In Which The Author Displays An Irrational Fear Of White People

Have you seen HBO’s “>The Leftovers? It’s a masterclass in how a television show can be fascinating and annoying and brilliant and subpar all at once. Most of all, however, the show is meant to be disturbing. Towards that end, the opening title sequence of the first season has a series of fresco paintings that display human misery, anger, sexuality, and despair.

The second season’s opening, by contrast, has a sort of spacey Seventies vibe to it. There’s nothing intrinsically grotesque or bizarre in the imagery. Rather, it’s the theme song that makes it uncomfortable — for me, and I suspect for most of the people who watch the show.

The song is Let The Mystery Be, written and recorded by Iris DeMent in 1990. Her voice, compared by one writer to a sheep’s bleat, has the power to “make you cringe”. when you hear it. The actual opening sequence is above. Give it a listen and see if it just flat creeps you out.

Keep in mind, Iris DeMent is a very nice lady who was raised as the youngest of fourteen children and who suffers from stage fright and who apparently does all sorts of charitable work. Why, then, is her voice and musical approach so upsetting? Obviously, it’s her flat white-trash rural delivery, the hopeless and slightly tuneless way she delivers the last syllables of each line. It’s every Grace Zabriskie character of the past twenty years rolled up in one song, every Flannery O’Connor story you’ve ever read, the Misfit killing the old woman while dispensing bon mots (bons mot?) in his pitiless Southern drawl. If you can’t imagine Iris placidly cutting the throat of a chicken — or a child — when she delivers that line “buncha carrots and little sweet peas”, then you have less imagination than I do, my friend.

The question is: why is that accent and delivery so upsetting? My guess is that it’s not upsetting for everybody — obviously, she has a record deal and a lot of fans. It’s only upsetting for those of us who were raised in an urban environment and for whom the authentic rural accent is associated with Deliverance. I’ve been exposed to forty-four years’ worth of media created by people who despise rural America and who are not shy about sharing that opinion.

Here’s the same song, more or less, only now it’s a performance video so you can watch Iris play and sing. Doesn’t this change your opinion of the song and the person a little bit? Sure, she’s country, but she’s not some terrifying old woman holding a machete. Even so, watching the video is a bit unsettling, because our media typically associates images of cheerful and/or placid country folk with impending evil. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we simply can’t trust anybody who lives on a dirt road or who wears a flannel shirt non-ironically.

Now, just for contrast, here’s the infamous Birdman “Fire Flame” video, which is meant to simultaneously display Birdman’s “100 million dollars” from his records while implying that he is still in the drug business and continuing to threaten violence against his critics

I have to say that I don’t find that video unsettling or eerie at all. All the tropes of a Birdman performance — the face tattoos, the degradation of Black women, the inexplicable clothing — are perfectly familiar and comfortable to me. I’ve seen them in one form or another since I was born.

Intellectually, I know that Iris DeMent is probably a much nicer person than Birdman. If I had to leave my son in the care of either Iris DeMent or Birdman for a week, I should pick Iris. But I have to say, my first impulse would be to hand him over to Birdman. So think about that as we pick up steam in this election season and the rhetoric about racist/terrible/subhuman rural whites reaches its usual fever pitch. If you, like me, have a sort of baked-in distaste for the country and its people, where did you get that distaste? Is it real, or did you just absorb it from the media? And if you did, in fact, absorb it from the media, what agenda was being served by that?

38 Replies to “In Which The Author Displays An Irrational Fear Of White People”

  1. ArBee

    Well, I like country folk. As a boy in the late Fifties and early Sixties, I spent many summer weekends with my grandmother at her little farm in Tidewater Virginia. All the people I met down there were unassuming, kind, subdued in manner, and able to repair just about anything. To me they exemplified self reliance and humility. That describes the black people of that time and place as well. The black music that I listened to didn’t degrade women, it exalted them in songs like “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” and “Stand By Me”. I look back over the sixty-four years of my life and wonder what happened to our society. Oh well, enough maundering, back to work. Thanks for a thought provoking piece, Jack.

    • jz78817

      I look back over the sixty-four years of my life and wonder what happened to our society.

      it’s not unknown for people (or a people) who have been historically in a poor society to gravitate to ostentatious displays once they gain some measure of wealth.

      on another message board elsewhere, I knew a woman who came here from Romania when she was little, shortly before the fall of the Iron Curtain. she would regularly grumble about how tacky and “show-off-y” her relatives had become now that they had money.

    • Jeff Zekas

      Agreed. I lived in a small logging town for 18 years. Folks were kind and especially tolerant, none of the KKK/ Deliverance stereotypes. In fact, a city friend came to visit and said, ” I was so afraid that I would get a flat tire, and be killed by a local!” to which we laughed and said, “More likely a farmer would stop, fix your tire, and offer to have you over for dinner with his family!” As for as Birdman: after two decades in prison, the brothers and their music mean death, drugs and demons to me. They treat their women like crap (which is why they call them beeches and hoes) and are not very nice people. Their only loyalty is the the shotcaller. Nope, give my a good country person, any day!

      • VolandoBajo

        Re: danger in rural areas…about thirty years ago, I did some consulting work in KY, and used to commute back home to VA every other weekend. Often I would end up traveling through WV after dark.

        One Friday night, I hit some road hazard while rolling down a fairly deserted highway I was using as a shortcut. Before I could get out and try to change the tire myself, two “good old boys” pulled up behind me in a pickup.

        My first thought was that they could be trouble. But I didn’t want to be stuck with a donut tire several hundred miles away from home either.

        They said they knew a guy just down the road who fixed tires. Since I was between a rock and a hard place, and since they weren’t too far on their way to chemically induced bliss, I decided to take them up on it, reasoning that if they intended to kill me they could do so right now, so I had little to lose.

        They got me to a small gas station with a lift, where their buddy successfully patched my tire for ten bucks or so, then gave me a lift back to my car, where they insisted on helping me by putting the wheel back on, even though I was only a decade or two older than them.

        They even wanted to refuse a tip, though I finally convinced them to take a tenspot for their effort, the gas they had used, and as a contribution to their evening’s festivities, whatever they might be.

        My best guess is that about four dollars went into the tank of the pickup, and the remainder bought them each a sixpack.

        But they were as polite and helpful as I could have possible hoped for.

        Which just shows you never know what to expect.

  2. Orenwolf

    Same reason people tend to find British accents as imparting intelligence? I’m Canadian, so I probably have different opinions of US accents compared to someone from the US.

    I do find it interesting, though! Americans notice *my* accent immediately and find it endearing, so.. 🙂

    • Will

      Ya got me! I find the sound of a harsh Canadian accent just brutal. Like the way you say “against”, nails on a chalk board my son.

  3. Pat

    I dunno if I’m supposed to sneer at country people or not. On the one hand, I’m definitely a liberal,coastal, elitist asshole who doesn’t have a truck and hasn’t touched a gun since I got out of the military. On the other, I grew up in a rural-ish area, with FFA friends and cows escaping into my back yard. I greatly prefer my coastal elite snob (and warm, sunny and sophisticated) life, but I guess I can “code switch” between the two pretty easily.

    Not that any of that matters 🙂

    Iris Dement is an interesting case (and I find this song absolutely compelling as title track for this show) because she was evidently not only one of fourteen, but raised in a strict Pentecostal family, and abandoned that religion. I suppose that her agnosticism might make her “one of the good ones” to my fellow non-country people who might otherwise sneer at her.

  4. Baconator

    I spent high school growing up as a brown person in a rural area. I acquired my fear of rural people from rural people who showed up in our front yard with pickup trucks and guns trying to evict us. This was in the cultural aftermath of the 1983 bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut, which was kind of version 1.0 of “those damn Muslims.” (I’m not even Muslim, but people who’ve never been farther than 50 miles from home don’t always get that.)

    Sometimes it’s not just “the media” – there are some straight up awful people out there.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      I did some charity work in Southwestern Ohio while I was in school — I’ll second that opinion. But rural people, in general, are not actually like they are portrayed in “Deliverance” or “The Hills Have Eyes”.

  5. Carb Ice

    This works both ways – everyone in Wyoming thinks I’m a “faggot” because I’m a youthful-looking old guy, clean-cut, and have a stupid accent that’s the product of growing up across Ulster, Yorkshire, the West Indies, and Canada.

    The fear and suspicion with which I’m viewed in a countryside state like that is certainly every bit as powerful as the ignorant view that city folk have of “yokels”. An 80 year-old farm guy who still has all his digits and fixes his own machinery by hand is probably one of the smartest guys in any room.

    My values are no different from the slack-jawed Montanan who screams out of his pickup truck that I should fuck off back to Canada – I want freedom, safety for my family, and the opportunity to make a decent wage. I deny this reflexive hatred has anything to do with media: Dubliners see themselves as sophisticates floating in a sea of moronic “culchies” – a derogatory term that’s existed in Ireland for centuries. Austrians think the Irish are literally on the same level as livestock – a classist view, not a racist one.

    We all fear the outsider, whether it’s a city boy washed up in the country, or Dennis Weaver strolling down Park Avenue in cowboy boots and matching hat, and we do it quite naturally without our vulgar culture’s guidance.

  6. Ronnie Schreiber

    I understand that the Germans in Bavaria look down upon the Swabians, whom they consider to be slow and doltish.

    I grew up in the Detroit area where there have been lots of southerners, white and black, for decades. Rural Michigan is like the rest of the rural Midwest. Across the river in Canada they have a different accent than Detroiters do, but then so do folks in the Upper Peninsula, with their Scandinavian and Welsh backgrounds. Then there are immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Oh, and my dad had a strong Brooklyn accent.

    So I guess that I don’t react negatively to different accents, though I will say that when I’m at an auto show press conference featuring guys in black suits droning on in the distinctive accent from that country in mittel Europe, I make sure to know where the exits are in case gas starts descending from the air vents.

    • Rock36

      My wife tells me the Swabians are cheapskates and greedy, or stereotypically that way. She is also Franconian and shares a bit of their pride in being independent from the rest of Bayern.

    • Disinterested-Observer

      I lived in Ireland for a little while when I was younger and being incredibly naive I was shocked to discover that people from Dublin make fun of people from Cork.

      Iris Dement rules btw. And God may forgive Jack for criticizing her singing, but I don’t.

    • Derek Kreindler

      The American stereotype of the Canadian accent is a lot closer to the Yooper accent than what Canadians tend to sound like.

  7. Thomas

    The first time I heard “Let the Mystery be” I was driving in the countryside on a nice summer day. So for me, that song, or the voice of Iris Dement, has never had any creepy overtones. I actually find it downright lovely.

    Having said that, as a guy who lived in NYC for a decade, rural America scares me much more than urban America. But it’s not because of white people, rednecks, republicans or headless chickens. It’s because of Meth. The amount of walking zombies that permeate small-town America is shocking. It’s a problem that seems to be sucking the life out of the people who live there, and it’s a problem that nobody in a leadership position seems to give a crap about.

    • Kevin Jaeger

      Drug problems in small town America is an interesting development, too. When I was young serious drug addicts were people you only encountered in the big urban centers, like Berlin, Toronto and New York. In the surrounding small towns you might find alcoholics and occasional drug use but serious drug addicts were rare. I guess Meth has really changed that.

      Personally, I’ve always been very relaxed in rural areas and small towns across North America and in Europe, while mostly feeling a certain menacing atmosphere in large American cities.

      • Disinterested-Observer

        “I guess Meth has really changed that”

        Also Oxys and ironically the end of welfare which forced any poor people who also happen to be lazy to go on disability. There is a bustling trade along route 70 between Baltimore and West By God Virginia swapping hillbilly heroin from all the “disabled” for real heroin. Poor people who aren’t lazy also have to go on disability because all the jobs got shipped overseas. Since I have my choice of $5, $10, or $15 bbq tongs all made in China (and without lead maybe!) it is totes worth it.

  8. Kevin Jaeger

    Very interesting. While I was raised in rural Canada and don’t have an accent anything like hers somehow I never developed any of the associations you describe. I hear the rural southern accent and somehow identify with them as being wholesome, kindred rural folk just like the farmers I grew up with. I saw Deliverance and just saw it as an entertaining movie with some crazy threat conjured up as a plot device, not as any kind of suggestion that there were any rural folks out there that behaved anything like that.

    By the time I started traveling extensively in the US it was as part of a high tech job and found myself dealing mostly with urban Americans. I’ve never understood the clear contempt and even hostility the urban sophisticates obviously have for flyover country. It doesn’t tend to be like that in Canadian cities, where so much of the current population is made up of people who moved there from small towns and farms.

    As far as her voice creeping me out – not in the slightest. I find her music lovely and have wholesome associations.

    As for the rappers – now that is something I find utterly alien and mostly repulsive.

  9. kvndoom

    Meredithville of the 70’s and 80’s never felt hostile in any shape or form. There was a sense of community in that tiny piece of nowhere. People helped each other, walked to other folks’ houses, fished in their neighbors’ ponds, hunted on their neighbors’ property. Crime was practically nil. Of course every home has its dirt (I know ours had enough for a landfill!) but overall it was a peaceful place.

    Hell, our family used to watch Hee-Haw every single Sunday night. Loved that show! We watched Lawrence Welk too…. and Soul Train… and American Bandstand…

    I listened to country back when it was actually country. I loved listening to Dolly Pardon sing “9-to-5” or Kenny Rogers sing “The Gambler” just as much as I could enjoy SOS Band, Bee-Gees, Kool and the Gang, or whomever. What has passed for “country music” in the past few decades should be more appropriately termed “redneck music”. There’s no community in a lot of that. It’s for one kind of person.

    Same goes for rap. When it started to hit the scene in the 80’s, it was fun! LL Cool J, Eric B. and Rakim (Paid in Full is still my favorite rap album EVER), Fat Boys, Run DMC, guys like that. You played it loud, break-danced, laughed, had fun. Public Enemy had a MESSAGE, and it was truth whether anyone wanted to hear it or not. The lyrics weren’t full of killing niggas, smacking ho’s around, all this other dumb shit I hear anymore. Somewhere in the 90’s it went from a form of expression to a race to the bottom, where it remains today. Produce the lowest common denominator and the masses will buy. There’s good stuff out there, but I’m too old and tired to wade through the cesspool to find it.

  10. Kaemu

    Until now I only knew of this song as covered by the 10,000 Maniacs and to be honest, I can’t get used to Iris’s delivery. Great tune though, so kudos to her.

  11. Kaemu

    A note on rural areas… I find them less and less friendly as time goes by. I’ve had some strange experiences with the people in remote areas of Idaho, Oregon, Washington and California. Nasty looks, even barely veiled threats that I don’t remember experiencing just 15 years ago. It sometimes leaves me with an uncomfortable feeling which I last experienced while being chased down a dark alley by goons in small town in the Ukraine…

    That said, these areas are beautiful so I go back often to take advantage of the recreation opportunities they offer, but I did sell my (9 year old) 3 series and got a car that stands out less when I drive around those parts… Not sure if it’s made a difference but I feel more “invisible”

    Which leads me to the one thing that I find truly shocking (and moreso each time I visit), which is the apparent economic devastation these areas have suffered and the corollary effects it has on people. The poverty there is total in the sense that folks are not just financially poor but also poorly-to-not educated and seemingly not interested in these kinds of pursuits. It’s as if they gave up. The recently reported declining life expectancy of rurals would seem to justify that impression.

    For context, I am white dude who grew up in one of the poorest part of Africa, so I have the weakness of thinking that when it comes to poverty, I am not easily impressed.

  12. Feds

    The accent’s effect is unsettling because it’s affected accent. Listen to her interviews; for someone born in Paragould Arkansas, she speaks the Queen’s English. (I can say this from experience. I built a factory in Paragould once).

    You can see it in her face, look how hard she’s working to turn “just” into “jest”.

  13. faygo

    I haven’t watched the second season yet but the show is definitely not normal TV and is all the better for it. I think Lindelof mentioned the change in theme in one of the interviews about the season. Dement was pretty interesting on Fresh Air in October of last year IIRC.

    while not inherently creepy, the theme for Bloodline (highly recommended) is very well matched to the tone of the show.
    one of the few themes I didn’t find myself jumping past while burning through the show. my view of Florida as a slightly bent place is probably colored from multiple readings of Charles Willeford’s “Cockfighter” and a couple of his other books.

  14. hank chinaski

    I luckily don’t have an accent and don’t immediately make a point of being from NY, as too many of us do. Most native born NYers are bred to think that they’ll wake up to banjos and cross burnings if they leave the I-95 corridor. I’ve Zelig’ed my way up and down the coast and have found that SES is a much more reliable indicator of behavior than race.
    That said, I’ve seen the police stats and I’d choose to leave my kid with Iris.

    Would smash, btw.

  15. Jonathan H.

    I grew up in rural Kentucky on a dairy farm on a gravel lane that was upgraded from dirt hence the street name “Mud Splash Rd”. Even in the sticks people raised an eyebrow whenever I wrote down my address. I own more plaid shirts than I can count.

    But back to Iris Dement. I’ve always been exposed to her style of music but somehow never heard her for a long time. My first listen was her duet album with John Prine whom I’m a huge fan of. They’re similar in that they are both masterful songwriters with less than soothing singing voices. So even being from the part of the country that should feel more relaxed around her I too found her jarring and she ended up looking nothing like I imagined her. After a while I grew to be a fan and love this song in particular. I liken my warming up to her to gradually boiling a frog. On the other hand I couldn’t make it though ten seconds of Birdman.

    I’ve done a lot of traveling and have experienced many cities around the country and the world and I feel pretty comfortable most anywhere. When it comes right down to it though, I feel much more at ease in BFE than NYC.

  16. -Nate

    Interesting as I don’t watch much T.V. and so have missed all this .

    I did grow up in Rural New England pulling tits and shoveling shit , many of the locals (looking at YOU clyde hutchins !) were pretty close to the missing link and extremely proud of their filth , ignorance and hatred .

    I barely escaped with my life a few times , I love visiting the country yes indeedy but it -can- be a deadly place .


  17. VicMik

    Why would black kids want to be engineers when they can be “cash money stunners, young money killers”?!


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