Showing My Hands and Not My Face on TV Waylon's Rollicking Red Neck Minstrel Show; or Death of the Duke Boys
Issue #57, October 2001
In the seventies, in the South (at least in my part of it), we were brought up on the mythology of the civil war and patriotic Southern anti-Yankee and anti-city songs, such as those sung by Hank Williams Jr. with lines like, "You can send me to hell or New York City, It'd be about the same to me". We had the pride of the conquered. Columbia, SC had been burned by Sherman's army and there was still a certain melancholy and arrogant source of honor in this. For some there was certainly a sense of shame, but I did not know the horror of miasma and guilt until later. Back then, I was a six-year-old Southerner and proud of it and the books my mother read to me — the Bible, Edith Hamilton's Mythology book, and South Carolina history texts — seemed to blend together into a super-myth where Joseph, Heracles, and Robert E. Lee all rode along together on white horses through the pine forests behind the house.
Back then, two new heroes were inducted into the pantheon one Friday night after Logan's Run or Wonder Woman, when I first heard (but did not see) my favorite singer, Waylon Jennings, singing about some "good ole boys" who "never meanin' no harm . . . had been in trouble with the law since the day they were born." Not only were there fast orange cars that whistled Dixie, but also the Playboy hillbilly chic of Daisy's tight cut-offs and knotted shirt and the sort of Robin Hood rebelliousness that threw a rugged, common-sense individualism in the face of corrupt laws. Of course, the cops — bumbling, Barney Fife knock-offs confronted by lake-jumping hellions in souped up cars — were 'stupid' rednecks, too. All this turned into a sort of redneck minstrel show where sanitized country boys eluded and escaped the ever corrupt and incompetent forces of the capitalist-controlled and thus citified law. The redneck cops were dumb because they were rednecks, but corrupt because they were not quite rednecks anymore, but were in cahoots with the smart city-folk like those who produced television programs. The minstrelization of redneck culture operates, however, by a logic slightly different from the kind that represented African-Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For blackface was necessary in order to erase the crimes that white America had committed against African-Americans, through the creation of stereotypical and further demeaning comedy. In the case of the Dukes it is the crimes both against these poor 'rednecks' (who had probably descended from indentured servants rather than Plantation owners) and their own crimes and failings which had to be erased at the same time they were ridiculed.
It is difficult to say whether the Dukes was aimed at the national market, who may have found it amusing to laugh at hillbillies hollarin' all over "Hazard County" crashing every cop car in sight. An early reader of this essay suggested that in New England, they weren't allowed to watch the Dukes of Hazard because of its "violent content" and "tasteless antics." In South Carolina our mothers also despised it as tacky and tasteless (because they wanted to cling to the honorable and middle class gentility of the old order of mythical Southern life) while the kids, and their NASCAR-watching fathers, ate it up. If the Dukes of Hazard made fun of the South, to us it presented a comic book version of our culture. Of course, the kids I knew were all middle class youth romanticizing their 'redneck roots.' The hyperbole of the show was, however, double edged. It took the myths of people like Junior Johnson and sanitized them. Bo and Luke never smoked or grew dope or snorted pills or jumped police cars with bottles of whiskey between their legs. The Duke boys were, however, on probation for moonshining and so, to get around the loss of their constitutional right to handguns, they cleverly and with country boy survivalist know-how affixed dynamite to arrows — a weapon which, oddly, did not violate their probation. The Dukes of Hazard was the sort of legend that a father tells to his son about his 'crazy days,' one censored and sanitized so that the hero appears as a better representative of justice than the laws that attempted to persecute him. (These sorts of heroes are always men. Daisy, using her sex appeal and the ample presence of lakes or rivers in which to skinny-dip, often aided Bo and Luke, but her role was as a sexual accessory, for the show was about 'good ole boys.' The crude preadolescent sex-appeal of the show was reinforced with names like 'Cooter' and 'Enis').
This inherent hyperbole was the language of my childhood — perhaps of all childhood — and it didn't just come from souped-up Southern rhetoric, but also from the other aspects of culture to which I was exposed. The first time I ever missed an episode of the Dukes of Hazard was to go to a Kiss concert, to which my mother and my neighbor's father, perhaps overindulgently, agreed to take us six-year-olds. Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley's mythopoesis worked for us in the same way that Bo and Luke's did. Kiss was the only non-country band I listened to because they were more superheroes than musicians and they occupied another spectrum on the comic book scale of hyperbole. They seemed more like Bo and Luke than Waylon Jennings.
In many ways Waylon Jennings was probably not the best narrator for the show. Waylon had recently had a hit with "Luckenbach, Texas" and was associated with that state far more than he was with the South. Yet, Waylon was very popular in the South and more importantly he was known as an 'outlaw' and this association strengthened the show's credentials. But here again, the things that made Waylon into an outlaw, such as drinking, drugging, cheating and singing country music from Texas rather than Nashville, are eliminated and transformed into the metaphors of a colorful proverb-spouting simpleton. The wisdom found in many of Waylon's songs was turned into pap like, "Bo and Luke sure have gotten themselves into a plum fine mess, here. The po-lice are all over them like fleas on the hind end of a hog." As an 'outlaw,' however, Waylon never showed his face on TV. Only his jeans and leather vest over a western shirt framing his hands, which held a guitar, appeared on the screen. In the recorded version of the song Waylon added the verse, "I'm a good ole boy and my Momma loves me, but she can't understand why they keep showin' my hands and not my face on TV." Waylon's haggard face would have betrayed the darker and more serious and real side of 'outlawdom.' It would have destroyed the sanitized mythical world of the minstrel show and the language of local color that creates it and replaced them with the very different myths of a "good-timing man" ("Good Hearted Woman in Love with a Good-timin' Man" ) and the cowboy "who never stays home and is always alone, even with someone he loves" ("Mommas don't let you're babies grow up to be Cowboys"). Waylon's face had to be hidden in order to maintain the faux naive heroics of the protagonists, surrounded by caricatures of rural life and rebel flags.
This tension of presence and absence also manifests itself in the character of the car, The General Lee. The fastbacked General was, of course, one of the principal characters in the series. A principal character named after the Confederate General and sporting the rebel flag as 'his' face was an unmistakable statement. And yet the symbol is such that its racism is never verbalized or referred to in any other manner. It is as though the whole of Hazard county is racist and yet does not notice it (which is often the case in rural Southern communities). In my own early adulation of the rebel flag, in thinking it was cool on the show, I was not really aware of what I was supporting. The rebel flag is made into a piece of local color by the absence of the regime it signifies, but the reality of that regime still suffuses the symbol. Even as a caricature it brings up images of violence, blood and death (for different reasons to different people, but death and destruction are essential characteristics of the period). The General Lee, through the presence of its 'face,' has, in a sense, the same logic as the absence of Waylon's face. Only in the edited absence of murder, rape, and lynching can one proudly wave the rebel flag.
Later, when I lived for a while on a farm in a hollar in deep rural West Virginia, one of the neighbors took me driving over mountainous roads, roaring up banks and barely making insane deer-turns in a Mustang 5.0, to get our third case of beer on my first night there. "Nobody ever drove like Ole Ernie, though" my neighbor told me. Ernie, I discovered, had died driving over the same road, drunk and on pills and through this death he was immortalized and made into a legend. Nothing was as good as Ole Ernie could do it. This is the sort of tone that faceless Waylon gave the actions of the Duke boys. His narrative lent their actions meaning and their characters the Iliadic kleos, or memorialized honor, their heroic syntax calls for. Facelessness always accompanies narration and it is always related to the hero's death. Waylon's absence shows us the Dukes lying dead and mangled on the side of the road like Ole Ernie, bottles of whiskey between their legs, their arms blown off by the sticks of dynamite, the house in flames, Uncle Jesse dead, and Daisy married with eight children to an abusive gas-huffing alcoholic while having an affair with Cooter or Enis.
This trace of death and absence or defeat prefigures the heroic narratives of this sort of noble savage right-wing populism. Though the hero was the best driver or the best fisher, he is nevertheless dead and out of respect for the now absent referent, the stories about the dead hero grow. The content of these legends, in the case of the "Dukes of Hazard," presents us with masculinized redneck Antigones who do what is right rather than what is legal. They are, in a certain sense, involved in a class struggle against the town boss. Bo and Luke, from what I recall, are unemployed. Cooter is a mechanic. Daisy works at the bar. The Dukes show that the little guy and the good ole boy can win even within the "Good Ole Boy" system. Yet, as is often the case with this sort of populism, it also takes a Southern Isolationist, ante-bellum, and thereby racist stance.
On the one hand, the Dukes represent the rural poor fighting against the system. On the other hand, they are the rural White poor men, using the corruption of the 'system' to espouse a tradition that includes racism (in its most extreme form) and a genteel pedestal sexism which is not, however, above having your cousin skinny dip with strangers so you can highjack the truck left parked by the river, surrounded with abandoned clothing.
The Dukes of Hazard, while attempting to minstrelize and mock the South, presented the problematics of heroic representation and identity in a comic book Southern setting: the sanitized and sanctified myth functions according to the kinds of hyperbole and ellipsis that are only possible once the hero is dead. Yet, in the case of the Dukes of Hazard, the death of the hero is never mentioned, just as the narrator's face is never shown. Death, as is proper, resides in absence. As a child I loved the Dukes of Hazard so much (and later hated it just as much) because the myth of the South I was taught to believe in was sanitized in the same way: the ugly parts had been neglected and left to fade, like the paint upon the Greek marble that now looks so pristine, in the dark and mysterious sun of absence and the desire of collective regional memory. If the color of blood remained at all it had been turned into "local color."
As a child, I projected myself onto Bo and Luke and pretended to be them. I slid across the hood of one of my father's forever-in-repair automobiles (while Waylon played on the radio, or Richard Petty roared around the track at Darlington) in the same way I slid across the surface of the myths whose insides I was unable to discern. Watching the Dukes of Hazard is a completely different experience for me now and I feel differently about the place that, no matter where I go, will always be my home. But I still listen to Waylon Jennings and, despite everything, every now and then I get the urge to slide across the hood of my fiancee's Ford Taurus and let out a good ole 'Yeeeehaw' as we speed away to the dynamite store, whistlin' Dixie.
Bay Woods is a student of Ancient Languages and Philosophy. He hopes to crack the mystery of the Cypro-Minoan script. He recommends that you read h2so4.