Southern America Leisure Lifestyles

views updated


Distinguishing elements about how people in the southern United States experience leisure and recreation derive from the defining features of southern life: a historical concentration on agriculture and rural life, the centrality of a racial divide and ideas and practices designed to prove and support white supremacy, and the power of evangelical Protestantism. Some, but far from all, southerners have claimed that leisure is an organic part of their society, and many people outside the region find the South such a fascinating place that their interest helps fuel a range of recreations. The commercialization of leisure in the twentieth century led to an increase in the self-consciously southern features of many recreations.

The Colonial and Antebellum South

In the colonial and antebellum periods, members of the southern upper class, aspiring to English precedents, tried to identify and enjoy themselves in ways that legitimated their status, in part through displays of largesse. The first planters at Jamestown tended to bowl in the streets and display luxury goods, because that is what gentlemen were supposed to do. Recreations of the gentry emphasized competition among planters and forms of display. As a competitive spectacle, horse racing helped dramatize the nature of Anglo-American colonial life. Horse racing seemed to confirm gentry notions that elites rode while commoners walked, that elites bred fine specialty horses while commoners were lucky to have work animals, and that the gentry had responsibilities to sponsor the recreations for the rest of society. Elections were also competitive events in which the gentry sponsored the sport—in this case the drunkenness—of the free male population.

Evangelical religion developed in part by opposing the lifestyle of the gentry, the self-indulgence, the clear divisions between the powerful and the rest of society. In the mid-1700s, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists heaped scorn on the signs of elitism, the drunkenness, and the many recreations sponsored by the gentry. As evangelicalism moved from being a religion of the community of equals who opposed hierarchy to a more broadly accepted religion at the center of southern life, church events developed their own recreations—picnics, singing, and eventually, in the late 1800s, Sunday school events. Church leaders tried hard to make sure that church recreations did not take on the character of secular amusements, and evangelicals also developed a special set of Sunday behaviors designed to keep leisure quiet and located in either the church or the home.

The development of southern identity in the antebellum period involved issues of leisure. Boosters of southern settlement had been portraying the South as a warm and leisurely place, perhaps even a garden, since the 1600s, but the image was not common until an intense series of arguments about southern identity emerged in the 1830s. Abolitionists portrayed free southerners as lazy, with all of white society lolling on porches, resting on the backs of slave labor. As William R. Taylor has argued, however, the issue was far more complex than northern diligence and southern leisure. Northeastern intellectuals, worried about their region's fascination with material gain, helped create the myth of the leisurely planter who cared more for ease and manners than for business. Southern apologists, writing primarily to fight the proslavery argument, loved the image that they were fun-loving aristocrats in the Cavalier tradition. The art and literature of the antebellum South more often portrayed themselves as reclining on porches and portrayed slaves as happy folk eating and playing music.

Images of the leisurely South and the happy, musical slave grew so pervasive that Frederick Douglass had to combat them, asserting in his 1845 Narrative that "slaves sing most when they are most unhappy" (p. 58). Leisure was, for slaves, a luxury. Most plantation slaves, male and female, worked in agriculture for most of the year, laboring well into Saturday most weeks and had only Saturday evenings, Sundays, and a few days in the Christmas season free from direct oversight from their owners. Slave music and dance were full of complexities that reveal much about both power relations and continuity with African traditions. Black southerners made music that told stories, praised God, and celebrated major events and romance; they also sang in ways that made work easier by synchronizing certain movements and by slowing down late in the day. At leisure, African Americans made music from a range of instruments, most of them that involved drums and stringed instruments that evolved into the banjo. Slave owners loved most of the music of slaves, both because it was appealing and especially because it seemed to suggest to them that slaves were fun-loving happy folks. The cakewalk, for example, consisted of slaves in fine attire strutting or dancing in a row, while owners awarded the most elaborate or demonstrative or interesting with a prize, usually a cake. While owners saw cakewalks as a sign of slaves' lightheartedness, the slaves were actually enjoying an opportunity to mock the dressed-up foolishness of the dances common among elite white southerners.

Away from the plantations, northern and European observers often characterized small southern farmers as lazy, but those farmers generally did not bother to respond. For many farming people, recreation and production were closely related. Farming women spent many hours on porches, talking with family and friends while sewing, mending, and, above all, preparing food. Visiting was a favorite recreation that united family members, often while they helped one another with essential work. Men hunted and fished, both essential and productive activities that were also physically exciting recreations. The men and women who described sewing and hunting in their diaries made clear the cultural differences between the two activities. Women described sewing as "my work," and believed it virtuous to get to their work every day. By contrast, men detailed the excitement of hunting and the sheer pleasure of the will in overwhelming huge numbers of animals. In the colonial period through much of the nineteenth century, men recounted binge kills of numerous animals, with emphasis on both the pleasure and the excess.

Other favorite recreations that joined work and recreation included shucking corn, threshing wheat, and raising houses. Music accompanied most such events. As Bill Malone has shown, English and Scotch-Irish songs tended to emphasize solo singing or fiddle ballads and dances, but a wide mixture of influences meant that southern music was always changing.

The Postbellum South

Before the rise of industry and a national consumer culture, rural life and divisions based on notions of race determined the nature of much of southern leisure. As in many places, urbanization, industrialization, the growth of wage work and the expansion of education stimulated substantial changes in recreation, both among southern people and among tourists, moviemakers, and music producers who looked to the region for exotic images. In the early 1900s, the South came to represent an intriguing and sometimes contradictory array of cultural meanings. While leisure had long been central to the identity some groups of southerners constructed for themselves, organized sports and recreation were slower to take hold than in other American regions. Authors in the Vanderbilt Agrarians' 1930 collection, I'll Take My Stand, argued that people in the region, valuing European precedents and loving the easygoing nature of rural life, rejected strenuous work and strenuous play in favor of easy pleasures in a community setting. ""John Crowe Ransom's introduction to that volume made the case that the South's best habits included the "social arts of dress, conversation, manners, the table, the hunt, politics, oratory, the pulpit. These were the arts of living and not the arts of escape; they were also community arts, in which every class of society could participate after its kind. The South took life easy, which is itself a tolerably comprehensive art" (p. 12).

Despite these images of calm and continuity, in the urbanizing South of the late 1800s and early 1900s, recreation became, along with transportation, the focus of numerous new laws about racial segregation. As formerly rural white people tried to sort out the privileges of white supremacy—and as politicians looked for ways to appeal to those whites—lawmakers established rules about whites-only restaurants, theaters, and saloons, whites-only areas in public parks, whites-only entrances to circuses and sporting events, and specific days when blacks were allowed at fairs and carnivals. African Americans responded in part by creating their own spaces for recreation—music, art, and sports. All southern cities and many towns had neighborhoods with African American groceries, saloons, and other places for informal leisure.

The growth of wage work, especially in mines and mills, created something agriculture had rarely allowed—a large group of working people with money in their pockets. Baseball started slowly in the South, partly because it grew as a city game and the region had few cities. Many southerners saw baseball first during the Civil War, and a few offered the sport as a way to develop regional pride. Many towns had loosely organized baseball teams in the late 1800s, but the major leagues and many of the minor leagues were slow in coming. Much of the growth of southern baseball took place in the Carolinas and Georgia, where textile mills encouraged workers to wear company names and enjoy themselves at mill-sponsored events.

Another development in the late 1800s was the dramatic rise in high school and college attendance. Education for teenagers had long been only for a small elite, but expanding school opportunities combined with a national craze for team sports. Football made the contradictory demands of learning complicated skills in a team setting while also being physically aggressive. Coaches and other supporters of football called it a "scientific" game, meaning it had complicated rules. Leaders of several southern colleges, especially religious schools such as Trinity College and Wake Forest in North Carolina, banned the game briefly in the 1890s, fearing both for the lives of the players and for the image of college men blocking and tackling one another before excited and often drunken fans. At African American colleges, football and basketball showed enthusiasm about uplift through learning the rules and overcoming obstacles. At both whites' and blacks' colleges, women's sports developed in ways that, educators hoped, would not tax their bodies. For example, a form of basketball developed in the 1890s at Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans tried to eliminate both running and physical contact.

To people in more urbanized and heavily populated parts of the country, the South seemed to represent a kind of cultural authenticity rooted in the past that they feared they were losing. Thus, many of the first musical recordings from the South featured apparently exotic folk, such as African Americans in the Deep South or Cajuns in Louisiana; sometimes the archetypal Americans such as Texas cowboys or Appalachian mountain musicians. Leaders of southern life often tried to capitalize on the various images of their region's musical life. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, as historian Gavin Campbell has shown, Atlanta, the self-professed city of the New South, stressed that it was the home of an array of musical opportunities. The city and its elites offered opera to appeal to an urban elite hoping to prove their sophistication, sponsored old-time fiddling conventions to celebrate the apparent purity of the local Appalachian culture, and sponsored spirituals to show their support for the notions of dignity and uplift associated with Victorian revisions of African American religious music.

To people in much of the country, parts of the South also offered particularly attractive images of nature. The region's climate and beauty, most notably on the beaches and in the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains, helped stimulate a tourist industry that had long been only a minor importance. A bit less famous was the lure of the South as hunting land for wealthy sportsmen and, by the 1920s, a home for golfers, especially in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. The twentieth-century South thus became a tourist destination, as first wealthy people and then middle-class car owners hurried into and through the region seeking rest, warmth, game, and physical beauty.

Motion pictures came into southern towns and cities in the 1890s and especially the early 1900s in traveling shows, and, by 1910, motion picture theaters had become common. In part because motion pictures early developed reputations for morally dubious entertainment, southern movie houses repeatedly pursued respectability for whites in towns through efforts to improve safety, to ban alcohol, and to segregate black customers in balconies. Movies brought countless stories, images, and experiences to the South, but it would be a mistake to see them as always bringing the outside world into the region. Hollywood films often celebrated southerners' self-images. One of the first extremely popular films was Birth of a Nation, the 1915 movie Kentuckian D. W. Griffith based on Thomas Dixon's popular novel The Clansman. Griffith's film combined a commonplace North-South romance with action scenes from the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, portraying carpetbaggers who stole the money of land-owning southerners and encouraged interracial sex. In the climactic action scene, the Ku Klux Klan rides in to restore legitimate authority over both southern households and southern governments. While the NAACP protested the film for its racism and celebration of violence, Virginia-born president Woodrow Wilson called it "history written with lightning." In 1939, Hollywood did it again with Gone With the Wind, another hugely popular and only slightly more complicated depiction of the Civil War–era South. While many other films challenged these heroic images of white southerners and their faithful slaves and servants, it is important that these two were by far the most popular films about the South.

The Sunbelt South

An increasingly prosperous, comfortable South has helped turn the region into a center for American recreation. Air conditioning and improved travel have made the region more available and attractive; racial desegregation has made the region less morally offensive; some old religious objections to recreation have receded, although evangelical Protestants still condemn the old sin of drinking alcohol and newer sins available through television and the Internet.

Southern interaction with the tourists has been complicated by desires for both cultural authenticity and economic development. Often southerners choose to play a part tourists want to see—Cherokee dancer, mountain-top Li'l Abner and Daisy Mae, creative and dignified blues musician, isolated folk artist, or New Orleans bacchanalian. Sometimes southerners are happy to play those roles; sometimes they feel they have to play them to overcome poverty. The growth of theme parks—Opryland in Nashville; Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee; Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans; music districts in Branson, Missouri; Beale Street in Memphis; and Bourbon Street in New Orleans—offers depictions of certain forms of southern life. At their best, they make food, material life, and music available to interested people. At their worst, they select a handful of cultural features, remove them from their social and economic situations, and turn tourism into a kind of pleasant drama about the oddities of local life. As the appeal of beaches and mountains bring more people into the region, many tourist attractions, such as Walt Disney World in Florida, offer recreations with no ties to specifically southern images.

People in the South have tended to claim four forms of recreation as helping to identify them as southerners. All have some roots in southern history, and few characters seem more crucial to southern life: the lonely deer hunter, the respected football coach, the man-of-the-people stock car driver, and the popular musician. But there are logical or historical problems in drawing a direct line from the southern past to contemporary forms of hunting, college football, stock car racing, or music, and it is important to note the modern sides of each.

While leisure—not sports—seemed central to southern identity as late as the 1930s and 1940s, sports have moved far beyond small college populations to take on special significance in the modern South. College attendance in the South has grown at a higher rate in the region than in most of the country, and with that growth has come an extraordinary increase in the levels of interest, sizes of stadiums, and money spent on football. Tens of thousands of people identify with their old college and its teams as part of their identity and their way to connect to memories of their earlier days. Coaches, players, and a nearly ubiquitous sports press keep the sport and its various meanings in the public eye. On one hand, people who love football consistently tout football as an intricate sport that requires extraordinary intelligence and study. On the other hand, it is also a clearly physical game, based on physical force and violence. And in the South, dramas about racially inclusive sports have been extremely popular as a way to show a kind of acceptance of desegregation since the 1970s. In a crucial change since the earlier twentieth century, when southern teams only occasionally beat teams from outside the region, in the early 2000s, teams, especially in Florida, expect to win national championships.

Sports and recreation were not often central to the civil rights movement, but Jackie Robinson and several boxers were revered heroes in African American communities. Certain types of desegregation have been essential to the growth of the culture of the modern South, with biracial college and professional teams with wildly celebrated regional heroes, such as Hank Aaron, playing in Atlanta, the so-called "city too busy to hate." Having sports teams in professional major leagues has become a sign that Charlotte, Nashville, and Jacksonville have the wealth and people and public-funded facilities to host national events and appear on television without embarrassing their residents. The mania of college or pro sports teams when they succeed certainly belies any mystique of the South as a place of calm and leisure.

The southern sport that attracts the largest and fastest-growing attendance is stock car racing. The story is commonplace of how the first racers were Appalachian moonshiners who turned their skills into a semi-legitimate spectator sport. Ultimately more important are the ways NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) has been a Sun Belt success story, dramatizing the rise of once-poor rural families and attracting both the money that comes through corporate sponsorship and enormous media attention. The first organized racing in the South was in Florida, and the first race sponsored by NASCAR took place in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1949. These were scenes of the modern South, defined by change, speed and mobility.

Hunting, meanwhile, continues to be a significant recreation, a way to share experiences between generations, a way to escape town and city life, and for some still a way to supplement family food supplies. Many male southerners see the woods as the part of their region that is untouched by economic and technological change. But hunting has changed so dramatically in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that it has started to resemble other modern sports. Rules are intricate, with enforcement officials who are significant even if they are not as omnipresent as on football fields or basketball courts. A great deal of hunting in the early 2000s takes place at precise times in clearly defined places, like other modern sports, rather than on common land and with a spirit of leisure that characterized many hunts before the twentieth century. And access to hunt clubs and hunting technology makes hunting a sport reserved more than ever for wealthier people.

Rock and roll, soul, gospel, and country music all have significant southern roots, and Nashville, particularly, thrives on its country industry. Sometimes music dramatizes racial integration; sometimes it does not. But all of these forms of music have outgrown their local connections and audiences to become national and international enterprises. Many musicians have to become "southern" in some senses to appeal to international audiences seeking local appeal.

In many ways, the rise of the Sun Belt South reflects the growing regional self-consciousness that comes from being part of a global culture. The old notion that the South is either lazy or leisurely has given way to a frenzied pursuit of numerous recreations, but some of those seem, to the people who pursue them, more distinctively southern than ever.

See also: African American Leisure Lifestyles; Baseball, Amateur; Basketball; Church Socials; Colonial-Era Leisure and Recreation; Football; Football, Collegiate; Hunting; Plantation Entertaining; Slave Singing/Music Making; Stock Car Racing; Western Leisure Lifestyles


Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Campbell, Gavin James. Music and the Making of a New South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Daniel, Pete. Lost Revolutions: The South in the 1950s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. New York: Penguin Classics, 1986.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

Grundy, Pamela. Learning to Win: Sports, Education, and Social Change in Twentieth-Century North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Isaac, Rhys. The Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Kirby, Jack Temple. Media-Made Dixie: The South in the American Imagination. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

Malone, Bill C. Don't Get Above Your Raisin': Country Music and the Southern Working Class. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Miller, Patrick B., ed. The Sporting World of the Modern South. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Ownby, Ted. Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865–1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.

Starnes, Richard, ed. Southern Journeys: Tourism, History, and Culture in the Modern South. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003.

Taylor, William R. Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and the American National Character. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1961.

Twelve Southerners. I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

Waller, Gregory A. Main Street Amusements: Movies and Commercial Entertainment in a Southern City, 1896–1930. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Ward, Brian. Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Ted Ownby

About this article

Southern America Leisure Lifestyles

Updated About content Print Article


Southern America Leisure Lifestyles