Imagine a world where, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement's recent resurgence, country music's headlines were not dominated by chatter regarding Lady A and the Drive-By Truckers' ham-handed attempts at reconciling the negative connotations of their band names. Imagine an industry in which a multitude of Black country stars, buoyed by the passion of protesters worldwide, boldly launched into hard, but necessary, dialogues with the genre's majority non-Black fanbase.
Portland, Maine, 1947. Two teenagers, one white, one black, rummaged through the record bins at Knight’s Used Furniture store. The two didn’t know each other, but they scavenged for the same music: Mostly harmony-rich records of duos from the south. Back then it was frequently called “hillbilly music,” and it often arrived in Portland via military personnel who had traveled from southern homes to their Maine station.
On the surface, bluegrass music is a style of country music heavily influenced by Appalachian folk music. As with almost all Appalachian folk music, the typical ensemble is a four- to seven-piece band made up of non-electrified string instruments. Many bluegrass songs are taken directly from the Appalachian folk repertoire and those that are original compositions show many of the melodic and rhythmic trademarks of the tradition. Bluegrass musicians, perhaps more so than in any other style of country music, are in constant contact with the communities of Appalachia and most of the musicians are from the region and frequently play there. These musicians and their audience are almost exclusively white, and it is undeniable that bluegrass music owes a great deal to the musical traditions of white Appalachians.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
Jess Morris, born June 12, 1878, in Williamson County, Texas, was a noted fiddler in the western Panhandle region. In 1890, his father moved the family to a ranch near old Tascosa, in the northwest panhandle. The family lived for a time in the Casimero Romero home, built in the 1870s by some of the earliest settlers of the area