Every summer, festivalgoers gather throughout the American West to relax in the sunshine, smoke a little pot, and dance to the sweet, nostalgic sounds of bluegrass music.
Bluegrass festivals saw a resurgence along the Colorado Front Range in the early 2000s, which gave me an opportunity to do in-depth research on these communities for my Ph.D. dissertation. I found that the people reveling in this music were harkening back to the simpler times of the 1940s to escape the perceived complexities of postmodern life: globalization, urbanization, bureaucracy, and technology. The festival environment allowed them to reconnect to what they valued—community, family, and friendship—and to log off from the hectic world of television and social media.
But many people’s experiences were influenced by looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses. They chose to celebrate the imagined simplicity of a mythical Appalachia, conjuring up images of ma and pa playing fiddle and banjo in their quaint little cabin in the hills. While the postmodern festivalgoers envied the close-knit relationships of extended kin and church communities associated with the Appalachian frontier, they glossed over a significant chunk of its history: economic exploitation, social dislocation, and environmental ruin.
While it is appealing to glorify the positives, bluegrass is replete with darker themes of domestic violence, sexism, and infidelity. Fans often overlook the stark brutality of songs like “Banks of the Ohio,” in which the male subject murders his girlfriend and throws her in the river “because she would not marry me,” and “99 Years and One Dark Day,” in which the imprisoned subject says he shot his “woman with a .44” caliber revolver.
There is no immediate harm, perhaps, in selecting just a few aspects of a cultural phenomenon to admire and celebrate. The nostalgia that the Colorado festivalgoers had for bluegrass helped them to forge a sense of community and ultimately to live happier lives. Western society’s emphasis on individualism has generally conditioned us to recoil at tight-knit communities because we find them constraining and oppressive; rekindling communal ties through a celebration of the past ignites a spark of resistance.
But blind appropriation of a culture and a region is problematic. When we glorify a selective slice of a culture, we may inadvertently stereotype or create a caricature of an entire people and period of time, which leads to inaccurate understandings of the past and unrealistic expectations for the future. By tailoring the past to our present needs, we do damage to the fabric of society.
The risks of cultural amnesia are more apparent now than ever before. When President-elect Donald Trump promises to “make America great again,” he is, presumably, appealing to a selective, nostalgic ideal of a simpler time when America’s economy was stronger and its people safer. Seeking this simplicity soothes our deepest anxieties about an uncertain future. But “great again” might also refer to some imagined time when there were fewer immigrants, when so-called races were separate, or when women had less power and influence in society.
When we yearn for simpler times, we hear the sweet music of yesteryear and remember the good. But in doing so, we should be wary of rewriting history, or glorifying the past, especially if it does a disservice to our future.