Can You Really Learn About the History of the Atomic Bomb by Listening to Country Music?

Roundup: Talking About History

Cornellia Dean, in the NYT (3-15-05):

Some scholars study the atomic age by researching the bomb makers. Others delve into the physics of the nucleus, or the relations between East and West in the cold war.

Dr. Charles K. Wolfe listens to country music. In fact, he is a leading scholar of the country music of the atom bomb, a genre that flowered almost immediately after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II and faded away by the early 50's.

For Dr. Wolfe, the bomb songs are a "bizarre" expression of a major theme in American folk music, the relationship of people and technology.

Often, these songs tell of a brave man overcoming the dehumanizing force of machinery, as in "The Wreck of the Old 97," the classic song about a runaway train.

"Americans have a kind of love and hate relationship with technology," Dr. Wolfe said in an interview. "We are the most technological country in the world, and yet when it comes to bringing technology into our lives we are a little suspicious."

But the country music of the bomb tells of more than suspicion, Dr. Wolfe writes in a new collection of scholarly papers, "Country Music Goes to War" (University of Kentucky Press), which he edited with James E. Akenson.

When Dr. Wolfe listens to this music, he hears people telling of great cities "scorched from the face of the earth" and wondering if they'll know "the time or hour when a terrible explosion may rain down upon our land."

In his own contribution to the collection, he cites what may be the first nuclear country song, "Atomic Power," released in 1946 by a well-established cowboy-country singer by the name of Fred Kirby.

The song asserts that atomic power "was given by the mighty hand of God" and suggests that those who use it unwisely will face cosmic retribution. When country music faced the bomb, it looked at the power of the atom through the prism of religion.

For the songwriters and the people who listened to their work, Dr. Wolfe said, the atomic bomb was not so much a weapon of war as "absolute proof that the deity exists and his power is infinite." ...

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