African American Influence on Country Music Can’t Be Understated, or Overstated
In March of 2018, Smithsonian Folkways issued a unique collection of music from former Carolina Chocolate Drops member Dom Flemons called Black Cowboys. Full of primitive country and folk songs, recitations of black cowboy poems, utilizing primitive instruments like cow bones, quills, and 4-string banjo, it was a deep reenactment of what you might have heard from African American trail riders and pioneers during American expansionism, including modes of music making, lyrical phrasing, and instrumentation that went on to influence Western music and country styles that traditionalists in the country genre still employ today.
Since the motivation of Dom Flemons was just as much archival as it was commercial, Black Cowboys flew somewhat under-the-radar, unless you were looking for such a thing. But these types of projects play a pivotal role in keeping important traditions of country music alive. Fellow Carolina Chocolate Drops member Rhiannon Giddens has a similar project on the way called Songs of Our Native Daughters that will be released by Smithsonian Folkways on February 22nd. A collaboration with fellow female African American roots performers Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, and Amythyst Kiah, the album is said to portray the often overlooked suffering, resilience, and agency of black women during the slave era.
For many years, the influence and contributions of African American musicians in country music went mostly overlooked, or overshadowed by their Caucasian counterparts. Blues and country harmonica player DeFord Bailey wasn’t just the first black performer on the Grand Ole Opry, he was the first performer to ever be introduced on the radio program that they called “The Grand Ole Opry.” On December 10th, 1927, NBC radio announcer George D. Hay informed listeners that the previously-known “Barn Dance” program would henceforth be known as “The Grand Ole Opry.” The very next performer that aired was DeFord.
Black street performer and blues musician Rufus Payne, or “Tee-Tot,” taught Hank Williams how to play the acoustic guitar, forging in Hank from the age of eight certain performance modes and blues progressions that would go on to greatly influence his sound. Jimmie Rodgers, who is considered the Father of Country Music to many (others consider it as A.P. Carter of The Carter Family), also incorporated blues styles and progressions into much of his music. From the very beginning and with some of country’s most earliest stars, the influence of African Americans was palpable, and critical to the formation of the genre. Without those African American influences, country music may have sounded different in its popular incarnations, and perhaps it wouldn’t have become as popular since Hank Williams was the genre’s first real superstar, and his blues style is what separated him from other performers of the era.
However there has been a recent trend by media and even some artists to overstate the influence of African Americans in country music in an effort to systematically downgrade the influence of white performers in the ever-present politicization of culture that often derides “whiteness” as implicitly unsavory, inherently exploitative, if not outright evil. This effort appears to want to revise history to state that country music was primarily, or solely an African American art form, and it’s an aberration to characterize country music as an expression of agrarian whites beyond a few minor contributions. This revisionist endeavor has been emboldened even more lately due to the metastasizing of political vitriol throughout society, and the presence of two new African American performers at the very top of popular country: Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen. Hungry for political narratives around their ascent, the impact of African Americans in country music is becoming more commonly discussed, and often inaccurately embellished.
In a recent article in The Guardian, mainstream pop country music performer Jimmie Allen stated plainly, “Country music came from black people – it all started with the blues and bluegrass….” This assertion by Allen was not met with any skepticism by the interviewer, and no clarification or context was offered. In fact the interviewer drove home the misnomer by citing the most anecdotal and often called upon factoid used to portray country music as originating from Africans as opposed to Caucasians—the origin story of the banjo.
It is most certainly true that the banjo was exported to the United States during the 17th Century via West African slaves, or at least the 4-string version of the instrument that originally utilized an animal skin as a sound board. This is one of the many important contributions that black musicians gave to the original sound of country music and American folk. However the lineage of the instrument from an animal skin stretched over a gourd body to the modern string instrument we know today as the banjo also had other contributors and influences, chiefly the Portuguese “banza” or “bandora,” which is where the term “banjo” is though to be derived from. According to some musical historians, the bandora either preceded, paralleled, or at least influenced both the construction and popularity of the modern banjo.
But taking it as a given that the banjo is an African instrument, this still in itself doesn’t make country music, bluegrass, or American folk distinctly a mode of expression either exclusively or primarily influenced by African Americans. The violin or fiddle, the mandolin, the guitar, the dobro, and other traditional country instruments have their origins in European cultures. The steel guitar is a distinctly Hawaiian instrument that was brought over to the United States and primarily incorporated into country music as World War II GI’s were returning home. Nobody would assert that country music is either distinctly or predominately a Hawaiian art form due to the presence of the steel guitar. The instrument simply contributed to the greater soundscape of the music which has drawn influences from a host of cultures, including African Americans.
In an era when nuance is often drained from discussion, and people feel the need to settle on binary conclusions that often misrepresent the wide array of facts, country music must be considered to some as either black or white, when it truth its origins and history fall well within shades of grey. However if one was forced to settle upon one predominant racial influence on the genre, then country music would have to be considered a distinctly Caucasian art form, with its most potent and lasting influences coming from the folk and fiddle traditions of Irish, Scottish, and English settlers in America’s Appalachian and Southern regions, then mixed with the Western influences of the Singing Cowboys of Hollywood’s early silver screen era, and folk musicians such as Woody Guthrie.
The primary Anglo influence on American country music goes undisputed by the consensus of historians insulated from identity trends or equity arguments. While it’s true that some of country music’s most defining historical accounts potentially could have spent more time exploring the African American influences in the music, over-emphasizing these influences in retrospect as either the major generation point or sole origin of country music does not help to set the record straight, it only see-saws the misnomers in a different direction.
It is also not fair to portray the contributions of African Americans to country music as being buried in the annals and institutions of the genre. The previously-mentioned DeFord Bailey is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, inducted posthumously in 2005. Rufus Payne’s burial place in Montgomery, Alabama is marked with a prominent marker paid for by Hank Williams Jr. and Grand Ole Opry members, commemorating his contributions to Hank Williams and country music. Charley Pride is also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and scored 40 total #1 hits during the height of his career, and is currently a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Ray Charles had two #1 country records, and six Top 20 country singles. In the more modern era, Darius Rucker has scored four #1 hits and eight Top 10’s after moving to the genre from popular rock, not to mention the recent #1 successes by Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown.
That said, clearly black performers have been an unmistakable minority throughout the history of country music, especially compared to other American genres. But a lack of presence by African American artists shouldn’t be assumed as being solely the result of the purposeful exclusion of them, or the presence of universal racism against them, even if racism did play a role in the outcomes of certain performers. When artists of color showed potential and appeal in country music, they often were pushed to the forefront, and sometimes specifically to help stave off the stigma of country music as a solely white art form, or racist at its core. Charley Pride won country music’s most coveted award, the CMA Entertainer of the Year in 1971. He also won Male Vocalist of the Year in 1971 and 1972. Darius Rucker won the CMA’s New Artist of the Year in 2009.
The reason for a lack of black performers throughout the history of country music is partly due simply to black performers choosing other genres to perform in that better fit their influences, sound, and natural tendencies. This doesn’t mean an underpinning culture of racism didn’t persist in the genre in certain eras, or in certain institutions. But this isn’t the sole reason for the small number of successful black country artists.
The current crop of popular African American country performers—namely the aforementioned Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen—are often given credit for overcoming country music’s racial barriers, and re-igniting the genre’s African American lineage. But these performers are arguably tearing down country music’s traditions by not respecting the roots of the music—including, if not especially, the traditions forged by important and influential African American performers of previous eras. By making country music that is derivative and no different than pop or R&B, artists like Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen are doing a disservice to the important legacy of African Americans in country music.
Meanwhile throughout the landscape of African American roots performers, there are plenty of artists who are upholding, preserving, and pushing forward the traditions of African Americans and Caucasians in country music. These include the aforementioned Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, as well as performers such as Aaron Vance, Charley Crockett, Valerie June, Mickey Guyton, and others. In fact per capita, African American country performers often do more to preserve the roots of the music than their Caucasian counterparts. Unfortunately though, these contributors often get systemically overlooked and downgraded by the success of superstars such as Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen, and the media who obsesses over these artists due to their popularity, and their supposed importance to country music as African Americans.
READ: African Americans Helping to Keep Country & Roots Music Alive
In the current era when much of media feels the need to battle “Trumps America” at every turn, country music has found a bullseye on its back as a perceived bastion of conservative values and “whiteness.” But the motivation of these revisionists with their anecdotal and often misleading information is not to set the record straight, it is to tear down an element of “whiteness” by disenfranchising Caucasian’s value and contributions to country music. Far from battling racism or being a catalyst for important revisionism for the history African Americans have played in the genre, it potentially creates more divisiveness, misunderstanding, and even racism by embellishing African American’s role contrary to historical facts.
Another recent example of this revisionism is the new 50th Anniversary Edition of the Bill C. Malone book Country Music USA. Professor Tracey E. W. Laird added a new chapter to the book that was supposed to cover the last 15 or 20 years in country music, and instead was a dissertation on country music and politics centered upon the performance of Beyonce at the 50th Annual CMA Awards, and her supposed snubbing by the Grammys and the CMAs for her song “Daddy Lessons.”
Except for country music, every major popular American genre has its roots primarily in African American origins, from hip-hop and R&B, to blues, to rock and roll which is primarily blues-based, to jazz, and Gospel, even though African Americans make up a minority of the American population. Country music is the only American genre where Caucasians played a predominant role in genre’s formation. That doesn’t mean African Americans didn’t contribute either, because they did, and that’s been a truth that was de-emphasized or overlooked too often in country music’s historical narrative. But to attempt to strip Caucasians of their country music influence is not only in contradiction to historical consensus, it can be counter-productive to the effort to make sure all country music artists are dealt with equitably regardless of color moving forward, whether they are current artists, or previous contributors who deserve to be framed in a proper historical context.
Ultimately, in country music today, it’s not your race which which puts you in peril of being ignored or downgraded. The overwhelming success of Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown prove that. What puts you in peril of being ignored and downgraded is having the audacity to play actual country music.
January 15, 2019 @ 10:09 am
Trig, I’m gonna try and be as clear as possible with this comment. I’m not taking issue with the article as a whole, this is an attempt to expand on the concept of the “folk and fiddle traditions of Irish, Scottish, and English settlers in America’s Appalachian and Southern region,” which is a murky sort of area with a lot of misconceptions. To try and give myself some credibility, I come from a family that plays that sort of music (hillbilly, mountain, old-time, whatever you want to call it), and I have a degree from a well-respected Southern university specializing in that history.
From about 1750 till the early 1900s, the most common musical configuration in the South was the fiddle-banjo duo, occasionally with a third instrument added, most commonly bones. These bands would travel about a day away at the most to play dances. There were many more amateur musicians would would only play at their local dance, party, or jam. There is a smaller data set as to the pure amateurs, but for the dance bands, it is clear that a great deal of them, perhaps more than half, were black. All these musicians influenced each other, picked together, swapped tunes and techniques and stories. The waters were mixed right there, as early as 1745, when a British traveller saw a “Negro band” playing Gaelic tunes for a dance, and I’d argue that it wasn’t until the Bristol Sessions when you can begin to separate the streams again.
The music of the South in that century and a half is impossible to extricate from black influence. The melodies are primarily Celtic, yes, but I think it is intellectually dishonest to describe that music as anything but “American.” Perhaps “Southern.” The best example of this might actually be “Dixie,” which is a patchwork of Scottish and Irish melodies, with words taken from Creole and New York lyrical threads, and, despite it’s current connotations, was most likely written not by the most overrated man in American musical history, Dan Emmett, but by a black fiddler named Thomas Snowden.
On a musicological note, I’d also argue that the biggest black contribution to country music is not the banjo, or the blues progression, but rather tonality and rhythm. Any “bent” or “blue” note in country music, or any shuffle or swinging beat, would not be there without the contributions of black folks.
This is all meant to further knowledge of our music, not to make any sort of attack or political statement. Thanks.
January 15, 2019 @ 10:47 am
Thanks for the insight, this is good stuff. I took a long time to consider how to broach this subject in a way that would be both understood by the wide public, and by both sides of the racial divide. I agree that boiling down to origin story of country music as “folk and fiddle traditions of Irish, Scottish, and English settlers in America’s Appalachian and Southern region,” is definitely the Cliff Notes version. I also feel like I did a fair job to explain the intertwined origins of country music when it comes to race. In previous drafts of this article, I delved much deeper into the musicology of this all, and decided to scrap it, because I didn’t want to get into the weeds and make this too esoteric. Ultimately I wanted to point out that anyone assigning country music as only black, or only white is incorrect, and why, and not to gain advantage over anyone in an intellectual argument, but to foster understanding about the origins of country music, and give people tools to dispel these incorrect theories if they come up in conversation.
You mentioned The Bristol Sessions, and I had a whole paragraph on this that I decided to nix because it was more of a theory than a fact. Ralph Peer, before the Bristol Sessions in 1927, went to places in the early 20’s like Atlanta and New Orleans specifically to record African Americans for the African American consumer market. Race was very much top of mind when he made these recordings. When he showed up to Bristol, potentially his goal was specifically to record rural Appalachian whites. If this is true, and if the Bristol Sessions is truly the “Birthplace of Country Music” as it sells itself, then this would lend further evidence to country music being predominately of white influence.
However, if Peer was specifically excluding black performers from the region from the sessions, which he very well may have been, then this isn’t a fair portrayal of the music and its varying influences at the time. I also agree that this marketing of music by Peer and others is truly where the race in American music got untwined, when before everyone appreciated that most modes of music in America were multicultural.
January 15, 2019 @ 12:50 pm
Hah yes my whole post is something of a hike in the weed patch, I just get an insufferable urge to pontificate sometimes. Overall I think it’s a good article. As far as Bristol etc. goes, here’s my take: There was already a racial split between blues and hillbilly music by the time of Bristol, but much more so in terms of the audience, rather than the performer. Jimmie hisself did a bunch of blues songs, and there were a plethora of bands in the Piedmont (including, amusingly, an integrated band from Greensboro NC that named itself after either its white banjo player or black fiddler depending on the gig) that played square dances on Friday nights and blues dances on Saturday nights.
I reckon thinking of Bristol as “The Birthplace of the Term ‘Country Music'” is a helpful way to look at it. Post Bristol, folks had the option to call themselves country musicians, and given the marketing, almost all of those who did were white.
I do think that you can draw a much clearer (and whiter, if you care about that) throughline for folk balladry specifically, though. “Knoxville Girl,” for instance, you can trace pretty directly from England, to Ireland, to Pineville Missouri, and finally to Knoxville with minimal outside influence.
January 16, 2019 @ 12:27 pm
My father, who was born in southern Alabama in 1922, used to listen to Jimmie Rodgers and the Grand Ole Opry on his uncle’s radio (my grandparents had neither electricity nor running water until the 1960’s). Once when I was home from college, I was playing a record of various blues artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins, and my father commented, “Why that’s like what the black men I used to pick cotton with on our farm sounded like.” So even though in formal settings audiences were generally integrated through the 1950’s, rural whites would have been familiar with blues, field hollers, etc.
January 20, 2019 @ 12:58 pm
You mentioned Darius Rucker in the article. He followed in the footsteps of white performers Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich and Kenny O’Dell in switching from rock to country. And the Pointer Sisters had a brief flirtation with country for a time. Ray Charles’ record company, at least according to the movie, thought he was out of his mind to tackle country music. But they were the ones who had the last laugh when his cover of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” became one of the top songs of all time.
January 15, 2019 @ 3:48 pm
Also, I’ve never come across any evidence of Peer actively excluding black musicians from the Bristol Sessions. My theory is that there just weren’t many black folks in East Tennessee, so all or most of the pickers available there were white. Would have been a different result if he had come hunting for music that sounded more or less the same in the Piedmont.
January 16, 2019 @ 3:00 pm
What an interesting and insightful article. I hope the nuance gets through to a few of those who see this and so many other issues in strictly black and white.
Is there any chance of you posting a longer form article including what you left out for those of us that don’t mind getting into the weeds in order to learn a little more. I think it would be fascinating.
Also, thanks Mister Cackalack for the detail that you added.
January 16, 2019 @ 5:39 pm
I might do something like that in the future, but I don’t want to portray myself as some sort of authoritative expert on pre-Bristol Sessions American roots music. In these instances I would rather defer to the experts, and they all seem to be in consensus that both blacks and white played important roles in the formation of the music.
January 15, 2019 @ 10:50 am
enjoyed reading that, thanks for the extra history lesson – facinating
January 15, 2019 @ 12:09 pm
This is absolutely fascinating. In that vein, are there any books or other scholarship that you’d recommend on early forms of American music? I’ve always been interested in the historical side of American music, so I’d love to read anything you’d recommend that delve into this subject further. .
January 15, 2019 @ 6:11 pm
Thanks! It’s hard to recommend just one, as pre-country Southern music is an exhaustive yet niche subject, so it hasn’t yet attracted a Shelby Foote. You kinda have to read a bunch of different stuff focusing on little slices of it, then back out to get the whole picture.
That said, I’d start with “Another History of Bluegrass,” by Allen Farmelo. Tis only available in PDF form these days I think. “The Scotch-Irish Influence on Country Music in the Carolinas” by Michael Scoggins, “Wayfaring Strangers” by Fiona Ritchie, and “African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia” by Cece Conway are all useful too.
January 15, 2019 @ 10:10 am
I really don’t care if an artist is black, white, or green. I am simply looking for authenticity in the music. I will never let them and the music row puppets get away with putting that crappy synth “pop” on my country music dial . (For the record, thumbs up on Rhiannon Giddens, and thumbs way down on Kane Brown)
January 15, 2019 @ 10:18 am
This should be considered required reading by anyone the least bit interested in real country music and its history , Trigger.
Insightful, informative , enlightening , and very clearly articulated . Well done ….thank you .
January 15, 2019 @ 11:01 am
The issue of “cultural appropriation” and tribal/race protectionism (for lack of a better term) is so goddamn ridiculous, if not outright toxic, and it’s propagated by all sides of the argument (“keep out of my thing!”, or “you stole my thing!”, or “you shouldn’t be doing my thing!” and on and on).
Every cultural form – from art, to music, to clothing, to food, to spoken language itself – is a mixture of other things from a broad range of sources spanning decades, centuries, millennia etc. That’s how culture grows and survives. Cultural forms are ever-changing. It’s inevitable.
January 15, 2019 @ 11:02 am
solid article, Trigger – thanks
January 15, 2019 @ 11:26 am
All I see are “musicians.” Some are derivative, some innovative. Does it connect to something inside you? Does it make you see more, feel more, hear more? Or is it just another crank of an old music-box? a piece of ambient wallpaper as you “work out” or run?
Try reading music histories written by musicians for musicians. In them, ethnic groups aren’t the points of interest — or division. It’s all one, and everyone can contribute. That’s a beautiful thing about music: young, old, from here or there, everyone makes a contribution. You’re not recognized and evaluated by the color of the skin, but by the content of your chorus.
When we all focus on each other, we’re bound to fight. But when we focus on the music, we’re on the way to becoming friends.
This is not bullsh•t. Everyone has the experience of working together toward a shared goal. Having that third thing to work on or toward — a thing which is not the property of anyone working on or toward it — is what makes accomplishment possible.
That used to be America, and could be again.
January 15, 2019 @ 12:11 pm
Musicians and fans rarely see race when it comes to music. It’s media that has a vested interest in classifying groups of humans, and then pitting those humans against each other for click bait. Politicians do this same maneuver as well. However this problem has begun to metastasize within artists and fans because the media is doing so well in making everything about identity, especially entertainment media.
Jimmy Allen didn’t come to his own conclusion that country music is black music. Because if he’d done his own research and inquiries, he would have found that to not be true. Someone told him that was the case, and he parrots it out, and then the media outlet he’s speaking to has no vested interest in correcting him or even offer at least a bit of context because it doesn’t fit the opinion they were looking to peddle before they even spoke to him.
January 15, 2019 @ 12:36 pm
dead on , CC…..its about a common denominator bigger than our individual selves . that’s what’s going to keep great art great ….and keep us from blowing ourselves out of the sky .
its such a simple concept …….. but tell that to 7 and a half billion egos .
Toby in Ak
January 15, 2019 @ 12:21 pm
Is Dobie Gray a Country singer?
I’m not a musicologist, but it seems like race was used to parse musical genres as much as the music was. I can’t think of an objective, non racial reason that Charlie Rich is considered country but not Brook Benton. I also think Americana today is an example of this bias but that’s another post.
I’m glad that projects are underway to shed a light on this subject. I also recommend Burns jazz documentary, which put a lot of focus on early jazz. While it didn’t address Country music, it’s easy to hear the similarities between bluegrass banjo and ragtime piano, or between Dixie jazz piano and later Country pianists
January 15, 2019 @ 2:17 pm
I think the upcoming Ken Burns Country Music documentary has the potential of helping to shed a lot of light on this subject. When I first heard he was basing this movie off the “Country Music USA” book with it’s misguided new chapter, I was worried. But luckily it doesn’t go that far in the timeline. After attending a preview of it at AmericanaFest, I feel confident the film will make sure to portray the important role African Americans played in the genre, but not take an activist attitude towards using the film as a way to tear down American “whiteness.” Of course we won’t know until we see it, but I hope it goes a long way toward clearing up some of these racial misconceptions on both sides.
The Ken Burns Country Music documentary has the potential to be one of the most important country music events in 2018. I expect a very well-made and compelling film that could renew interest in the Roots and history of the genre.
January 15, 2019 @ 3:03 pm
PBS has an American Masters on Charley Pride coming up next month I think. Hopefully it won’t get bogged down in racism, all racism. Not that that shouldn’t absolutely be addressed but I want to hear about the artistry more than the other stuff.
January 15, 2019 @ 1:12 pm
“However there has been a recent trend by media and even some artists to overstate the influence of African Americans in country music in an effort to systematically downgrade the influence of white performers in the ever-present politicization of culture that often derides “whiteness” as implicitly unsavory, inherently exploitative, if not outright evil. This effort appears to want to revise history to state that country music was primarily, or solely an African American art form, and it’s an aberration to characterize country music as an expression of agrarian whites beyond a few minor contributions. This revisionist endeavor has been emboldened even more lately due to the metastasizing of political vitriol throughout society, and the presence of two new African American performers at the very top of popular country: Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen. Hungry for political narratives around their ascent, the impact of African Americans in country music is becoming more commonly discussed, and often inaccurately embellished.”
About as true a paragraph statement as I have read on this site, or any others for that matter.
January 15, 2019 @ 3:07 pm
That was a very thoughtful dissertation on this now extremely touchy subject due to the malicious influence of leftist political correctness (i.e. marxist thought control). The whole “Anti White Privilege” movement was created to attack and denigrate everything ever done by caucasians in building western civilization including our historical music forms. What George Orwell foresaw in the future of western civilization has now come to pass when he presciently said ” In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
January 15, 2019 @ 3:37 pm
Good article. The great thing about American music is the influences from every angle that helped create it. It’s what you would expect from a melting pot of a country such as ours.
January 15, 2019 @ 3:58 pm
You racest s.o.b! Just kidding interesting article. Never knew about the origins of the banjo
January 15, 2019 @ 7:48 pm
Great article, Trig, and also great comments by Cackalack.
Did you mention Darius Rucker?
Kudos to Hank, Sr for being a real outlaw by melding his influences into his own sound.
It’s a real stew of multiple unrelated musical sounds and styles, all of which makes him the best ever to me.
January 15, 2019 @ 8:02 pm
I think the African-American / Celtic-Anglo dichotomy is more like systole / diastole. You can’t have one without the other. “Pretty Polly” is a British folk song, but notice how “blue” (i.e. “black”) the tonality and harmony are on Reno and Smiley’s take:
January 15, 2019 @ 8:14 pm
What’s not so well documented (as far as I’m aware) is the influence of “white” (country and gospel) music on “black” music. White country musicians like the Delmore Brothers and Wayne Raney recorded a number of boogie tunes starting in the 1930’s, but I don’t think many musicologists / historians have focused on whether or not these songs influenced black musicians. Here’s a 1946 Albert Ammons boogie woogie classic. Notice how much the guitar solo (starts around 0:26) sounds like something by Merle Travis or other white country musicians from that era:
January 16, 2019 @ 11:52 am
Yes but you can also here similarity between Merle Travis (one of my favorite guitar player by the way) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdMYU4TuDRo
And the black blues/ragtime players like for an example Blind
Blake. Another favorite of mine 🙂
January 16, 2019 @ 12:31 pm
January 16, 2019 @ 1:04 pm
You’re welcome. Glad you liked them. There is an older video of the same performance (from 2009) of the Merle Travis video . I chose this one because it has two songs. 🙂
January 16, 2019 @ 9:05 pm
Yes, absolutely. If you’re gonna say country music has a significant black component, you also gotta say blues has a significant white component. Honky-tonk as a term, funnily enough, predates country music as a term by some thirty-odd years, and honky-tonk piano playing (unaccompanied ragtime-ish piano in a dive bar or whorehouse) is the direct precursor to boogie-woogie.
There’s a whole nother rabbit hole you can dive down featuring Travis picking, Arnold Schultz (black guitarist that played with Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen), Spanish guitar technique and clawhammer banjo.
January 15, 2019 @ 8:56 pm
Anyone who has been paying attention shouldn’t be surprised by the narrative. Hell, some professors are calling for dropping Shakespeare! The amount of self-loathing by some whites is astounding. Western Civilization and its culture are constantly degraded and attacked.
Thanks for writing a great article, Trigger. Unfortunately, deaf ears won’t hear.
January 16, 2019 @ 10:23 am
Blame postmodernism, Marxism, and the philosophy of “intersectionality,” which now dominate contemporary Western academia and popular media. Their primary tenets are envy and nihilism.
January 16, 2019 @ 11:00 am
Academics in literature (and what has become cultural studies) used to battle with other academics. Now they use their personal ideologies / baggage to fight against the artists they pretend to interpret. “Envy” is a fine characterization. To paraphrase one of their enemies, William Shakespeare, they do mock the meat they feed on.
January 16, 2019 @ 2:59 pm
Believe me, I am aware of the forces. I was an English major. My courses were dominated by such intellectual dead ends.
September 6, 2019 @ 9:43 pm
You’re trying to twist this thoughtful article to re-enforce the primacy of white culture. This article does not attempt to do that. This article uses evidence and tries to weigh and accurately state the roles of BOTH groups in shaping the music. As the author states, there is a shift by SOME these days to overstate the role of African-Americans in shaping country music but he does not deny their role. He also does not attempt to self-pityingly claim the sort of powerlessness that drives the white rage you evince.
January 15, 2019 @ 10:01 pm
Interesting article good read
January 15, 2019 @ 10:17 pm
I read the whole thing and no mention of Cowboy Troy!?!?! On a serious note, good article.
January 15, 2019 @ 10:45 pm
Thank you, Trigger. Love this article.
January 16, 2019 @ 6:13 am
Great article, but it’s a bit like reading “Moby Dick” to somebody in a language they don’t understand
By which I mean: the people going on about this race issue are stuck in their heads and no amount of facts will change their minds
and that goes for racists and reverse-racists and anyone else
January 16, 2019 @ 7:23 am
I was surprised to hear that Jimmie Allen would make such an assertion. Wouldn’t seem to be in his economic self-interest. And it’s not like his music is artistically compelling from a country music standpoint. It seems to be more of the same milquetoast, r&b lite pop country that Music Row keeps serving up. Makes me wonder if the writer of the article had an agenda and worked on getting the quote out of him that they needed.
January 16, 2019 @ 5:51 pm
Sturgill Simpson has spoken numerous times about how interviewers all come prepared with an agenda, and figure out how to ask the right questions to portray an artist the way they want, or get the quotes they’re looking for. Sturgill said this BEFORE he expertly exposed a ‘New York Times’ reporter for doing this very thing, and even after he exposed it, they still didn’t offer an update, retraction, or clarification. And even more alarming, the quote they used from him was basically Sturgill telling them he wouldn’t play into their preconceived narrative:
There’s many reasons I don’t conduct interviews with artists anymore, and this is one of them. The whole process just feels like a reduction. I still will interview people for news stories or perhaps side players. But often you’re looking for a sexy headline and hoping the artist speaks out-of-turn. And if they don’t you can always twist the words to fit your story. From the headline of the article in “The Guardian,” clearly an agenda was present. Who knows how Jimmie Allen got led to that quote, but I can’t assume he doesn’t believe it to be true.
The Other Wayne
January 16, 2019 @ 7:45 am
Fun fact: I’m sure you all know that Charlie Pride was also a minor league baseball player. Interestingly enough, in those days you couldn’t support a family on a minor league salary alone, so when he was playing in Great Falls, Montana, he worked night shifts in a copper smelter. My grandpa was his coworker there. He got to hear him sing long before he was famous. At least that’s what the old man told me.
January 16, 2019 @ 9:21 am
Thank you Trigger. Great article!
Pretty sure bush ballads & heritage country are not invented by Kane Brown.
In a couple of days we will know who won the Golden Guitars for Bush Ballad of the Year & Heritage Song of the Year. All i know is…it’s not Kane Brown or Jimmie Allen.
We call the music -what started what we know as country music now- “old time music”.
Influenced by english & irish immigrants, the folk music of the Appalachian & the music of the former wild west. Later the blues & first signs of more early urban sounds with the instruments we all love & miss in modern country music like steel guitar, fiddles, banjo, harmonicas…
Country music was & is influenced by black artists, black music & black heritage. It’s an important part but not the integral part.
Billboard called the early charts for black music “race records charts” & the early country charts “country & western”. Different formats & genres.
First recordings of “hillbilly” instrumental music became small hits in 1922 & one year later the first record with vocals (Fiddlin’ John Carson) was the first “official” country song.
Commercial country music started in 1924 with the million-seller “The Wreck Of The Old 97” (b-side “The Prisoner”) by so-so opera singer Vernon Dalhart. Record companies & talent scouts like Ralph Peer went to the south & the mountains. The rest is history: the Bristol Sessions & the start for Jimmie Rogers & the Carter Family. Well…all white & Bristol was named the “birthplace of country music” by the congress.
(It’s the very-very short version of what i know about the start of american country music…there is so much more to say & worth to be preserved since Nashville cut all ties to it’s own history.)
January 16, 2019 @ 12:16 pm
I believe that the heritage of exclusively black music IS an integral part of country music, but not the DEFINING part. But I don’t think the earliest ancestors of country, which happen to be predominantly white (19th century parlor music and British / Celtic music filtered through Appalachia) are the DEFINING part either. By the 1920’s, traditionally white and black music had merged into the earliest recorded forms of what we now call country. It makes no sense to call country music as a whole by any race-based label–black, white, or (as Trigger points out) Hawaiian. Traditional country music is essentially integrative, even if performers and audiences were not racially integrated. Musically, it’s the most open-minded of all American genres–maybe of all genres internationally.
This doesn’t mean that elements of what might be called whiteness or blackness don’t exist among the varied sounds of country music–nobody would confuse Minnie Pearl with Memphis Minnie. But if you listen just to the audio, with no knowledge of the performer’s identity, a number of early and later white singers / instrumentalists could be mistaken for black (country blues) musicians (Dock Boggs, Frank Hutchinson, the Dixon Brothers). White gospel singers The Swanee River Boys would frequently be invited to perform at back churches based on their radio performances. But white doesn’t define country music, any more than black defines jazz. Both forms have evolved far beyond their earliest roots.
Listening quiz: what is the race of Mary Morgan, heard here on Hank Penny’s “I’m Waiting Just for You”?
Trivia quiz for the old timers here: What name did Mary Morgan use for her later performances?
January 16, 2019 @ 1:20 pm
While I disagree with the Jimmie Allen quote that “Country music came from black people – it all started with the blues and bluegrass….” both because country music didn’t start with the blues and because blues and bluegrass are not at all the same genre / subgenre, I think the influence the blues and ragtime on what country music must have been like before the first recordings was substantial.
If you could filter out the black influence (the way karaoke filters out the vocal from a track), what you have left wouldn’t sound much like recorded country music. For example, the bluegrass favorite “Shoot the Turkey Buzzard” was apparently based on a 19th century Civil War tune “Waiting for the Federals” (which may have derived from an earlier song).
Here’s a modern performance of Waiting for the Federals” (or “Kelton’s Reel):
This early recording of “Shoot the Turkey Buzzard” sticks fairly close to the 19th century “original” in tune and harmony: https://youtu.be/hzdOkbREptQ
Here’s a 1978 Smithsonian recording of a black string band playing what was probably a traditional version for them: https://youtu.be/945kRkOVc00 This is much closer to the various bluegrass versions by white musicians.
Unfortunately, the 1949 recording by J. E. Mainer isn’t available on YouTube (it’s on streaming, though–avoid the more recent recording by Mainer on Rural Rhythms), but it’s not too different from this 1990’s performance by older white bluegrass musicians, except that Mainer’s take is even wilder and more frenetic: https://youtu.be/MlIs-2cXtd8
January 16, 2019 @ 9:09 pm
If you want to filter out the black influence on that particular tune, an easy way to do it would be to look at the branch of that tune family that stayed in Ireland. It’s most popular variant is known as “What Would You Do With a Drunken Sailor.” 😉
January 16, 2019 @ 12:13 pm
Trigger, I commend you for addressing this topic in such a thoughtful and even-handed way. As a metal fan myself, I find it incredibly galling that the same critical community that held my music in contempt for the prior 30 years suddenly, within the last 5 years or so, deemed heavy metal “worthy” and then presumed to anoint the “greatest bands” and “classic albums.” My interest in country being more casual, I wasn’t hip to what was going on in this realm, but it sure as hell smells the same: Critics who have finally clued into a (rightly or wrongly) reviled form of music deigning to bestow their blessing, but only with the requisite amount of hand-wringing over how the genre is largely made and enjoyed by white people. Believe me, I’m as left-wing as they come, but that shit still makes me sick.
A quick anecdote that seems a propos: A few years ago I was standing around outside of a record show, smoking cigarettes with my record dealing friend. An African-American gentleman, who was apparently new to hard rock, joined our conversation, enthusiastically saying things like “y’all have some great music, man!” My friend and I emphatically replied, “It’s YOUR music too, man! It’s EVERYONE’S music!”
January 16, 2019 @ 4:05 pm
That’s a future, right there.
January 17, 2019 @ 4:15 am
Consuela the Conquistador
January 18, 2019 @ 7:53 pm
This is the kind of condescending article that, in trying to rise above the political fray, confirms it’s own bias.
Guess what determines musical lineage? Music! You spent two paragraphs discussing musical instruments but none on music theory. What are the fundamentals of country music? Are they ‘distinctly Caucasian’ of African in origin? How has the ratio of these qualities changed as country music progressed? Does the increasingly urban (read: black) influence in country music discount it as country? Would an infusion of Celtic musical attributes in country have the same affect?
It’s very frustrating to see supposed music journalists decry the politicization of music journalism only to then talk about conservative values and whiteness being under attack in the Trump Era. But I guess politics are selectively bad and theory is hard/boring, so here we are, talking about the ‘primitive’ contributions of African-Americans to country music and how Jimmie Allen is a liar.
January 18, 2019 @ 9:32 pm
I appreciate your concerns. At the beginning of this comments section there is a more detailed discussion about both the music theory surrounding this issue, and why it wasn’t delved into deeper here. Long story short, I didn’t want to make this conversation too estoteric, or bog down into historical details most people won’t find easy to follow, or particularly rewarding. The ultimate goal of this article was to dispel the myth that country music is exclusively white music, while also beating back the equally inaccurate (and increasingly prevalent) idea that it was originally African American music.
The reason the banjo was zeroed in upon specifically is because this is an extremely common anecdotal bit of information that culture writers use to justify the forwarded misnomers that country music is black music. Also, I never called Jimmie Allen a “liar.” I just think he is uninformed, and was probably coaxed into saying something to fit a preconceived narrative by a journalist.
As for your “urban (read: black)” comment, I very specifically avoided using the term “urban” in this article for that very specific reason, because I understand and appreciate some people see this word as code. I would caution you and others from bringing preconceived notions about the motivation of this article while reading it.
Thanks again for your insight and feedback.
Jessie With The Long Hair
January 21, 2019 @ 10:36 am
WW II GI’s aren’t responsible for bringing the steel guitar to country music. Hawaiian music was already very popular in the states. That’s why there were were Hawaiian stencils on so many guitar in the 20’s and 30’s. It was during the 20’s/30’s that Hawaiian musicians toured America in Vaudeville shows. Country and Blues musicians took note of playing a guitar with a metal bar or slide. Tiki Bars were also already popular in Southern California before the war.
Who you didn't want to read this bullshit
May 9, 2019 @ 8:54 pm
1. You filled this bullshit artical with white racial bias. I would have enjoyed this, if you had refrained from interjecting your own personal bias.
2. It is very much possible to understate the influence of African Americans in country music, white people have been doing so for centuries.
3. Culture appropriation isn’t a scheme of the media. Black people would honestly like to stop having their ideas and traditions stolen and gentrified. But that’s a whole nother lesson.
4. Don’t bring up racial bias and respectability politics. The go on to spew bull about how white people who literally run American are under attack.
5. As a scholar, to write an article like this ( in the way you claim to want to present it) unbiasedly, you do the piece and readers a major disservice not to discuss America’s very long racist history. You made sure to mention multiple times how White people were perceived. You go on to mention how you as a white person think black people view white people. You mention multiple times the narrative you feel black people want to or unknowingly push with claiming country music. But you mentioned not one thing from the opposite side of this discussion.
6. White people enslaved black people, and natives. Blacks and whites lived on plantations together. Do you truly think that Africans who are by nature a musical people from a variety of vastly different cultures wouldn’t sing, dance, bring/make instuments, and tools? Do you believe that none of these tunes were learned, stolen and presented as entertainment? Do you honestly think that you can sit on your high horse and overlook that African Americans had millions of ideas stolen from them? We are an intrical part of country music. That should NEVER be understated. We have been discredited enough, and you claiming to be a big country music fan should never be ok with discrediting us or allowing anyone else to. Now if someone is over exaggerating, I see nothing wrong with educating and correcting them.
7. White people did not have to credit African Americans, and even if the black people spoke up nothing would be done about it. There is major gatekeeping in country music and alot of racism in this country still. Is it really hard to believe that black people may have been keep out of recording sessions in favor of white musicians? America has a history of stealing from black artists. The Betty Boop case, ( a fictional character, I know) is a great example of this. And Google will provide you with many more.
May 9, 2019 @ 9:10 pm
“White people enslaved black people, and natives. Blacks and whites lived on plantations together. Do you truly think that Africans who are by nature a musical people from a variety of vastly different cultures wouldn’t sing, dance, bring/make instuments, and tools? Do you believe that none of these tunes were learned, stolen and presented as entertainment?”
No, I definitely think this happened, and resulted in significant contributions by African Americans in country music, as this article expresses.
“you do the piece and readers a major disservice not to discuss America’s very long racist history.”
Isn’t America’s very long racist history a given to any discussion on race? So I must retread over common knowledge in some treatise of redundancies about slavery in America simply to open up the discussion about country music’s influences?
You seem very passionate about this subject and I would love to have a discussion with you. But it appears you didn’t read anything, but are simply using this article as a steam value for anger and arrogance applied to opinions you assume were shared here as opposed to the ones that were.
May 22, 2019 @ 7:16 am
“2. It is very much possible to understate the influence of African Americans in country music, white people have been doing so for centuries.”
But it hasn’t been understated by the official institutions. In popular culture there is definitely an association, but…the first dude to play The Grand Ol Opry was black and has been in the hall of fame for 70 years.
“Do you honestly think that you can sit on your high horse and overlook that African Americans had millions of ideas stolen from them? We are an intrical part of country music”
The writer specifically makes a point to not overlook what has been stolen, and specifically states that the article is a response to people who think country music is entirely a black invention. I’ve seen people online make this argument, arguing that, if black people were ever involved at all, it’s therefore an entirely black invention that was stolen. There’s a trend within scholarship lately of trying to reverse the old racist line that black folks were just standing around doing nothing before whites came along, using the same formula but just switching the variables. That logic is stupid when racist whites use it, and also stupid when done by whatever we can call this new type of scholar.
July 4, 2019 @ 11:20 pm
I think this article is being a little disingenuous on the topic of race and country music and why this genre has been under the scrutiny of people of color. You insinuate that their is this entitled ideology from some that black people have always been prolific in this genre and I don’t think anyone is trying to make that argument. The issue is that many Southerners who were proud to listen to country music for many years were also proudly racist. And that is why many black people who considered themselves country singers were cut out of those spaces and radio waves. Chuck Berry, Big Al Downing, Arthur Alexander, just to name a few. Tina Turner released a country album but it was nominated for an RB Grammy. Now this may be the part where you say, “Well maybe she didn’t sing with enough twang, or with too much verbrato. Maybe her voice wasn’t soft enough…”. And there enlies the problem. When the gate keepers of a musical genre that has VERY REAL AND TANGIBLE RACIST PRACTICES doesn’t acknowledge it’s own problematic history, you’re gonna get the side eye from the rest of the world. The country music complex has no issue embracing artists like Elvis, but artists like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley are relegated to rock or the blues and aren’t really allowed any crossover appeal. So no, black artists contributions to country shouldn’t be overstated, but whether y’all can admit or not, we’re still being understated, even in this article.
February 13, 2023 @ 6:45 pm
I really appreciate this article it really hits the nail on the head on how while discovering unsung heroes in country music history some are attempting erase significant impact from certain cultures.
If you look at population movements and their culture you’ll notice similarities as well as unique traits. For example, just about ever culture has a tradition of rhythmic soulful pentatonic based music, including the groups that emigrated to North America in the previous centuries, not to mention Native Americans. The British and Irish brought with it a number of phrases, ballads, jigs and reels and wualking songs for example. Improvised line out (call and response) church singing can be traced back five to six hundred years in both England and Scotland. Forms of scat and backbeats are also a part of those traditions.
Then you have continental European stylus in Bavarian music Klezmer, classical, etc that had an impact on Ragtime and jazz. Of course Spanish and West African music as well. American music including country has more then one source. So for example if Jimmy Rodgers was in part influenced by some African American work songs those work songs would have been influenced in part by the above mentioned British and Irish stylus.
Thank you for the article