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Charley Pride's Big, Black, Country Cojones

Charley Pride
White Man's Blues
 
In the world of musical entertainment many artists sometimes find a love of a musical type outside their cultural sphere. 
 
White rappers (jokes in the music industry, for the most part) have managed to carve out a niche by usurping, emulating, and co-opting “black” culture in their “music”.  Such artists, however, are tolerated (if not embraced) in that world and many of them (Beastie Boys or Eminem, for example) sell millions of dollars’ worth of product.
 
The world of rock ’n’ roll was an open door for race relations almost from inception.  Black musicians and vocalists cozied up to white recording artists at the top of sales’ charts in the form’s earliest years.  [Although some artists’ recordings, such as those by Little Richard, were considered too “racy” by white bread America and were ripped off and re-recorded, notoriously by Dot Records, by “safe” WASPs.  Pat Boone’s toned-down rendition of the rollicking “Tutti Frutti” stands as a hilarious monument to such sanitizing.  Even Fats Domino came in for the Dot Records treatment with Boone’s version of “Blueberry Hill”.]
 
Country music, stemming from its earlier recordings known as “hillbilly”, was not (and is not) a racially integrated music, although historically blacks have played major roles in its evolution.  The artists and fans were not known as racially sensitive or particularly enlightened in matters of race relations; in many proven cases (as in Country records clearly using slanderous racial epithets) there was not only intolerance of African-Americans but downright hostility toward them. 
 
Bizarrely, a lone black man in America (to date, the only one of significance) decided early in his career to buck the system.  His love of the easy, laid-back twangy stylings of hillbilly music led that African-American man, against great odds and possible danger to his life, to embrace and insert himself into a culture that not only distrusted blacks in America but also hated them. 
 
Charley Pride (who early in his career could not even put his picture on his singles’ sleeves or LP jackets over concerns of a racist backlash) not only gained acceptance within the hostile racism of Country music and its fans but he was successful, selling over 70 million records and having many hits.  To date, however, he is the only black superstar Country music has ever produced.
 

 

Twang Is Not a Color

The Armstrong Brothers String Band
Where are African-Americans in Today’s Country Music?
By: Laurie Paulik
 
They giggled and reached out, trying to touch the big, shiny buckle. The hat too. For sure, they'd never seen anyone like him before. But there he was, one of their own, singing that hillbilly stuff and looking like he rode into town on Trigger.Carl Ray
 
They were only children but society's prejudices had already seeped in and stolen something from them. Brothers didn't dress like cowboys and they didn't sound like that.
 
"I just love country music and I'm sharing country music," said aspiring black recording artist Carl Ray. "I'm part of the process of change. It's almost like a Martin Luther King movement without the crowds."
 
But what's to change? After all, Charley Pride broke the racial barrier long ago, didn't he?
 
From 1966 to 1989, the hits never stopped. Twenty-nine songs made it to #1 on the charts. And after Charley, there was, well, there was -- who?
 
Country music today remains the most homogeneous of all musical genres. The industry's myopic vision regarding minority artists not only thwarts the hopes and dreams of individuals, it disenfranchises African-American listeners.
 
Most damaging of all in the long run, business decisions made on Nashville's Music Row perpetuate the idea that country music fans respond first to what they see, and secondarily to what they hear.
 
Image is undeniably important in today's country music scene as evidenced by the marginally talented, but good-looking, artists who've achieved success. However, in implying that black is an image white country music audiences cannot embrace, the industry has managed not only to misread its audience and lose potential new stars, but to negate its own history.
 

African-American Presence in Country Music History

African-American influences in country music can be documented at least as far back as the 1920s. Harmonica ace, DeFord Bailey, appeared on the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1926. "Whites and blacks in rural communities in the South played in stringbands," said Frankie Staton, head of the Black Country Music Association. "Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, learned guitar from black laborers he worked with."
 
Robert Johnson was a black blues musician and contemporary of Jimmie Rodgers. Retrospective boxed sets of music from both artists are available today. "If you go back and play those two boxed sets, they're not very different from each other in sound. And you begin to understand, first hand, why they call country music the white man's blues," said Tom Roland, music columnist for the Nashville Tennessean. "Hank Williams was taught by a black street musician called Tee-Tot. In fact, the near inseparability of early country music and early blues is now documented in a 3-CD compilation released by Warner Bros. in 1998. Called "The Black Experience: From Where I Stand," the album presents 52 black artists' contributions to country music and includes not only African-American artists primarily known for their contributions to the blues, but those such as Charley Pride and Cleve Francis, who identified themselves solely as country artists.
 

Charley Pride - an Anomaly

Though many African-Americans have contributed their talents to country music, only Charley Pride has ever achieved true and lasting success. His career is even more remarkable when one considers that he entered country music in 1966 during a period of great racial unrest in this country.
 
Why was he successful when all others have failed?
 
"Charley Pride made it because Chet Atkins stood up for him," said the BCMA's Staton, "They didn't put his face on his album covers. They put out this album by a brother and nobody knew he was black."
 
Roland agrees, "They didn't send out any publicity photos, which is unusual. The idea, I'm sure at that time, that an African-American artist might even be trying, was absurd. He was really country, particularly when he started. He was called ‘Country’ Charley Pride the first few records. And, in fact, though Jack Clement was producing him, they put the names of four different producers on the records, the first couple of albums, just so people would know that there were a number of high-powered executives who all believed in this performer.
 
"So, radio stations were playing his records before they discovered his ethnicity and, at that point, how do you get off the record? How do you pull it without labeling yourself a racist? So, it was kind of shrewd on RCA's part because once they're on it, they can't just jump back out."
 
The approach taken by RCA in launching Charley Pride's career indicates that executives feared racism in their audience and media outlets. It will never be known whether Pride would have succeeded had he been presented as other artists of the day were. The instant communication of today's world, as well as the business climate in Nashville today, ensures that no new careers will ever be launched that way.
 
While one can list some of the reasons Charley Pride succeeded, explaining why all other African-American artists have failed to establish themselves is a much trickier proposition.
 
 

Brent Williams inducted into the Nova Scotia Country Music Hall of Fame

Brent WIlliams
Liverpool, NS – September 19, 2013 -
 
Legendary Country artist Brent Williams has been inducted into the "Nova Scotia Country Music Hall of Fame" Brent's lengthy career has spanned a 55 year period. A plaque will rest at the Hank Snow museum in Liverpool, NS for fans and public to view.
 

Brent Williams

 
Brent Williams, the youngest of eight children, was born on a small farm in Hassetts, NS on March 25, 1940. Influenced by his mother’s love of music & encouraged by his brother to begin playing guitar, Brent went on to have a professional musical career spanning over 55 years. 
 
He was an original member of the bluegrass band “The Birch Mountain Boys” who toured the Maritime Provinces.  Brent, along with singing partner Harry Cromwell, created “The Brent & Harry Show” and while on the Gaspe Coast in 1963 joined up with the Marcel Martel Show from Drummondville, PQ.   A few years later Brent moved to Toronto and began a solo career in mainstream country. Whether playing at the Matador Club in Dartmouth, on stage at Seneca College in Toronto, as a guest on:  Don Messer’s Jubilee, Country Time, Make Mine Country, CJCH Jamboree, Maritime Playboys Show,  or recording at RCA Studios in Nashville, Brent’s musical talent and charisma leaves his listeners in awe. During the ‘90’s,  Brent’s cross-Canada tours became a regular with the biggest chain store in the world, Wal-Mart. Hosting many of his own stage shows gave him the opportunity to perform his award winning songs, many of which were top 20 chart busters.
 
During his career, Brent has shared the stage with numerous well-known artists including: Stompin' Tom, Dave Dudley, Family Brown, Oakridge Boys, Wilburn Brothers, Stoneman Family, Jean Shepard, Osborne Brothers, Prairie Oyster, Terry Carisse, Charlie Louvin, Freddie McKenna, Red Shea, Joyce Seamone, Carroll Baker, Shania Twain, Myrna Lorrie, Vic Mullen, Ned Landry, The Mercy Brothers, and Ronnie Prophet. 
 
Brent was one of the founding members of the Canadian Country Music Association, won the ‘Bon Soo’ Open Fiddle competition, recorded over 20 albums, received a Certificate of Merit (Condor/Marathon Music) Canadian Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences ‘76 & ‘77, and has been nominated for a CCMA award.
 
 
Brent continues to tour throughout the Maritimes and Canada.  For the past 10 years his career has taken a turn toward Gospel - recording and performing as part of his personal ministry. Whether your taste is for Gospel, or rich country vocals accompanied by acoustic guitar, five-string banjo, or picking blue grass or fiddle tunes ranging from old-time to Cajun, Brent Williams does it all.
 
Image credits: Nova Scotia Country Music Hall of Fame, Brent Williams
 
 

Rural Black String Band Music by Charles Wolfe


The first time I think I ever seen Arnold Schultz … this square dance was at Rosine, Kentucky, and Arnold and two more colored fellows come up there and played for the dance. They had a guitar, banjo, and fiddle. Ar­nold played the guitar but he could play the fiddle-numbers like "Sally Goodin." People loved Arnold so well all through Kentucky there; if he was playing a guitar they'd go gang up around him till he would get tired and then maybe he'd go catch a train …. I admired him that much that I never forgot a lot of the things he would say. There's things in my music, you know, that comes from Arnold Schultz-runs that I use in a lot of my music (Bill Monroe, quoted in Rooney 1971).1

Quotes such as this one from bluegrass star Bill Monroe are by no means atypical. For ten years I have been interviewing at length older country musicians and folk musicians from the 1920s and 1930s about that misty borderland wherein traditional American folk music was somehow transformed into commercial country music; many, many of them mention bands such as Arnold Schultz's string band, point to them as influences, as models, as colleagues. They point to a genre of American music that most scholars have ignored and that most mem­bers of the general public do not even know existed: a genre that De­Ford Bailey, the famous harmonica player on the early Grand Ole Opry, defined for me as "black hillbilly music." "Sure," he said, "black hillbilly music. Everybody around me grew up playin' that. Fiddles and banjos and guitars; they weren't playin' no blues then. It was black hillbilly music" (Bailey 1975).

For years the emphasis of those studying black American folk music has been directed to religious music (the first really respectable music to study), to jazz (the first commercially successful brand of music), or to blues. Yet do these three forms really account for all of the rich variety of black music found in folk tradition-or just the most visible ones? What about the rural fife-and-drum tradition, which has lingered unno­ticed in Tennessee until this present generation? What about the tradition of black non-blues secular song? And what about the tradition of the rural string band music? To explore these aspects of black music requires a great deal more digging and musical archaeology but might yield in the end results as fruitful as those coming from jazz, blues, and religious music studies.

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1. Arnold Shultz, incidentally, went on to influence Kennedy Jones, who taught white musician Mose Rager, who taught Merle Travis and Chet Atkins.

DISCOGRAPHY

Virginia Traditions. BRI-001. Blue Ridge Institute, Ferrum College, Ferrum, Va. Blind James Campbell and his Nashville Street Band. Arhoolie 1015, recorded as recently as 1962. Altamont: Black string band music from the Library of Congress. Rounder Records or Compact Disc 0238. 0942-1946 recordings by the John Lusk String Band and the fiddle-banjo duo of Nathan Frazier and Frank Patterson, with extensive annotation by the author.}

Originally published in Black Music Research Newsletter 4, no. 2 (Fall 1980). Used by permission of Mary Dean Wolfe.

Crossing Country - by John Morthland

NOTE: This originally appeared in Oxford American, issue #21/22 (1997), revised May 2000 by the author.
 
Black people began adapting white music to their own ends almost as soon as they arrived in America. The earliest African-Americans, forced into slavery in New England around 1619, were allowed but one communal respite from work: the white man's church. Blacks sang the same religious musics as whites, most of it written by Methodist ministers from England and brought to this country by missionaries. Before long, blacks has grown especially partial to the stern but redemptive hymns of Dr. Isaac Watts, which were published in America during the Great Awakening of the 1730s. Those hymns remained the backbone of black gospel music all the way into the 1950's and '60's.
 
The musical miscegenation that began in those New England churches is arguably not as vital as it once was, but it continues today in various forms, from white rap, and black hip-hop that samples hard-rock guitar solos, to the blues that have been appropriated by whites and turned into simple party-down music since being abandoned by most blacks. As the blues example suggests, such interplay always has its ups and downs. You won't find many black people who recall with affection minstrelsy and blackface, the popular musical forms of their time, and you also won't find many whites who'll admit today that a performance at the House of Blues is the current equivalent of those forms.
 
In the 1920's, the earliest days of the recording business, cross-pollination was still going strong. Consider the instruments used by blacks and whites in their traditional musics. The fiddle, small and portable came to the U.S. with the earliest settlers, and blacks slowly adapted it. The banjo, originally an African instrument, was popularized among whites via minstrel shows and, by the 1830's, was common in country fiddle bands. The guitar, a European instrument first used in this country by well-bred Northerners, was made more accessible by the Sears catalog. Soon after the turn of the century, black railroad workers took the guitar into the Southern mountains, and whites picked it up too. The Dallas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson cut the first steel-guitar record in 1926, and West Virginian Frank Hutchison five months later with the first country record to use steel. Whatever they started as, these were not white or black, country or blues instruments; they were Southern instruments, the sound of the Mississippi Delta, the Tennessee mountains, and the Kentucky bluegrass country. Traditional songs likewise bounced back and forth between the races.
 
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Jimmy Collier

Jimmy Collier stands out in a crowd with his trademark cowboy hat.  But it's the sound of the tall, sturdy troubadour's music that has magnetized listeners across the land.  Today with the technological ease of CD recording and internet communication, Collier can bring his music to fans without leaving his ranch in rural Mariposa.  That wasn't always the case.
 
For many years Collier went on the road to favor audiences across America and Canada with his smile, his irrepressible sense of humor, and his music.  In his heyday, he opened for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., appearing on Sesame Street and played Carnegie Hall.
 
Born in Fort Smith, Ark., Collier was raised by his grandparents, both of whom loved music.  He remembers his grandmother playing the piano on Sundays with all of his relatives gathered around and singing their hearts out.  His grandfather even created his own musical instruments and played nearly anything.  "I grew up with a lot of instruments around, and music."  
 
 

Yee Haw! The Rise of Black Country

 
Thanks to Darius Rucker, Rissi Palmer and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, black folks are finally rediscovering their country roots.
 
There’s long been an assumption that black folks and country music just don’t mix—even though that assumption completely erases from history the music and success of Charley Pride, Ray Charles and even the Pointer Sisters: To many blacks, country music is seen as synonymous with rednecks and white supremacists, its incongruity with pigmented people, relegating it to little more than a bad punch line in pop culture. (Cue Samuel Jackson and Bernie Mac stranded at a country juke joint in Soul Men! Two brothers singing country and dancing the two-step! Hilarity ensues.) 
For far too long if you loved country, and you had, what Pride called a “pigmentation situation,” chances are, you kept that love on the down low.
 
Now, it seems, it may finally be OK to come out of the closet.
Oprah recently dedicated an entire show to country music, declaring, “Country music is the real soul music!” Sitting next to her was Darius Rucker, of Hootie and the Blowfish, who made history atop the country charts, the first African-American solo act to have a No. 1 country hit since Pride wrapped things up in 1983. (Ray Charles, performing with Willie Nelson, had a hit in 1984.)
 
 

Race And Country Music Then And Now

In a recent book, Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, editor Diane Pecknold rounds up some of the better music writers in academia in order to put a light on country's many black roots and the country's unease with said roots. It's not perfect, but what's good here makes the collection indispensable.
 
The best pieces in Hidden in the Mix form neat bookends. The first is "Black Hillbillies: African American Musicians on Old-Time Records, 1924-1932," by Patrick Huber, a professor of history at Missouri University of Science and Technology. By scouring and collating data from hillbilly and "race" record discographies, Huber documents at least 22 racially integrated proto-country music recording sessions, and almost 50, if not more, African American musicians who played on hillbilly records before 1932. He call his research "particularly challenging" due to incomplete personnel records. Plus, he writes, "it is often frustratingly difficult, if not impossible, especially in cases of common surnames like 'Smith,' 'Jones' and 'Johnson,' to locate a particular artist in census records and other public documents and to determine his or her race with any degree of certainty." One of the fundamental received wisdoms of popular music history is that due to taste and Jim Crow, white folks made one kind of music (which became the roots of country and western) and black folks simultaneously made what the industry labeled "race music" (blues, gospel, rhythm and blues). Though race-mixing in the studio was a rare phenomenon, Huber shows clearly that interracial recording sessions, and the general sharing of musical ideas across Jim Crow lines, was far more common than is imagined today.
 
 

Blackface

The mask which the actor wears is apt to become his face -- Plato

Blackface is more than just burnt cork applied as makeup.
It is a style of entertainment based on racist Black stereotypes
that began in minstrel shows and continues today.

 

History of Blackface  

 
 
 
The stock characters of blackface minstrelsy have played a significant role in disseminating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. Every immigrant group was stereotyped on the music hall stage during the 19th Century, but the history of prejudice, hostility, and ignorance towards black people has insured a unique longevity to the stereotypes. White America's conceptions of Black entertainers were shaped by minstrelsy's mocking caricatures and for over one hundred years the belief that Blacks were racially and socially inferior was fostered by legions of both white and black performers in blackface.
 
 
 
Racist Black Stereotypes
 
Originating in the White man's characterizations of plantation slaves and free blacks during the era of minstrel shows (1830-1890), the caricatures took such a firm hold on the American imagination that audiences expected any person with dark skin, no matter what their background, to conform to one or more of the stereotypes:
 

Fiddle Tune History -- Minstrel Tales: Picayune Butler and Japanese Tommy "Hunky Dory!"

 

Andrew Kuntz
2012-05-24

For much of the 20th century onward, blackface minstrelsy has held an especially vilified place in American culture. Not that it was entirely embraced prior to that, for even in its prime in the mid-19th century minstrelsy was considered a “low” form of entertainment. Period social reformer Frederick Douglass minced no words about it, deriding the “filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their fellow white citizens.” His words will be appreciated by many today who still consider blackface minstrelsy the “poster child” of cultural exploitation of one race by another. However, minstrelsy has also been called the seedbed for all subsequent developments in American popular song, dance, and entertainment. For several decades, minstrelsy has been inspected through various revisionist lenses—it has, for example, been seen as an expression of cultural curiosity, an interface and point of cultural engagement between race and ethnicity, and, like rock-and-roll, an expression of a rebelliousness, “a raucous working-class alternative to the prissy ballads and light classical music that were popular at the time.” It has long been identified that minstrelsy contributed to the style, repertoire, and development of American traditional music, and that there is a continuous line of development between early minstrel bands, old time string bands, and modern bluegrass bands.

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