Wednesday, June 8, 2011

One of the great mysteries of living in Mozambique for me this year was why people love to listen to country music and in particular Don Williams. It is always a surreal combination for me to be driving through Sub-Saharan Africa with Don Williams blasting in the car speakers. I just figured that there is no accounting for taste and planned to forget about it completely, until I heard a show on NPR.

One of my guilty pleasures is downloading NPR shows like Car Talk and This American Life and listening to them on my computer. One of the shows I download is Radiolab, which is a show about science. A few years ago Radiolab interviewed Professor Aaron A. Fox from Columbia University who actually explained this.

According to Professor Fox, country music got its big start in the US back in the 1920s, which was the period in America where suddenly more people lived in cities than in the rural country. And if you listen to country music at all, you'll know many of the songs are about this longing for a simpler time and a life that is no longer available now that we all live in cities. Country music is migration music at its heart. It is the music of the lonely, the regretful, and the reticent.

The rest of the world went through a similar population switch, but much more recently - in about 2008. Suddenly in 2008 and for the first time ever, the majority of the world's population found themselves living in cities, including people from countries like Mozambique. In fact, Don Williams has gone to neighboring Zimbabwe and filled a soccer stadium with 40,000 people - twice. This phenomenon isn't limited to Southern Africa either, Aborigines in Western Australia, Russians, Chinese, Thai, Norwegians, and Native Americans all love country music. For some reason, singing about missing the Tennessee mountains translates to missing the simple life that we left behind in all these places.

The language gap seems to defy this explanation because how can Mozambican Don Williams fans connect the migration story when it's told in English? Professor Fox claims that this feeling is built into the music. The steel guitar is sometimes called the crying guitar, because it sounds like a human crying. And the signature vocal technique of country is this yodel sound, called the cry break. Even though the words don't convey, the feeling does.

In this globalizing world this idea is sort of a universal story that applies to us all. We are all on this path to modernization and it's difficult because we have to leave something behind to do so. And we experience this loss in Hawaii, in LA, or in Tete pretty much same way.

Neat, huh?

Your brother,


  1. Stephen, I love this post! Soooo interesting!

    NPR, specifically This American Life and Radio Lab, is also a guilty pleasure of mine. I love ending the day here by curling up in bed and listening to some good ol' Ira Glass.

    That's so interesting about Fox's reasoning behind the popularity of country music in different places around the world. Thanks for sharing.

    Can't wait to see you and hear stories in PA!

  2. I do the same thing! The other night I fell asleep listening to Car Talk. Ira Glass is the man, but I could listen to Garrison Keillor forever.

  3. I'm not sure I understand why listening to NPR is a "guilty" pleasure. ??

  4. Ha! Good point. It's not really that bad. Sometimes though I feel like I should probably be connecting with the Mozambican community...instead of hiding in my house reading books and listening to radio shows from the US.

  5. I agree with Beth, NPR is great! You need you time, in order to successfully do what you are doing, otherwise you will burn out quickly. Glad to see you were able to make it to your bros wedding, too bad we were not in the bay area, yet. Hope you were refreshed by your visit with family and friends!