“Oklahoma, USA”–The Kinks, Muswell Hillbillies
Living is fantasy…
Making up tunes in hotel rooms
‘Bout places I’ve never been to. –Kentucky Moon (song not used on Muswell Hillbillies)
I’ve always had a soft spot for the commingling of cultures. This happens a lot in music, or at least in the music I listen to. The Tropicália movement and subsequent use of rock and roll in Brazilian pop, garage rock from Cambodia, Bollywood musicals, etc., etc., etc.
So it’s interesting on The Kinks album Muswell Hillbillies that Ray Davies has written a sort of metacomment on living in fantasy while using a Broadway-esque ‘country’ tune.
There’s nothing authentic about the tune “Oklahoma USA.” I can’t imagine anywhere in Oklahoma having a surrey with fringe on top (maybe a tourist trap or oil-rich Tulsa). Of course, the Oklahoma of the song is based on the musical Oklahoma and as the protagonist of the tune dreams of Gordon MacRae and being Shirley Jones on her way to work, she leaves a broken-down house and a working class life. She dreams of Oklahoma/America as the land of dreams in an immigrant’s fever*, not the Oklahoma of tornadoes, economic strife and other social ills (Oklahoma was the end point for the Trail of Tears), and now superfund sites. It’s the idealization of America that comes up in songs by Ray Davies like the earlier and more ironic “Holiday in Waikiki,” “Muswell Hillbillies,” or “Jukebox Music” (from Sleeper). But even in this cloud of fantasy, Davies returns to the essential question of anyone who has to work to live, whether in the UK, the US, or Uganda, “all life we work, but work is a bore/if life’s for living what’s living for?”
The song “Oklahoma USA” comes as a respite from the paranoia of the rest of Muswell Hillbillies. The music itself has a dreamlike quality, floating without Mick Avory’s drums across imagined prairies and stands as a beautiful paean to the dreamer even as Davies reminds us that life is not all movie stars and fantasy.
* For another UK immigrant’s fever, only this time it’s an obsession with American violence, read The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe.