Nuclear Country

The New York Times has a fascinating short piece in today's Science section about a largely overlooked and very specialized genre of music: country songs written about the atom bomb after World War II.

"Nuclear country" 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, according to Charles Wolfe, an English prof at Middle Tennessee State and editor of a recent book on the subject, Country Music Goes to War (University of Kentucky Press).

Cowboy-country singer Fred Kirby was the trend-setter with "Atomic Power" in 1946, which was typical of several songs in seeing the bomb as a sign of the "mighty hand of God." Other tunes in the religious vein were "Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb" and "There Is a Power Greater Than Atomic."

But many of the country crooners also sang about their deep suspicion of the bomb's potential for destruction. Kirby's tune warned that those who use the atom unwisely would face cosmic retribution. Other songs, Wolfe says, warned of great cities "scorched from the face of the earth" and people fearful of "the time or hour when a terrible explosion may rain down upon our land." "Old Man Atom," a talking-blues number by Vern Partlow, noted that even Einstein was fearful of his role in making the bomb -- "and if he's scared, brother, I'm scared."

It's another example of how country music has reflected our society's deepest divisions -- sometimes stoking our basest fears, and other times affirming our humanity and hopes for a better future.

[Bill Rehm 3/16/05] Edited the link to the book to point a good Southern bookseller.