Country Music, Concept Albums, and the Confederacy

A young Briton working in London in the advertising business listened to American country music for the very first time in the early 1970s. It would turn out to be a life-changing experience for him. Listening to the sounds and soulfulness of Waylon Jennings was particularly moving, and in due time the young Briton decided that he, too, would become a songwriter. He listened to many hours of country music, taught himself the ways of songwriting, and soon began writing his own country songs.

The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed the emergence of the concept album in popular music at the same time the young Briton was first exposure to country music. Musicians at that time began writing entire albums with plots, settings, and unified themes while pushing beyond the boundaries of three-minute radio-friendly jingles about love and happiness. Rock bands like The Who and Pink Floyd obtained an oversized presence in the concept album world with records like Tommy and The Dark Side of the Moon, but country and jazz musicians like Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra laid the original foundations for concept albums with popular records in the 1940s and 1950s.

The first forays into country music songwriting for Paul Kennerley pushed him towards the world of concept albums, and, amazingly, he managed to enlist the help of Waylon Jennings, Steve Cash, Eric Clapton, and a number of other musicians in his first major project: a “prog-country” concept album about the American Civil War that was released in 1978, just a few short years after he first listened to Waylon Jennings. That album, White Mansions, aimed to portray the experiences and struggles of white Southerners who supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. I’ve never heard anything quite like this odd but unique album, and I encourage interested readers to listen to a few songs or the entire album in the YouTube video at the top of this page. You can read lyrics for all of the songs here.

With this post and another one in the near future I propose to examine and interpret White Mansions as a cultural artifact. What does this album tell us about Civil War history, and is it an accurate representation of that history? What ideas did Kennerley hope to impart on listeners in his songs? What might this album tell us about the ways people remembered the Civil War in 1978? I hope to examine all of these questions in due time, but for now let us briefly examine the five characters of Kennerley’s story in White Mansions.

Matthew J. Fuller (portrayed by John Dillon) is the son of a wealthy Georgia cotton planter. He was raised on a large plantation with roughly 400 enslaved people working its lands. Fuller’s status as a wealthy white male places him at the top of the Southern social hierarchy and allows him to live a life of comfort while enjoying the rare privilege of an advanced education. Matthew has much at stake when the Civil War breaks out, and his early decision to enlist in the Confederate military reflects an awareness of how his privileged life could instantly change economically, socially, and politically.

Polly Ann Stafford (portrayed by Jessi Colter) is Matthew’s sweetheart. She too was raised in an wealthy Southern family, and the outbreak of war leaves her worried about the fate of her family, her sweetheart, and her way of life.

Caleb Stone (portrayed by Steve Cash) is a poor white Southerner without land or property. Many consider him “white trash” and he seems to accept and embrace that label as a part of his identity. Caleb is resentful of the power and privilege of the planter class and frustrated with his own impoverishment, but he is also a racist with a strong hatred of blacks. Although he personally is not a slaveholder, Caleb benefits economically from the institution of slavery because he does not have to compete on the wage labor market with black workers. For these reasons Caleb is inclined to join the Confederacy when the Civil War breaks out.

“The Drifter” (portrayed by Waylon Jennings) is a native Southerner who fought in the Mexican-American War during the 1840s. He is aged and physically worn by 1861, and he decides not to enlist for either side during the war. The Drifter acts as a sort of sage by offering opinions on the wisdom of secession and the Confederate war effort from afar. We are told that The Drifter “sees both sides of the argument clearly,” but it is apparent from the beginning that his sympathies lie with the Confederacy.

“The Slaves” (collectively portrayed by Rodena Preston) play a very minor role in White Mansions and are almost completely absent from Kennerley’s narrative. The liner notes explain that their absence is symbolic, that “despite the fact that they represented over a third of the population of the South, their voice was seldom heard.” When they do appear in their lone song, “Praise the Lord,” the enslaved people are portrayed as having no agency in shaping affairs in their own lives, instead waiting on “Father Abraham” and God to free them from the shackles of slavery:

Sing Praise to the Lord, I’m a free man

Massa Abe done take these chains off a me

I will walk all the way to Ohio

’cause the Lord done set me free

That’s about it for the slaves.

With my next post we’ll dig deeper into the lyrical content of White Mansions and explore how Kennerley portrays each respective character’s wartime experience.