s analysis of the new public culture of capitalism in “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” What Benjamin is looking for, always, are the “conditions of emergence” of a particular phenomenon: a Baudelaire poem, the Paris arcades, the German Trauerspiel.
We will use, then, the convergence of these two Crystal Palaces to authorize an application of Benjamin’s interpretive strategy vis-à-vis the cultural consequences of French capitalism to a close reading of the “conditions of emergence” of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos in Bakersfield, California in the 1960s.
To understand the “conditions of emergence” of Buck Owens’s Bakersfield, we need to do some deep background work— we need to wager, that is, that there might be some deep link between a preference for singing a ballad a certain way, the joy of plucking a low string of an electric guitar so that it vibrates in such a way as to go slightly sharp before returning to pitch (and thus conjuring “twang”), or the pleasures of certain kinds of machinic co-relation among members of a country band, on the one hand, and what we would usually call “politics.”
As historians, what we are listening for is the aural equivalent of the “dialectical image,” described by Benjamin as “the appearance of dialectic at a standstill.”
Via the dialectical image, Benjamin writes, every epoch “not only dreams the one to follow but, in dreaming, precipitates its awakening” (Benjamin, 109).
Benjamin emphasizes that novelty “spurs the creation of dialectical images.”
“For the first time in the history of architecture,” Benjamin writes of the Paris arcades (using the formula—“for the first time”––that recurs, over and over, in the essay) “an artificial building material appears: iron.”
Benjamin’s meditation on “newness” is particularly apposite given the centrality of newness (new kinds of instruments, new forms of recording and distributing music, the transition, however incomplete, from black and white to full color printing, film, and television) in the music of Buck Owens.
It is via “dialectical images” that we discern the arrival of the event. “Dialectical images” also call attention to the constructedness of naturalized social formations, and thereby open up space for imagining new kinds of relations.
We might think of Buck Owens’s “My Heart Skips A Beat”—structured around a literal “skipped beat” drum figure– as providing a particularly elegant example of a “dialectical image.” The image of the heart skipping a beat calls to mind these observations of Fredric Jameson on the dialectic:
[Dialectical thinking is] an intensification of the normal thought process… There is a breathelessness about this shift from the normal object-oriented activity of the mind to such dialectical self-consciousness—something of the sickening shudder we feel in an elevator’s fall or in a sudden dip in an airliner… The shock indeed is basic, and constitutive of the dialectic as such: without this transformational moment, without this initial conscious transcendence of an older, more naïve position, there can be question of any genuine dialectical coming to consciousness (Jameson, Marxism and Form, 307-08).
Benjamin emphasizes ephemerality: it is no surprise that the most important initiatives are often those that burn out the fastest.
This leads us to Benjamin’s recovery of failed and transitional forms in Paris––feuilletons that would be replaced by novels and newspapers, and panoramas that would not survive the birth of cinema––as a model for a radical kind of historical hermeneutics.
Benjamin’s notes on these ephemeral forms help us to conceive of how we might listen for the radical strains of Bakersfield country music in the 1960s, even as the braying donkeys and wooden clog dancing of Hee Haw threaten to retroactively drown out Owens’s urgent yelps, the magnificent twanging of Don Rich’s telecaster, or the snaking melodies that streamed out of Tom Brumley’s pedal steel guitar.
Bakersfield is an agriculture and oil town. Beginning with the World War II era, federal highway construction was to become especially significant in the formation of Bakersfield’s identity. The town assumed a central place on an automotive circuit populated by various nomads: truckers both legal and wildcat, bachelors and families moving frequently from job to job (an indicator of increasing working-class power in a full employment economy), and entertainers making a living via an endless string of one-nighters.
For Buck Owens’ particular poetics of space, this nomadic movement and automobility is foundational. Owens sings frequently of driving, often from the perspective of the professional motorist; love, desire, and infidelity are often staged within the liminal world of temporary attachments and fleeting passions of the road. Cars and trucks of the time were loud, humming with unmuted motors and suffused with the smell of smoke and gasoline; speed limits were high or nonexistent and were honored more in the breach, in any case (according to legend, Buck Owens drove as fast as possible at all times, leading his musicians to attach a gizmo to their van’s motor that would disallow travel at speeds faster than 82 mph).
Driving for a living, staying awake on a steady diet of coffee and uppers (this was certainly the case with most of the Buckaroos, although Buck Owens himself apparently disliked stimulants): musical artists who spend their days and nights this way might be expected to channel the sensations of the road into sound, and this must explain at least some of the stimulus to the Bakersfield musicians’ pursuit of speed and volume.
Finally, the state’s sponsorship of car culture facilitated the traffic between Bakersfield and the West Coast’s culture industry hub, Los Angeles. In the early 1950s, Capitol Records began to treat Bakersfield as a farm team for its country division. Gene Autry’s TV show Melody Ranch and the Compton-based Town Hall Party often featured Bakersfield talent like Roy Maphis, Ferlin Husky, Billy Mize, and Tommy Collins.
The LA-Bakersfield circuit also explains how LA-based country musician Wynn Stewart and his pedal steel guitarist Ralph Mooney could “invent” the Bakersfield sound while living in southern California. To a significant degree, cheap gas and highways meant that LA and Bakersfield were, for a time (however paradoxically), the same place.
The ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl was, of course, the historical event most responsible for driving hundreds of thousands of displaced Okies and southerners, like the Owens family, to the Bakersfield area (between 1935 and 1940, upwards of 70,000 migrants made their way to the San Joaquin Valley).
But without the federal relief infrastructure, the Farm Security Administration camps, and the massive highway construction initiatives coincident with the arrival of the defense industry in California, the musical culture of Bakersfield would never have consolidated in the first place.
Visitors to the federally funded work camps of Kern County noticed that music was an especially vital part of the ad hoc migrant communities––despised by locals and exploited by anti-union employers––that formed in the San Joaquin Valley. Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song researchers Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin reported from the Bakersfield area in the late 1930s: the camps, they noted, were filled with “old-time country music” (Scott Bomar, “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke, and Loud, Loud Music: The Story of the Bakersfield Sound,” 16).
With the arrival of World War II, this traditionalist culture morphed into a commercial honky-tonk one: as communities like Little Okie and Oildale began to gain permanence, clubs like Bateman’s, Ma Scott’s, and the Chicken Coop sprung up, complementing longer-established Western Swing-oriented dance venues like the Barn on Stine Road.
Texas musician laureate Bob Wills began a weekly stint at Beardsley Ballroom in 1946. New clubs were built along Edison Highway: The Clover Club, the Lucky Spot, and the Sad Sack (Bomar, 20). (NB: one could productively think about the poetic richness of those names all day). During the 1950s, the most important venue was the Blackboard Café, hosting Bill Woods (with Buck Owens on guitar): “the loudest, liveliest, smokiest, and, some say, the most dangerous club” with frequent fights, shooting and stabbing, and several murders.
Without question, the culture of Bakersfield country was articulated to a certain normative whiteness. But there was always, as always with American popular music, promiscuous cross-cultural syncretism and borrowing. Bill Woods, a popular Bakersfield musician with whom Owens served an apprenticeship, learned music in Texas migrant labor camps from Mexican sharecroppers. Buckaroos guitarist Don Rich often seemed to be channeling blues guitarists like Muddy Waters and Earl King. In the 1950s, young Buck Owens often went shopping for R&B records at “a kind of black record store on California Avenue,” according to Bakersfield veteran Don Markham, while trying to formulate his aesthetic agenda. At one point, in fact, Owens described his style as a “mixture of Bob Wills and Little Richard” (Bomar, 27).
Walter Benjamin writes endlessly about iron. Why is Benjamin so interested in iron? The most profound motivation, it seems, is that iron is the first artificial construction material.
Iron is “untimely”—in Paris of the 1850s, it is a material from the future: too futuristic, in fact, to be properly understood by its earliest adopter. Iron’s essence is functionality and engineerability. The destiny of iron is the bridge and skyscraper, not the faux-Hellenic structures of midcentury Europe. This living contradiction–– the Grecian column cast in iron, for example––serves, then, as a particularly potent “dialectical image.”
It is not difficult to see the parallels with Bakersfield country music, which hinges not just on the arrival of new instruments and new recording technologies, but also on the dissonance between those materials and the purposes to which they are put.
Importantly, the introduction electricity and drums to country music was not just a question of playing traditional music on more technologically evolved instruments. In this sense, the ban on drums at the Grand Ole Opry until well into the 1960s, and the strict control of volume and timbre of electric instruments at the Grand Ole Opry’s Ryman Auditorium was not just aesthetic backwardness. The arbiters of traditionalism in Nashville understood that the preservation of “country music” required such control at the level of instrumentation.
This perhaps also explains why Owens always maintained an arms-length, if not hostile relation to the Grand Ole Opry and Nashville, attempting to create a rival organization in Bakersfield in the 1960s, and crafting a pledge of allegiance to country music published in 1966 in Nashville’s Music City News:
I Shall Sing No Song That Is Not A Country Song. I Shall Make No Record That Is Not A Country Record. I Refuse To Be Known As Anything But A Country Singer. I am Proud To Be Associated With Country Music. Country Music And Country Music Fans Made Me What I Am Today. And I Shall Not Forget It.
This, despite the fact that it was Owens and the Buckaroos who––at least to the untrained ear––were creating powerfully un-traditional country music. I think Owens was sincere when he drafted the pledge. He was correct–his music was more faithful to the values of “country music” than the records being released at the time by the Nashville establishment.
What this means, however, is that we must grapple with the question of Bakersfield country’s characteristic gesture of maintaining fidelity to tradition by demonstrating marked infidelity to tradition.
The invention of these new instruments was provoked by the new social circumstances of the postwar honky-tonk (loud, smoky, riddled with aggression and sometimes violence) and the imperative to craft a kind of music sympathetic with this affective environment.
The use of these instruments required innovation and experimentation, discovery in the direction of their fundamental nature and capacities. What the music of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos of the 1960s represents is exactly the sort of transitional aesthetic movement that Benjamin is seeking to capture with the idea of the “dialectical image.”
Buck Owens and the Buckaroos perform on television in the mid-1960s. The set is made to look like Owens’s Bakersfield ranch, although it is a reconstruction in a New Mexico studio. It is a color image, from a color broadcast. Recall that it was only in 1965 that television underwent a “color transition” (with networks switching to majority color programming). The popular GE Portia-Color was introduced in 1966. This is an image suffused with newness.
The mise en scène, the instruments, the outfits, and the Buckaroos’ particular approach to orchestration and arrangement: all of this speaks to what Zora Neale Hurston called the “will-to-adorn,” the almost compulsive drive to ornamentation so common across proletarian art forms.
The Buckaroos’ instruments are all comparatively recent inventions: the drum kit dates back to the 1930s, the Fender bass, Telecaster, and amplifiers are products of the 1950s (with the silver-sparkle grilles and instrument finishes telegraphing a space-age futurism). Tom Brumley’s modern, Nashville E9 pedal steel guitar is an innovation of the early 1960s.
Even the comparatively small size of the band spoke to historical exigencies. The musicians who began to move to Bakersfield in the 1940s were primarily Western Swing aficionados from Texas and Arkansas (like Owens himself). The Western Swing band is a huge, sprawling orchestra, with “twinned” fiddles and horns to ensure a sound loud enough to project in large dancehalls. Bakersfield musicians thus welcomed the invention of electrical instruments as a means to the end of performing in smaller ensembles. This was at once an aesthetic and an economic lure (the smaller the group, the more money for each group member). It meant that smaller dives, which could not accommodate nor afford a full Western Swing orchestra, could be turned into live-music venues. As a consequence, Bakersfield country came to embody a series of unique aesthetic values: a certain sonic individuality and differentiation, a sparser sound with more “air,” and a greater audibility of the gestural figuration that in classical rhetoric is called “deixis” (pointing functions, as in a guitar passage that leads to a new section of a song, or a drum fill that tilts towards the end of a solo).
Though the image is static, the video that recorded the performance is extant: it reveals that the performance is not in fact live. The Buckaroos mime a performance of a prerecorded track (which takes advantage of the crisp sonic separation allowed by other comparatively recent innovations, stereo multitrack recording and the introduction of the Westrex single-groove stereophonic record cutterhead).
The Buckaroos wear matching, tailored, outfits, crafted either by Nudie Cohn or Nathan Turk, the visionary Jewish “rodeo tailors” who came to California from the Pale of Settlement and created the visual language of country music couture out of extravagant needlework, rhinestones, and loud, colored fabrics and memories of Buffalo Bill Cody and the traje de luces worn by traditional bullfighters. Cohn and Turk called the sequins that they sewed onto the suits of performers like the Buckaroos “schmaltz” (Yiddish for “grease”).
Along with Cohn and Turk, California in the early 1960s was home to a variety of other innovators in the field of visual bling, particularly in the world of hot rods and “kustom kars”: new experiments with resins, lacquers, and the incorporation of metal flakes into industrial paint. In the corridors of high art this initiative would provide the inspiration for a group of artists known as the “Finish Fetish” school.
The shimmering suits and sparkling finishes of the instruments crackle synaesthetically with the treble-y, sharp, highly focused sound produced by the group. It is hard to understand how this extraordinary synthesis was not apprehended then—and that it is now apprehended now—as the dialectical “flash” for which Benjamin would have us ever be on alert.
In Nixonland, Rick Perlstein writes:
A memo by Kevin Phillips was making the rounds: ‘Middle America and the Emerging Republican Majority’… the language was new, but the theory was as old as the crusade against Alger Hiss: elections were won by focusing people’s resentments. The New Deal coalition rose by directing people’s resentments of economic elites, Phillips argued. But the new hated elite… was cultural—the ‘toryhood of change,’ condescending and self-serving liberals ‘who make their money out of plans, ideas, communication, social upheaval, happenings, excitement’ at the psychic expense of ‘the great, ordinary, Lawrence Welkish mass of Americans from Maine to Hawaii” (Perlstein, Nixonland, 277).
The “silent majority,” then—for Phillips at least––was not composed of the public that Buck Owens and the Buckaroos were calling into being in the mid-1960s. It was instead a “great, ordinary, Lawrence Welkish mass.”
The response of musicians like Buck Owens—who was quickly losing his connection to Bakersfield’s proletarian culture—was to become Lawrence Welk. Hee Haw, launched in 1969 by CBS, forcefully defanged what remained radical in the musical initiative of the last generation of sharecroppers in the 1960s.
Ironically, Owens’s turn to Hee Haw came at precisely the moment that the work of the Bakersfield country faithful to erect an alternative to the increasingly toothless country being produced in Nashville (an accelerating trend of producers removing pedal steels, twangy guitars, and fiddles, ostensibly in response to the complaints of the new FM “format” radio station DJs) seemed to be on the verge of paying off.
California country rock was deeply Bakersfield-influenced, leading to renewed interest among countercultural music fans in the roots of the sounds that were being channeled by The Byrds, the Grateful Dead, and New Riders of the Purple Sage. Media reports suggested that Bakersfield was mounting a serious challenge to Music City: in the 1970s, the San Joaquin Valley played host to the Country Music Awards; Bakersfield boosters promised that within ten years, Chester Avenue would be “Music Row West.”
Declension narratives are no fun: I have no interest in charting why this or that didn’t happen. The point remains the one with which we began: that we should experiment with a certain paranoia, a “Beziehungswahn”—a madness of making connections. This, it seems to me, is also what Buck Owens and the Buckaroos were doing in that moment in the 1960s in their articulation of aural “wish images.”
In which, as Benjamin observes “the collective seeks both to overcome and to transform the immaturity of the social product and the inadequacies in the social organization of production… what emerges in these wish images is the resolute effort to distance oneself from all that is antiquated,” which includes also, somehow, “the recent past” (Benjamin, 97-98).
 An earlier and quite different version of this essay can be found at: http://pedagogyoftheopry.com/2013/03/16/together-again-part-2-walter-benjamin-in-bakersfield/ Interested readers might want to check this early draft out for the pictures, some of which are quite wonderful.
 My exams begin this week—I hope the reader will regard this circumstance as granting a “get out of jail free” card for any and all errors, pathologies, or vexations contained in this essay.
 Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics, Alberto Toscano, tr. (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2004).
 Walter Benjamin and Michael William Jennings. The writer of modern life: essays on Charles Baudelaire (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2006).
 See Shane Hamilton, Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 184-195.
 Scott B. Bomar, The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country (Nashville: Country Music Hall of Fame, 2012).