Beyoncé Songs Spur False Claims Country Music Erased its Black History

Rhiannon Giddens appearing in “Country Music: An Illustrated History” 2019

In 2024, country music is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of what many consider to be the genre’s most important artifact, and one that appraisers cite as the most valuable asset sitting in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s possession in Nashville.

No, it’s not the guitar of Hank Williams, or the mandolin of Bill Monroe, or the banjo of Earl Scruggs. It’s a painting of all things, called “The Sources of Country Music.” Commissioned by the Country Music Association, or CMA in 1973, and painted by legendary American artist Thomas Hart Benton, it was meant to become the crown jewel of the CMA’s Hall of Fame collection, and has since become that very thing. The painting hangs as the centerpiece and the first thing you see as you enter the Hall of Fame rotunda where the plaques of all the official inductees adorn the walls.

Near the end of 2023, the Hall of Fame opened a new exhibit called An American Masterwork: Thomas Hart Benton’s “Sources of Country Music” at 50, which explores how Benton developed his final painting, through sketches and drawings, lithographs, photographs, a three-dimensional model of the painting, and video footage of Benton.

This painting is critically important to the history of country music because it offers a time capsule that no revisionist history can touch. The painting is made to depict the various origins of country music, including the Western cowboy of the silver screen era, a Gospel choir, old-time fiddlers and singing sisters, square dancers, as well as a locomotive, a steamboat, and river in the background.

One aspect about the painting that is most important is the inclusion of the African American character playing a banjo. For Thomas Benton and the Hall of Fame, there was never any question that the Black influence in country music must be included in any portrayal of the genre’s origins.

In fact, one of the often-overlooked features of the painting even by many historians and interpreters of the work are four more African Americans just over the shoulder of the black banjo player. They are standing on the shore of the river, with their hands outstretched towards the steamboat.

Thomas Hart Benton’s “Sources of Country Music”
“The Sources of Country Music” in the Hall of Fame rotunda

If you want to learn more about the fascinating story of what became Thomas Hart Benton’s final paining, you can find a more detailed account on Saving Country Music’s Country History X episode about it.

What’s so important about this painting is not just it’s current anniversary. It’s that it offers a strong counter-argument to one of the most unfortunate social contagions surrounding Beyoncé releasing a couple of songs being characterized as country ahead of what’s anticipated to be a country album (read more).

Using this current event as a jumping off point, numerous outlets and now viral social media posts have proclaimed that the Black influence and contributions to country music have been stricken from the history of the genre. This has resulted in perhaps the greatest eradication and wallpapering over of the Black legacy in country music that the genre has ever experienced.

The “Sources of Country Music” painting commissioned by the founders of the CMA is one obvious and indisputable illustration of how the Black influence in country was not whitewashed. But this is not the only one by far. In fact, out of the nearly two dozen general history books on country music sitting on the shelf at Saving Country Music headquarters, none of them claim that Black creators did not have a hand in the formation of the genre. On the contrary, every single one of them state that Black creators were critical to country’s formation.

This also extends to biographies in the Saving Country Music catalog, from multiple biographies on Hank Williams that credit Black blues performer Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne as the man who taught Hank how to play the guitar, to the Waylon Jennings autobiography where he explains how he would “cross the tracks” when growing up to listen to Black music and later used that influence in his Outlaw country style, and even got fired as a DJ for playing Little Richard.

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville is considered one of the greatest music history museums in the world. In both public-facing displays and in the museum’s 2006 350-page companion book written by country historians Paul Kingsbury and Alana Nash called Will The Circle Be Unbroken, it states expressly:

Black and whites had met and mingled since the early Colonial era, absorbing much from each other across a racial barrier that held firm socially but remained porous culturally. In many ways, poor blacks and poor whites shared a folk culture with a common body of songs, dances, and instruments that moved freely across racial lines.

Black fiddlers were ubiquitous in the 19th-century South and, in fact, were described much more often than white musicians in the newspapers, travel accounts, and other literature at the time. Slaves frequently attended religious revivals in the antebellum era, and while they were typically segregated from white worshipers, their singing was recognized and admired nevertheless.

…White musicians did not simply learn from blacks to sing more expressively, with full, open-throated emotion; they were inspired also to take up new instruments, such as the banjo, and to experiment with unorthodox chord progressions, blue notes, slide-guitar techniques, and unusual rhythms.

Throughout Will The Circle Be Unbroken and the Country Music Hall of Fame itself, there are countless citations and segments of presented history that speak to the Black influence in country music. This inclusion of Black performers also extends into current exhibits like the American Currents exhibit for 2024 that features Joy Oladokun, Allison Russell, and SistaStrings.

The book that is considered the defining history on country music and is regularly used to create college course work is Bill C. Malone’s Country Music USA. This book plays a critical role in defining country history because it is commonly cited in other country histories and is considered the most definitive. Country Music USA was also used as the source material for the Ken Burns-produced 8-part PBS documentary Country Music that aired in 2019.

Country Music USA is a dense, 700+ page tome of country music. Five pages into the history, Bill C. Malone states:

Of all the southern ethnic groups, none has played a more important role in providing songs and styles for the white country musician than the forced migrant from Africa, the black. Nowhere is this peculiar love-hate relationship that has prevailed among the southern races more evidenced than in country music. Country music—seemingly the most “pure white” of all American musical forms—has borrowed heavily from African Americans. White southerners, many of whom would have been horrified at the idea of mixing socially with blacks, have nonetheless enthusiastically accepted their musical offerings: the spirituals, the blues, ragtime, jazz, rhythm-and-blues, hip-hop, and a whole host of dance steps, vocal shadings, and instrumental techniques.

Black-white contact began so early and was so omnipresent in American life that it is virtually impossible to know who profited most from the musical exchange. From the time they first saw them on slave ships, white observers have commented frequently on blacks’ alleged penchant for music. In the four hundred years that have passed, white musicians have continually drawn on black sources for rejuvenation and sustenance.

And this is just the very start. Reams upon reams of the history are devoted to Black minstrel players, the Black origins of the banjo, White performers performing as blackface minstrels, and other topics centered around country’s Black influence in the book. In fact, one regular refrain you read in most any country history book, including Country Music USA, is how the Black influence on country music is often misunderstood by the public, but elemental enough to be indisputable.

The First Edition of Country Music USA was released in 1968. In 2018 ahead of the new Ken Burns documentary series based off the book, a 50th Anniversary Edition was released.

It’s not just that country music’s Black influence is clearly laid out in history book after history book. It’s that in country music’s most defining history book and one of its best selling ones, Beyoncé and her influence is actually talked about in detail. That’s right, six years ago, and six years before Beyoncé would choose to make a country album, she was already cemented in the annals of country’s written history.

For the 50th Anniversary edition of Country Music USA, Bill C. Malone allowed Tracey E. W. Laird to compose the 13th and final chapter. A professor of music at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, the new chapter was supposed to pick up where the last edition of the book left off in the year 2000.

But instead of offering any sort of traditional history on the 18 years that had passed since the previous edition—broaching critical moments such as the emergence of Taylor Swift, Bro-Country, the rise of Chris Stapleton and independent artists—Tracey Laird instead rather controversially decided to use Beyoncé’s performance with the [Dixie] Chicks at the 50th Annual CMA Awards in 2016 to set the narrative and bookend the entire chapter, expressly for the rich narratives involving race, gender, and genre this new chapter desired to broach.

Country Music USA‘s Chapter 13 isn’t a history at all. It’s basically a journalistic think piece, or perhaps an academic paper about country music and race imposed as a chapter in a history book. However, one byproduct of this unusual addition to an otherwise sometimes frustratingly dry recitation of country history is that it means that not just Black country history is present in country’s most important history book, Beyoncé is actually already in there.

“What did it mean the the new century’s most sensational pop music performer, an African American woman, to appear on the CMA Awards, a context still so closely associated with whiteness?” the book asks. “Despite historical, artistic evidence of the deeply tangled roots of ‘hillbilly’ and ‘race’ music, as it was christened in the beginning, whiteness continues to define country music. Still, black artists challenge that organically with their oeuvre and repertoire … Nevertheless, whiteness continues to remain a defining trait at the center of twenty-first-century country music identity.”

Why do none of the recent articles on Beyoncé and the expulsion of Black history from country music cite this final chapter in Country Music USA? It’s because the authors of this misinformation have never read it. In fact, it’s unlikely they have ever read any dry, standard country history of any sort. That is how they can falsely convey to their readers the dangerous and irresponsible canard that “country music” erased the Black influence and accomplishments out of country’s history due to white supremacy.

This is what a tweet from Rolling Stone emphasized right after Beyoncé’s first two “country” songs were released, quoting Rhiannon Giddens, who appears on the Beyoncé track “Texas Hold “Em” on banjo and viola. Taken from a 2020 feature, Rihannon Giddens is highlighted in the tweet that went mega-viral saying, “The idea of what country music is has been carefully constructed to seem like it was always white. It was constructed by numerous people as part of the white-supremacy movement.”

But this seems like a strange thing for Rhiannon Giddens to assert. Not only do all of country music major histories expressly state the significant Black influence on country, Rhiannon Giddens has actively participated in the telling of country’s history. Giddens was one of the primary subjects interviewed for the PBS Ken Burns Country Music documentary that aired in 2019, written with the 50-year-old Country Music USA as the source material.

A companion written and illustrative history book accompanied the massive 8-part Ken Burns documentary called Country Music: An Illustrated History, composed by Ken’s co-creator on the series Dayton Duncan. When you open the massive 500-page book, the first illustration you see after the Table of Contents is Rhiannon Giddens playing a banjo in an image from 2010. It’s opposite a quote by Black musician Wynton Marsalis. Giddens is also quoted multiple times in the book.

Note that the Giddens quote from Rolling Stone appeared a year after she appeared in the Ken Burns documentary and the companion book, both of which were lauded by critics, and specifically praised for setting the record straight about African American involvement in country music. Giddens said herself, “It’s a hard needle to move. It really is. The narrative of where people think country music comes from has been really reinforced in very strong ways for very specific reasons. But if anybody can challenge it, it’s Ken Burns.”

Along with Bill C. Malone’s Country Music USA, the Ken Burns documentary is one of the most definitive, and one of the most viewed and cited works on country music history ever assembled. Not only is the Black legacy of country music spelled out expressly in the 8-part film, Rhiannon Giddens was one of the individuals spelling it out specifically.

Countless other examples of country history giving credit to Black creators could be cited here. But just to underscore the point, let’s look at the case of country music’s shortest history. Richard Carlin’s Country Music: A Very Short Introduction released by the Oxford Press is a tiny, pocket-sized history of country music. Would it take the time with such limited space to talk about country music’s Black history? It certainly does.

“Think of country music as a river: flowing along from a starting point in the distinctly American marriage of European and African American musical cultures; meandering through different regions…” it says in the book’s introduction.

The book has a chapter called, “African American traditions: Work songs, Religious music, and blues.” The book also specifically addresses the origins of the banjo, stating, “The five-string banjo developed in the mid-nineteenth century and probably derived from earlier West African instruments.”

And believe it or not, the tiny, small format 100-page Country Music: A Very Short Introduction also includes Beyoncé. On the next to the final page of the miniature history it states,

“Perhaps the biggest indication that pop and country are becoming increasingly one and the same was the appearance of Beyoncé at the Country Music Awards in 2016, where she performed her song ‘Daddy Lessons,’ accompanied by the [Dixie] Chicks. Country diehards were scandalized, but the mainstream country audience accepted this performance as just one more expression on the spectrum of what can be called ‘country music.'”

Wise, prescient words written in a country music history book, copyright 2018.

So why over the last few days after the release of Beyoncé’s songs have we seen this constant reaffirmation that the Black legacy of country music was stripped from history, despite the Thomas Hart Benton “Sources of Country Music” painting, despite every relevant history book putting the Black influence in country in context, and despite the Ken Burns documentary underscoring it to an audience of millions, and in recent memory?

The first is sheer ignorance. Many of the sources for this false information are not native to country music. They are journalists specializing in hip-hop, academics specializing in race issues, or general activists looking to get traction and sow clout on social media by making baseless, and often breathless, hyperbolic claims with no material basis in truth. There is also now a host of books in print that start with the initial premise that country music has erased its Black history, without ever citing any examples.

What is true—and can’t be overlooked—is that there is a general prevailing notion in the overall American population that country music is predominantly a genre performed and enjoyed by White people, both in the past and in the present tense. This is due to most country performers being White, though of course there have been exceptions to that rule ever since the very beginnings of the genre.

But when it comes to the historical literature on country music, this accusation that country removed it’s Black history is patently and verifiably false. In fact, it is these false accusations that are actively erasing country music’s Black legacy in the present tense.

A lot of the misnomers about country music’s origins and influences can be traced through the lineage of the banjo. “The banjo is a Black instrument” is a common refrain you see in think pieces, historical revisionism, and articles surrounding country music and race. It’s most always presented as an “ah-ha!” moment by the author to the audience. But in reality, what the assertion often illustrates is the previous ignorance of the speaker as opposed to the account of the banjo’s origins in the historical record.

For example, the book Country Music USA states, “The banjo’s identification as a rural white instrument is rather curious, since its ‘ancestor’ arrived in this country from Africa and was long associated with slaves. Its earliest appearance cannot be documented, but the instrument that Thomas Jefferson referred to in 1781 as a ‘banjar’ resembled the gourdlike device found much earlier in West Africa. Blackface minstrels introduced their modified version of the banjo to an international public in the three decades before the Civil War.”

As many of country’s histories also explain, in the 1800’s and the early 1900’s, the banjo was categorically considered a Black instrument. It was part of Black stereotyping in advertising copy, and offensive “lawn jockey” yard art and other memorabilia, often in caricaturist portrayals of Black people. Blacks were synonymous with the banjo, so much so that if White performers wanted to play the banjo, they often did so in blackface to attempt to come across as more authentic.

Black man portrayed with a banjo from antiquity

Where did the disconnect between the banjo’s Black origins and it’s misunderstanding as a white instrument originate? Though Rhiannon Giddens and other attribute white supremacy, it’s likely due to two significant cultural moments that became synonymous with the banjo in the 1970s: The theme for the TV show The Beverley Hillbillies played by Earl Scruggs, and the “dueling banjo” scene from the 1972 film Deliverance.

Both of these iconic moments of American culture went to shift the perception of the banjo as an artifact of African American culture, to one of poor, uneducated, slack jawed and incestuous agrarian Whites—not exactly the portrayal those focused on white supremacy may want White culture to be identified with.

The Earl Scruggs style of banjo playing revolutionized the instrument, brought it forth as more of a lead instrument out front in the mix, and dramatically popularized it. This helped obfuscate the instrument’s Black origins, but doesn’t carry any signifyers of white supremacy as part of that transition of thought.

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Again, the examples of the Black origins of country music being put in their proper context are quite numerous. One could also cite the work of Hank Williams Jr.

There are the numerous songs from Hank Williams Jr. where he pays homage to his father’s mentor, Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, most notably the “Tee-Tot Song.” There is an obelisk and plaque in front of the segregated cemetery in Montgomery, Alabama where Tee-Tot is buried that Hank Jr. and members of the Grand Ole Opry paid for and placed.

Rufus Payne Memorial at the Lincoln Cemetery in Montgomery, AL

To read more about the honoring of Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne in Montgomery, CLICK HERE.

These days, most of country music history is told online. And online, the amount of think piece and editorial copy canonizing Black participation in country music is outright incredible. But if this material claims that Black participation was stricken from the country music record, it is patently false. This never happened, and despite some attempts to say otherwise, it is inarguable.

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On February 14th, a hip-hop writer named Taylor Crumpton published an article in TIME titled, “Beyoncé Has Always Been Country.

The first line of the article states, “The greatest lie country music ever told was convincing the world that it is white.”

This sentence is a verifiable lie in itself. First, country music is not a monolith, meaning that it is made up of various entities, including performers, instrumentalists, songwriters, record labels, radio DJs, festivals, journalists, etc., including many that are Black and Brown. Yet country music is regularly dealt with as if one decision or action represents the entirety of the genre. This is used to indict the entire institution in an irresponsible manner.

But as has been laid out in this article, the history of country music is starkly clear about the importance of Black performers and creators, and has been from the very beginning. That’s not to say that Black performers have been given equal opportunity, equal representation, and have been dealt with equitably over the years because of course they haven’t been. Racism has been prevalent throughout country music’s history. This goes without saying.

But Black performers and the Black influence have been present as well, and irrefutably documented in the genre’s historical canon, including Beyoncé. The fact that Black creators have struggled so mightily is the reason to emphasize their accomplishments if nothing else—to lift them up as opposed to downplaying them as meaningless or tokenary, or eradicating them entirely by saying they were removed from country’s history instead of pointing people to where they exist.

Saving Country Music reached out to the Time author Taylor Crumpton on X/Twiter and asked, “Can you please cite the source of when ‘country music’ told or convinced the world that it was only White? The history book that says this? The documentary? The public speech? Any sort of quote or notation from any authoritative source? Asking in good faith. Thanks!”

Taylor Crumpton promptly blocked the Saving Country music X/Twitter account. There is no discussion to be had about these critical topics, apparently.

The Time article also states, “The truth is that country music has never been white. Country music is Black. Country music is Mexican. Country music is Indigenous.”

In the current media environment, to gain attention for your think piece or tweet, you must ratchet up the rhetoric, be more hyperbolic and radical to separate yourself from the norms, and to flank your peers in the marketplace of ideas. The more radical your statements are, the more they will trend on social media, creating a perverse incentive tugging journalists and activists further towards outright lies.

In truth, the racist revisionism that is happening in country music is the removal of the agency of White performers in the music as being nothing more than trivial appropriators as opposed to contributors. Articles like the Time Magazine piece also strike down huge swaths of country music’s Black history by acting likeit never existed, and simply citing book titles as opposed to delving into deeper discussion these books broach by using direct quotes. It’s sloganeering, not sincere journalism.

In 1971, Charley Pride won the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year Awards, country music’s highest honor. In 2023, Tracy Chapman won the CMA’s Song of the Year and Single of the Year for “Fast Car.” Simply mentioning these achievements in a discussion about race and country music goes a long way in making sure those accomplishments don’t go undermined or ignored.

Ironically, over the last couple of days you have seen White rednecks with “MAGA” in their bios countering Black activist journalists, saying that they are the ones erasing the legacy of Black creators such as Charley Pride, tweeting in all caps “He had THIRTY #1’s!” and the activists responding that those #1 didn’t matter. There is an active effort to destroy all of country music’s Black history to offer a clean slate for Queen Bey to “reclaim” country music for Black people.

But instead of eradicating racism or setting the record strait about country music’s Black history, the effect will be the exact opposite. It will exacerbate the culture war and stoke racism in country music directly. And if you do as Saving Country Music has done here—which is attempt to re-instill Black contributions back into country music’s historical narrative—you will be the one labeled as racist.

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You may not think that a single Black guy playing a banjo in a 50 year old painting, and four Black people over his shoulder that you can barely see in online renderings is not nearly enough to set the proper context for the Black contributions to country music. But what is inescapable is that they are there, and they were put the by the CMA’s and Country Music Hall of Fame’s founding fathers. They knew that in the future, someone might try to erase a certain element of country music’s rich tapestry of influences. And so they ensured it never would be.

Try as they may, the Sources of Country Music painting and country music’s primary history books will forever tell the true story. And that story includes critically important Black contributions.

© 2023 Saving Country Music