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Joseph M. Thompson

Joseph M. Thompson is a doctoral candidate in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History and a Predoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. His dissertation, “Sounding Southern: Music, Militarism, and the Making of the Sunbelt,” uses popular music to analyze the cultural impact of the military-industrial complex on constructions of race, politics, and region since World War II.

"Foreign Love: U.S. Soldiers, Country Music, and the Gender Politics of Transnational Sexual Encounters"
In 1957, country singer Hank Locklin scored a number 4 hit on the Billboard charts with a song called “Geisha Girl.” Singing from the perspective of a love-struck U.S. soldier, Locklin longs to return to Japan and reunite with his love, where “They read it in the tea leaves and it’s written in the sand / I found love by the heart full in a foreign distant land.” As U.S. servicemen married over eight thousand Japanese women between 1945 and 1952, Locklin’s tune offered more than poetic exercise. “Geisha Girl” represents just one example within a trend of 1950s country songs by Bobby Helms, Kitty Wells, Skeeter Davis, and Jimmie Skinner that spoke of soldiers’ transnational, interracial love affairs. This theme of military-transnational romance sold so well that Locklin recorded an entire album of such songs called Foreign Love, narrating a virtual world tour of heterosexual encounters made possible by the U.S. military’s Cold War global expansion.

This paper examines country music’s role in the construction of white male U.S. soldiers as sexual tourists in pursuit of non-white, non-American women as the objects of their fetishization. These soldiers embodied a masculine ideal during the Cold War that gave them the ability to move across racial and ethnic lines while on their tours of duty overseas. On its surface, a song like “Geisha Girl” signaled an embrace of progressive racial attitudes in the 1950s, especially for a country music, a genre often understood as the soundtrack of racial and political conservatism. Yet Locklin’s songs actually reinforced the soldier’s implied racial superiority by positioning him as the figure of masculine power within a series of exoticized sexual conquests outside the legal and social consequences of Jim Crow.