Thomas Hart Benton





Thomas Hart Benton was eighty-four in 1973, when he came
out of retirement to paint a mural for the Country Music Hall of
Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. His assignment was
to describe the regional sources of the musical style known as
“country,” and Benton couldn’t resist the opportunity to paint
one last celebration of homegrown American traditions.
Benton himself was a skilled harmonica player who had been raised on
the old-time music of the Missouri Ozarks. It was during his life-
time that the multimillion-dollar country-music industry in
Nashville had replaced the community-based music of rural
America. As an artist, he had gained a popular following in the
1930s with works that spoke to ordinary people.
The Sources of Country Music presents five distinct scenes to sur-
vey the music of ordinary Americans. The central subject of a
barn dance, with a pair of fiddlers calling out sets to a group of
square dancers, describes the dominant music of the frontier.
A comparatively calm scene shows three women in their Sunday
best with hymnals in their hands, suggesting the importance of
church music in Protestant America. In the foreground, two
barefoot mountain women sing to the sounds of a lap dulcimer,
an old instrument associated with Appalachian ballads. In the
opposite corner an armed cowboy, one foot on his saddle,
accompanies himself with a guitar. An African American man,
apparently a cotton picker in the Deep South, strums a tune on
a banjo, an instrument slaves brought with them to the New
World. Beyond him, on the other side of the railroad tracks, a
group of black women dances on the distant riverbank. Despite
the range of regional styles, instruments, and customs, the
mural seems to pulsate to a single beat, as if Benton took care
to ensure that all the musicians played the same note and sang
their varied American songs in tune.
The mural preserves an image of American folkways that were
rapidly disappearing. Benton’s characteristically dynamic style
expresses the powerful rhythms of music while suggesting the
inevitability of change. Many of the robust, nearly life-size figures
balance on uneven, shifting ground. The fiddlers look liable to
fall into the mysteriously bowed floor, and the log on which the
banjo player sits threatens to roll down the steep slope of the
red-clay landscape. Even the telephone poles seem to sway in
the background. The steam engine, an indication of change,
represents the end of an agrarian life and the homogenization
of American culture, which necessarily entailed the loss of
regional customs.
The mural pays homage to the country music singer and
movie star Tex Ritter, who had helped to persuade Benton to
accept the Nashville commission but died before it was com-
pleted. Benton represents Ritter as the singing cowboy who
turns to face the coal-black engine steaming along the horizon.
The train itself was modeled on the Cannonball Special, driven
and wrecked by Casey Jones, the hero of an American ballad;
it also calls to mind “The Wabash Cannonball,” a popular folk
song about a mythical train that glides through the country,
then rumbles off to heaven. The engine, which may signify the
positive as well as the negative aspects of American
progress is the only element of the complex composition that Benton
felt he couldn’t get quite right. Unfortunately, we will never
know how he wanted the train to look. Benton is said to have
died of a massive heart attack while standing before the mural
in January 1975, trying to decide whether to research and
repaint the train. Whether the story is true or not, his final
work was never signed


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