Recent Posts, Blogs & Articles

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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The Carolina Chocolate Drops with Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson: a benefit for "Black String Revival"


 

A benefit performance for Black String Revival, an hour-long documentary from Fretless Films which will tell the story of the rise and fall and the rise again of the Black string band tradition. Before the Blues--and the phonograph-- revolutionized popular music, African-American string bands featuring banjo and fiddle played for “frolics” (square dances), parades, house parties, corn shuckings, funerals, and baby christenings. Largely forgotten, this vital musical tradition survived into the 1950s. Now a new generation of blacks is rediscovering and reinvigorating the string band tradition. Black and white scholars are documenting the African origins of the banjo and how African-Americans adapted it. At the same time, young African-American string bands like The Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Ebony Hillbillies, Sankofa Strings, and Don Vappie and His Creole Jazz Seranaders are reinventing traditional banjo and fiddle music.

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