“That’s Not YOUR Music” Country Music’s Black Roots

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An unidentified man playing the banjo, an instrument central to country music, c.1902

The HistoryMakers

Last year saw the untimely passing of HistoryMaker and country music legend Charley Pride from COVID-19. He died at the age of 86 shortly after giving what would be his last performance when he was honored by the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards. His death resurfaced the topic of African Americans’ deep influence on country music.

As John Heidelberg, former owner of WVOL-AM in Nashville, Tennessee, pointed out: “Country music was started by slaves… country music is a black music form… the slaves… used to play the banjoes… It’s an African instrument… and it’s… a… major instrument in country music.”[1] However, “the instrument was standardized, appropriated and spread to white audiences through minstrel and blackface shows — which deeply informed the rise of hillbilly music, a term that would later be rebranded as ‘country music.’ (The blackface performer Emmett Miller’s ‘Lovesick Blues,’ for example, inspired Hank Williams’ own rendition of the song, which is still one of the most beloved songs in country history.) White banjo innovators like Earl Scruggs and David Akeman later made the instrument integral to the genre’s DNA.”[2] Author of Black Bottom Saintsand The Wind Done Gone Alice Randall, the first African American woman to write a number one hit country song, “XXX’s and OOO’s: An American Girl,” added: “What is the southern-ness of country music, it is evangelical Christianity and the black experience… The African influence is all through the actual music… the banjo being the most extreme example… Open throated singing is a mimicking of the way black people sang in the black churches… country music is an Afro-Celtic style… more African then it is Celtic… it’s just sung… by people with Appalachian accents… But the actual music, itself, is extremely southern black in terms of chord progressions, in terms of… this affinity and concern with both poverty and alienation… dispossessed, marginalized communities who have to assert their own significance, particularly in moments in which they are in survival mode and doing things that the larger society does not find attractive or respectable.”[3]

Painting attributed to John Rose titled “The Old Plantation,” featuring a banjo player, c. 1785-1790

However, country music was marketed primarily to white only audiences: “Since its commercial beginnings in the 1920s, the country music industry has presented the genre as primarily white by marketing to whites, promoting white artists, and linking traditional instruments to white rustic stereotypes. Record companies defined country as a white product when they created separate catalogs for ‘race’ and ‘hillbilly.’ This segregation masked hillbilly music’s reliance on black traditions and institutionalized the idea that southerners of different races produced different kinds of music.”[4] Educator Yvonne Sanders-Butler, who grew up listening to country and blues music with her father, recalled in her interview: “People would always say the blues is a black man’s story, and country music is a white man’s story. But it comes out of… people that are very poor and they’re telling you… how they feel and how life is treating ’em.”[5] Blues musician Wayne Baker Brooks agreed that they are very much the same thing: “Country, to me, is blues with a twang… It’s just somebody pronouncing words… with a twang.”[6]

Left: “Hillbilly Hit Parade” album featuring George Jones and other white country stars of the day, 1956
Right: Cover of a Victor Talking Machine Co. “race records” catalog, c.1950s

Alice Randall further explained the inexplicable contradictions of country music’s racism: “Within country, the black influence has been rejected… you cannot write and know country music without loving… many elements of black culture and not having a very strong understanding of caste, class and poverty. And songs such as, ‘I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole, no one could turn me right, but Mama tried,’ [‘Mama Tried’] [by] Merle Haggard. There are many a hip hop artist could sing that same song today… or Johnny Cash singing and writing, ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,’ [‘Folsom Prison Blues’]… I do not see any great movement to keeping these songs off the radio and people wanna ban hip hop because it has quote, unquote violence in it. Well, why doesn’t anyone say anything about… ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.’ I mean there’s plenty of people murdering people all over country music… But it’s interesting in that context to accept that.”[7]

Left: Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” recorded in 1968
Right: Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” recorded in 1955

Partly because it was all the radio could pick up, but also because of the relatable messaging, country music was popular among many African Americans. According to The Spook Who Sat by the Door author Samuel Greenlee (1930 – 2014): “People don’t realize how pervasive country music is. It has a rare access to national media… it’s probably listened across the country by more people than [any] other form of music.”[8] In their interviews, many HistoryMakers recounted their memories of listening to country music and liking it. Television producer Nelson Davis recalled that while growing up in New York, “my parents loved country music, and so I heard Hank Williams, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Kitty Wells and people like that along with… this confluence of southern… blues, R&B and country music.”[9] Publisher of Sister2Sister magazine Jamie Foster Brown, recounts growing up in Chicago: “My parents… they were evangelist singers and they traveled a lot… so we grew up on you know gospel music, but also country music. We… sang a lot of country songs you know (singing) ‘You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille, four hungry children and a crop in the field,’ [‘Lucille’]… we would all gather around they played the guitar… and my uncle he would play the piano.”[10] Samuel Greenlee fondly told of his grandfather, who grew up in Kentucky and was a country musician: “My grandfather [Charles John Alexander] was a gifted self-taught musician. He played banjo, guitar, harmonica and mouth harp. And he was a good singer. So I grew up… surrounded by music… because he was from Kentucky he loved western music… One of his favorite groups was the Sons of the Pioneers. And he was crazy about Hank Williams. So every Saturday we heard the Grand Ole Opry.”[11]

A family listening to the radio, South Carolina, c. 1941 (left) and Hank Williams, c. 1940s (right)

Several HistoryMakers distinctly remembered listening to the Grand Ole Opry radio show on WSM. Jazz drummer Luigi Waites (1927 – 2010) credits the show as his childhood inspiration in Omaha, Nebraska: “I listened to the radio and remember we’re here… in [the] Midwest and we didn’t get the things that other people… got… like [in] Detroit [Michigan], Chicago [Illinois] and New York [New York]… So… one of the things that… that I listened to that I really liked and it was a great inspiration for me was the ‘Grand Ole Opry…’ I remember that as clear as it happening today, listening to that… and setting up my mother’s [Ione Lewis Kelley] pots and pans and beating it out… so I think… that’s what inspired her to want to give me a drum.”[12]Gospel host and vocalist Bobby Jones recalled: “We had a battery radio… We didn’t listen to news… we listened to country music [‘Grand Ole Opry’] on Saturday nights (laughter)… that was our entertainment on Saturday night while my mother [Augusta Tharpe Jones] and father [Jim Jones] would go out and drink… We’d be there with my [paternal] grandmother [Lydia Dinwiddie Jones] listening to country music… that was the only kind we could get.”[13]

A packed house at the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, Tennessee, undated

The Grand Ole Opry show began in 1925 and is now the longest running radio show in U.S. history, yet, to this day, it has only featured three African Americans artists. The first African American to be introduced on the show was “DeFord Bailey… The harmonica player, who was the grandson of a slave… In 1927, one of his performances… provided the backdrop for the genesis of the Grand Ole Opry… with Bailey one of its pioneer members… But Bailey’s race was mostly hidden from his radio audience, and when he did go on tour with the Opry, he was forced to find separate accommodations in a segregated South… Bailey was fired unceremoniously in 1941… [and] spent the rest of his life shining shoes and renting out rooms in his home to make a living. It would take half a century for the Grand Ole Opry to admit another black member (Charley Pride in 1993); besides those two musicians, Darius Rucker is the only other black member in Opry history.”[14]

Left to right: DeFord Bailey playing harmonica in the Grand Ole Opry radio show, undated; Charley Pride first debuted on the Grand Ole Opry show in 1967 and became a member in 1993; Darius Rucker on the Grand Ole Opry stage, where he became a member in 2012

Recently the ugly head of racism in country music raised its head when a video of Morgan Wallen, a twenty-seven year old country singer, went viral for his use of the n-word. This sparked heated debates and comments from other country music artists, including those claiming “this is not who we are.” Mickey Guyton, the only black female country artist signed to a major label, though, disagreed: “When I read comments saying ‘this is not who we are,’ I laugh because this is exactly who country music is. I’ve witnessed it for 10 gd [good] years. You guys should just read some of the vile comments hurled at me on a daily basis.”[15] Still, more black artists are moving into the country music genre claiming it as their own, including Rhiannon Giddens, Miko Marks, Kane Brown, and Jimmie Allen, who played alongside Charley Pride during his last performance.

Left to right: Rhiannon Giddens, Miko Marks, Kane Brown, and Jimmie Allen

That is exactly what Charley Pride did and spoke of so fervently in his interview with The HistoryMakers when he said: “I never wanted anyone to tell me what you can’t do. I don’t like the word period anyway, ‘can’t.’ I don’t like ‘can’t,’ ‘hate,’ ‘jealousy.’ So… don’t come tell me, ‘You can’t do that.’ That’s what I was told. And… I said, ‘Why not?’ ‘That’s not your music.’ I said… ‘Now, there you go. Telling me what I can’t do.’“[16]

In essence, when he sang “All I Have His Me,” he spoke to the black artists who follow in his footsteps:

Before you take another step there’s something you should know

About the years ahead and how they’ll be

You’ll be living in a world where roses hardly ever grow

Cause all I have to offer you is me

There’ll be no mansion waiting on the hill with crystal chandeliers

And there’ll be no fancy clothes for you to wear

Everything I have is standing here in front of you to see

All I have to offer you is me.”

Those Black country music artists are just coming back home.

Nation’s Libraries Offer Patrons

The HistoryMakers Digital Archive

Chicago Public Library was the first to sign up to offer its patrons free access to The HistoryMakers Digital Archive and other public libraries followed. They include Alaska Library Network, Boston Public Library, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Cleveland Public Library, Detroit Public Library, Forsyth County Library, the Free Library of Philadelphia, Houston Public Library, Los Angeles Public Library, Lucius Beebe Memorial Library, Miami-Dade Public Library, Milwaukee Public Library, New York Public Library, St. Paul Public Library and the Library of Congress. “We are thrilled that these libraries have stepped up to offer our unique digital archive to their patrons. 11,000 hours of our content, content that cannot be found elsewhere, can now be accessed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is also accessible to the seeing and hearing impaired and works very well on Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Hangout,” says Julieanna Richardson, The HistoryMakersFounder and President. “We owe the digital archive’s recent enhancements to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, University of Michigan’s Earl Lewis, University of Virginia’s Dean of Libraries John Unsworth, Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment & Technology Center’s Michael Christel and Bryan Maher.” Some of the libraries are planning to incorporate the digital archive into their public programming offerings.

My Favorite Saying

[1] John Heidelberg (The HistoryMakers A2007.091), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 15, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 8, John Heidelberg talks about the African American origins of country music.

[2] Andrew R. Chow. “Black Artists Built Country Music—And Then It Left Them Behind,” Time, September 11, 2019, accessed December 21, 2020. https://time.com/5673476/ken-burns-country-music-black-artists/

[3] Alice Randall (The HistoryMakers A2007.094), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 17, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 5, Alice Randall talks about the origins of country music.

[4] Olivia Carter Mather. “Race in Country Music Scholarship,” The Oxford Handbook of Country Music, July 2017. https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190248178.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780190248178-e-8

[5] Yvonne Sanders-Butler (Ththe ie HistoryMakers A2007.109), interviewed by Denise Gines, March 25, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 2, Yvonne Sanders-Butler remembers the entertainment of her childhood.

[6] Wayne Baker Brooks (The HistoryMakers A2005.198), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 16, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 2, Wayne Baker Brooks describes his taste in music.

[7] Alice Randall (The HistoryA2007.094), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 17, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 9, Alice Randall talks about the cultural context of country music.

[8] Samuel Greenlee (The HistoryMakers A2001.028), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, November 1, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 7, Sam Greenlee talks about his childhood exposure to music and musicians.

[9] Nelson Davis (The HistoryMakers A2008.114), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 18, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Nelson Davis describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood.

[10] Jamie Foster Brown (The HistoryMakers A2007.046), interviewed by Janet Sims-Wood, February 5, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 6, Jamie Foster Brown describes her childhood.

[11] Samuel Greenlee (The HistoryMakers A2001.028), Session 1, tape 1, story 7.

[12] Luigi Waites (The HistoryMakers A2007.284), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 7, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Luigi Waites talks about his early musical interests.

[13] Bobby Jones (The HistoryMakers A2014.109), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 24, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 4, Bobby Jones remembers listening to the radio.

[14] Chow, “Black Artists Built Country Music,” accessed December 21, 2020.

[15] Mickey Guyton. Twitter post. February 3, 2021, 7:55 AM. https://twitter.com/MickeyGuyton/status/1356964476793180161

[16] Charley Pride (The HistoryMakers A2006.087), interviewed by Denise Gines, May 3, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Charley Pride recalls his decision to sing country music.

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1 COMMENT

  1. I have known about this for several years. I thank the Crusader for printing this little known info. Keep up the good work. Love Erick on WVON. Also fine writing from Dr Yaounde Olu.

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