Themes in the Short Story "Why I Like Country Music"
James Alan McPherson’s short story “Why I Like Country Music” subtly explores themes relating to race and courage in the United States. While reminiscing on the strong associations he developed between country music and the first girl he ever loved, the narrator reveals how his youthful conceptions of colorism, stereotyping and segregation reflected common, if somewhat misguided assumptions about race and status. McPherson’s short story challenges so-called “old-fashioned” attitudes about race in southern America, while simultaneously revealing how those attitudes naturally developed.
Colorism refers to the idea that there exists prejudice within black communities depending upon how light or dark an individual’s skin tone is. Whenever he introduces a character from his past, the narrator always mentions that character’s skin tone. Gweneth Lawson, the narrator’s boyhood crush, is described as “chocolate brown,” while Leon Pugh, the boy with whom the narrator vies for Gweneth’s attention, is described as “peanut brown.” Over the course of the story, however, individuals with varying skin tones are grouped and regrouped in a seeming mishmash, whether it be for classroom groups or dancing partners and so on. In this way, McPherson plays with the notion that black folk’s skin tone can play any substantial role in how they are and can be grouped.
McPherson’s narrator is aware of many stereotypes that exist about black folk, as well as northerners and southerners. Of himself, he recognizes that because he can’t dance and enjoys country music, he somehow challenges common assumptions about black folk. Similarly, the narrator discusses how in his southern town, citizens had inaccurate assumptions about how “cultured” northerners were. In his recognition and challenging of these assumptions throughout the story, the narrator subtly undermines common stereotypes, while simultaneously revealing just how easy it can be for a young person to internalize them without question.
While many other stories about black schoolchildren living in the South might choose to focus on racial segregation between whites and blacks, McPherson’s story examines the ways in which segregation lines can be drawn between a wide variety of groups. In his story, northerners are segregated from southerners because of the former’s assumed “culture.” Similarly, country folk are segregated from city folk for much the same reasons. And within his classroom, the narrator and his peers are separated into square dancers and Maypole dancers, a segregation line the narrator crosses several times as he tries his hardest to be near Gweneth.
In the final scene of the story, the narrator displays an uncharacteristic amount of youthful courage when he leaves his Maypole dancer group to join the square dancing group. He does this so he can dance with the girl he likes. This simple act of courage, given the story’s subtle handling of much deeper themes, has great implications on how individuals ought to behave in light of challenging social problems such as stereotyping and segregation. A simple act of courage, McPherson seems to suggest, is all it takes to transition from one social condition to another.
- Elbow Room: Why I Like Country Music; James Alan McPherson
- Studies in Short Fiction: The Story Behind the Story in James Alan McPherson's "Elbow Room"; Jon Wallace
Samuel Hamilton has been writing since 2002. His work has appeared in “The Penn,” “The Antithesis,” “New Growth Arts Review" and “Deek” magazine. Hamilton holds a Master of Arts in English education from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master of Arts in composition from the University of Florida.