One of the reasons that we think of country as a white genre is that country music has connotations of Southern rural life, wide open spaces, and farming.
Southern rural life was decimated by the Great Migration, and wide open spaces have not always been safe for black people. What is not widely known is that, before the Great Migration, blacks were also disproportionately represented among American farmers. Not only during slave days, but also up until the early years of the twentieth century, black people were the farmers, at least in the South.
There’s a movement to revive black farming. Here Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm, near Albany, explains her mission.
Penniman is also featured in this documentary by Binghamton-native musician Taína Asili:
Watch a documentary about efforts to reclaim the urban decay of Detroit and repurpose it as farmland:
As Larry Depte, the spokesman for the (short-lived) X-brand Potato Chips, explained in 1992:
“X is a concept.” On each bag of the chips is printed the legend: “X stands for the unknown. The unknown language, religion, ancestors and cultures of the African American. X is a replacement for the last name given to the slaves by the slave master. We dedicate this product to the concept of X.”
“We’re not trying to market anybody’s name or likeness,” Mr. Depte said. “Ninety-five percent of African-Americans don’t know their original names and cultures. Most people don’t know this. X remains unknown, even though it stands for the unknown.”
Indeed, Lee even sought to trademark the letter “X” (read the linked article, “Who Owns X?” for more).
In the meantime, on a summer road trip, my children and I listened to an audiobook of A Wind in the Door, the second book in the fantasy/scifi YA series by Madeleine L’Engle known as the “Time Quartet” (the first is A Wrinkle in Time). The theme of Naming is prominent in the book: The human protagonists are assisted by an angel, who is also responsible for naming all the stars in the universe. The bad guys in the novel are known as Echthroi, the plural of the Greek echthros, meaning “The Enemy” (Ἐχθρός). The Echthroi’s destructive power comes from unNaming — Xing out their victims, turning them into nothing.
Names have power, in other words.
Azie and Evelyn of Say It Loud delve into the fascinating history of “black-sounding” names.
In “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X also draws on the symbolism of the black cowboy. It’s a little-known fact that roughly one out of every four cowboys in the late nineteenth century was black. As Irwin Silber notes, “Many an emancipated Negro decided to try his luck in the west.”
The music of the African-American cowboys had a lasting influence on cowboy ballads in general; in fact, “Home on the Range” was collected by John Lomax from a black trail cook.
Don Flemons, one of the founders of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, sings “Home on the Range” and other black cowboy songs on a recording he made in 2018 for the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
John Lomax also collected some “cowboy songs” from black informants in a South Carolina prison, including “Streets of Laredo”:
Content warning: explicit language, racial slurs (including the n-word) in original sources.
Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, dedicated his 1968 book Seize the Time, to his wife, Artie, and his son, Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale.
Malik’s third name, as Seale explains it,
derives from the lumpen proletarian politically unaware brothers in the streets. Stagolee fought his brothers and sisters, and he shouldn’t have. The Stagolees of today should take on the messages of Malcolm X as Huey Newton [the co-founder, with Seale, of the Black Panther Party] did, to oppose this racist, capitalist oppression our people and other peoples are subjected to. Malik must not fight his brothers. . . .
When my wife Artie had a baby boy, I said, “The nigger’s name is Malik Nkrumah Stagolee Seale.”
“I don’t want him named that!” Artie said.
I had read all that book history about Stagolee, that black folkloric history, because I was hung up on that stuff at the time . . . Stagolee was a bad nigger off the block and didn’t take shit from nobody. All you had to do was organize him, like Malcolm X, make him politically conscious. . . [Kwame] Nkrumah [the first president of post-colonial Ghana] was a bad motherfucker and Malcolm X was a bad nigger. Huey P. Newton showed me the nigger on the block was [as powerful as] ten motherfuckers when politically educated, and if you got him organized. I said, “Stagolee, put Stagolee on his name,” because Stagolee was an unorganized nigger, to me, like a brother on the block. I related to Huey P. Newton because Huey was fighting niggers on the block. Huey was a nigger that came along and he incorporated Malcolm X, he incorporated Stagolee, he incorporated Nkrumah, all of them.
Who was Stagolee, and why did his legend persist into the days of Black Power?
Also known as Stagger Lee, Stacker Lee, and Stack-o-Lee, among other derivatives, Stagolee was born Lee Shelton in Texas in 1865. He became a legendary pimp in St. Louis, and shot another man, Billy Lyons, in a bar fight in 1895, during which Lyons snatched Shelton’s Stetson hat off his head. As Joe Kloc describes the scenario:
Popular songs about Stagolee, in the ancient folk tradition of murder ballads, began cropping up almost immediately after this event. Shelton went to prison, and by the time he was paroled in 1909, the first written version of the lyrics about his misdeeds had been published. The folk narrative of Stagolee and Billy has been recorded hundreds of times by artists across color lines and genres, and Stagolee has become a romanticized outlaw in the great American tradition of Jesse James and Bonnie and Clyde.
The most famous rendition is by country blues guitarist Mississippi John Hurt.
The influential Depression-era white folksinger Woody Guthrie:
Blues guitarist Taj Mahal’s version:
In 1959, it became a rock-and-roll hit for Lloyd Price:
Amy Winehouse performing a cover of Lloyd Price’s cover:
Wilson Pickett’s blues-funk version in 1969:
The Grateful Dead:
Samuel L. Jackson talk-sings it in the movie Black Snake Moan:
British-Australian post-punk singer Nick Cave:
The lyrics for Nick Cave’s version are here. As you can see, Cave takes the tale out of the African-American context and places it in the genre of the generic murder ballad. Do you think it works?
Rudy Ray Moore’s toast, “Stack-a-Lee”:
Why do you think the legend of Stagolee has had such an enduring appeal to both black and white artists?
Bobby Seale described “the Stagolees of today” (in 1968) as “politically unaware brothers in the street.” What did he mean? Who are the Stagolees of the 21st century?
Has the romanticized-outlaw image of Stagolee carried over into rap music? Give an example of a song and an artist.
In his memoirs, John Lomax described collecting “Dink’s Song” in Texas in 1904, at a work-camp for skilled black builders from Mississippi who were constructing a levee on the Brazos River. Dink was one of a group of women imported from Memphis by the camp overseers to keep the workers happy and discourage them from drinking and fighting on Saturday nights. As Lomax writes in his 1934 anthology American Ballads and Folk Songs:
It was not long before every man had a woman in his tent to wash his clothes, cook, draw water, cut firewood, and warm his bed. Dink was one of these women.
In Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, Lomax fleshes out his narrative:
Lomax published the music and lyrics of “Dink’s Song” in American Ballads and Folk Songs. He suggested that the song was an African-American variant of the white Tennessee mountain ballad “Careless Love,” whose lyrics are almost identical (the lyrics about wearing one’s apron low, and then high, refer to out-of-wedlock pregnancy).
The repetition of the statement “fare thee well” can be found in many English ballads, going back at least to the eighteenth century.
The phrase “Fare you well” is also reminiscent of certain spirituals — like this one, recorded in 1937:
The earliest-known recording of “Dink’s Song” is sung by the white actress Libby Holman, with the accompaniment of the black guitarist Josh White:
During the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, “Dink’s Song” became a staple of the repertoires of (primarily white) folksingers, who mined the past for the authenticity they found in old ballads.
“Dink’s Song” was also featured in the 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis, with actor Oscar Isaac doing his own singing and guitar playing:
The subject matter is the theme of many folk ballads, including “Careless Love,” which made its way across the Atlantic to the Appalachians from the British Isles. Here it is sung by Tennessee folksinger Jean Ritchie:
Sung by Leadbelly:
Sung by Indian musician Arko Mukhaerjee and his band, Fiddler’s Green:
The song was collected and transcribed by Howard Odum in the early 20th century as “Kelly’s Love”:
W.C. Handy, the self-styled “Father of the Blues,” published a version of “Careless Love,” sung here by Nat King Cole as a Dixieland uptemp.
The blues singer and guitarist Gene Campbell — another “blues ghost,” about whom nothing is known except his surviving 78s — referred to the levee-camp practice of women setting up their own tents to wash the men’s clothes and sell sex in “Levee Camp Man Blues” (1930):
Men on the levee hollerin’, “Whoa” and “Gee”/And the women on the levee camp, hollerin’, “Who wants me?”
In the 1940s, the American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, also a folklorist and musicologist, published a collection of American children’s folksongs she had compiled. One of the numbers in this volume of 43 songs is “Such a Getting Upstairs.” This singer asserts that it is a “going-up-to-bed-song” from Indiana.
Ruth Crawford Seeger said of it:
It is the refrain of a play-party tune whose second section can be whistled or hummed or played, or sung with varying words like the following from Virginia: Some love coffee, some love tea, But I love the pretty girl that winks at me.
Indeed, another source cites “Getting Upstairs” as a Virginia song. The musician and folklorist Alan Jabbour describes it thus:
“Such a Getting Upstairs” is well-documented as a Virginia tune, appearing in Knauff’s Virginia Reels, vol. 4, #4 “Sich a Gittin Up Stars: Varied” and in Wilkinson, “Virginia Dance Tunes,” p. 4, played by James S. Chisholm of Greenwood, Virginia. Another nineteenth-century print set is Howe’s School for the Violin, p. 43. The tune seems to be akin to a tune in children’s song and play-party tradition (“This Old Man”).
Jabbour recorded Appalachian fiddler Henry Reed playing the song in 1967. Listen here:
And the sheet music, published in 1837, presents the song as a narrative of black-on-black violence.
The song was even included in the 1942 book Songs of the Rivers of America as a song about the Susquehanna River (the river on which Binghamton is situated).
In fact, many American children’s songs and folksongs have their origins in minstrelsy, including “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “Oh! Susanna,” “Old Joe Clark,” “Jimmy Crack Corn,” and “Who’s That Knocking.”
And not just children’s songs: American children’s literature has also been influenced and informed, both consciously and unconsciously, by stereotypes descended from blackface minstrelsy. Read Philip Nel’s provocative article “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?”
The genre of minstrel songs such as “Such a Gittin’ Upstairs,” which took as their subject violence committed by black men, were usually performed, paradoxically, by heavy-set white women, known as “coon shouters.” These singers not only crossed color boundaries in their performances, but also gender boundaries. Typically, such songs were written from the point of view of a black male protagonist, often referred to as a “bully,” and depicted carrying a razor. Coon shouters delivered the music and the lyrics (written in Tin Pan Alley’s notion of African-American Vernacular English) in stentorian tones, taking the part of black men in their portrayals and thus sanitizing black maleness for white audiences.
One of the premiere singers of this genre was Canadian-born May Irwin (1862-1938).
In his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson (best-known today for writing the poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing”), noted of the “Bully Song, which made Irwin rich:
Some will argue that blackface minstrelsy took place so long ago and that these children’s songs no longer represent that racist history. That history, however, was not that long ago: The last generation born in the segregated South still lives among us today. Black Americans won the right to vote a mere 50-odd years ago. The fallout from slavery and Jim Crow manifests itself today in the form of voter suppression, housing segregation, disproportionate imprisonment, and poverty. . . .
Yet others will argue that music exists on its own, immune to history or context. Music and history, however, are inextricably tied. You need no more proof of the power of music in shaping thought and history than in the very name for America’s system of segregation — “Jim Crow” — as having come from the first blackface minstrel character. . .
Minstrel songs belong where their historical role can be explored in depth — in museums and history classrooms of higher education. Or they belong reclaimed by African American artists like Rhiannon Giddens, who is reinterpreting minstrel songs while exposing their troubling roots.
Have minstrel stereotypes persisted in black music? Writing in 2001, music critic Nick Tosches asked rhetorically:
Does “Cop Killer,” fine and wonderful an entertainment as it is, differ from “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” except that it traffics in another stereotype, sells a different and more [modern] candy? There is, in fact, in all of late-twentieth-century rap music, no pose more bloodthirsty, razor-slashing, swaggering, and deadly, no performance more nastily and vehemently free with and full of the word “nigger” as epithet, nor with and . . . menace as ethos, than that of “The Bully,” a coon-song hit of 1907 by the coon-song shouter May Irwin . . . Ah, but to hear “The Bully” done up anew today, in full technological violence, by, say, the Wu-Tang Clan — now that would be something.
Do you agree with Tosches that late-twentieth-century rap is a latter-day version of the “coon songs” of old? Why or why not?
The article quoted above suggests that the project is good for musicians, as it “gives [them] the chance to record using 1930s technology.”
And the project’s directors assert:
What we have found is that the film, music and feelings that result defy space and time, [creating] living music inspired by ghosts.
What do you think they mean by “living music”?
Do you think that singing into an old mic in a sub-optimal recording space, with the result a single acetate 78 record, is an endeavor that would be positive for an artist?
How do you think working on either side of the mic in this project would affect you as a musician? As a sound engineer?
The project directors see themselves as the heirs of John Lomax and his son Alan, who drove through the United States beginning in the 1920s, recording the music of rural people on farms, in churches, work camps, and prisons. The Lomaxes’ aim was to preserve the songs in a rapidly-industrializing and -urbanizing nation, to store them up for future generations and prevent their irrevocable loss.
This is not the 78 Project’s aim; that ship sailed long ago. Most of the “old songs” have been recorded, transcribed, and catalogued at the Library of Congress. I see The 78 Project as an effort motivated by the present era’s anxiety over the loss of culture and memory. We have already mostly lost the notion of music as a tangible thing, preserved on a heavy shellac record that you can hold in your hand, for which you had to dig actual paper money or coins out of your pocket and hand to someone in order to purchase. This music had to be played on a Victrola big enough to double as a piece of furniture, and as such required dedicated, concentrated listening. You will recall that, in White Tears, the 78 records themselves take on almost talismanic properties, and the collectors gather in Chester Bly’s apartment to listen to them as if at a religious ritual.
The anxiety that I believe underlies the 78 Project is the result of having nothing substantial to hold onto. Music streamed, music in the cloud, has no touchable, physical, graspable form; you can’t hold it or possess it the way earlier generations could a 78, an LP, or a CD. It has been cleaned up, stripped down, sterilized, digitized, worked on, messed with, dirtied up, sampled, chopped and screwed, augmented. It is no longer performed by living musicians from a certain place at a certain time. It may not even be performed at all, but rather created by producers out of the bits and pieces of performed music from the past.
It would be hard to argue that the musicians recorded by the Lomaxes long ago would not have preferred today’s technology over what they had to work with. The Lomaxes sought to preserve the old music in its purest possible form before it disappeared for good. But what makes music “pure”? Is it accurate recording technology? Is it a pristine soundproof studio? Or is it the atmospheric presence of crickets chirping in the background, screen doors swinging, and the incidental voices of children as the musician plays on his or her front porch? Can the music be separated from its origins, from its place, and still retain its meaning?
So, while The 78 Project bills itself as a “documentary and recording journey inspired by Alan Lomax and his quest to capture music where it lived throughout the early 20th century,” it seems to me that they’re coming at it backwards. Rather than going to the mountains, hollers, farms, and prisons to record the music in its “home places,” the project directors engage emerging and already-established artists to sing the “old songs” in a spot of their choosing, into a single direct-to-acetate recorder. This is a project of imitation, not one of authenticity.
The conditions of the Lomax recordings can’t be duplicated, because the old songs no longer live in their home places. The music of the mountains, farms, and prisons today is mass-produced, commercial, homogeneous, globally distributed, and essentially the same everywhere. The Lomaxes got there right on time. Their moment has passed, and no amount of Roseanne Cash singing a Tennessee ballad in her Upper West Side apartment can bring it back.
I understand the nostalgia for the past. In a certain sense, all recording is a project of nostalgia. The word “record” comes from the Latin recordare, which means “to remember.”
When you listen to an old record, there can be no illusion that you are present at a performance. You are listening through a gray drizzle of static, a sound like rain. You can never forget how far away you are. You always hear it, the sound of distance in time. But what is the connection between the listener and the musician? Does it matter that one of you is alive and one is dead? And which is which?
It may be that the attempt to dirty up a sound recording in these days of digital perfection is not only the quest for lost authenticity, but also a way to listen to ghosts. As Brian Seibert suggested in his review of White Tears, “A drowned or buried voice can sound more compelling [than a live, present one].”
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.
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.
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:
thoroughbred racing 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 yet a mutual appreciation for fresh greens and cornbread an almost heroic notion of family and porches makes us kinfolk somehow but having never ridden bareback or sidesaddle and being inexperienced at cutting hanging or chewing tobacco yet still feeling complete and proud to say that some of the bluegrass is black enough to know that being ‘colored‚ and all is generally lost somewhere between the dukes of hazard and the beverly hillbillies
but if you think makin‚’shine from corn is as hard as Kentucky coal imagine being an Affrilachian poet
(As you will notice from the map above, WE are in Appalachia.)
Many American folk songs were performed by both Black and white singers.