Country

AFRICA, APPALACHIA, AND ACCULTURATION: THE HISTORY OF BLUEGRASS MUSIC

AFRICA, APPALACHIA, AND ACCULTURATION: THE HISTORY OF BLUEGRASS MUSIC
by
Charles W. Perryman

D.M.A Research Project submitted to the College of Creative Arts at West Virginia University
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Musical Arts
in
Composition

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. It is equally irrefutable that bluegrass music shares a great deal in common with black musical styles such as jazz and the blues. Group improvisation, alternating solos, and swing are just some of the musical features that jazz, the blues, and bluegrass share. The banjo, an instrument which is inextricably linked to the bluegrass sound, is African in origin. Bluegrass singing was influenced by the blues, black field hollers, and African-American Psalm singing. The African, particularly West African, influence on bluegrass is perhaps more surprising, but is just as essential as the European influence. This study explores these two distinct strains of influence throughout the history (and pre-history) of bluegrass music. An examination of the musical characteristics of the style, the history of the music, the instruments, the playing and singing style, will reveal that the style has 2 roots in both West African and European cultures. These various elements will be traced from their origins in their respective cultures through the development of Appalachian folk music in the late nineteenth century to the emergence of bluegrass in the 1940s. It is my intention to explore how Bluegrass developed out of a synthesis of musical traditions that have their roots in European and West African cultures.

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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.
 
 

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.
 

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.
 
 

Jess Morris

 
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.
 
By 1894, at age sixteen, Jess formed his first musical group, which played for dances and balls throughout the region. Reportedly, it was not unusual for Morris's group to receive one hundred dollars for an evening of music. He is said to have studied violin both in Austin, Texas, and at Valparaiso, Indiana, but he claimed he would never be anything but a cowboy fiddler.
 
Morris competed in Amarillo's Tri-State Old Fiddlers' Contest in 1928 and 1929 but did not place. The newspaper account of the 1928 contest, however, singled him out for his rendition of "Goodbye Ol' Paint." According to the article, "the audience forgot all dignity and joined in a hearty, lusty yell on the chorus." In the 1931 contest, Morris placed second behind A. E. Rusk of Canyon, who won the event, and ahead of Eck Robertson, who took third. 
 
Besides fiddling, Morris worked as a cowboy and a wolfer on the XIT, LS, and LIT ranches.  In the early 1940s, Morris registered several of his original songs and fiddle tunes with the Library of Congress, including "El Rancho Grande XIT Schottische," "XIT Ranch Cowboy Polka," and "Ridin' Ol' Paint an' Leadin' Ol' Ball."

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Deford Bailey A Legend Lost

Deford Bailey was the most influential harmonica player in the first half of the 20th Century. Despite such acclaim, Deford dies quietly without recognition of his place in American music history...

Black Hillbilly Music

DeFord's family played tunes that were part of a rich tradition of string band playing shared by both blacks and whites in the early nineteenth century.

"White and blacks would be playing music and dancing at what you'd call a barn dance—you clean the ground off and put sawdust down on it and make it soft where you can dance. Well, they'd look out and see the Baileys and they'd say, ‘Here come the Baileys, we'll turn the thing over to them. They would usually have a fiddle, guitar, banjo, harp, mandolin, and drums.’"

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