Hillbillies, Dominicans and Dogs
“The Hillbilly Thomists.” You can buy their CD at Joyful Spirit Gifts (3315 Lee Hwy). Download them on iTunes or Spotify. They’re on YouTube. They’re local. A group of D.C. Dominicans who recorded a #1 selling bluegrass album. “The Hillbilly Thomists.”
“The Hillbilly Thomists have just released their debut album, a self-titled project of Gospel favorites played bluegrass style. All of its members are housed in the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, an educational facility for the Dominican Order. The band was founded by Fr. Austin Litke (mandolin and guitar) and Fr. Thomas Joseph White (banjo), and soon grew to include several students and residents at the Priory” (Bluegrass Today, Dec. 21, 2017).
Track 6 is my favorite: “I’m a Dog.” The “dog” is an aside in some paintings of St. Dominic (1170-1221), most famously in a painting by Claudio Coello. The lower left of Coello’s work depicts a dog holding a torch in its mouth. Why? Ancient tradition used the metaphor of a dog with torch-in-mouth to describe a priest’s mission. Priests set all ablaze with the Fire of the Gospel. It’s supernatural Arson. St. Gregory the Great (7th century) said “assiduous preaching, like troublesome barking, forces the adversaries…to abandon the flock of sheep.”
So goes the tale: St. Dominic’s mother, Blessed Jane of Aza, was infertile. She made a pilgrimage to the Spanish Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos and dreamed of a torch bearing dog leaping from her womb, setting everything on fire. It was a vision of her soon-to-be son Dominic, a preacher who’d “cast fire upon the earth” (Luke 12:49). He’d found the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, of which St. Thomas Aquinas would be the most famous member. A play-on-words, the name “Dominican” sounds like the Latin “domini canus,” meaning “dog of the Lord.”
Hence the “The Hillbilly Thomists” and their original gig, “I’m a Dog.” The name “Hillbilly Thomist” (“Thomist” means student of Thomas Aquinas) was coined by Southern Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor, who once said, “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas…I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” (Wise Blood is an O’Connor novel.) She’s a favorite writer of mine because I get her tales. For example, I often feel like a “nihilist,” who thinks nothing has meaning. But absurdity is a human vantage point, with a caveat. Everything is providential: all happenings prepare us for something else (and thus have meaning). Moreover, Aquinas’ entire outlook is rooted in the insight that “existence” equals “goodness.” If it exists, it’s good. Hence, there is a loving God – HE WHO IS – who gives existence, purpose and goodness to everything. Thus life is an adventure of paradoxes and ironies leading to a Judgment that resolves everything. That’s Catholic.
Speaking of ironies: How is it that Dominicans – Thomists who read the “Summa Theologica” – would record hillbilly Jesus music in the vein of anti-Catholic, free-church Calvinists from the hills? Aquinas saw something redeemable in his opponents. Today, digital Thomists find something redeemable in their opponents’ music. “The Hillbilly Thomists” are a musical “reply” to a free-church “objection.” They can reply to hillbilly culture because it’s redeemable.
Hillbillies had impact beyond the hills, especially in the South. “O Brother, Where art Thou,” starring George Clooney, is among my favorite movies. The cinematic tale sings of sin and redemption in the dysfunctional but redeemable South. Hillbilly sounds haunt the movie. Non-hillbilly southerners, like myself, are often ashamed of non-hillbilly southern sins. But there’s something lovable about southerners’ easygoing, empathetic and hospitable ways. The South is a surreal Jesus-land, thanks to hillbillies. It’s tacky, to boot. But it’s a charming tacky, like a dashboard Jesus. The South has the best pit stops. Like Stuckey’s. At least in my day, you could buy gags, like a plastic ice cube with a fly in it, saltwater taffy made with real salt, and a fake Juicy Fruit pack with cardboard gum sticks that’d snap a finger with a mousetrap spring. Candy cigarettes and Wacky Packs were among my favorites from a local Pack-a-Bag, even in the French colonies along the Gulf. On the dark and dissipated side, southern commerce is a genteel display of trash, cheap practicalities and odd amusements. Ride down a southern four-lane, and you might see billboards advertising Adult XXX entertainment, Mabel’s Liquor, Motel 6, Ruby Falls, Waffle House and “The First Church of Jesus Christ the One and Only Mediator,” featuring the Pepsodent smiles of the Reverend Wilbur Skaggs and his wife Kitty. Flannery O’Connor got it right: Those folks will be saved before the intellectually pretentious anti-hypocrites. Southerners are hypocrites and they know it. Hillbillies aren’t and thus played a role in the South’s salvation, with a little help from moonshine, music and weird religion.
Southerners took to the music, moonshine and manners that hailed from the hills and hollers of Appalachia – which were populated by Scotch-Irish (Ulster Protestants) who originated in the Scottish Highlands. These Caledonian Celts were fierce and independent. They marked American culture, especially in the South. I love them because they hate Catholics. But when they get to talkin’, they ease up. When they see you love Jesus, they’re happy to have ya’ over – even the ones who don’t believe in Jesus. Cultural Caledonians, these are the wild tribes the Romans tried to keep out of England with Hadrian’s Wall in the 3rd century. The Romans later built the Antonine Wall, further north, between the Firth of Forth and western waters around Bishopton and Old Kirkpatrick. But it didn’t keep ‘em out. Despite baptism, the Highlanders were bad Catholics. They were worse Protestants. In the early 17th century, Protestant King James couldn’t manage them. So he offered them lands in Ulster Province, Ireland, thinking that would (1) get them out of his hair and (2) create a Protestant stronghold in Catholic Ireland. A good move on the chessboard, right? Nope. It was a disaster. After misery upon misery, they came in droves, mostly via Philadelphia, to the English Colonies between 1700-1820. Music, moonshine and free churching were their cultural hallmarks. They headed for their natural habitat, the hills and hollers.
The Appalachians and the Scottish Highlands originate from the same primeval Central Pangean Mountains. They’re the same range. For the Scotch-Irish, it was as if the Appalachians – sister to their Scottish Highlands – beckoned them home, like family. “Mountain mamma, take me home.” In the Appalachians, these wild folk nurtured their primeval heritage. After World War II, many took the Hillbilly Highway – US 23 and later I-75 – to get union work in factory towns like Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and many places in-between and out West. They brought bluegrass and country music to the American pop scene, singing of their dysfunctions, miseries and hopes. Their music echoes their Caledonian angst that neither the Romans nor King James could tame.
My granddaddy was a miner, but he finally saw the light
He didn't have much, just a beat-up truck and a dream about a better life
Grand mama cried when she waved goodbye, never heard such a lonesome sound
Pretty soon the dirt road turned into blacktop,
Detroit City bound
Down that hillbilly highway
On that hillbilly highway
That old hillbilly highway
Goes on and on
They learned readin', writin', Route 23
To the jobs that lay waiting in those cities' factories
They thought readin', writin', roads to the north
To the luxury and comfort a coal miner can't afford
They thought readin', writin', Route 23
Would take them to the good life
that they had never seen
They didn't know that old highway
Could lead them to a world of misery
It’s a case study in Fallen Nature and American history. (To be sure, all history is a study in Fallen Nature.) St. Francis de Sales said, “You ask me if a soul sensible of its own misery can go with great confidence to God. I reply that not only can the soul that knows its misery have great confidence in God, but that unless it has such knowledge, the soul cannot have true confidence in Him; for it is this true knowledge and confession of our misery that brings us to God.” Like their Master, St. Thomas Aquinas, “The Hillbilly Thomists” have made the “reply” to the hillbilly “objection”: with music. Hillbillies are not hypocritical (which is why they sided with the Union). Southerners are (which is why they Confederated). Thanks to hillbillies, they’re both commercially honest about their sins, miseries, dysfunctions and hopes. A reminder. Repent. Confess your misery. Then let the Holy Spirit put the torch of God’s Word in your mouth to set the world ablaze with the Gospel.
Fr. Fredersik Edlefsen, Pastor