The Widow Johnson “socked it to” the Harper Valley PTA in Jeannie C. Riley’s hit song of 1968.
Mrs. Johnson revealed their “Peyton Place” hypocrisy; they accused her of “wearing her skirts too short.”
Country songs, then and now, often tell very personal stories, some joyous, some sad, as in Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 “Ode to Billie Joe.” Some country fans, then and now, knew and know, full well, what went on up on Choctaw Ridge and suspected what was thrown off the “Tallahassee Bridge.”
Cue Ken Burns’ recent PBS documentary, a supreme gift to country music fans. As per the “Ken Burns Effect,” sales surged for Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, and other classic albums. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Kris Kristofferson sales jumped 1,000 percent. One irony, as a reviewer (Cyan Toast) noted: “country music fans are too often the people who want to defund PBS.” Go figure.
I grew up on Country; we listened faithfully in my Oklahoma youth to the “Hillbilly Hit-parade.” Country helped me mourn at the passing of “Lady,” my collie dog (Elvis, “Old Shep”). I was drawn in again to Country more recently (by “Trublood”) hearing Randy Travis’s nasal voice singing “What can wash away my sin…?” Even vampires in Bon Temps, Louisiana, as well as all mankind, could be saved. What a sublime Christian concept! Back in Harper Valley, I like to think the Widow Johnson—or her daughter’s daughter—grew up and grew wiser, pushing back against misogyny, fighting for women’s rights. And members of the “PTA”? Sadly, many are still “holier-than-thou” in their churches, but hypocritically supporting a racist misogynist in the White House.
But – Glory Be! – more and more evangelicals, Trump’s alleged “fire wall” against impeachment, are reconsidering their previous loyalty to one person, who—so full of blasphemy—claimed to be “the Chosen One.” (Is he the “Golden Calf?”) Their support for him is dropping, now hovering around 70 percent (Pew Research Center, 18 Mar 19). The drop is partly due to Trump’s uncouth behavior (cursing and lying) or his outright illegal behavior (violations of the Constitution). But regular church attenders also are increasingly suspicious of evangelical spokespersons such as Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, under scrutiny for fraud and sexual abuse. They are also alarmed by inflammatory comments of Robert Jeffress, pastor of the 1stBaptist Church, Dallas, who recently alleged a “civil-war like fracture” would emerge, should Trump lose his office.
Most Black Protestants and nonwhite Catholics disapprove of Trump and even 50 percent of white evangelicals do NOT think Trump has “set a high moral standard” for the presidency, Some are ambivalent (Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church), but others are outright opposed (Beth Moore, founder of Living Proof Ministries). Charles Murray, conservative with the American Enterprise Institute, calls Trump a “malignant narcissist.”
Here in the Rio Grande Valley, religious people are taking on one of the main reasons for the remaining support of Trump—his opposition to freedom of choice. Leaders of faith supporting the Whole Woman’s Health Clinic, include groups such as Just Texas, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RACRC), and Catholics of Choice. They demonstrated recently in McAllen with slogans of “Mi Cuerpo, Mi Vida” (My Body, My Life) and “Pro-choice is Pro-Life.”
Religious activists support constitutionally protected individual rights (9thand14thamendments to the Constitution). They oppose attempts by Texas to chip away those rights. In recognition of “Domestic Violence Awareness Month” Rev. Cari Jackson, a minister from Arizona, spoke against “legislative violence.” She deplored the state supporting only one brand of religious opinion, as “ungodly, unconstitutional and unacceptable” (A. Colleen de Guzman, “Act of Faith: Religious Groups Support Women’s Right to Choose,” “The Monitor,” McAllen, Texas, 3 Oct 19.)
Author Peter Wehner confessed two years ago “I Can No Longer Call Myself an Evangelical Republican” (“New York Times,” 9 Dec 17). The reason? Trump’s support of Roy Moore. The trend continues: the venerated Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, in disgust with the sullied word “evangelical,” changed its name to “Princeton Christian Fellowship.” More recently, Wehner asked: “What’s the Matter with Republicans?” His answer to that question is instructive: “in a sane world, the now infamous Trump call to the president of a foreign country, asking him to dig up dirt on an election opponent would have the effect of Nixon’s 1974 ‘smoking gun’ tape.”
But now, “Republicans have “lost their way.” Are they ready for Trump (as he bragged) to “shoot someone on 5thAvenue?” Are they happy when Trump uses hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, for defense against a Russian invasion, to pressure a foreign leader to head his “opposition-research?” Astonishingly, the answer is “apparently.” They knew of his “pathological dishonesty” and his “mobster morality.” But, out of fear, the “cowed Republicans and evangelicals stay in line like trophies of a bully” (Peter Wehner, “New York Times,” 2 Oct 19). Republicans? Most of them? No chance of change. Evangelicals? Yes, it’s possible. Perhaps Country may help them see the light.
Country music has helped me in so many ways. It was part of my origins (“In the Oklahoma Hills Where I was Born,” Hank Thompson). I played an old 78 over and over (“Zebra Dunn”) with my Grandfather on his farm. It guided my romantic life (“Take Me Back to Tulsa, I’m Too Young to Marry,” Bob Wills). Country music, despite its reputation (of “Liquor, Mama, and Trains”) served to prevent temptation from tobacco (“Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette,” Phil Harris).
Country helped warn of alcohol poisoning (“Thar’ Stands a Glass,” Webb Pierce and Willy Nelson). About divorce? That affects 50 percent of all religions, evangelicals, higher than others. Country gave a humorous glimpse of the possible calamity (“All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” George Strait, and composer, Whitey Shafer, with spouse, Linda). But country also held promise for fulfillment (Anne Murray, “May I have this Dance, for the Rest of my Life?” (music by Anne, with Amy Grant).
May country music continue to help us all, to help assuage the pain of current cultural anguish. And (Dios Mediante), God Willing, may Country help us to wash away political sins—sins of commission and sins of omission—and to find salvation in spiritual renewal. Yes, the religious hypocrisy of Harper Valley was and is, too often, a reality; but so is an alternate universe of higher love, hope and forgiveness. Here, in the Rio Grande Valley, we have long appreciated country—in Spanish and English–via San Benito’s own Freddy Fender. His contribution to Country came with a blessing—his unforgettable “Vaya con Dios” Freddy was praying: May we all “Go with God.”
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows country music icons Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline, and Willie Nelson.