The Old Cause
by Joseph R. Stromberg

May 15, 2000

The Great Yodeling Conspiracy


Back from rusticating in the kindly shadows of a bodacious western mountain range, I naturally grow thoughtful – first of all, about mountains and music. Americans tend to romanticize mountains, forgetting what our ancestors knew, namely that mountains are bloody great obstacles to migration, unless of course you decide to set up in a fairly defensible valley in the middle of them near a big tank of saltwater (of which, more shortly). It wasn’t always thus. Our European forefathers – for those of us who have such – thought of mountains as rather dangerous, forbidding things. They were hard to cross, hard-minded people lived in them, goblins, sprites, and ghosts lived there, too, most notably Frederick the Great (in the Kyffhaeuser Mountains) and Kobold, who invented cobalt. And don’t forget the giant Fingal, who is supposed to rescue the Scots from mortal peril but never seems to show up when needed. He must have moved to Cape Breton.

This why Hannibal’s feat was so great: imagine a guy slogging a big mob of Carthaginian late-term abortionists, elephants, and Celtic auxiliaries through the Alps just so he could ravage Italy for nine or ten years. Wow. Of course his supply lines got a bit overextended and he was eventually mopped up by Roman forces operating as guerrillas, but that’s another story, whose lesson will be clear to all who reside outside Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon. Maybe more firepower and high technology would have saved Hannibal, if not his brother.


It was the European Romantic Movement that changed our perception of mountains. This has something to do with Shelley, Byron, and their hangers-on and groupies, who spent some time in old fixer-upper castles in Switzerland. This experience, if we are to believe that quirky film, The Haunted Summer, inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, when her time would have been better spent filing for divorce. Anyway, the Romantics repackaged mountains as challenging if mysterious places, where your health and general outlook would take on new life, unless you fell a few hundred feet while grooving on the ambience. Mountaineers – who had learned how not to take such unneeded falls – were, therefore, admirably keen and sharp-witted folk, healthy as could be, and their customs well worth looking into. One thinks of Heidi and those criminally healthy Austrian girls in Herr Haider’s ethnocentric posters of which we’ve been hearing.


As the interest in montagnard studies kindled by the Romantics grew, a canny troupe of Alpine yodelers – the Rainer Family – hit the road in the 1840s, performing in the British Isles and North America, bringing octave-leaping to large and appreciative audiences. Rainer Family imitators went down to Australia and popularized the form there. A few decades later, Mr. Edison made recorded music possible and clever promoters in Tin Pan Alley cried, "There’s gold in them thar hillbillies!" The rest is history of popular culture, with several conferences scheduled.

The point is that, owing to the Rainers and Rainer-imitators, yodeling was on hand, ready to become an important feature of early "hillbilly" or Country-and-Western music.1 The same thing happened Down Under and Australian c&w singers kept yodeling about twenty years longer than did the Americans. Some like Rex Dallas and Owen Blundell still do. Slim Whitman – a near-yodeler from Florida – had to move to England to get away with it. (Rent Mars Attacks! for the results.) "This is how culture works," as someone once said, trying to explain how Jimmy Driftwood, a presumably Protestant Arkansas folksinger came to write that great song about St. Brendan the Bold’s premature discovery of America.

Postmodernists shift between high excitement and cosmic indignation when they consider the constituent elements of country music – the Hawaiian guitar, the African banjo, European stringed instruments, Celtic melodic concepts, etc. Very diverse. Me, I prefer just to listen to it. And what about those south Texas Germans, who are the likeliest source of the accordions which became central to Mexican music (Conjunto and Norteno)? They have a lot to answer for. For my money, the only people who can use those damned squeeze-boxes plausibly are the Scots, and they just deploy them as reduced bagpipes. Go figure. Canadian accordion-lovers can quit reading at this point. You have more to worry about, anyway. Look who’s next door.


So the Romantics made everyone feel better about mountains and mountain folk. This side of the water, Horace Kephart’s book, Our Southern Highlanders (1913) took a friendly look at Appalachia, launched a few fallacies, like the claim that folks there speak "Elizabethan English" (a half-truth at best). The Hoosier Hotshots’ famous song, "Those Hillbillies Are Mountain Williams Now" hurried the friendlier trend along. Homer and Jethro, Minny Pearl, Stringbean, and Lonzo and Oscar soon followed. The last two lately observed that today’s audiences don’t understand pickin’ and grinnin’ – especially the grinnin.’ Something important has been lost.

The Romantics did not entirely neglect the military dimension of mountaineering. Nor did those who migrated to mountains. It seems likely that Brigham Young said "This is the place" when and where he did, precisely because it looked like a defensible position. My Swedish forebears probably thought it looked pretty good, too, especially after slogging across a thousand-some miles of bad land with hand-carts in 1862. They somehow managed to avoid conscription into Mr. Lincoln’s Grand Army, with the result that they never had to fight alongside – or against – the hillbilly side of my family (those hillbillies were somewhat at odds with each other in the 1860s). And, then, nobody bothered them much in Utah. Everybody else was fighting but no one invaded Utah. I guess they were too busy. I think the mountains may have helped. Nobody invades Switzerland, either, except for lawyers.


This brings me to what could be called the Absent Red-Neck Problem – but first, some deeper historical background. The great historian William Hardy McNeill points out "an alternating rhythm in Mespotamian political history. A conqueror from the margins of civilized life, like Sargon, might indeed establish an effective central authority; but after a few generations, the conquering group was likely to abandon its military habits in favor of the softer and more luxurious ways of the cities. In turn, relaxation of military discipline and decay of the warrior spirit opened a path for either revolt from within or fresh conquest from the margins."2

Well, it’s not our job, here, to cry for former conquerors, anymore than Argentina should cry for Evita, and the whole cycle was likely a bit awkward for the civilians – members of the third estate – who got caught in the crossfire. This sort of thing might take only three generations to unfold, as is sometimes the case with the great American fortunes. That very sharp fellow Ibn Khaldn (1332-1406), the founder (after Aristotle) of political sociology, wrote of a similar cycle in Arab history.3

The key seems to be that devil-term "luxury" and bringing it up puts us back into the running debate between classical liberalism and classical republicanism, which has been haunting us since at least the 18th century. This is true, even this side of the water, since the ideology of the American Revolution drew heavily on both political "languages." Over here, we like to think that we achieved a stable and lasting synthesis.4 Maybe not.


One little republican doubt hung around in liberal circles into the 19th century. It broke out in the debate between French liberals Benjamin Constant and Charles Dunoyer in the 1820s. Constant questioned Dunoyer’s thoroughgoing utilitarianism, which imagined there were economic solutions to all problems. As Ralph Raico writes, Constant threw light on "a certain inner contradiction in the free society, which can only be compensated for by bringing into play anti-utilitarian forces, such as religious faith...." The problem was that freedom’s very success in bringing about prosperity tended to lessen the number of those – Greek Klephtes, Scottish highlanders – who have the skills and personal virtù with which to defend freedom and the free society.5 The Klephthes, of course, were mountain bandits, whose role in liberating Greece from the Turks was fresh in the memory of European liberals; and in the early 19th century, the British Establishment still worried overtime about the highlanders’ Jacobite leanings. I suppose I should at least mention the "wily Pathans," other mountaineers who gave the Brits no end of trouble on the northern frontiers of India.

Here we have what I call the "absent redneck problem," but Constant, of course, put it much more elegantly. Republicanism set it up as "luxury" versus republican "virtue." As Raico puts it: "For Constant, the growing possibility of participating in the enjoyments offered by modern society was a powerful attractive force. But recent experience showed that certain sacrifices had been necessary to fight tyranny. Who had fought Napoleon tooth and nail? Was it the bourgeoisie of Paris, who even under Napoleon were not deprived of their search for pleasure? Or was it the peasants of Russia and Spain, who, having nothing to lose, risked their lives to throw off foreign domination?"6


In the American heartland there are many who fear that a dramatic assault on our freedoms might find many of the "conservative" literati AWOL, if not actually helping the wrong side. They could be wrong, I guess, and the Mothers may march all they wish, but the heart of the Second Amendment debate is here. Mountaineers, as people experiencing practical independence, take on symbolic importance in the present context. And imagine living in such an environment without firearms.

It may be that highlanders, rednecks, and their sociological equivalents – drawn, one imagines, from the peasants and petty bourgeoisie – are needed to preserve liberty. Someone told me as far back as 1978, "Libertarians have a lot of theory, but the rednecks have the practical skills." It follows that the scholars and the rednecks should be friends. Second Amendment and (certain) flag issues might be central in building a "coalition to end coalitions" – to paraphrase Hank Junior, himself a bit of a social theorist. And, speaking of social theory, there is – though some would hesitate to name in polite company – Jim Goad’s The Redneck Manifesto (1997).

Certainly, the poor demonized bubbas have no reason to turn to Al Gore and little enough to support George Dubbya. Here is a non-Marxist "historical bloc" the Left doesn’t even want. Someone has to rally them. Why not libertarians and antiwar conservatives?


But to return briefly to those mountains alluded-to earlier, historical experience suggests that when one is up against a determined and patient enemy, mountains by themselves may not be enough. In time, the enemies of local freedom – including, surprisingly enough, our own Uncle Sam – can put their people in the mountains, on the ground, in sufficient numbers to overcome the mountaineers’ geographical advantage. But for a while, at least, the "peculiar" people on the Wasatch Front did things their way. D.W. Meinig writes that the "Mormon region took on a human geographic quality unlike anything in surrounding areas. It was a homeland in a much more profound sense, with a homogeneity, unity, order, and self-consciousness unequaled in any other North American region and rivaled only by that other peculiar self-conscious nation of North America along the lower St. Lawrence."7

This may slight the status of the South as a captive nation within the federal plantation, but no matter. Certainly, Utah wasn’t for everyone – and still isn’t, I suppose. Those who prate of villages and communities seldom like actually existing ones. They think of them as bastions of reaction in need of kindly but firm reconstruction by the usual suspects. Faced with people who believe in something and who act on their beliefs, the poor ACLU works overtime in Utah to bring their benighted neighbors into the 20th, soon to be the 21st, century.

This is doubtless why Utah "public" TV was so goggled-eyed last month, when it presented a series on the changing – more lovable, more "diverse" – Utah now unfolding under the watchful eyes of the international/national elite. Still, some of the older order remains. In Utah, even the ACLU quotes Brigham Young – if only as a provocation.


  1. Graeme Smith, "Australian country music and the hillbilly yodel," Popular Music, 13/3 (1994), pp. 297-311, esp. 303-304.
  2. William Hardy McNeill, The Rise of the West (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963), p. 50.
  3. On Ibn Khaldã n, see Harry Elmer Barnes and Howard Becker, Social Thought from Lore to Science, I (New York: D.C. Heath, 1938), pp. 266-279, and John A. Hall, Powers and Liberties (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), pp. 91-98.
  4. Joseph R. Stromberg, "Some Tensions in Early American Political Thought, The Freeman, 49, 5 (May 1999), pp. 44-50.
  5. See Leonard P. Liggio, "Charles Dunoyer and French Classical Liberalism," Journal of Libertarian Studies, 1, 3 (Summer 1977), p. 178, and Ralph Raico, "Classical Liberal Exploitation Theory: A Comment on Professor Liggio’s Paper," ibid., pp. 182-183 (from which the quotation is taken).
  6. Ralph Raico, "La Contribution des Auteurs Liberaux Francais du Dix-Neuvieme Siecle a la Controverse sur les Valeurs et Conflits Culturels," p. 4, available at (my translation).
  7. D. W. Meinig, "The Mormon Nation," Journal of Mormon History, 22,1 (Spring 1996), pp. 43-44.

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