Even Cow Girls get the blues

Sexual politics and US country and western music

Presented at the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival
February 1991
Copyright Paul van Reyk, 1991.
Registered with the Australian Writers Guild No.4261
Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad
(B Sherill/G Sutton)

I’ve never seen the inside of a bar room
Oh listened to a juke box all night long
But I see these are the things that bring you pleasure
So I’m gonna make some changes in our home
I’ve hear them say if you can’t beat `em join `em
So if that’s the way you’ve wanted me to be
I’ll change if it takes that to make you happy
From now on your going to see a different me
Because your good girl’s gonna go bad
I’m gonna be the swingest singer you’ve ever had
If you like `em painted up, powdered up then you oughta be glad
`Cause your good girl’s gonna go bad
I’ll even learn to like the taste of whiskey
In fact you’ll hardly recognise your wife
I’ll buy some brand new clothes and dress up fancy
On my journey to the wilder side of life
Close Up The Honky-Tonks
(R Simpson)

She’s in some honky-tonk tonight I know
She’s dancing where the music’s loud and lights are low
In some crowded bar she likes to hang around
But as long as there’s a honky-tonk she’ll never settle down
I wish I had the power to turn back the time
And live again the hours when she was all mine
`Cause it hurts to see her running with that crowd downtown
But as long as there’s a honky-tonk she’ll never settle down
So close up the honky-tonks lock all the doors
Don’t let the one I love go there any more
Close up the honky-tonks throw `way the keys
Then may be the one I love will come back to me.
Lots of country songs are about people trying to get along – falling in love, quarrelling, having affairs, messing up their lives. That’s life, and we’ve got to face it.
That’s Loretta Lyn from Coal Miner’s Daughter.
I started out thinking this talk was fairly straightforward. I was going to show how C & W was saturated with patriarchy and heterosexism. I was going to talk about all those love songs, the too far gone songs, birthin babies songs, about families and Tennessee mountain homes with ma and pa on the porch.
I began by having a look at the lives and some of the songs of C & W women singers – Lorretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette in the main, and as I did contradictions kept emerging between what I read about their lives and the songs they sang. There seemed to be some myth-making gong on in C & W, not just in the content of songs, but in the whole set-up of the C and W industry.
What we’ve just sung establishes the terms of the discussion by showing the basic divergence in C & W between men and women. The situation that is being sung about may be the same, but the perspectives are different. Why is this so ? It’s no surprise that it’s because the men’s songs and lives on the whole reinforce patriarchy and heterosexism and women spend a lot of time in their songs and their lives trying to combat that.
Loretta Lynn’s early pre C & W fame, is as good a place to start as any. Born into a poor white mining family in the Kentucky hills, she was one of seven out of eight children her mother had at home. It’s interesting in this time of a re-run debate on home-birthing to note that all eight children, home and hospital born survived into adulthood. Needless to say, that debate is firmly set in the area we are talking about today, men’s control over women, in this case male medical practice over women’s bodies.
Loretta was married at just short of thirteen years old, to the first man she ever took an interest in. By age fourteen she was having her first child 2000 miles away from her family home. Loretta’s comment on this is typically perceptive:
I went from daddy to Doo, (that’s Doolittle, her husband) and there’s always been a man telling me what to do…..Doolittle has just about raised me since I was a girl. …I guess I always felt Doo was in charge of me, just like my Daddy…. Maybe then I believed that a wife was her husbands property.
Property is of course precisely the issue, it’s the root, metaphorically and literally, of most forms of marriage over time and across cultures. And in the property deal of marriage, it’s womens lives that are bartered.
One of the imperatives of the property deal in marriages is reproduction and the nurturing of children, the future inheritors and reproducers in turn of property relations. It’s no surprise that a significant area of women’s struggles right down the line has been the right to control over reproduction through contraception and abortion.
Like many young girls Loretta’s main job in the family, being the eldest, had been that of looking after the other children. Of the lives of the mountain women she says:
Most of the time we just tried to stay alive and take care of the babies.
Loretta’s first child was born when she was fourteen, in a hospital, after a 27 hour labour under gas, to which she had not consented. Her second baby came along nine months later. By the time she was eighteen she had had four babies and two miscarriages, nearly dying of blood poisoning after the second miscarriage. And the pattern repeats, by the time she was 29 she was a grandmother.
Of contraception, she recalls her mother saying that `as long as she was nursing, she couldn’t have another baby’ and that’s all, Loretta says, she knew till she had her first four babies. Loretta doesn’t get around to saying just when she decided to take back her control over this part of her life, though the evidence is that it coincided with her increasingly high profile as a C & W singer. It reflects the kind of choice women are made to face with between a career and children. In her case, she was financially able to engage a full-time housekeeper/nanny, and so for her daughters the cycle is partly broken. For many women, of course, child care is still woefully inadequate, if it exists at all.
Loretta herself has this to say about reproduction and control:
I was so ignorant, and women didn’t have what they do today. l love my kids, but I wish they had the pill when I was first married. I didn’t get to enjoy the first four kids I had them so fast….I think a woman needs control over her own life, and the pill is what helps her do it. That’s why I won’t ever say anything against the abortion laws they made easier a few years ago…I don’t think I could have an abortion. ….But I’m thinking of all the poor girls who get pregnant when they don’t want to be, and how they should have a choice instead of leaving it up to some politician or doctor who don’t have to raise the baby.
After her fourth baby Loretta got a diaphragm . After her fifth and sixth children, twins, Doolittle, her husband, got a vasectomy. And then she sang a song about it.
The Pill
(Allen McHan-Bayles)

You wined and dined me when I was your girl
Promised if I’d be your wife you’d show me the world
But all I’ve seen of this old world is a bed and a doctor’s bill
I’m tearing down your brooder hatch `cause now I’ve got the pill
All those years I’ve stayed at home while you had all your fun
And every year that’s gone by another baby’s come
There’s gonna be some changes made right here on nursery hill
You’ve set this chicken your last time `cause now I’ve got the pill
This old maternity dress I’ve got is going in the garbage
The clothes I’m wearing from now on won’t take up so much yardage
Mini skirts, hot pants and a few little fancy frills
Yeah I’m making up for all those years since I got the pill
I’m tired of all your crowing how you and your hen’s play
While holding a couple in my arms another’s on the way
This chicken’s done pulled up her nest and I’m ready to make a deal
And you can’t afford to turn it down `cause you know I’ve got the pill
This incubator is over-used because you’ve kept it filled
But feeling good come easy now since I’ve got the pill
It’s getting dark, it’s roosting time, tonight’s too good to be real
But daddy don’t you worry none `cause momma’s got the pill

For Loretta though, despite, as she puts it, plenty of bad moments in (her) marriage, (and they are predictably drinking, womanising and being whipped into line) Doo was a good husband, whose common sense she has respected, and who has been supportive of her career.
For Tammy Wynette things are a lot more complicated. Out of the three women I’m looking at, she seems most directly to sell male values and marriage. Good Lovin, Woman to Woman, He Loves Me All The Way, put the emphasis on the women to behave and to give her husband what he wants if she is to keep him at home. But for Tammy herself, try as she might that never happened.
Take her first marriage. Tammy’s mother kept a very strict watch over her in her teenage years, rarely letting her out on dates, never talking about sex. Tammy says she came to see marriage as a way of escape from this. So at seventeen she elopes with a man her mother didn’t approve of. She falls pregnant virtually straight away. Her husband moves town to find work and she goes with him, giving up plans to take a beautician’s course and also setting aside a growing interest in music. She then has her second child hard on the heels of the first. Saddled with a husband who has no permanent employment, and a life she finds increasingly dull, drab and exhausting, she decides to go ahead with the beautician plan, putting the kids in a day nursery and travelling forty miles each way to do the course.
The husband moves again, and all Tammy’s plans are shelved. She finds him not satisfying her sexually, but he only gets more insistent to have sex. The third pregnancy begins and Tammy has to a nervous breakdown, puts herself into a hospital, and is given electro-shock therapy. She files for divorce and leaves her husband, he takes out an order against her as an incompetent mother on the grounds of insanity. She gets taken in by the cops to be hospitalised, he kidnaps the kids, with the help of her grandmother having convinced her Tammy is mad. She is declared sane and grabs the kids back and a wild car chase follows. He then says the third child isn’t his and she has to undergo paternity tests and file for divorce again. And so it goes on till it ends in the divorce. By the time it’s all over, she is 23 with three kids, the last born premature and now in the hospital with spinal meningitis, she’s living in a government housing flat, is earning just $45 a week, and has inherited her husbands debts which amount to thousands. So much for good loving and my man understands.
Where is all of this in her songs ? Interestingly enough, it’s in a set of songs that centre on children’s views of the world of marriage – Tammy herself had six. In I Don’t Wanna Play House a mother hears her little girl telling the boy next door that when mummy and daddy played house mummy cried her daddy said goodbye. In Kids Say the Darnedest Things a four year old tells another child I want a divorce, another reports hearing daddy telling someone on the phone don’t you call me here no more; a boy says bet my daddy could whip your daddy but daddy’s never home, and another says a four letter word and it sure wasn’t love. The mother wonders where they have picked this up but it’s clear that it’s in their home and through her marriage. In Bedtime Story, a mother tells her child a story about a king and queen and their little girl, and how the king gets lured away by another woman but comes back, but the punch line is that it’s just another bed-time story casting doubt that the king did in fact come back.
The last song of the four was one of her biggest hits, notable, once you know her own story, for everything that it leaves unsaid.
(B Braddock/C Putnam)

Our little boy is four years old and quite a little man
So we spell out the word we don’t want him to understand
Like T-O-Y or maybe S-U-R-P-R-I-S-E
But the words we’re hiding from him now
Tear the heart right out of me
Our D-I-V-O-R-C-E becomes final today
Me and litle J-O-E will be going away
I love you both and this will be pure H-E double L for me
I wish that we could stop this D-I-V-O-R-C-E
Watch him smile he thinks its Christmas or his fifth birthday
And he thinks C-U-S-T-O-D-Y spells time to play
I spell out all the hurtin’ words and turn my face as I speak
But I can’t spell away this pain that’s drippin’ down my cheek

Tammy, through all that mess, worked as a beautician while raising the kids. All three of these women singers worked at something other than C & W at some stage of their lives often while raising a family too. Tammy started out doing a lot of helping with the farm work. Patsy left school at fifteen to start working to support her mother and sister and kept working through many of the early years of trying to break into singing. Doolittle encouraged Loretta to begin singing to help with the finances. Their men without exception are all unskilled labourers whose work is casual, short-term, or involves travelling for long-periods or is in the armed services. In fact, men’s songs tend to valorise this kind of low-skill, travelling around independence of their labour. But there aren’t many songs that come to mind in C & W, apart from Dolly Parton’s Nine to Five, that sing about working women unless they are ones in which men blame working mothers for leaving the kids without love etc.
Patsy is an interesting case of what happens when a woman sets her mind to a career and determinedly goes after it. From the age of ten her whole life revolved around being a C & W star. At fourteen Patsy went along to the local radio station and got an appearance on it. At sixteen she wrote off for an audition at the Grand Ole Opry, and began singing in local bars and dance halls.
She knew very clearly that to get there she had to be tough, take control, and she had to do it in a male world. Here’s her friend Fay Crutchely:
Everyone she spoke to about being a singer told her how tough it would be for a women to go into country music – in those days it was difficult for a woman anywhere
Loretta Lynn says the same thing of the male-domination in the C & W industry:
Even today, men are telling me what to do. My husband, my lawyer, my accountant, my personal manager. In a sense, I still don’t have complete control over myself. Maybe I never will
As a local example, at the recent C & W in the park, of 33 performers, only 3 were women.
Right from the start, Patsy wasn’t going to take any of that shit. What she says about her singing is what she did in her life:
You’re gonna have to learn to get out there in front of those cameras and hold your head up. Take charge when you’re singing ….You gotta get up there and show ‘em.. ..when you’re doing songs take command
But Patsy paid for that. She became to be seen as the bad girl of country and western. Men in her biography say of her:
From the way Patsy talked she was desperate to get to the top as quickly as she could. I guess you she was more than a bit deceptive and used people.
Patsy was brash. Brash to the point where you would say she was a callous, arrogant person.
She used salty language…..that would make a trucker blush.
Sound familiar – yep, it’s boys getting upset cause a woman’s out there beating them on their own turf, and, what’s most upsetting, using them to get to the top. You read about how terrible it was for poor Gerard Cline her first husband as she ruthlessly pursued her singing. How terrible for poor Bill Peer, her co-performer and lover while married to Gerald, who sunk all his money in getting Patsy started and she never paid him back, let alone married him when his marriage broke up.
Well, gee whizz. Gerald Cline was an overweight unattractive nothing who got a lot of invites and attention being married to Patsy, and Bill Peer got to go to New York and Washington and Nashville to record with Patsy when it’s clear as hell he’d never have got there himself, and didn’t seem to mind the affair with Patsy either.
It takes another woman to tell the truth about Patsy:
Patsy made the men – singers, promoters, and fans – respect her and the success she achieved. Dottie West
Patsy herself said `I love nothing more than music’.
The other thing men couldn’t stand about Patsy was that she was uncompromisingly directly sexual. There’s a wonderful snippet that Jimmy Dean (no not James Dean but a C & W star ) recounts:
I’m not that easily shocked, but one time we were working a date somewhere in Canada and were checking into the hotel. Patsy and I were together and saw this big guy – a Canadian Mountie. Right out loud she said, “He’s a big, good-looking son-of-a-bitch ! I want him ! I’m screwing the boots off him tonight”. And she looked across the lobby from him, made contact, and did what she said she was going to do.
That’s not the kind of talk nor behaviour that’s gonna go down well with those country boys, no sir. It’s predictable as a response to finding a woman again beating them at their own game and on their terms. All those stories about her chasing anything in pants, I’m not going to say they weren’t true, hell I hope they were, but I bet they had a lot to to do with men finding her brash and arrogant.
Again, from a woman friend of Patsy’s, Fay Crutchley, here’s something more like the truth:

Patsy was no stand out at what she was doing. It was going on all over the place.
I think there’s a wonderful irony in Patsy singing songs like I Love You So Much It Hurts, Crazy or Tra-La-La-La-La-La-La Triangle, songs written by men about being hurt in love. I bet she smirked through those recording sessions at times.
Satin Sheets

Satin sheets to lie on
Satin pillows to cry on
Still I’m not happy don’t you see
Big long cadillac
Tailor-mades upon my back
Still I want you to set me free
I’ve found another man
Who can give more than you can
Though you’ve given me everything money can buy
But your money can’t hold me tight
Like he does on a long cold night
You know you didn’t keep me satisfied

Patsy almost never chose her own songs. She hated Walking After Midnight and I Fall To Pieces, her biggest hits, but was given no choice in recording them. She was hooked for five years, most of her recording life, into a deal where she could only sing songs owned by the company she was contracted to, and the company head, Bill McCall, chose most of the songs to record. When she came out of that deal, Decca, her new company took over telling her what to sing.
Now the point of this is that her biographer and most of the people he interviews, particularly the men, go on about how the songs she sang were reflections of her own confused, in their terms, love life. We’ve been given the picture that Patsy put her broken dreams, her insecurity, her unfulfilled longings into these songs and that’s where all the strongly felt emotion in them comes from. But maybe this isn’t true. What we have is men choosing the songs they think she should sing that will make the sales – torch songs. And of course, they blame her for the failure of most of the early songs she recorded. Patsy actually only had a few hits while alive.
Patsy, and everyone says this in one way or another, was that she was a consummate artist who refined a singing style through sheer hard work combined with a great intuitive understanding about selling a song. Saying that when she sang she exposed her soul in the songs denies her this stature of a great technical artist. It’s the kind of thing men in the arts have said over and over that ends up placing less value on womens’s product than on men’s because women’s product is relegated to an outpouring of emotion and not of mastering, and I use the term deliberately, technique. I don’t want to deny Patsy her emotions, but let’s not deny her her art.
Harlan Howard, the writer of I Fall To Pieces, comes close to the truth:
(she) was the greatest reader of lyrics that I’ve ever worked with. She understood that certain lines in a song are just there to be sung. They’re not emotional lines. Patsy had the knack of being able to hold back on those lines, then when she got to the really giving part of the song she would give it everything she had.’
This raises the question of what songs women in C & W are allowed to sing generally. Who knows what Patsy would have sung if she’d been given the choice. At the very least the evidence is there that she’d have wanted more raw C & W and less MOR pop songs. Teddy Wilburn remembers writing a song he wanted Patsy to sing about a woman outlaw. Patsy loved it, but Bill McCall and Owen Bradley vetoed it. Emmy Lou Harris is a recent example of the same phenomenon. She finally came out of Gram Parsons shadow only to get taken over by Brian Ahearn, her producer and husband, who proceeded to drive her extraordinary talent right into the middle-of-the-road.
Loretta again has a clear idea of what’s going on. This is what she says about her song The Pill:
When we released it, the people loved it. I mean the women loved it. But the men who run the radio stations were scared to death. It’s like a challenge to the man’s way of thinking. See, they’ll play the song about making love in a field because that’s sexy, from a man[’s point of view. But something that’s really important to women, like birth-control, they don’t want no part of.
And who does Loretta sing for ?
My shows are really geared to women fans….The men have got enough things going for ‘em in this life. We women have got to stick together.
Well, what about men in C & W. When talking about this forum, Lizzie made the comment that country and western male singers sing about bullshit and women sing about real things. Looking at the bulk of male C&W, that’s pretty conclusively true. The men singers have by and large been engaged in myth-making and then going off and living this myth. The clearest statement of it is the Outlaw myth of Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker and Tom T Hall. The elements of the myth are fairly predictable – independence and the road, drinking and swearing and fucking around. Women tie men down or fool around on them and leave the kids alone without mother.
Toughness is what being a man is all about. In a Boy Named Sue, the father gives his son a girl’s name so he’ll have to grow up fighting tough, and of course the boy ends up being grateful to his daddy. Not surprisingly, prison is valorised – Folsom Prison, Green Green Grass of Home, Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree, Life in Prison, and even Midnight Special.
Violence is never far away, it’s often happened, as in the prison songs – or threatened in the song, like in Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town. Usually it’s towards the rival for their woman’s love. But often, domestic violence is a sub-text, and in some songs becomes quite explicit. The link between the actual incidence of domestic violence and drinking comes up over and over. Guess what a popular theme is in boys C & W – sitting around boozing. And the major places in which C & W is still sung are the bars, the clubs and the dance halls.
A lot of these themes come together in Gram Parson’s Kiss the Children. Parsons himself lived out the outlaw style, in his case combined with the bad boy rock star myth. There’s the stories about the womanising, the drugs, and the classic ending – dying young and having your corpse stolen by your friends and burned on some desert mesa. And, typically, it took Gram Parsons death to let Emmy Lou Harris get out from under and become one the greatest of all women C & W singers.
Kiss the Children
(G Parsons/R Grech)

Well it seems my life has been so free and easy
But I’ll tell you now the story isn’t so
`Cause I’ve spent a lot of time down on the corner
Tasting tears and spilling whiskey on the floor
Such a shame that it’s so hard for me to tell the truth to you
But by now you know the kind of man I am
So don’t turn your pretty face away from me dear
`Cause there’s kids in this game don’t understand
One more night like this would put me six feet under
But my heart would still be pining for your love
Just remember little darlin’ that I love you
And kiss the children for me once before you go
So don’t play this crazy game with me no longer
For I won’t be able to resist my rage
And the gun that’s hanging on the kitchen wall dear
Is like a road sign pointing straight to Satan’s cage.
Just who is going to get killed isn’t explicit in that last verse, but it’s a common enough experience these days to see news reports of husbands killing wife and children before turning the gun on themselves.
The women who sing are, on the other hand, often themselves the victims of violence. most often alcohol related. Patsy Cline had Charlie Dick arrested more than once when he became abusive and violent; Loretta’s daddy on her marriage `did make Doo promise not to whip (her)’, but she got `whipped into line a little’ nonetheless; and Tammy Wynette spent a lot of time being beaten black and blue by her second husband George Jones, which makes Tammy’s biggest hit, more than a little ironic:
Stand By Your Man
(B Sherill/T Wynette)

Sometimes it’s hard to be woman
Giving all your love to just one man
He’ll have good times
And you’ll have bad times
Doing things that you don’t understand
But if you love him you’ll forgive him
Even though he’s hard to understand
And if you love him
Be proud of him
`Cause after all he’s just a man
Stand by your man
Give him two arms to cling to
And something warm to run to
When night’s are cold and lonely
Stand by your man
And show the world you love him
Keep giving all the love you can
Stand by your man.
Women are expected to do a lot of waiting around in men’s C & W. In Six Days On the Road the man is sure that he’s `gonna see my baby tonight’. The Grievous Angel wants `little Annie Rich’ to `welcome (him) back to town’ by `com(ing) on off (her) porch’ where he seems to imagine she’s been sitting since he left town. In Gentle On My Mind the singer feels free to wander around cause he knows the woman’s door is always open and (her) path is free to walk.
Well who says, you know ? Are you going to tell me that the guy has been faithful to the woman while he’s been on the road. Hell, no !! When Patsy went on the road it was common knowledge that Gerald Cline, and later Charlie Dick, fucked around. Loretta says she knows damn well Doolittle fooled around at home while she was on the road. She went so far as to write a letter to one woman warning her off. It’s property again, women are the travelling bags left at the local Y while the guy goes off somewhere exotic, coming back for a change of clothes and a meal.
Bobby Magee is about the only song I know where a woman is on the road in the same way as the men. But here, of course, the singer, a male, has to have her go off the road looking for the `home I hope she finds’. Well maybe the truth is she just got bored with this arsehole always longing to be `holdin’ Bobby’s body next to (his)’.
If a woman does head off for the road, you can bet she’ll be given a hard time. You Picked A Fine Time To Leave Me Lucille, sings Waylon Jennings, four hungry kids and a crop in the fields. Well, that’s rough ain’t it. When did a man ever choose the right time to leave ?
What’s great about women who sing country and western is that they do get to go on the road chasing their own dreams that prove a lot less elusive, and its the men who have to follow along or watch the kids or raise the chooks, though for the women, it’s at the risk of being seen as a girl gone wrong.
Alternatively, women get dragged along behind. Lorreta at age fourteen is taken 2000 miles away from her family by a her husband pursuing work in the forests of Washington State. Tammy moved house and kids six times in four years following her first husband’s search for work. Again, she’s the man’s property being moved around like the rest of his belongings.
Elusive Dreams
(C Putnam/B Sherill)

(Sung as a female/male duet with the female voice outlining the course of moving around)
I followed you to Texas, I followed you to Utah
We didn’t find it there so we moved on
I followed you to Alabam, things looked good in Birmingham
We didn’t find it there so we moved on
I know you’re tired of following my elusive dreams and schemes
But they’re only fleeting things
My elusive dreams
I had your child in Memphis, you heard of work in Nashville
We didn’t find it there so we moved on
From a small farm in Nebraska to a gold mine in Alaska
We didn’t find it there so we moved on
And now we’ve left Alaska because there was no gold mine
But this time only two of us move on
Now all we have is each other and a little memory to cling to
And still you won’t let me go on alone.
I know you’re tired of following my elusive dreams and schemes
But they’re only fleeting things, my elusive dreams.
There we have the classic scenario, the women in tow to the man who’s running off here and there chasing macho dreams, the kid dying on the way, and no apologies from the man.
Which I guess might bring us around to children again, just to round things off a little. Male bonding is a big element of men’s C and W songs. There’s an interesting strain of songs about men meeting up with the sons they deserted, where it all turns out right in the end. In A Boy Named Sue, the father gives his son a name that he will have to fight to defend because it’s a tough world the boy will have to grow up in without his father. When they meet, all is forgiven. In Giddy-Up Go, the son of a truckie who deserted wife and child later recognises his father by the name of his father’s truck – Giddy Up Go, son and father make up and go trucking down the road together. Women, who’ve done the rearing, financed the family, getting a reputation along the way no doubt because they become working mothers, and probably borne the blame from the kids for the father’s desertion, well, women are left behind at home again presumably to wait on the porch with the pie and the coffee for when the boys come home.
Single women, of course, get a particularly rough time in C & W. Loretta recalls that one of the songs her mother sang her was about:
Luly Barrs who got pregnant by this man, but he wouldn’t marry her. He tied a piece of railroad steel around her neck and threw her into the Ohio River, and they found her three months later.
I like to think that the girl who does in the boy in Banks of the Ohio is at least getting some revenge for that earlier tragedy.
In The Girl Most Likely, Jeannie C Riley manages to combine unmarried pregnancy, poverty, early sexual development and the hypocrisy of bad girl reputations all in one, the punch line being that it’s the rich girl who gets pregnant by the doctor’s son and not the poor girl who has always been considered the girl most likely to end up in an uh-huh jam cause of the way I look and not the way I am.
There’s one song that sticks the boot right in to the whole hypocritical patriarchal shambles of C & W, and perhaps not surprisingly it’s about a single mother trying to raise her `little girl’.
Harper Valley PTA
Well let me tell you all a story `bout a Harper Valley widow’s wife
Who had a teenage daughter who attended Harper Valley Junior High
Well her little girl cam home one afternoon and didn’t even stop to play
And she said mum I got a note here from the Harper Valley PTA
Well the note said Mrs Johnson you’re wearing your dresses way too high
It’s reported you’ve been drinking and a running round with men and going wild
And we don’t believe you oughta be a-bringing up your little girl this way
And it was signed by the secretary Harper Valley PTA
Well it happened that the PTA was gonna meet that very afternoon
And they were sure surprised when Mrs Johnson wore her mini-skirt into the room
And as she walked up to the blackboard I can still recall the words she had to say
She said I’d like to address this meeting of the Harper Valley PTA
Well there’s Bobby Taylor sitting there and seven time she’s asked me for a date
And Mrs Taylor sure seems to need a lot of ice whenever he’s away
And Mr Baker can you tell me why your secretary had to leave this town
And shouldn’t widow Jones be told to keep her window shades all pulled completely down
Well Mr Harper couldn’t make it cause he’s stayed too late at Kelly’s Bar again
And if you smell Shirley Thompson’s breath you’ll find she’s had another nip of gin
And then you have the nerve to tell me you think that as a mother I’m not fit
Well this is just a little Peyton Place and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites
Well I wouldn’t put you on because it really did it happened just that way
The day my momma socked it to the Harper Valley PTA
It’s no wonder that dykes and poofs love signing Harper Valley PTA, we’ve put up with that kind of two-facedness for years from the Anita Bryants and Jim Baker’s of the world . But where are the dykes and poofs in C and W. Virtually nowhere in classic C and W. Gillian’s going to talk about the dykes, I’m going to talk about poofs. I don’t know of any major C & W star who has ever said he was gay, nor are there any songs about gay men. Gillian tells me that in the States there’s a guy who is now making a living on the gay rodeo circuit. I’d love to hear what he’s singing about. My guess it’s not about boozin’ and fighting or droughts or blue heelers, or if it is, then it’s camp as all hell.
When we are there in traditional C & W it is most often as the butt of a joke – how unusual. Both a Boy Named Sue and My Girl Bill depend on the humour of potential gender confusion, though in both cases the song is not about poofters and and the less said about Big Bad Bruce the better. Ode to Billie Joe is an interesting case. The song itself has nothing in it that leads you to think that Bill Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge for anything other than getting a girl pregnant. The film, on the other hand, turns its plot line on Billie Joe’s guilt over a homosexual encounter he has – another poofter bites the dust.
Eve and the Forbidden Fruits, local purveyors of C & W recently came across a song which is a good example of where poofs fit.
Where’s the Dress
Well I saw it on the TV and I thought it was a shame
It was a man dressed as a woman and he had a boy’s name
Well I heard it on the radio while I was in the tub
Say Joe what in the world is this thing they call the Culture Club
It’s some old boy from England, Mo, he’s making a million bucks
Joe, we’ll never make a million drivin these here trucks
Too many nights of drinkin’, losin’ football bets
Lately we’d do anything to get us out of debt
Where’s the dress
Give me them high-heeled shoes
Where’s the dress
We’ll be money makin’ fools
We might close the bars down
Cause a few arrests
But if it makes some money
Tell me where’ the dress
I’ll hire me a nurse to tote my purse
And I’ll keep it full of beer
I’ll have a girl to drive my truck
And one to tease my hair
We can still go fishin’, wear our old blue jeans
But when it comes to showtime, we’ll be country queens
Where’s the dress….
Where’s the dress
Mo, now we gotta go to K mart right now and get some lipstick and some rouge
Where’s the dress
Hey Joe, why don’t we go to Dita’s and get some of them ostrich plumes
Where’s the dress
You know, I was wondering if they make a pink pump in a size 12, Moe
Where’s the dress
Hey, you don’t think that boy in England shaves his legs, Joe
Where’s the dress
You’d need a Victa mower to take the hair off my legs
Where’s the dress
I can hear it now – Boy Joe and Boy Moe at the Tamworth Country Music Festival
Where’s the dress
I don’t think Slim Dusty would go for that
I can’t wait to see you in one of them cross your heart brassieres

So why is C and W, this patriarchal and heterosexist genre, attractive to gay men. I have to confess that in part its the frocks. C & W women’s outfits are classic drag in their overemphasising of hegemonic images of women. Lizzie and Gillian may have something to say about that. But I think there’s something in the content, too. Gay men are also the victims of patriarchy and heterosexism. These women, and outside of C & W gospel it is the women’s songs that most gay men I know respond to, sing about my experience of men – bastards who treat me mean, who have all the power over me, who promise me everything and then go off drinking in bars and wind up in bed with some bar Johnny, leaving me to mind the axolotl. Gay men are no less susceptible to living out patriarchal myths.
So when gay men do sing C and W as its written, interesting things can happen. Bobby Magee can be sung by a male with no change. Virtually all of Patsy Cline can be. And there’s been more than one time Stand By Your Man has been wailed out by a boy in a bar. Here’s a little number that the Gay Liberation Quire borrowed from Tammy.
Almost Persuaded
(B Sherill/G.Sutton)

Last night all alone in a bar room
Met a man with a drink in his hand
He had baby blue eyes and coal black hair
And a smile that a boy understands
Then he came and sat down at my table
And as he placed his hand over mine
I found myself wanting to kiss him
For temptation was flowing like wine
And I was almost persuaded
To strip myself of my pride
Almost persuaded
To push my conscience aside
Then we danced and he whispered I need you
Let me take you away and be your man
Then I looked in his eyes and I saw it
The reflection of my wedding band
And I was almost persuaded
To let strange lips lead me on
Almost persuaded
But your sweet love made me stop – and go home.

I want to finish with a song written especially for the Gay Liberation Quire many years ago, one that’s become an anthem for gays and lesbians in Sydney if not Australia. It’s written in pure C & W confessional mode and usually accompanied by a sermon from our very own hot-gospeller the Rev Oral Riches. The sermon extols the four-square gospel of feminism, socialism, gay liberation and ethnic pride.
Thank You Lord for Gay Liberation
(Words and Music – Phil Stevenson)

Thank you lord for gay liberation
Oh the closet was my darkest hour
Brothers and sisters will fight
To live ‘neath your light
Thank you lord for giving me gay power
Well I declare before you all I’m homosexual
But don’t blame my ma or my pa
It’s not hormones or jeans
That makes dykes or queens
But the lord above who makes us what we are
So thank you lord for gay liberation
Oh the closet was my darkest hour
With baby Jesus’ blessin’
It’s with queers I am messin’
Thank you lord for giving me gay power
Well my momma she cried when I told her
And my daddy did not understand
He said what have we done
To our darling one
I said daddy its a part of god’s plan
So thank you lord for gay liberation
Oh the closet was my darkest hour
Brothers and sisters will tan
‘Neath the light of god’s plan
Thank you lord for giving me gay power
(Boys verse)
Well I left home and I work nights in a gay bar
And I’ve found me a truck driving man
We’re just clean livin’ folks
Who like fiddlin’ with blokes
And I know that our saviour understands
(Girls verse)
Well I left home and I work nights in a refuge
And I’ve found me a bike riding dyke
We’re just clean livin’ girls
Who like leather and pearls
And I know that our saviour empathises
So thank you lord for gay liberation
Oh the closet was our darkest hour
Brothers and sisters will fight
To live ‘neath your light
Thank you lord for giving me gay power

Copyright (C) 2001 Paul van Reyk

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© Paul van Reyk 2019.