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Tracy Chapman Maybe Gets Somewhere
On "Fast Car", folk music, and community
Tracy Chapman’s 1988 mainstream blockbuster “Fast Car” is unexpectedly back on the charts—this time as a country hit cover performed by Luke Combs.
Emily Yahr at the Washington Post pointed out that Black women rarely get on the country charts, and there was an inevitable conservative backlash claiming Yahr was the real racist for noticing that country music is really white.
In light of this discussion, I thought I’d reprint a version of a piece about “Fast Car” I wrote a few years ago for Culturico. At the end, I’ll add a few thoughts about Combs version and what it means that Chapman’s car took so long to get to country radio, and needed another driver to take it there.
Folk music is, most fans and experts agree, authentic music.
The exact definition of folk is often a little uncertain. Bela Bartok referred to it as "rural music". Ronald D. Cohen in Folk Music: The Basics called it "music of the people, broadly construed" while noting common characteristics like anonymous origin, oral transmission, acoustic instruments, and relatively simple melodies. The common ground, though, is an idea of organic community, in contrast to the cynically created audience of capitalist pop. Folk is personal and rooted in place. Its real music for real people.
One of the quintessential folk songs of my childhood—and still a classic of the genre—is Tracy Chapman's 1988 "Fast Car." The song is about a poor woman dreaming of escaping urban poverty. It's in part by Chapman's own life as the child of a single mother on welfare who experienced racial bullying. Though it's set in the city, the acoustic guitar points to country styles, forging a link between the oppressive conditions of a Black rural past and a Black urban present. The chiming strummed guitar melody repeats throughout the song, emphasizing the monotonous grind of labor and hopelessness
You see my old man's got a problem
He live with the bottle that's the way it is
He says his body's too old for working
I say his body's too young to look like his
My mama went off and left him
She wanted more from life than he could give
I said somebody's got to take care of him
So I quit school and that's what I did
You got a fast car
But is it fast enough so we can fly away?
We gotta make a decision
We leave tonight or live and die this way
The somber main riff contrasts with the louder, drum driven chorus, and its vision of highway escape.
See I remember we were driving, driving in your car
The speed so fast I felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arm felt nice wrapped 'round my shoulder
And I had a feeling that I belonged
I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone
"Fast Car" is folk music because it tells about the authentic experience of a particular marginalized community. But it also, contradictorily, might be considered anti-folk music, because it is about dreaming of, or imagining, an escape from that same authentic experience. The real is not infrequently a trap for Black people, a demand that the only story they tell is of their own hardship. In contrast, the "fast car"—that chrome magic carpet of modernity—swooshes the narrator up and out and away from the grimy city. She hopes to "buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs", the famously artificial landscape of capitalism and commercial standardization, where people live, but not "folk".
In her book on the philosophy of pop music, The Dialectic of Pop, Agnès Gayraud notes that contemporary popular music is obsessed with travel and transportation—the Orange Blossom Special, the Hot Rod Lincoln, the passage from Boulder to Birmingham, ramblin' men and rolling stones. At the same time, she points out that roots music sings "intransigently of its place of origin, the local and communal forms of life from which it was born, but which are now behind it, lost forever."
The process of recording Gayraud argues is a kind of de-folkification—or to use her term, of deterritorialization. When you put a song on disc, or digitize it, you are removing it from its original context and literally disembodying it. A song on the radio, or coming over a computer, is not rooted or organic; it's lifted free of its context, so it can be shared, universalized, and commodified. If folk is rooted and authentic, a folk record is an oxymoron. Or, alternately, the existence of folk records calls into question the definition of folk as authentic or located in particular, inviolable community.
Even if "folk records" aren't coming from an organic place really, there are still "folk records" about the loss of organic place. The Carolina Tar Heels' 1928 song "Peg and Awl" laments the industrialization of shoemaking and the new factory that "make twenty pairs to my one…peg and awl!"
The new technology of the assembly line is also the new technology of recording. Mass production of shoes implicitly nods to mass production of vinyl—listeners to the phonograph are helplessly participating in the destruction of individual artisanship the song mourns. Similarly, and unsettlingly, The Band's 1969 folk rock classic "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is a eulogy for the Confederate defeat. The organic community here is the racist white South, and the song's narrator Virgil Caine is set adrift by the Union victory. Cut off from the past he lives on record, as if the war has not so much destroyed racism as simply set it loose to spin into the future, wishing for America to be great again.
"Fast Car" is similar to these songs in that it references folksiness via engaging with the trauma and travails of ordinary people. It's different, though, in that it wants to leave that folkiness behind—or at least sees deterritorialization as potentially exhilarating, rather than as grimly unavoidable. In that sense, the song functions as a metaphor for its own reception and success. The narrator of "Fast Car", with her dream of buying a bigger house, is also in a sense Chapman herself, who's #6 Billboard Hot 100 hit "Fast Car" made a working-class woman into a bona fide star.
Pop performers like Frank Sinatra with "My Way" or Billy Joel with "Piano Man" or even Lady Gaga with "Born This Way" tend to unabashedly celebrate their own commercial apotheosis and successful commodification. "Fast Car", though, is more ambivalent, or at least less confident. The narrator's dreams are much more circumscribed than Chapman's; the voice on the record doesn't see herself as a rock star, but merely as getting a job in a supermarket and maybe someday getting a promotion. It's like folk roots are twined around that fast car, which attempts to take off, but can't get much farther than a few feet down the block. The power of the song is in that tension between folk and anti-folk—in loving and hating where you're from, and hating and loving where you're going. "Fast Car" references rural styles to envision urban hardship and possible suburban escape. It's about turning no place into everyplace, so that "maybe together we can get somewhere."
Folk music can be many things, but right now, in the US—and going back 70 years or more—it's a genre of pop music, like jazz, or rock or metal. If it belongs to an organic community, it's an organic community of marketing, which calls people to their demographics and consumer preferences.
But genres have meaning too, and part of what "folk" designates is a commercial music which evokes, or nods to, or thinks about an imagined, perhaps imaginary past in which music was noncommercial, located, and real. "Fast Car" is such a brilliant song because it longs for both authenticity and an escape from authenticity, rootedness and freedom. Folk music can give you both, the song promises. And also neither.
Luke Combs version of Chapman’s song is very faithful to the original; he keeps her acoustic arrangement, adding only a little pedal steel, maybe a bit of echo, and of course his own southern accent and significantly more conventional timbre and intonation. The shift from mainstream folk to country took some 35 years, but the community created feels much the same. Combs is hoping to take that car from that urban dead end into somewhere else, building on the memory of a rural past, just as Chapman did before him.
If folk (and folk country) is about the distance between creation and reception, though, then shifting genres isn’t just a change of venue; it’s a change of meaning. Chapman’s “Fast Car” is a ticket out of a segregated inner city, which is still shadowed by a segregated rural community which fled the south because of white terrorism. Combs’ song is about the dreams of a displaced rural white community. When he hits the chorus, he’s less tentative; it’s more of a fist-pumping cheer, because the hope is less distant, less tenuous. White people, even poor white people, have more resources and more purchase on the American dream.
Folk is about community, and about community displaced. “Fast Car,” though, is specifically about who gets to cross which divides, and how fast. Country music has always centered its community on whiteness, despite the occasional Charley Pride or Nelly guest verse. Chapman could get a left field hit on the pop charts, which included both Black and white urban performers rooted in various urban communities.
But the passage she saw between rural and city, past and future, couldn’t cross over to country because country refused to hear those connections from a Black woman. As she said in another track on the album:
Across the lines
Who would dare to go
Under the bridge
Over the tracks
That separates whites from blacks?
Chapman was always willing to make that trip. Country radio was not—and in most respects still isn’t. Folk in country are white or they aren’t seen as folk. Combs can sing that song and evoke a communal sense of loss and longing for a country audience. Can a Black woman, even now? Songs travel, but Chapman knew that because of who she was—Black, female, queer—she couldn’t necessarily be sure of a welcome everywhere.
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