For years, country music fans have loved to label the Country Music Awards, ostensibly the main event for their genre, as anything BUT country. “CMA stands for ‘Country My Ass,”’ as some say. But when Beyoncé took the stage with the Dixie Chicks just a few weeks ago, country music as a genre began to collectively lose its mind. Comments swarmed over social media posts the next day decrying Beyoncé as a cop hater, a feared #blacklivesmatter activist, and most importantly, as someone who had no business playing country music. Not matter that the song she played, “Daddy Lessons” sure as shit played out like a country song. Bey shouts out her Texas roots, mandolin and harmonica open the song, there’s a nod to Zydeco in the scrub board, and she even has lyrics about bibles and guns. But apparently, that wasn’t enough. The real issue for many CMA viewers was that she’s black, she’s proud, and so she therefore doesn’t belong in country music.
Or does it? Sure you can point to the near total lack of black artists in country music today, excepting Darius Rucker, Cowboy Troy, or Charley Pride, the one black country artist who’s been the exception to the rule for decades. But the truth is that the roots of American country run black, and the key artists that built country music couldn’t have done so without their great love of and connection to African-American music. Now that we’re living in the age of Trump, it’s more important than ever to know where we come from and to look back to a time before the country music machine had erased black artists and musical forms from its own history. Here are six examples that illustrate country music’s roots in African-American history.
Few instruments are more iconic to country music than the banjo. A truly American instrument, the sound of the banjo for many evokes images of Appalachia, often evoking negative stereotypes of this region as well. The Dixie Chicks joined Beyoncé onstage at the CMAs playing a banjo, and most mainstream country artists now have a banjo somewhere in the ranks. But people seem to forget that the banjo is an African instrument. Developed over centuries in Africa and spread throughout West Africa, from the Gambian akonting, that looks exactly like a banjo, to the Malian ngoni, which is built like a banjo and played like one as well, down to the shorter fifth string. These banjo prototypes were brought to America by African slaves, or refashioned from memory in America. They would animate slave dances as well as dances for the plantation owners and whites. Over time these instruments became the banjo we know today, rooted in West African history and culture, and the structure of the music began to bend back towards Africa as well, moving towards modal melodies and notes existing in the gaps between the Western scale. But even from the very beginning, white people laid claim to the banjo and worked to erase its African history. The first banjo player star was the white minstrel banjo player Joel Sweeney who, though he learned the instrument from black artists, laid claim to having invented the fifth string, a clearly African part of the instrument. The banjo came into America through the incredible popularity of the minstrel show, a powerfully complex and viciously racist cultural institution that lasted over a hundred years and informed most aspects of popular music today. But black banjo players in Appalachia and the South persisted for years and still exist today, informed by a long history of white and black musicians interacting, usually leading to white musicians gaining widespread success from their adoption or appropriation of black traditions. Laurent Dubois’ new book The Banjo: America’s African Instrument provides an extensive history.
The “big bang” of country music, the recorded event that is credited with creating the genre, took place in the small town of Bristol, Tenn. in 1927. Here, the record scout Ralph Peer of Victor Records met and laid down tracks from the two key artists that would come to define country and would be its first big stars: The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Rodgers was a rail-thin, sickly youth when he was discovered. His band had broken up the day of the recording, so he went it alone, and sang songs with a country twang that could only have come from black singers. Simply put, he sang the blues. He mixed it with yodeling, a sound popular from Swiss vaudeville performers, and came up with his signature “Blue Yodel.” Adopting this name for a series of 13 different recordings, Rodgers’ blue yodel drew from the African-American singers, hobos, and gandy dancers that he encountered in his work as a railroad switchman, but also from African-American blues recordings of the time. In turn, his blue yodel would influence black blues artists like Mississippi John Hurt, Howlin’ Wolf, Furry Lewis, and more. Perhaps most remarkable about Rodgers is that he recorded directly with black artists at a time when this was infrequent and very unusual. His most famous recording with a black artist is his duet with famed jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong (and Armstrong’s wife Lil Hardin-Armstrong). “Blue Yodel No. 9,” recorded in 1930 is a recording still shrouded in mystery. In fact, Armstrong and Hardin weren’t even credited on the 78 (they were listed as “orchestra”). In later years, Armstrong would return to country, recording a country album in 1970 and dueting with Johnny Cash on Cash’s TV show (recreating the “Blue Yodel No. 9” session) the same year. Jimmie Rodgers was one of the first major stars of country music and owed most of his musical debt to the black artists that first inspired him.
Recorded that same day in Bristol, The Carter Family—three singers and musicians from deep Appalachia—represented the other pole of country music. Whereas Rodgers was the eternal rambler, living fast and dying young (from tuberculosis), the Carter Family stuck around to show off the family values and love of home that still define country today. But there, just as with Rodgers, they brought in their inspirations from black artists as well. A.P. Carter, the patriarch of the Carter Family, was known for his frequent song hunting excursions, and one of his key sources and traveling companions was African-American singer and guitarist Lesley Riddle. Riddle came out of the black music scene in his region, and met A.P. Carter one year after the Bristol Sessions. He would live at times with Carter and travel with him as well, sourcing songs from both black and white sources in the South. It’s inarguable that he had an influence on the Carter Family’s music and speaks to a pretty interesting point that a black and a white song catcher traveling together in Appalachia to find music from different communities breaks down a number of stereotypes we have now about the South at the time. In the 1960s, folklorist Mike Seeger (yep, related to Pete Seeger) rediscovered Riddle and recorded both his memories of traveling with A.P. Carter and the songs they used to sing. Riddle even went on to perform at the Smithsonian Folk Festival before his death.
While A.P. Carter and Jimmie Rodgers are seen as the fathers of country music, Bill Monroe is usually considered as the father of bluegrass. It’s true that he basically invented this genre, drawing from the early mountain music he grew up with, building a new image, cunningly bringing together like-minded visionaries, and never forgetting his roots in the old square dance tunes he grew up playing. Bluegrass has since become one of the most conservative branches of country music and finding black professional bluegrass artists is almost as challenging now as it has been historically. It may be the last bastion of white supremacy in American roots music today and more’s the pity since Monroe himself credited black roots music for his inspiration. In particular, he lauded Arnold Schultz, a black guitarist of some renown in his home state of Kentucky. Monroe studied and hung out with Schultz as a young man, soaking up his stories, fascinated by Schultz’s picking patterns on the guitar. Bluegrass scholar Robert Cantwell has asserted that had Monroe not fallen in love with the mandolin, he would have been a blues guitarist. A trickier point to figure out with Monroe is how much jazz influenced him. The Monroe family moved to Chicago in his youth, and it’s likely he was exposed to either Chicago’s hot black jazz scene, or the white jazz scene popping up all around and playing Dixieland music. Whatever the case, jazz seems to be the only real source for the breaks in bluegrass (instrumental solos traded between performers) that marks one of the biggest difference between the genre and the Appalachian old-time string band music that came before it. By the way, that guy Schultz? His particular finger picking also inspired, through a direct chain of transmission in his region of Kentucky, the picking of Merle Travis. “Travis picking,” which still contains traces of Schultz’s black ragtime influences, would go on to influence many many country guitarists and become one of the signature sounds of country.
We talk about country music, but there are really meant to be two elements to the genre— Country and Western. The Western often gets dropped these days, but it was an important part of the genre’s spread in the earlier days. Originally inspired by the music of Western cowboys, the first Western groups, like the singing cowboy Gene Autry or vocal group The Sons of the Pioneers, had a heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s, with numerous Hollywood films featuring the music and a demand in albums sold at the time. Resplendent with images of dusty cowhands and the Rio Grande, Western music may have gotten a little corny with the production polish outshining the original grit, but Texas bandleader Bob Wills would reinvigorate the genre by creating “Western Swing” in the 1940s. Bringing together the old fiddle tunes and waltzes that Wills had grown up with in East Texas with amplification, big bands that drew from jazz and swing ideas, and jazzy arrangements, Wills created something entirely new that grew to great popularity. At the core of his music, Wills was a blues singer and fiddler. He said as much himself, and he patterned his fiddling off black sources and his singing off of his hero, Bessie Smith. There’s a great story about how he rode 50 miles on horseback to hear Smith perform. Smith herself is an amazing figure in American music. She was bisexual, outspoken, and a huge star in the early blues era. Her powerful vocals and edgy lyrics cemented a reputation that’s still strong to day. Wills in turn would go on to influence and inspire California outlaw country artists like Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings and to spark Western Swing revival bands that continue today like Asleep at the Wheel. The story goes that Chuck Berry’s famous song “Maybelline” was even adapted from a Bob Wills song, “Ida Red.” Check out Bob Wills’ cover of the great Bessie Smith song “Empty Bed Blues.”
Not many people know that the first popular performer on the Grand Ole Opry was black. DeFord Bailey was a black harmonica player who became one of the first stars of the Grand Ole Opry; he even indirectly inspired the name! Now the pre-eminent performance venue and radio show for country music, the Grand Ole Opry was then a radio show paid for by an insurance company in Nashville. Playing as part of WSM’s Barn Dance (the original name for the Opry), Bailey’s masterful harmonica music made him one of the hallmarks of the program. He was known for his imitations of trains, which he learned growing up near the tracks in Tennessee. Of course, his race was not mentioned on air and in fact most people listening in had no idea he was black! It came as a surprise to many white Southerners to discover that Bailey was black when seeing him perform on later tours. Audiences for these tours were supposedly pretty welcoming of Bailey, though segregation cause issues for his touring with white artists like Roy Acuff or Bill Monroe. In the end, Bailey was screwed over by the music industry and faded to obscurity. But his star shone bright in the beginning and influenced countless country musicians to come.