X, UnNaming, and the Cowboy Blues

This song dropped just as school was ending last semester.

Of course, I loved it. But, because I’m old and grumpy, I started thinking about and analyzing the nom de rap chosen by Montero Lamar Hill.

“Lil” like Lil Wayne, or like so many other rap artists?

“Nas” like . . . Nas?

“X” like DMX?

Or even Malcolm X?

Apparently not.

Again, because I’m old and grumpy, I started grumbling (in my mind, anyway) about how Words (and especially Names) Mean Things.

Here, Malcolm X — the unintended namesake of Lil Nas X — explains the meaning of his adopted last name.

In other words, Malcolm Little chose “X” as a symbol of the unnaming of his ancestors, who were stolen into slavery. If words have meaning, letters do as well, and X, used in this context, is particularly powerful. So powerful, in fact, that even such luminaries as Spike Lee have attempted to profit from that letter of the alphabet.

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).

I looked hard for a photo of those potato chips but couldn’t find one. They existed before smart phones. But this will give you some idea of what was going down back in the day.

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.

Read “Cowboy Blues: Early Black Music in the West.”

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.

In John Lomax’s article “Sinful Songs of the Southern Negro,” in your course reading packet, the folklorist mentions collecting some “cowboy songs” from black informants in a South Carolina prison, including “Streets of Laredo”:

And “The Old Chisolm Trail”:

As sung by Don Flemons:

Affrilachia

090513_country_rs

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.

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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.

bill livers string ensemble

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.

Affrilachia (a poem by Frank X Walker, who coined the term)

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

Map Of Appalachian Mountains map of appalachia my blog 400 X 390 pixels

(As you will notice from the map above, WE are in Appalachia.)

More genre-bending from Valerie June.

And Lil Nas X’s recent crossover hit “Old Town Road” draws on historical themes of “white” country music, as well as many themes of rap.

Though the Carolina Chocolate Drops said it first.