While it’s a certainty that a geographical location can be represented musically it’s less certain that geography and people can be defined musically. That is, when we hear old time gospel, hillbilly stomps, classic Detroit R & B and West Coast surf it’s a short jump from hearing the music to interpreting that each music is the result of a certain disposition; of a pre-existing mood and value system that inhabits the particular region and its people. For example, when I hear “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” or “You Can’t Hurry Love” I can easily picture a hobo’s fantasy and an inner-city girls longing. Reversed, however, I cannot imagine out of thin air what a hobo (or itinerant worker; traveller; dust bowl dweller) or inner-city girl would sing. My insight into their mind is predicated and dependent upon my first having heard the song. Thus, they are represented but not defined.
This point, though, loses steam with me every time I hear Love Tractor‘s “Fun To Be Happy”. The track, from their 1984 album ‘Til The Cows Come Home continues to define Athens, GA for me. Possibly, it’s because it was used as the opening credit music on Athens, GA: Inside/Out but maybe not. I assume it could just as easily be said that it’s merely representative but, to me, it’s definitive. Its lilting main progression matches perfectly with its lower bridge, the effect of which is quite powerful. It’s deeply Southern in both mood and tonal quality. Admittedly, I wouldn’t feel the same way about the track if it weren’t an instrumental. It’s the fact that it is an instrumental, I think, that lends it so much gravity. Through its single-string runs and twin-reverb leads it speaks of, and to, a people who are also deeply Southern (whether they want to admit it or not). Conversely, it probably does not speak to those who do not identify as such. They will likely hear it as hokey, overtly-simple and sentimental. And that’s fine because it’s not about them.
It’s been, easily, 21 years since I first heard “Fun To Be Happy”. My first hearing of it predates my arrival in Athens by a good two years. Before I moved here I though it was merely evocative of a mood which, of course, fueled my fantasy of what a mystical, poetic, magical town Athens must be. After living here a few years I knew that “Fun To be Happy” was indeed a track that could have only been written toward the people of Athens. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of Southern towns similar in indigenous makeup to Athens. There are plenty that have their garden clubs, old buildings, mom-n-pop restaurants, etc. There’s a certain sadness, though, that seems to wrap around the deep South. Too many years of not being good enough, not being rich enough, not being smart enough (all projected onto the South by outsiders yet internalized deeply in the Southern psyche. See: Atlanta).
But there’s a particular hopefulness, an optimism, in the Southerness of Athens. It could be we are hopeful because we can be; because our town, no matter how old it grows, is each year renewed by an influx of new blood (not all of it welcome, of course, but enough of it good enough to balance the bad). Still, there’s a longing in Athens, a restlessness that lends itself to melancholy. Although I rarely feel it in terms of keeping up with the outside world I certainly feel it terms of my own life and goals. This seems to be the same in most of who I regard as my peers. We’re not concerned with what New York is doing but, rather, will we be able to accomplish the tasks of our day; will we be able to fulfill the job of creating meaning in our own lives.
“Fun To be Happy” speaks to the slowness of life in the South but also to its anxiety; To its tenderness and its suspicion. It speaks to Athens and its population as if to say, “Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.” But, ultimately, it defines Athens in terms of buoyancy tempered with longing and happiness tempered with doubt. Indeed, I’ve often taken the title to be a by-the-scruff-of-the-neck admonition which says, “Yes, there are trying time but life should be fun and being happy is the best fun there is.” However, the music itself gives lie to any admonition imagined by me.
As much as I have loved any other Athens bands over the years not a single thing produced by any of them has the emotional impact on me as Love Tractor’s “Fun To Be Happy”. When I first heard it the track fueled boyish fantasies of poetry and coffee fueled nights among fascinating and exciting people. In later years, it has become a mirror into which I keep looking, wondering and wishing. What had previously defined Athens and its people to me is now speaking of me.
MP3: Love Tractor-Fun To Be Happy