‘Why I Like Country Music’ by James Alan McPherson

Why I Like Country Music by James Alan McPherson, 1974

The magic trick:

The character of Mrs. Boswell

This is a story that seeks to reconnect the shared heritage – North and South – of African Americans. OK, that’s maybe a little dramatic. It’s a fun story. It’s a childhood reminiscence. The framing device, using a silly argument between husband and wife about his taste in music, lightly touches on that cultural disconnect. But it’s not like it’s some didactic text. It’s an amusing read.

The key for me was the way the fourth-grade teacher is portrayed. Maybe it’s because she reminds me a little bit of my own third-grade teacher, but she’s a wonderful character. She’s warm and funny, and works perhaps a little outside of the standard educational guidelines. But it’s great. Her character goes a long way toward establishing the narrator’s southern cultural experience, without ever explicitly saying so.

And that’s quite a trick on McPherson’s part.

The selection:

“Now I know your mamas already made you think life is a bed of roses, but in my classroom you got to know the footpaths through the sticky parts of the rose-bed.” It was her custom during this ritual to prod and goad those of us who were developing reputations for meekness and indecision; yet her method was Socratic in that she compelled us, indirectly, to supply our own answers by exploiting one person as the walking symbol of the error she intended to correct. Clarence Buford, for example, an oversized but good-natured boy from a very poor family, served often as the helpmeet in this exercise.

“Buford,” she might begin, slapping the ruler against her palm, “how does a tongue-tied country boy like you expect to get a wife?”

“I don’t want no wife,” Buford might grumble softly.

Of course the class would laugh.

“Oh yes you do,” Mrs. Boswell would respond. “All you buck rabbits want wives.” Thaap! “So how do you let a girl you’re not just a bump on a log?”

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