I have been watching Ken Burns’s “Country Music” series on PBS. May not watch too much more of it as I am not that interested in more recent country music, although I like some of it.
So the big story of this series is how much of supposedly “white music” is of African-American origin. I had long been aware of how the banjo was of African origin, the core country instrument beside the “fiddle,” aka “violin,” which is of European origin. But it shows that most of the important early Country music people had serious interactions with black musicians, relying on them for finding music as well as helping them developing their own styles. These figures include A.P. Carter, the founder of the Carter family, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Johnnie Cash, and others.
All of this clearly rebukes the Country Music Association’s rejection of this year’s massive hit, “Old Country Road,” as being officially “country music.” Despite the fantasies of ignorant current racists, country music and rhythm and blues and, jazz, not to mention rock and roll, have always been curiously hybrid forms of music.
This also extends to rock and roll, with Elvis Presley coming originally out of hillbilly music with his sidemen of that origin. His borrowing from Rhythm and Blues was nothing new. Indeed, it was only in 1949 that Billboard shifted to calling what had been labeled “Race Music” to “Rhythm and Blues” and what had been “Hillbilly Music” to “Country and Western,” with people like Bob Wills adding Latino and cowboy themes to whhat had earlier come out of southwestern Virginia with Carter family, later tied up with Johnie Cash, and Billie Rodgers out of Mississippi. Both of these had African-American influences.
The earliest of these performers was arguably John Carson, recorded initially in 1923, who had been a textile worker in Atlanta. Among those he performed for included both the KKK and the US Communist Party. While originally an urban worker, he later moved to the rural Tennessee.
An ongoing theme involved class, with even Burns not showing this fully. Thus in the 1950s Patsy Cline was a big hit, with her song by Willie Nelson, “Crazy,” one of the biggest selling songs of all time. But the show did not depict how she was mistreated in her hometown of Winchester, Virginia, with this continuing until long after her death in a 1963 plane crash to the point that it was only quite recently that this city not too far from where I live finally figured out that they should overcome the longstanding disdain held by local elites against her and her “wrong side of town” background to honor her and her home, with much of this amounting to taking advantage of her popularity as a local girl made good and popular with tourists, even as the local elites continued to disdain her.
Anyway, the bottom line is that all of them: country, R&B, and rock and roll were racial hybrids with people from both Euripean traditions such as fiddlers as well as Africans with their banjos, and other influences as well, all drawing on each other. Current country music rulers out of Nashville ruling out “Old Valley Road” from being a country song because its singer is a black rapper, are simply ignoring hard history, as are those going the other way, ignoring European influences on supposedly “black music”