After the end of the American Civil War, the farmers and plantation owners of Dixie were forced to confront the consequences of fighting a losing battle to maintain a slave economy. They had no money and no assets but land, and the land was both ruined by years of war, and unworkable without slave labour. Down from the north came opportunists with cash, looking for bargains. There’s a scene in Gone With the Wind where Scarlett confronts two of these Yankees, sending them home, as one might imagine, with fleas in their ears. The camera, with clumsy portentousness, makes sure we get a long look at their luggage.
These bargain hunters bought up much of the South for a song, and were unsurprisingly hugely resented, the best Irish parallel being the flash Returned Yank (someone someday should write a song about that, and the whole Yank/Yankee connection.) “Carpetbagger” entered the common language of the South and later of all of America, where it means any opportunistic outsider or new arrival on the make. When Hillary Clinton made her home in New York, the better to run for US Senate there, the epithet was levelled at her, as it had been at John McCain upon his arrival in Arizona years before.
Jenny Lewis was born in Las Vegas, and is best known as lead singer of Indie band Rilo Kiley, so the emphasis in her solo work on American roots music might strike certain purists as a bit carpetbaggerish itself. Me, I think the proof is in the listening, and given my tastes, it’s hardly a surprise that I prefer her two solo records to anything by Rilo Kiley. In “Carpetbaggers”, written by her boyfriend and musical partner Jonathan Rice, she warns not of Northern Republicans but gold-digging women. “Carpetbagger” has shown it’s self to be a versatile phrase over the decades, and Lewis here gives it a whole new meaning without ever overstretching. The song’s opening lines combine the metaphor’s new use with its post-bellum origin so effortlessly that one is amazed that no-one ever thought of doing it before:
“They come to town when the war is over
Dirty boots in the middle of the night,
Trolling the bars, hitting on soldiers,
The boys give it up without a fight”
Yes, the boys always give it up without a fight. Not for us the resistance of the Confederacy. Seduction goes from Fort Sumter to Appomattox within the space of an evening. Speaking of seduction, although it doesn’t come within the remit of the song as written, I feel I must draw your attention to the middle portion of the below video, and the awesomeness therein. There is a certain kind of male music fan with a fondness for the female voice who looks upon certain of the more attractive of those artists with an adolescent mixture of adoration and lust. They are nothing so vulgar as groupies – they actually want the singer in question to be their girlfriend. This video, and in particular the bit starting at 1:20 will be like catnip to them.
I am not, quite, one of the dudes described above, but seriously, synchronised dancing in a gold lame minidress and cowboy boots with a beer bottle in hand? That is perhaps the finest minute of rock chick cool I have ever witnessed.
The song’s second verse continues the warning, this time relating the cautionary tale of a friend who let himself get hooked by one the carpetbaggers. In the released version on Acid Tongue, that part is sung by Elvis Costello, but I prefer the live version where the song’s author sings the verse. Costello’s voice is all wrong for country, and his arrival is so sudden and incongruous that it threatens, for a moment, to throw the whole song off kilter. There is something a bit awkward about having that second verse sung by a male voice, whoever’s it is. It has to be admitted that the ball-and-chain type stuff is a little misogynistic, but I suppose songs about no-good wives and husbands are par for the course in country music. (In fact, I’d argue that up until gangsta rap took over hip hop, mainstream or classic rock was the genre that was most consistent in it’s marginalising of the female perspective. But that’s for another post). Whatever the sexual politics, it’s a well written verse, providing some symmetry to the song, and finishes with a reference to the Carter Family’s “I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore”, appropriate given the genre. True, it might have been more palatable sung by Jenny, by the break gave her an opportunity to do that dance. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go back and watch it again. Though, as I say, I’m not really one of those dudes.