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August 30, 2013

Michael Titlestad: The South African life and afterlife of Jim Reeves

Filed under: hearing landscape critically,music — ABRAXAS @ 12:04 am

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Jim Reeves’ mellifluous ‘Nashville sound’ made him the most global country singer of all time. He enjoyed widespread popularity in, among others, East Africa, India, Ireland and Scandinavia. His relationship with South Africa was, and has remained, deep and abiding: he toured the country twice (in 1962 with Chet Atkins and Floyd Cramer, and in 1963), he recorded in Afrikaans, and, this was the only country in which he was repeatedly mobbed by thousands of fans. In 1963 he made his only film, Kimberley Jim, during his three-week stay.

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Reeves is renowned for being a singer far more famous after his death than while he was alive, but his afterlife in South Africa has been remarkable and particular. Not only has he continued to be one of the top selling recording artists, he spawned a number of local imitators and fundamentally influenced the style and repertoire of South African country music. His Afrikaans songs were reissued on CD again this year.

The paper seeks to explore, through press reportage at the time of the tours, radio broadcasts, and interviews with contemporary country musicians, the nature of, and reasons for, Reeves’s South African popularity and legacy. Using the two biographies of Reeves (by Michael Striessguth 1998 and Larry Jordan 2012), as well as the cultural studies work of Richard Pells and others regarding the circulation of American popular culture and its recuperation in various contexts, it argues that the self-consciously urbane Reeves represented an ideal habitus – and offered explicit acceptance – in the increasingly isolated South Africa of the 1960s.

Along with the international credibility his presence suggested, the field of country music, its pioneer ideology and iconography, offered a symbolic language to an increasingly defensive population. I argue that the ‘Nashville sound’ specifically – with its smooth, urban version of roots music – provided the perfect ameliorative, anodyne soundscape in a community tussling with accusations of its parochialism and anachronism. I conclude with a series of complicating questions relating to the enormous popularity of Reeves among black South Africans and elsewhere in Africa.

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Michael Titlestad (Witwatersrand) is an associate professor, head of the Department of English and deputy Head of the School of Literature, Language and Media at the University of the Witwatersrand. He publishes widely in the fields of South African literary and cultural studies, and on maritime literature. In addition, Michael is an editor of both literary and scholarly publications. He makes a lot of mistakes, but not often grammatical ones.

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