A diagram of the major themes of country music.
Country music may seem like the whitest of music genres, and has even been called “The White Man’s Blues.” Songs like Merle Haggard’s “I’m a White Boy” certainly advance that narrative.
But is that narrative reliable?
It’s true that some of the major themes of country music have traditionally been closed to black musicians. “Driving on the open road,” for instance, has historically been, and still can be, downright dangerous for black Americans.
But the other themes are pretty universal. Yes, including trucks.
And certainly failed relationships.
What is not widely known is that country music has been integrated since its earliest days. Although early recording labels divided their catalogs into “hillbilly” and “race” records, the recording sessions were often integrated. In fact, the so-called “Father of Country,” Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), recorded with jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong and his wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong.
One of the great Appalachian fiddlers of the twentieth century was Kentucky-born Bill Livers, a black man. You can hear his astonishing playing here.
As multi-instrumentalist and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Rhiannon Giddens notes, the assumptions that (1) all country music begins in Appalachia, and (2) there were no black people in Appalachia, are patently false.
In fact, Giddens recently formed the group Our Native Daughters, whose core members are four banjo-picking black women who are experts in traditional American folk music. Read more here and listen to their song “Quasheba, Quasheba” here.
The facts are that Appalachia is not a racially homogeneous region, and that American blacks have deep ties to the rural histories and landscapes of the American south, and to the roots of traditional American folk music. For more, read the transcript or watch the video of Rhiannon Giddens’s 2017 speech before the International Bluegrass Music Association, here:
Affrilachia (a poem by Frank X Walker, who coined the term)
and hee haw
are burdensome images
for Kentucky sons
venturing beyond the mason-dixon
anywhere in Appalachia
is about as far
as you could get
from our house
in the projects
a mutual appreciation
for fresh greens
an almost heroic notion
makes us kinfolk
but having never ridden
and being inexperienced
or chewing tobacco
yet still feeling
complete and proud to say
that some of the bluegrass
enough to know
that being ‘colored‚ and all
is generally lost
the dukes of hazard
and the beverly hillbillies
if you think
makin‚’shine from corn
is as hard as Kentucky coal
(As you will notice from the map above, WE are in Appalachia.)
More genre-bending from Valerie June.
Though the Carolina Chocolate Drops said it first.