Goodwill tour of American music?
No, not that Goodwill … I’m referring instead to something I ran across rereading Fanny Flagg’s novel Standing in the Rainbow. It’s that time when I order books for next semester’s classes, and since I’m reteaching the Gospel Music and American Lit course at the graduate level in the fall, I took another spin through Flagg’s book to see if I wanted to substitute it for any on the current roster (DBM suggested as much and it seemed like a suggestion worth at least considering).
As it turns out, I won’t be using it. Yes, one of the minor characters in the book includes the Oatman Family Gospel Singers (a poor man’s Goodman family, essentially), and Flagg does a decent job of capturing the vernacular lifeways of southern indigenous religious culture (for instance: the family matriarch, Minnie Oatman, convenes a prayer circle to hasten the return of her brother-in-law’s ventriloquist dummy, Chester, after a rival sg group steals it out of their car at a roadside diner one night), but the Oatmans are too much the bit players here to justify inflicting Flagg’s too-often flaccid prose and tip-toe-through-the-tulips narrative meanderings upon unsuspecting readers mainly looking for a story about gospel music.
Anyway, near the end of the book, the Oatmans are chosen to be international ambassadors of American song in Flagg’s imagined universe:
In 1970, the State Department put together a goodwill tour featuring a tribute to American music and the Oatman Family Gospel Singers were chosen to represent southern gospel. They traveled to sixteen countries and had a wonderful time, especially the night of the performance in London at Royal Albert Hall. (448)
So here’s my question to the collective historical mind of Avery’s masses: is this goodwill tour entirely a figment of Flagg’s imagination or is art imitating life here?
I ask not least of all b/c Flagg clearly imagines herself something of a historical novelist, or doing something like cultural anthropology in fiction - the book spans the post WW-II years up through the turn of the century and using the life and times of Elmwood Springs, Missouri, as a microcosm through to chronicle the changing face of the southern Midwest in the last half of the twentieth century.
Southern gospel is a vital, constitutive part of this history for Flagg. She devotes an entire early chapter to summarizing what she intends to be taken as the real (not fictional) history of southern gospel, which of course starts, as it so often does, with James D. Vaughan. And though she doesn’t seem sure if she wants to love or loathe the Oatmans (who here among us hasn’t encountered this paradox?), she does insist that they be taken seriously, for the most part.
So she clearly has one eye on history in general, and southern gospel history in particular. Then again, she gets basic stuff discreditingly wrong (the “Spear” family, for instance) and has no compunction about interleaving her wholly fictional characters with real-world historical players like Truman and Elvis and Vestal Goodman. There’s not anything wrong with this latter move, mind you, but it does complicate efforts to discern where history ends and imagination takes over in the novel.
The 70s and 80s did see a spike in state-sponsored cultural history initiatives so it wouldn’t be hard to imagine something like the goodwill tour being based in reality, but it’s also something I would think I’d have encountered in my own research and haven’t. Any thoughts from the gallery?Email this Post