What is it about some coal miners daughters that occasionally yields such admirable flintiness?
I confess to developing a fondness in my early 20s, while living in Texas, for classic C&W music. It was probably motivated by an affinity for Willie Nelson, longneck Lone Stars, hill country domino parlors and county quarter horse races. Yes, I have two-stepped and drunk beer in Luckenbach, Texas. (For now C&W fans, that’s a song reference.) Or, maybe it was those lazy summer weekends at my Maryland grandparents watching 1950s Grand Ole Opry that kicked in over time. (I actually had an aunt named after Gene Autry.)
But it was in North Carolina in the 1970s that I saw Loretta Lynn on stage, wonderfully overdressed in what was 1950s C&W chic. I read her first autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter when it came out and later dragged Margaret, never a rabid C&W fan, to the movie. Lynn personifies the rags to riches American story that sometimes befalls individuals of talent.
However, it’s not success that suddenly rains down from the heavens. Lynn was married at 16. Four of her six children were born before she was 22. She was a grandmother by age 34. And her husband, a drinker and cheater, was not exactly a grand partner, either economically or as a parent. But in the midst of all that laundry and those teetering toddlers, Lynn taught herself to play the guitar. In the 1950s she started her own band and cut her first record in 1960. She and husband Mooney traveled back roads personally dropping off copies at radio stations. Lynn had two qualities that transcend initial social status: persistence and resilience. She might have lacked formal education, but she was smart.
One of the surprises of her rise to stardom was not that she did it with songs she wrote, although she did, but that the songs she wrote were about topics that blue collar women could identify, as could their men. “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind) asserts an almost feminist independence. “Rated X” addresses the stigma of divorce that falls unfairly on women. “One’s on the Way” acknowledges the hectic life of most women with young children. “Fist City” is a very different take on standing by your man. And, although hard for today’s generation to believe, “The Pill,” a song in support of birth control, was controversial when it came out in 1975.
A critic of educated feminists, Lynn once said: “I’m not a big fan of women’s liberation, but maybe it will help women stand up for the respect they’re due.” And Lynn never doubted the equality they were due. She has generally stayed out of politics, believing that music is nonpartisan, although she acknowledges being a fan of both Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, and Donald Trump, a Republican who must remind her somewhat of Mooney.
But her legacy is not so much political as social. At a time when women took a metaphorical and actual backseat in working class households, she held out for something else. At a time when certain women were supposed to stay either in the kitchen or in the bedroom, Lynn spoke of alternatives to submissiveness. You’ve got to admire that.
In much the same way, you have to admire Fiona Hill. Hill’s career trajectory goes in another direction, but she begins life, like Lynn, near the mines. The difference — her mines are in England. In her Impeachment Hearings testimony on November 23 she started her opening statement with a brief autobiography. The men in her “father’s family were coal miners whose family has always struggled with poverty.” In talking about the opportunities afforded her with a move to the United States, Hill noted that “I grew up poor with a very distinctive working class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement.”
Because, at that time, we were somewhat more welcoming to the stranger and because, at that time, we were less riven by economic and social inequality, Hill came, studied, and prospered. She eventually opted to become a naturalized citizen.
Professionally, Hill was and is a nonpartisan national security expert, specializing in Europe and Eurasia. She has written a book on Vladimir Putin, whom she sees as an international threat. In 2017 she was asked to join the Trump National Security Council, with Russia as part of her portfolio. She did so in part because she thought we needed a reset in our relations with Russia, but also believed any improvement in relations should not come at the expense of recognizing the challenge it posed.
Hill doesn’t write songs, but her summary of the effects of Russia’s interference in our 2016 elections illustrates that she wields a mighty pen:
The impacts of the successful Russian campaign remain evident today. Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career Foreign Service is being undermined. US support for Ukraine, which continues to face Russian aggression, has been politicized … I say this not as an alarmist, but as a realist … We’re running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interest.
And what are those falsehoods? Well, a major one is that the Ukrainians were responsible for interfering in that 2016 election, not the Russians.
Hill, in her testimony, nails what was going on in Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland and the other two Amigos were “involved in a domestic political errand and we were … involved in national-security foreign policy, and those two things just diverged.” Hill told Sondland that the diverged paths would “blow up.” She concluded her testimony to the committee hearing impeachment fact witnesses with an “I told you so” statement: “And here we are.”
Her demeanor, her direct responses to questions, and her unwillingness to paint a pretty picture that would appeal to her former employers testify to flintiness. There were reasons she was the final witness on the final day of this first round of public testimony.* If you haven’t heard or read her observations, you can find them on line – and you should look at them, particularly if you think our President did nothing wrong.
Texas has a bumper sticker distributed by their tourist bureau that you sometimes see even here in North Carolina: “Don’t Mess with Texas.” Jim Croce’s song “Don’t Mess with Jim” has the following refrain:
You don’t tug on superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind
You don’t pull the mask off that old lone ranger
And you don’t mess around with Jim.
Then an upstart outsider hoodwinked by Jim comes to town. That last chorus line, following the stranger wining an ensuing fight, is changed from Jim, the original big bad man in town, to Slim, that outsider. I suspect there’s a little Slim in both Lynn and Hill. You simply shouldn’t mess with some coal miners’ daughters.
* Yes, I will eventually be commenting here or on our local Democratic Party web page about round two in the public hearings, currently playing this week on a television set near you.