We had always been under the impression that South Africa has a rich native musical tradition. From the recently passed civil rights activist "Mama Afrika" to bubble gum hero Yvonne Chaka Chaka to Kwaito, we sort of thought South Africans had it going on, music-wise.
It turns out that that the domestic music scene was not so rich that it could not be enhanced by the palest, white-bread classic American country.
Our South African driver, Nelson (black South Africans and Zimbabweans often have classically anachronistic names -- we worked with several Nelsons, a Crosby and an Anyway) posessed an encyclopedic knowledge of 1950's country star Jim Reeves.
"Jim Reeves, he died in a plane crash. You know this?" he asked.
"You don't say."
As Reeves crooned the classic "Roly Poly," Nelson tried to help me understand Reeves' appeal to a young South African like himself:
"South Africa music. It is like pepto bismal. It is good for an upset stomach, but it has no soul. American country -- it is real music. It is full of heart."
Generally, we are inclined to agree with this assessment. But we're not sure we agree that Jim Reeves is the best example of the soul of American country music.
(Roly Poly eatin' corn and taters hungry every minute of the day
Roly Poly knowin' all the biscuits long as he can chew it it's okay
He can eat an apple pie and never even bat an eye
He likes everything from a soup to hay
Roly Poly daddy's little fatty bet he's gonna be a man someday)
The how's and, more importantly, the why's of Nelson's familiarity with Jim Reeves remained a mystery until we looked at his wikipedia page. Jim Reeves is something of a South African national hero!
In the early 1960s, Reeves was more popular than Elvis Presley in South Africa. During this period, he recorded several albums in Afrikaans. In 1963 he starred in a South African film, Kimberley Jim, which was the biggest South African production up to that date. The film's working title was "Strike It Rich" and was released with a special prologue and epilogue in South African cinemas after Reeves' passing, praising Reeves as a true friend of South Africa. The film was produced, directed and written by Emil Nofal.
Frankly, this entry raises a lot more questions than it answers. Obviously, South Africa in the 1960s was under Apartheid. Reeves recorded in Afrikaans and there's probably not a big difference between the rural experience of white south Africans at the time as the American southern white experience that spawned country music. So what in the world did a young black in 2008 see in him? Well!
Reeves is particularly popular amongst the Zulu population in South Africa and is known amongst this community by the monikers "King Jim" and (because of his 6'1" frame) "Big Jim".
While all this illuminates, somewhat, the appeal of white-bread American country crooners in South Africa, it does nothing to help explain Nelson's admiration of the gospel stylings of Jimmy Swaggart, a topic best left unexplored.