Writing the history of Southern music: a review essay.
In the popular mind, Southern music, until at least the post-World War I era, had been perceived vaguely as black music, a strange compound of spirituals, minstrel tunes, Stephen Foster songs, and ragtime melodies. Until jazz burst on the national scene after 1917, to be quickly followed by the music of blues and gospel singers in the 1920s, the vernacular and commercialized musical expressions of Southern African-Americans were almost totally ignored.
White musical forms fared even more poorly. Beginning in 1910 with John A. Lomax's Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (New York: Sturgis and Walton), and culminating in 1917 with Cecil Sharp's English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (London: Oxford University Press), a few slices of the Southern white musical experience became known to a handful of collectors and academicians. Most Americans, however, remained ignorant of the music of the white plain folk who lived in that vast territory that lay between the mountains and the Texas Plains or who lived, not on remote farms or ranches, but in the working-class neighborhoods of the South's towns and cities. In their seminal books both Lomax and Sharp omitted certain strains or styles - Lomax the bawdy material of his cowboy subjects, and Sharp the religious songs and dance tunes of the mountain people(1) - and both men worked from an Anglo-Saxon perspective that narrowed their visions of folk culture. (Cecil Sharp, particularly, in his search for British survivals in the Southern hills, contributed to the impression that no other variety of folk music was worth saving or commemorating.) Consequently, the music that Sharp and Lomax chose to emphasize was too often romanticized or narrowly conceived, while that of the plain folk who lived in the vast interior of the South remained largely unknown or ignored.
The first major departure from the patterns popularized by Lomax and Sharp was George Pullen Jackson's White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933). Jackson concentrated on the religious music of the white people who lived outside of Lomax's and Sharp's areas of interest. In so doing, he not only reminded readers of the ubiquitous shape-note style of musical notation, and the singing schools and publishing houses which preserved the practice but also gave testimony to the power of music throughout the rural South.
Despite his crucial contributions, Jackson, like most writers who have dealt with Southern music, told only part of the story. He could not have known, of course, that the thriving shape-note publishing houses that he documented so well in 1933 would not only survive the Great Depression but would also spawn the vigorous Southern gospel-quartet business of our own time. When his book appeared, quartets sponsored by such publishing companies as J. D. Vaughan, Hartford, and Stamps-Baxter were already performing and selling songbooks in churches, singing schools, and singing conventions all over the South. On the other hand, as a champion of the older folk spirituals and of the venerable fasola style of singing, Jackson probably would not have approved of the innovative styles of the quartets, and he would have been repelled by the commercialization that steadily enveloped the religious music business after 1933.
Commercialization had indeed touched every variety of Southern vernacular music, religious and secular, by 1933. Musical expressions that had been confined to the church, the home, the country dance, the street corner, the juke joint, or the community celebration, now won greater circulation, and potentially larger audiences, through phonograph recordings, Hollywood movies, radio broadcasts, and the personal appearances inspired by these commercial media. Although Southern musical styles gradually moved out to the farthest reaches of North America, very few academicians deigned to recognize the blues, hillbilly, Cajun, cowboy, gospel or other commercialized manifestations of Southern music. Until the post-World War II era, Guy Johnson, Howard Odum, and Alan Lomax were virtually alone among music scholars in recognizing the powerful role played by phonograph records in the dissemination and preservation of folk music.
The post-world War II awakening of vernacular-oriented music scholarship was inspired by a peculiar convergence of celebration and fear. On one hand, at least a few writers strove to celebrate such musical idioms as jazz,(2) blues, and country which had demonstrated commercial endurance and artistic excellence. In contrast, an even larger number of writers rushed into print in order to preserve and commemorate those forms that seemed endangered by excessive commercialization or stylistic dilution. The chief thrust behind most of the scholarship, therefore, was purism, the impulse to define what was authentic and the consequent desire to see that it was properly preserved and documented.
Profiting from research techniques pioneered by jazz collectors in the 1930's, a small group of writers launched a mini-revolution in blues scholarship at the end of the 1950's. The motivations that lured young white men into the performance of blues, or into the collection of old blues recordings, and from there into the documentation of a culture very different from their own, may never be properly understood. However the civil rights movement clearly contributed to a climate of respect and sympathy for African-Americans, while also triggering a sense of guilt among many middle-class liberals. A compassion for black people sometimes inspired an appreciation for their music, and, on the other hand, a fascination with presumed black musical styles often engendered greater interest in and respect for the culture that had given them birth. As appealing as black music might be, it nevertheless seemed difficult to appreciate without viewing its creators as exotics who had built lifestyles which were far different from, and in some respects, superior to, those of white people. The fascination with black culture, and the belief that it was more liberated and hedonistic than white culture, had fueled the interest in black music among young white men since the days of the black-face minstrels in the 1830s.(3) A similar preoccupation may have ignited the explosion of blues scholarship that came after World War II.
The first general treatments of the blues came in 1959 and 1960 with the publication of Samuel Charters, The Count Blues (New York: Rinehart, 1959), and Paul Oliver, Blues Fell Like Morning (London: Cassell, 1960), republished later as The Meaning of the Blues. Like many other (perhaps most) scholars who have since dealt with vernacular styles, both writers were fans and collectors of the music they described, and both placed great emphasis on phonograph recordings as documents. They also wrote from a profoundly rural perspective, concentrating on the men and women whose music reflected the hard lives and loves (spent in the rural, segregated South). Charters' book did much to popularize the term "country"(4) as the proper designation for the music recorded between 1926 and 1933 (music performed mostly by men and usually with their own guitar accompaniment). Charters and Oliver often ventured into other realms of black musical expression, but their scholarly interests remained moored to the music of the early commercial years or to those modern urban musicians, like Muddy Waters or Lightning Hopkins, whose styles were clearly derivative of the early country blues.
Paul Oliver, an Englishman, whose initial research came predominantly from his own extensive record collection, has become the undisputed authority on American blues music. His The Story of the Blues (New York: Barrie and Rockliff, 1969) was immediately hailed as the best available general survey of the subject. He served as editor of Blues Paperbacks, a series of biographies and monographs, originally published by Studio Vista Limited, London. Oliver made no special pleadings for any particular musicians but instead dealt with the total context and historical experiences that produced the music. Oliver's immersion in the American country blues did not prevent him from exploring other musical forms that were sometimes only peripherally related to his chief passion. The publication of his country blues books had been preceded, in fact, by his short biography of the great city blues singer Bessie Smith. In Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues (New York: Stein and Day, 1970) Oliver explored the West African roots of the blues, and in Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984) he reminded his readers that the blues were only one facet of the black musical repertoire. The recordings of the 1920s and 1930s offered a remarkably diverse body of material that included sermons, unaccompanied quartet singing, gospel music, minstrel pieces, instrumental tunes, ballads, and parlor songs.
Regardless of the eclecticism of the black repertoire, most writers have been drawn inexorably toward the blues. And although the blues idiom touched the performances of musicians all over the South, spawning distinctive regional styles such as those heard in Texas and the Southeast, no area has elicited more discussion than the Mississippi Delta, the fabled "birthplace of the blues." W. C. Handy's professional music life took a decisive turn when he first heard the revolutionary sound in Tutwiler, Mississippi, in 1903. The best account of that first encounter, and of the career that produced songs like "Memphis Blues" and "St. Louis Blues" is still Handy's wonderful autobiography, Father of the Blues (New York: Macmillan, 1941; rpt. De Capo Press, 1991). Virtually all writers who have dealt with the blues have devoted much of their energies to the Delta, but three scholars have contributed impressive monographs on the subject. David Evans concentrates on the poetry and musicology of the genre in Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982). William Ferris proposes the idea of a blues community in Blues From the Delta (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1978). The bluesman serves as the spokesman for shared community values, and his audience makes crucial contributions to the shaping of both the style and content of his music. In his beautifully written Deep Blues (New York: Viking Press, 1981), Robert Palmer discusses the peculiar circumstances which produced the Delta blues community, and, concentrating primarily on the career of Muddy Waters, he shows how the acoustic Delta style evolved into the aggressive and electifried urban form identified with chicago.
Although writers have never lost their interest in the Delta blues, a growing contingent have reached out toward other regional or topical expressions of the blues, or have added new dimensions of understanding to the older and well-plowed fields of scholarship. Like the writers who preceded him, Jeff Todd Titon concentrated on the count blues in his Early Downhome Blues (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977). But in substituting the rubric "downhome" for the more commonly used term, and by suggesting that the blues conveyed images of the Southern home experience to both musicians and audience, Titon provided a useful way for understanding the continuity of the blues experience in Northern and urban settings. Unfortunately, other regional styles have not received treatments as comprehensive as that given to Delta music. Except for Helen Oakley Dance's Stormy Monday: the T-Bone Walker Story (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987) and Alan Govenar's fine photographic study of modern blues musicians in Living Texas Blues (Dallas Museum of Art, 1985), the important contributions made by such great Texas bluesmen as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Alger Alexander, Mance Lipscomb, and Lightning Hopkins have not received extensive literary documentation. Southeastern stylists (from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia) were similarly underrepresented in books and articles, until Bruce Bastin compiled his important Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986).
Blues scholarship has been preoccupied with the music made by men. The neglect of women blues singers is all the more curious when one recalls that they were the first blues entertainer to make records and give public concerts. Four fine biographies and a general survey, however, do exist: Paul Oliver's Bessie Smith (London: Cassell and Company, 1959), Chris Albertson's Bessie (New York: Stein and Day, 1972), Derrick Stewart-Baxter's Ma Rainey and the Classic Blues Singers (New York: Stein and Day, 1970), Paul and Beth Garon's Woman With a Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues (New York: Da Capo Press, 1992), and Daphne Duval Harrison's Black Pearls: Blues Queens the 1920's (New Brunswick, New Jerse: Rutgers University Press, 1988). Each book informs us that this wonderful music was bequeathed to the world at a great human cost. Performing in a racially segregated society, and in grueling tent-show and theatre circuits that were largely dominated by men, the blues queens fought against this dual burden as well as the demeaning legacy of minstrelsy to establish their own identities as show-business personalities. To her adoring public Bessie Smith may have been the "Empress of the Blues," but her private life was often visited by pain, alcoholism, and personal loneliness.
The transformation made by the blues as it reached the cities is revealed in part by the studies of the women singers, but the story can be comprehended with even greater clarity in the works that deal with the emergence and growth of rhythm-and-blues. Charles Keil's contentious Urban Blues (University of Chicago Press, 1966) concentrates on men like Bobby Bland, Howlin' Wolf, and B.B. King and argues that they have been "culture heroes" and masculine role models to new generations of urban African-Americans. Keil does not hide his contempt for those scholars whose sympathies and musical preferences remain wedded to the country blues. To Keil, they are all "moldy figs"(5) who have ignored the real changes in black consciousness during this century.
Most students of the blues have staved clear of the academic debate and, like Peter Guralnick, have discussed their subjects from the perspective of informed fans or, as in the case of Arnold Shaw, of music-industry insiders. A trio of New Orleans enthusiasts, for example-Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose, and Tad Jones - wrote primarily to ensure that the great contributions made by their city's musicians to the making of rhythm-and-blues would not be forgotten: Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986). No student of American music has surpassed Guralnick in his range of interests - he seems genuinely to love and understand all forms of American grassroots music - and few can so effectively combine passion, empathy, and balanced judgment with a sensitive writing style. Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock |N' Roll (New York: Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1971) and Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians (Boston: D.R. Godine, 1979) are composed of biographical essays previously written for various music publications. The essays survey virtually the entire spectrum of black popular music, while also including several finely crafted vignettes of white country musicians and rockabillies. Guralnick departed from the essay format with his narrative history, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), an affectionate account of black music development after 1955. Arnold Shaw's books are written from the perspective of a man who spent almost thirty years as a music-industry publicist and record producer. His career in the music business paralleled the emergence of the rhythm-and-blues style and the upsurge of interest in African-American music that came in the 1950s. The World of Soul (New York: Cowles Book Co., 1970) and Honkers and shouters: the Golden Years of Rythms & Blues (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1978) often cover the same ground, but they are nevertheless the most ambitious accounts of black popular music ever written.
Although blues music and its offshoots have most often attracted writers, other varieties of black music have not been neglected. Dena Epstein took the entire antebellum era, and more, under her purview in Sinful Tunes and Spirituals (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), a study of the discovery and treatment of black styles from the colonial period to the 1870's. Her impressive research unearthed what are probably the earliest printed references to the banjo. She also wrote fine analyses of Slave Songs of the Limited States (New York: A. Simpson, 1867) and the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and showed how they introduced the spirituals to America's High-Art establishment. Lawrence A. Levine did not speak exclusively of music in his masterful Black Culture and Black Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), but he did include comprehensive analyses of the spiritual, secular folk music, blues, and gospel music as expressions of African-American sensibility and self-identification. Few studies have so effectively demolished the idea that black people have been inarticulate.
Virtually all writers who have dealt with black culture have recognized the centrality of religious music in the African-American experience. The sparseness of material on the gospel tradition, the most vital musical expression of black music in this century, is therefore remarkable. Lawrence Levine has been one of the lonely few who have written at length on the phenomenon. Several fine scholars, such as Ray Funk, Doug Seroff, Kip Lornell, and Tony Heilbut, have done exhaustive research on gospel musicians, but most of their conclusions appear on record liner notes or in magazines, such as Rejoice! or Blues Unlimited. Kip Lornell's dissertation on the acapella, or jubilee, quartets of Memphis, though, has been published under the title "Happy in the Service of the Lord". Afro-American Gospel Quartets in Memphis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988). Tony Heilbut carried the lifelong commitment of a fan into his The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971), the best available survey of the gospel music business, and edited a series of gospel-record anthologies which provide audible evidence of the history he describes.(6)
Biographies of black gospel personalities have been sparse and confined largely to magazine articies, or to vignettes such as those devoted to Tom Dorsey or Mahalia Jackson in Heilbut's history. Laurraine Goreau's study of Jackson, Just Mahalia, Baby (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1975), is an affectionate, but largely uncritical, treatment that captures the humanity and soulfulness of her subject but tells us too little of the larger gospel context in which Jackson worked. I have not seen Michael W. Harris's The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), but it promises to be the best full-scale biography of this great gospel pioneer, and a useful introduction to the subject of twentieth-century black religious music.
The writing devoted to white vernacular styles lagged behind that devoted to African-American music. But the trickle that began in the 1960s soon became a torrent. As its popularity increased, and as its economic viability became evident, country music forced writers of varying descriptions to pay attention to it. The music seemed to represent the quintessential American success story - a literal rags-to-riches evolution - and its story was therefore too good to resist, even if its artistic qualities were not always appreciated. It was very difficult for some writers, when venturing into the subject of country music, to avoid using humorous or condescending titles like "That's Gold in them Thar Hilibillies."
The mood of political and social conservatism that steadily enveloped the nation after 1968, and its supposed echoing in country music, attracted still other writers. The substantial support given by many musicians and songwriters to the notorious segregationist politician George Wallace certainly whetted the curiosity of some journalists, as did the strong endorsements of administration policies heard in country songs during the Vietnam War. Once the heat and anger of the war had subsided, country songs lost their stridency and exaggerated sense of patriotism. But the music by this time had become popularly identified as the voice of the Working Man, a role played self-consciously by such musicians as Tom T. Hall and Merle Haggard. Paul Hemphill's The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Count Music (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970) was the best of a rash of books and articles that stressed the music's populist and working man's credentials. The book deserved recognition on its own merits, but it clearly profited from the political identifications surrounding the music in the post-vietnam era.
Country music's high visibility since the 1960s inspired a burgeoning drugstore rack literature, composed principally of adulatory fan-oriented material or biographies that attempted to capitalize on a performer's media visibility. The sheer volume of this literature prevents a careful review of it in this essay. But readers are warned not to avoid it, if they would really understand the working-class South. A college course could in fact be profitably built around the biographies and autobiographies of country and blues performers. Music has been one of the few forums, along with athletics and military service, in which working-class boys and girls have succeeded. Although atypical because of the success they have attained, the life stories of people like Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Ray Charles, and James Brown are more than accounts of musical success; they are also chronicles of lives shaped in Southern working-class homes.(7)
The proliferation of popular accounts was accompanied by a steady evolution in the serious or academic treatment of country music. For many years collectors had been quietly gathering phonograph records, radio transcriptions, songbooks, and other ephemera dealing with the music business, while also interviewing as many of the older musicians as possible. The collectors were motivated primarily by love for the music of their choice, and by a concern about its survival. With a network that reached from the United States to Great Britain, Australia, Japan, and other parts of the world, the collectors quietly communicated with each other through record auction lists and such mimeographed newsletters as Disc Collector and Record Research. Little of this information was known outside of their networks of exchange, but by the early 1960s a handful of folklorists, including D. K. Wilgus, Archie Green, John Greenway, and Ed Kahn, who were collectors as well as academicians, began utilizing the data, insights, and research techniques pioneered by the collectors. These men were among the lonely few in their profession who recognized the links between folk music and early commercial country music. Phonograph recordings, they argued, were valuable repositories and disseminators of folk music, and consequently should be studied with the same care devoted to ballad manuscripts or field recordings.(8)
The conservative folklore establishment did not readily embrace the "hillbilly" scholarship of these men, and much of their early research was published in record liner notes or in the record-review sections (pioneered by D. K. Wilgus) of the folklore journals. Their most significant contribution, and a major breakthrough in the academic acceptance of commercialized forms of folk music, was the July-September 1965 issue of the Journal of American Folklore (Vol. 78, no. 309). Edited by John Greenway, and composed of essays written by the above-named scholars and two folklore students (L. Mayne Smith and Norm Cohen), "the Hillbilly Issue" introduced, and made respectable, the subject of vernacular music to the entire folklore community.
The academic discovery of hillbilly music was paralleled, and in part inspired, by the urban folk music revival of the 1960s. Many fans and would-be musicians who were first drawn to folk music by the Kingston Trio and other popularizers soon grew hungry for older and more authentic styles. The quest for authenticity moved in many directions, but one path led to the commercial hillbilly and race recordings of the pre-world War II era (the period described by the Australian collector John Edwards as "the Golden Age of Hillbilly Music"). This material, of course, was not readily available in the sixties, but many young fans and musicians received their first introduction to such pioneer hillbilly and race(9) musicians as Uncle Dave Macon, the Carter Family, Charlie Poole, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, and Sleepy John Estes on a great collection of reissued recordings called the Anthology of American Folk Music (Folkways FA2952-53). Taken from the immense private collection of Harry Smith, and issued by Folkways in a boxed collection of six lps, the recordings reached many people who probably would not have listened to them had they not been labeled as "folk music." Folk-revival musicians borrowed songs freely from the Anthology, and found, to their great surprise and delight, that some of the oldtime performers were still alive. Such revival musicians as Mike Seeger, Ralph Rinzler, Alice Gerrard, John Cohen, and Norm Cohen began working diligently to reintroduce the old-timers to modern audiences via recordings and concerts. In so doing, they compiled a literature of record-liner notes, brochures, magazine articles, and songbooks(10) that, for a time, constituted the best overall survey of early country music.
The Folk Revival also influenced the first two general histories of country music. Robert Shelton, the folk-music editor for the New York Times, who generally devoted his columns to city singers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, produced in 1966 a book called The Country Music Story (New York: Bobbs-Merrill). Augmented by a wealth of photographs gathered by Burt Goldblatt, Shelton's book told in readable prose the story of country music's evolution from both folk roots and such nineteenth-century popular forms of entertainment as minstrelsy and the medicine show. Much of his basic history, particularly that concerning Texas styles, came from my doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Texas in 1965. Published in 1968, and substantially revised in 1985, Country Music, USA (Austin: University of Texas Press) was essentially the work of a fan and scholar who stressed the music's Southern roots and meaning while also concentrating on its commercial success in a national setting. My work also was clearly influenced by the folk consciousness of the time (its title, in fact, was devised by John Greenway, who was then the editor of the Journal of American Folklore), and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to legitimize the music by stressing its folk roots.
The 1970s saw an explosion of interest in country music, and its related forms, that was comparable to the attention given to the blues. In 1972 Archie Green's Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs became the first volume in Illinois' Music in American Life series.(11) The book made an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the relationship between music, protest and economic consciousness, and was a model of how commercial recordings and other once-neglected sources could be used to document musical development. Green himself has remained a valuable resource for everyone involved in the study and documentation of American vernacular music; virtually every book, article, or doctoral dissertation written on the subject in the last twenty years has acknowledged his aid or encouragement.
Most of the material published in the early years of the Folk Revival, or by people who became interested in folk music during those years, tended to be oriented toward the performers and styles of the Southeast. Like the commercial recording companies of the 1920s, or the Library of Congress field units of the 1930s, most of the folk revivalists of the 1960s gravitated toward the Southern Appalachians as the most valuable repository of traditional material. Jean Ritchie, one of the finest traditional singers to come out of the Appalachians, contributed to the romance of the mountains in her otherwise outstanding autobiography, Singing Family of the Cumberlands (New York: Oak Publications, 1955). The book is one of the best "growing up" accounts in American literature, but it also perpetuates the myth that the traditional British songs performed by the Ritchie clan were the only songs known by people in the Kentucky hills. David Whisnant, in All That is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), argues that much of the music presumed to be "traditional" in the mountains was actually of relatively recent origin and was imported by settlement teachers and other "cultural uplift" types who were opposed to the popular tunes and commercial hillbilly music that quickly won the hearts of mountain people.
Several important biographies of country musicians also reminded readers that folk music was neither static nor confined to any one region of the South. Charles Townsend, in San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976), used an impressive array of interviews and recorded music to tell the story of the influential Texas fiddler and bandleader who popularized the jazz-inflected country style now known as Western Swing. Nolan Porterfield not only told the story of "the Father of Country Music" in Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and America's Blue Yodeler (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979) but also provided us With perhaps the finest account of the early country music business. The book's reissuance in a paperback edition in late 1992 has made it accessible to students of country music and the early twentieth-century South.
If any biography of a folk-music personality surpasses Porterfield's study of Rodgers, it would be Joe Woody Guthrie (New York: Alfred A. knopf, 1980). While giving us probably the most sensitive and complete portrait of the Oklahoma radical/balladeer that we are ever likely to get, Klein also presents fine discussions of country music's evolution in the 1930s, the "discovery" of the folk by a wide range of artists and intellectual during that decade, and the employment of folk music for radical purposes by Communists and other left-wing groups.
Other biographies of varying qualities have done much to round out the general story of country music. Several biographies have been devoted to the great Hank Williams, but one - Roger Williams, Sing a Sad Song: The Life of Hank Williams (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970) - rises above the level of scatology, fiction, hero worship, or religious nonsense.(12) Roger Williams, who is no relation to Hank, provides a balanced and thoughtful account which, in its Illinois Press edition in 1981, also contains a thorough discography of the Alabama singer's music. Other useful biographies have come from both lay and academic sources. Loyal Jones, an authority on the culture and politics of the Southern Appalachians, has written worthwhile tributes to Bradley Kincaid, the Kentucky radio balladeer of the 1920s, and Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the North Carolina ballad singer and folk-festival entrepreneur: Radio's Kentucky Mountain Boy" Bradley Kincaid (Berea College: Appalachian Center, 1980), and Minstrel of the Appalachians (Boone, North Carolina: Appalachian Consortiuin Press, 1984). Gene Wiggins documents the life and music of Fiddlin', John Carson, the musician whose recordings started the hillbilly business in 1923: Fiddlin' Georgia Crazy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), while David Morton and Charles Wolfe tell the story of the black musician DeFord Bailey, who was the first star of the Grand Ole Opry and a superb exemplar of what he called "black hillbilly music": DeFord Bailley (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991).
Bailey's co-biographer, Charles Wolfe, has been a prolific and authoritative chronicler of country music, and no facet of the genre's history has escaped his attention. He made the first full-scale scholarly exploration of the institution where DeFord Bailey won his fame in The Grand Ole Opry: The Early Years, 1925-1935 (London: Old Time Music, 1975). And in two brief overviews of country music in Tennessee and Kentucky, Tennessee Strings: The Story of Countyy Music in Tennessee (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977) and Kentucky Country Folk and Country Music of Kentucky (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982) Wolfe presented models of research that should be employed by other scholars for states like Alabama and Texas. Wolfe's Kentucky book reminds us that the Opry did not enjoy a monopoly on country-music entertainment in the early days. Ivan Tribe and Wayne Daniel also effectively challenged the idea of Opry, Supremacy with their studies of country music in West Virginia and Atlanta, Georgia: Ivan Tribe, Mountaineer Jamboree: Country Music in West Virginia (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984) and Wayne Daniel, Picking on Peachtree Street: Country Music in Atlanta (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990).Jan Reid, writing of a later period, tells of Austin, Texas's notoriety as a music center in the 1970s in The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock (Austin: Heidelberg Press, 1974).
The musical expressions of Southern white folk culture that have inspired the greatest literary outpouring, bluegrass and rockabilly, may also be seen as representations of opposing impulses in that culture. Bluegrass, the style marked by acoustic instrumentation and high lonesome singing, has been a refuge for people who like old-time music performed in a modern, palatable style. Alan Lomax called it "folk music with overdrive."(13) Although it took shape as late as the 1940s, as the creation of Kentucky mandolin player Bill Monroe and his musicians, bluegrass has flourished around the world. It appeals to many people today as the voice of tradition, and as the embodiment of pretechnological values.
Rockabilly has similarly swept through the world since it began its evolution in the mid-1950s in the wake of Elvis Presley's dramatic success. First used to describe the volatile style of such Southern country boys as Presley, johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis who fused the sounds of hillbilly, gospel, and rhythm-and-blues, the term is now commonly attached to any musician or band anywhere in the world whose style suggests the boogie sounds of the 1950s. With its air of hedonism and sexual freedom, rockabilly music seemed to represent what one historian has called "the visceral South."(14)
Bluegrass has attracted a substantial body of highly articulate writers, many of whom were won over to the genre as college students during the days of the folk revival. Bluegrass musicianship was a powerful factor that inspired scholarship, but visions of mountain hollows, little country churches, and hillside farms also fueled the energies of many of the writers. Most of the printed material dealing with this supercharged, tradition-based music has appeared in Bluegrass Unlimited, one of the finest magazines devoted to any genre of vernacular music. Neil Rosenberg, a regular columnist of the magazine who is now a folklorist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, has written the most comprehensive history of the style, Bluegrass: A History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985). The most thoughtful analysis of bluegrass, however, is Robert Cantwell's Bluegrass Breakdawn: The Making of the Old Southern Sound (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984). Cantwell's brilliant interpretation explores the roots of bluegrass in the fusion of African-American and Celtic styles. He sees bluegrass as both a product and continuation of nineteenth-century black-face minstrelsy. Although his facts are sometimes questionable, and his logic sometimes strained to the point of mysticism, Cantwell's book is one that no student of Southern music should avoid.
No book on rockabilly compares with Cantwell's in either erudition or boldness, but Greil Marcus's Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock n' Roll Music (2nd rev. ed., New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982) comes close. Marcus's essay on Elvis Presley is a sympathetic portrait (he prefer's the young Elvis), which describes his music as the resolution of tensions, puritan and hedonistic, that were deeply imbedded in Southern poorwhite culture. The literature on Presley is voluminous, but Jerry Hopkins's Elvis: A Biography (New York: Warner Books, 1972) will remain the most balanced and comprehensive account until Peter Guralnick completes his own study of the Mississippi superstar.
There are also no general surveys of rockabilly, that compare with those devoted to bluegrass, rhythm-and-blues, or other Southern styles. The best introductions to the genre lie in the biographical essays, such as those written by Guralnick in Lost Highway or Marcus in Mystery Train, or in such full-scale treatments as Myra Friedman's biography of Janis Joplin, Buried Alive (New York: Morrow, 1973) or Nick Tosches's and Robert Palmer's studies of Jerry Lee Lewis: Tosches, Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story (New York: Dell, 1982) and Palmer, Jerry Lee Lewis Rocks! (New York: G.P). Putnam's Sons, 1981). Most of the writers who have been attracted to rockabilly approach the style from the perspectives of blues, rhythm-and-blues, or rock music, and they tend to identify with the irreverent or rowdy strain which they find lacking in mainstream country music.
It is tronic that the style of music which provided a major underpinning of both bluegrass and rockabilly, anci which may in fact be the most "Southern" of all forms, has been sadly overlooked by historians. White gospel music is the single most neglected form of American music. Unpublished theses and dissertations on religious music abound, but too many of them concentrate on the older and more ratified forms such as the Sacred Harp tradition." That valuable tradition deserves our recognition and commemoration, but it has been far removed from the affections of most rural Southerners. Gospel music, the product of the revival crusades and the shape-note publishing houses, has been discussed in numerous magazine and journal articles, and in a few in-house works published by the musicians themselves: see, for example. James Blackwood, with the assistance of Dan Martin, The James Blackwood Story, (Monroeville, Pennsylvania: Whitaker House, 1975), Ottis J. Knippers. Who's Who Among Southern Singers and Composers (Lawrenceberg. Tennessee: D. Vaughan, 1937) has still not been superseded by any modern work. At least a couple of general overviews, however, do merit some attention, even though their treatments are cursory and far from complete Lois Blackwell, The Wings of the Dove: The Story of Gospel Music in America (Norfolk, Virginia: Donning Co., 1978), and Bob Terrell, The Music Men: The Story of Professional Gospel Quartet Singing (Ashville North Carolina: Bob Terrell, 1990). William Lynwood Montell does more than anyone else to humanize the music, and to show that it resonates power fully in the lives of plain folk, in Singing the Glory Down: Amateur Gospel Music in South Central Kentucky, 1900-1990 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990).
This essay must not conclude without reminding prospective students of Southern music that the African-American and Anglo-American traditions have not enjoyed complete monopolies. Some ethnic forms of music, however, such as those introduced to the South by recent immigrants from the Caribbean, Central American. and Vietnam have not been documented at all. And musical styles of much older vintage - indeed, as old as the South itself - have received thus far only sparse acknowledgement. Once known only in South Texas and other parts of the Southwest, the music produced by Mexican-Americans is now being introduced to the entire nation by migrants and touring musicians. Americo Paredes has dealt with the ballad, or, corrido, background of this music in "With His Pistol in His Hand": A Border Ballad and Its Hero (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958) and in A Texas-Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976). The vital conjunto style, characterized by the accordion and the polka beat, has not received a full historical treatment or textual analysis. A good beginning, though, which stresses style rather than thematic content, is Manuel Pena's The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985).(16)
Cajun music was similarly confined throughout most of its history to a relatively limited region, Southwest Louisiana and those contiguous areas, like Gulf Coast Texas, to which Cajun people had migrated. But once this infectious music was given wider exposure, as at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, it spread quickly throughout the United States. Its academic acceptance was signaled by the establishment in 1974 of the Center for Acadian and Creole Folklore at the University of southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette. Barry Jean Ancelet, director of the Center, has published an assortment of articles and books on Cajun culture, including The Makers of Cajun Music/Musiciens Cadiens et Creoles (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984). That work can be profitably supplemented by Nicholas Spitzer's "Cajuns and Creoles: The French Gulf Coast," in Allen Tullos, ed., Long Journey Home: Folklife in the South (Chapel Hill: Southern Exposure, 1977), and by Ann Savoy's Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People (Eunice, Louisiana: Bluebird Press, 1986), a wonderful assortment of songs, photographs, and biographical vignettes.
The library of books and articles on Southern music has now reached a respectable size, and the overall quality of the writing and the scholarship improves markedly each year. Gradually, all the musical products of the Southern people, from jazz to gospel, are finding their chroniclers. Although it may be a trait that is endemic to the entire field of music scholarship, virtually all of the writers who deal with Southern topics are passionate partisans of the styles on which they concentrate. The fans who become historians bring an empathy and enthusiasm to their subjects, and an insider's understanding, that few outsiders can match. On the other hand, love can make them blind or myopic about the true parameters of the genres with which they identify, and it can engender the kind of internecine conflicts concerning purity or commercialism that once tore the jazz world apart.
Feeling that their respective musical loves had been too long neglected, the historians of the Southern styles have often been more concerned with facts than with interpretation. The story must be told, it is believed, and as soon as possible before the principal actors - the singers and musicians-have died. Some writers, such as Charles Keil, Greil Marcus, David Whisnant, and Robert Cantwell, have gone well beyond mere storytelling and have raised the level of discourse among the students of Southern vernacular music. They inform us that hard questions can be asked, and pointed criticisms can be made, by even the most passionate of scholar/fans. It is time for all students of Southern music to move beyond hagiography, romance, and simple fact-gathering.
Southern music is not pure, either in its origins, manifestations, or motives. The blues did not emerge full-blown from the African slave ships, and country music did not evolve from some misty Celtic past or from remote and unsullied Appalachian hollows. Southern music, in all its wonderful and varied forms, evolved from the Southern experience, and among people - black and white - who worked out their destinies in close interrelationship with each other. The full dimensions of that story still await the talents of scholars and observers who listen with empathy and, at the same time, are willing to pursue paths that yield insights which may compromise idealistic visions as they garner unexpected truths.
(1) Many correctives to the Lomax and Sharp points of view have of course been written in the decades since their books were published. Some of the most useful are John White, Git Along, Little Dogies: Songs And Soymakers of the American West (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975); Guylogsdon, ed., "The Whorehouse Bells Were Ringing"and Other Songs Cowboys Sing (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989); Henry Shapiro, Appalachia On Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1890-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978), and David Whisnant, All That is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983). (2) The voluminous jazz scholarship will not be discussed in this essay. Bruce Bovd Raeburn's "New Orleans Style: The Awakening of American Jazz Scholarship and its Cultural Implications," Diss., Tulane University. 1991, is the best discussion of the debates that divided the world of jazz enthusiasts. (3) The most credible analyses of black-face minstrelsy's impact on American popular culture are Robert C. Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974); Hans Nathan, Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962); Robert Caantwell, Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984); and Karen Linn, That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991). (4) Charters also produced an album of early commercial blues recordings which helped to solidify the use of the term "country" (The Country Blues, RBF Records, RFI). (5) "Moldy fig" was first used as a derisive term by jazz critics to describe an individual (colletor, writer, musician) who clung exclusively to older and presumably purer styles. (6) These include The Gospel Sound, vols. I and 2, Columbia CG31086 and Columbia CG31595, and All of My Appointed Rounds: Forty Years of a cappella Gospel, Stash ST-114. In this age of lp phaseouts in the music industry, the reader is advised to look for CD reissues of the classic recordings mentioned in this essay. (7) Some of the better autobiographies are Johnny Cash, Man in Black (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1973); Merle Haggard with Peggy Russell, Sing Me Back Home (New York: Quadrangle, 1981); Tom T. Hall, The Storyteller's Nashville (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1979); Loretta Lynn, with George Vecsey, Coal Miner's Daughter (New York: Warner Books, 1976); Willie Nelson, with Bud Shrake, Willie: An Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988); and Tammy Wynette, with Joan Dew, Stand by Your Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978). (8) The writing of country music's history has been facilitated during the last thirty years by the emergence of two important research repositories: the John Edwards Memorial Foundation (JEMF) and the country Music Library and Media Center. The JEMF, originally housed at UCLA and now located at the University of North Carolina. Chapel Hill, was built around the core collection of John Edwards, a voting Australian collector of American country music whose materials were bequeathed to his collector friends in the United States after his death in an automobile accident in 1960. True to the personal interests of Edwards, the JEMF's holding have been oriented toward old-time music. The Country Music Library and Media Center, established by the Country Music Foundation in Nashville, has been all-inclusive in its holdings, and has accepted material that represents every period and style of country music. (9) The term "race" was commonly used in the years before World War II to describe all varieties of commercial black music, from gospel to blues and jazz. (10) Sec. for example, John Cohen and Mike Seeger, eds., The New Lost City Rambles Song Book (New York: Oak Publications, 1964). (11) Directed by music editor and ethnomusicologist Judith C. McCulloh, the Music in Amereican Life series has been an invaluable asset in the scholarship devoted to American popular music. Although the series concentrates on folk and vernacular music, works on opera and classical music have not been excluded. (12) The country-music field has been particularly prone to the writing of religious confessions. Not all of this material is nonsense, by any means, and most of it provides abundant evidence of the impact of religion in Southern folk culture. It includes Al Bock, I Saw the Light: The Gospel Life of Hank Williams (Nashville: Green Valley Record Store, 1977); Jerry Clower,with Gerry Wood, Ain't God Good (Waco, Texas: Word Books,]975); Charles Paul Conn, The New Johnny Cash (New York: Fleming H, Revell Co. 1973): and Jeannie C. Riley, with Jamie Buckingham, From Harper Valley of the Mountain Top (New York: Ballantine Books, 1982). (13) Alan Lomax, "Bluegrass Background: Folk Music with Overdrive," Esquire, 52 (October 1959), 103-109. (14) Jack Temple Kirby, Media-Made Dixie: The South in the American Imagination (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978), pp. 86-90, 135-136, 152-159. (15) The best published account of the phenomenon is Buell E. Cobb; The Sacred Harp and Its Music (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978). (16) Special mention must be made of the pioneering work of Chris Strachwitz in the areas of Conjunto, Cajun, and other vernacular styles of American music. Long before any major record company began paying attention to Conjunto, Strachwitz collected Tex-Mex records and interviewed many performers. Much of the material, along with recordings of Cajun, blues, and hillbilly performers, was eventually released on Strachwitz's own record labels (Arhoolie and Old-timey) in El Cerrito, California. Students of Southern music are greatly in the debt of such collectors as Strachwitz.
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|Title Annotation:||Special Issue: The South in Transition|
|Author:||Malone, Bill C.|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1992|
|Previous Article:||The new Southern history.|
|Next Article:||Virginius Dabney, John Temple Graves, and what happened to Southern Liberalism.|