I was listening to a radio play this afternoon. A melodrama about a young Welsh village girl who found release by singing American country songs – it wasn't bad. Still, it reminded me how deeply the culture of America is ingrained within the British and particularly how the mythic romance of the music of rural America has captivated so many Britons.
How many pubs in dreary London suburbs have I popped into to hear nothing but Country music, or to see the singer in a cover band attempting to convey a Southern accent? Too many to count in the days when I lived there.
Much older now I am. I've traveled through many of those towns and down the highways referenced by those venerable songs, and the first thing that always strikes me is the absolute indifference of such places to any sense that they might be the stuff of overseas legend. To be sure, the best known landmarks – think Graceland or the Grand Ole Opry – are well aware of their international appeal, but I'm not thinking of those. I'm thinking of small towns like Athens, Alabama (pictured above), where life seems to go on with little regard to what outsiders might think. Where many folks have probably never been outside the US.
I find this sense of rootedness fascinating. Not least because I am an immigrant, but also because I come from a family and background where travel – and extensive travel at that – is considered a vital component of what life is all about. To me, visiting another country to see how other folk do things is as essential as finding good food and drink. Apparently about 28% of Americans hold passports. Until fairly recently, it was possible to visit Canada or Mexico without one so this probably downplays the number of Americans who have at least crossed their nearest borders, but nonetheless it still indicates that a lot of people who are perfectly content to stay within the borders of the country. Furthermore, given the size and geographic diversity of the US, one might well be tempted to say that America has it all.
It doesn't though. There is no substitute at all for going to a foreign land and finding out that people do things quite differently, think quite differently, and live by differing assumptions and yet are just as content – or discontented – as those in the land you come from. It's as profound a life experience as is having a child and requires a substantial amount of time spent in that strange country to truly begin to understand what the differences – and similarities – really are.
Differences that the Welsh girl singing karaoke Country songs in today's play would not understand. Neither would the drinkers in those English pubs of my youth as they sipped their pints of bitter to ballads of the old – and new – South. The romance of the imagined land is strong, but, in truth, the romance of the real land is far stronger and I find myself captivated and entranced by all I find here, be it nearby or further afield. Walking around the courthouse of Athens or gazing into a reconstructed log cabin in Tuscumbia provides a deeper and more moving resonance than any of my early fantasies about the far away and and almost magical country across the Atlantic Ocean.