Saturday, February 26, 2011

Where's the Humor in History?

Country music is one of the strongest memories of my youth. My father always had some country on in the back ground. It could be the radio or it might be a stack of LPs (comment below if you have no idea of what that relic of the past is) of country albums on the record player. Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr, the Statler Brothers, and Tom T. Hall, just to name a few, echoed day after day. On the surface it might seem odd that my Brooklyn bred father who counted himself among the early rock-n-roll fans would be drawn so strongly to country music. But as I think about it, it is not so odd. No sooner had he graduated Franklin K. Lane High School than Buddy Holly died and he received his draft notice. He got out of the army before the Vietnam War heated up, but when he turned his radio on the music was not quite the same. In the next few years it only got worse. Sgt. Pepper replaced Peggy Sue and the music lost some of its innocence. A conservative hawk, my Dad could not relate in anyway to the anti-war, libertine messages of the new version of Rock-n-Roll. Where else could he go, but country music? 
As my brother and I age we now listen to country music, although for different reasons. We find a sense of nostalgia in listening to the music my parents enjoyed so much together. But there is something more. Country music is often stereotyped as being only about cheating wives, drunken sprees, or pick up trucks. While these themes do pervade many country songs, the genre has one thing Rock-n-Roll lost many years ago: a freaking sense of humor.  Some of the songs can be down right funny. Moreover, country musicians can poke fun of themselves and enjoy the laugh. 
I bring this up because there is an interesting article in this month’s issue of the Perspectives, the newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, by Dane Kennedy entitled “Where’s the Humor in History?” I differ, though, in thinking it is not only professional historians who lack any sense of humor when it comes to the past. Depending on one’s point of view, the past could be seen as a progression of crimes. It is either the abuse of power leading to the abuse of minorities, or the march of an elitist minority out to destroy liberty. Making history so serious and removing its humor makes every fact charged with such importance that it must be justified and accounted for. There is no room for random events, contingency, unintended consequences, mistakes, clumsiness, etc. This is not to say, of course, that history is not serious and that bad things, like slavery, did not happen, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t approach other topics with less seriousness. Instead of books with titles like the People’s History of the United States or the Patriot’s History of the United States what we really need is one entitled Bloopers in American History

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