Sunday, July 08, 2018

Square dancing, indeed

It’s funny how something can just pop up and remind us of something we haven’t though about in years. Like square dancing, for example. And it was all because of the video above.

A friend shared the Mic video on Facebook, and I probably wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. It details the reason that square dancing was promoted so heavily, however, it’s safe to guess that most Americans had absolutely no idea what the agenda behind its promotion may have been, nor that Henry Ford was a racist and anti-semite (that particular knowledge came much later). Which is not to say that some of them, politicians in particular, didn’t share the same goals, because they probably did. Most of us, however, did not. That was only one of many problems with the idea that forcing square dancing was a good idea.

It used to be common to teach square dancing in Illinois public schools as part of the “physical education” requirement. It eventually faded away because of changing times, that it was really uncool, or maybe it was budget pressures, or some other reason, but whatever it was, I was glad when it ended because I hated every minute of it. Nothing, not time, distance, reflection, or better music has mellowed my opinion in the decades since.

The fact is, the phrase “square dancing” makes me shudder to this very day, because it was a truly awful experience. When I was in primary school, it was a mandatory part of physical education. It ended long before I got to middle school, so it would’ve been mid-1960s to maybe 1970, probably somewhere between ages 7 and 10, though I can’t remember for sure.

I hated it because I couldn’t memorise the steps, and, in fact, I still have no rhythm. Neither, as it happened, did most of the other kids in those days. It was also desperately uncool.

I also hated it because it had absolutely NO relevance to me, my family, or anyone I knew well: We’d never been rural or farming folk, for example, and we’d lost all the traditions of our European ancestors generations earlier, so to me, even as a kid, it felt like they were trying to force an essentially foreign or alien cultural practice on to me.

Beyond that, it also felt like they were trying to force boys and girls to engage in social activity, to literally require us to be together in couples, and I didn’t like that. It would me roughly another decade before I figured out WHY I didn’t like that, though, to be accurate, at that age most of the other boys weren’t particularly keen on the girls, either. That just that never changed for some of us—and probably some of the girls weren’t keen on being forced with the boys, and never changed, either.

On top of all that, there was the music, which I loathed: All the fiddles and harmonicas and drums sometimes played with brushes, and plodding guitar strumming—it was just so awful to me. At the time, I didn’t like any sort of country music, and the sort played for square dancing least of all. In fact, it was actually the forced square dancing that made me dislike country music in general.

By university at the latest, I was aware of the extent to which country music and repressive politics often went together. The folks who were the stereotypical country fans were Republican, spent a lot of time at church, and insisted on merging the two in a mush that was racist, sexist, homophobic, and usually delibertately ill-informed.

At that same time, of course, I was still a Republican and a Christian who spent a lot of time in church, but I wasn’t the same kind as those in the stereotype. When I went to university in the southern part of my state, I started encountering the real-life versions of those people, and later met others further south who were, too. This is the point in a fiction story where I’d say the stereotype was wrong, that I learned they were just like me. The hero of a fiction story might say that, except in my case it turned out it wasn’t entirely wrong, and very often was absolutely correct, and they really were nothing like me.

But then a funny thing happened on the way toward irrevocably dividing people into opposing camps along the sides of a square dance arena, one side country fans, the other “normal people”: It was the 1980 movie, Urban Cowboy.

It wasn’t the movie itself, exactly—I never even saw it because I didn’t like country music. Also, in those days there was the movies, or I could buy the video cassette of the movie, because there were no video rental stores yet, and, obviously, there was no Internet or streaming service in those days. So, I never saw the movie.

However, within a year of the movie’s release, there was a fad all over the USA for people playing Urban Cowboys at their local themed bar, complete with mechanical bulls and also hosting line dancing competitions. The lines between country and pop, and between real fans of real country, and mainstream consumers of country-esque (probably pop) music, blurred and melted together as they never had before, and have never done since.

There were also more crossover songs after then, as country songs became popular on the pop charts—not that it always went down well with the real fans of real country. And there watching setbacks, like a certain song I first heard while watching the 1984 Republican National Convention on TV, a song I thought then, and have ever since, is probably the worst song ever written, and a strong argument for outlawing all music. It was enough to strengthen and re-arm my dislike of all country music.

Time passed, things changed, and I mellowed. I began to like some country music songs, starting with some I remembered from my youth (nostalgia is a gateway drug for taking on all sorts of music). In the years since then, especially the past couple decades, and with the advance of the Internet, I’ve learned about all sorts of country artists and songs that I truly liked. Some have even popped up on this blog.

So, despite my background and my youthful rejection of country music, I nevertheless do like, and even own, some country music. At it’s best, country music tells the stories of struggling working people, covering the same ground that some American folk music did. What I liked was never all about honkytonks, getting drunk, or “the woman who done me wrong”, though there was always a lot of that. And, of course, there was—and still is—nationalistic jingoism, like in that certain song.

What I noticed were hit songs that talked about the struggles of people doing long hours of hard physical work, never having enough money, being cheated by any number of people, all sorts of everyday struggles. Many of the songs were often gender non-specific, meaning I could “fill in the blanks”, something I’ve talked about many times, allowing me to put my reality and lived experience into a song that was generic enough to accommodate it. Of course, like all genres, there was also a lot of crap, but I just ignored that.

Ignoring the crap meant that I didn’t hear the country music that reinforced white privilege (because openly racist songs didn’t make the radio—or whatever). It also meant I could ignore all the overtly religious songs just as much as I ignored the nationalistic jingoism, like in that certain song.

There were also big stars who sang songs with social conscience, like Garth Brooks, and in more recent years there have been successful artists singling about inclusivity—and also some gay (mostly gay male) country singers, and even though their appeal is definitely outside the mainstream, they nevertheless make money selling their music. That’s a good thing.

The biggest openly-LGBT artists performing country music (among other genres) were k.d lang, who came out in 1992, and Melissa Etheridge, who has done a lot of country rock. She came out in 1993. But neither of them are strictly country artists, or even necessarily thought of as being country at all. Matter of perspective, I suppose, but neither were actually reasons I started liking country music (though I liked them and their music).

So, despite the forces aligned to make me loathe country music, I did eventually evolve and change, and eventually grew up to like some country music. But one thing never changed: I never forgot how much I hated the forced square dancing, not forgave the powers that be for doing that. Some things never change because they can’t.

And all those reminders were all because of a video shared on Facebook. That is a change.

Tip o’ the Hat to Terri who shared the video and hosted a fun discussion on her personal Facebook Page. This post is based on comments I made on that post, though revised and greatly extended.

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