Southern Folk Music and Race Relations

Southern Folk Music and Race Relations

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Southern Folk Music and Race Relations


In this paper, I propose that the history and development of southern folk music may serve as an important vehicle for examining and elaborating the dynamics of southern race relations. I am not suggesting a causal relationship; merely an interactional one. Both southern race relations and southern music are reflections of the social structure of the rural south. In the structurally segregated south, black and white musical traditions display the same divergences and convergences which have historically characterized black/white relations. This is not a lyrical analysis; rather, it is a socio-historical analysis of regional popular culture which focuses upon the interaction between two important features of that culture: race and music.


The development of the American folk music reservoir is a process which parallels the historical and cultural development of American society. In the formation of this reservoir, two major streams, British and African, and several lesser tributaries, e.g., French, German, Mexican, Cajun, etc., flowed together over a two century period (Malone, 1979:4). Alan Lomax, one of folk music's leading historians, has observed that the convergence of these diverse elements has resulted in a cultural product which is "more British than anything one can find in Britain" (1960:155).

Southern music is an important part of the folk tradition; in many ways it is synonymous with American folk music. And, its history is well documented (Malone, 1979, 1985; Carr, 1979; Wolfe, 1977). What has been neglected until recently is the sociological examination of the relationship between this form of popular culture and important social, cultural and historical issues and conditions which gave rise to it and are expressed by it (Fine, 1977:381-384; cf. also Albrecht, 1954).1 Country music is a reflection of the southern region's culture, history and social structure at the macro level and of the hopes, fears, beliefs and attitudes of its people at the micro level (Gritzner, 1978).

In this paper, I propose that the history and development of southern folk music may serve as an important vehicle for examining and elaborating the dynamics of southern race relations. I am not suggesting a causal relationship; merely an interactional one. Both southern race relations and southern music are reflections of the social structure of the rural south. In the structurally segregated south, black and white musical traditions display the same divergences and convergences which have historically characterized black/white relations. This is not a lyrical analysis; rather, it is a socio-historical analysis of regional popular culture which focuses upon the interaction between two important features of that culture: race and music.

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The white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant core culture which dominates the institutions of American society was thoroughly entrenched in North America prior to the Revolutionary War and, despite two centuries of tremendous demographic, technological and social change, remains essentially intact and pervasive today. It is the backdrop against which the adaptation of immigrant groups must be assessed. To the extent that groups found a place within the core culture, their adaptation has been positive and successful; to the extent that they have been excluded, whether by choice or by coercion, their adaptation has been problematic. In the adaptation process, three distinct patterns have emerged: assimilation (Gordon, 1964), cultural pluralism (Greeley, 1974; Glazer and Moynihan, 1963) and structural pluralism (Cox, 1948; Balandier, 1966; and Blauner, 1972).

Assimilation, to use Newman's formula (1973:53), has been a process of A + B + C + etc. = A, where A is the core culture and B, C, D, etc. are immigrant groups. Typically immigrants have learned English, adopted the customs, values, beliefs and behaviors of the dominant group and have given up their own cultural heritage in the process of acquiring a new one. This is not to say that they have not impacted the core culture in some ways, e.g. cuisine, styles of dress, linguistic diffusion, etc.; however, they have become part of the core culture without significantly altering the structure of American society. Assimilation has been a dominant ideology in the United States--"Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free"--however, its applicability is limited to those northern and western European immigrants who enjoyed racial and significant cultural homogeneity with the core culture prior to their status as immigrants. For these groups, e.g. Scots, Scotch-Irish, Welsh, German, Dutch and Scandinavian, assimilation was largely a process of Anglo-conformity and was rather easily accomplished.

Two major prerequisites for any successful assimilation have historically existed in the United States. First, immigrant groups must desire to assimilate, to be absorbed, to give up their customs, language and identity and develop a sense of peoplehood (Gordon, 1964) using the host society as their frame of reference. For some groups the rejection of assimilation was clearly a minority group choice. They preferred, rather, to maintain their own cultural identity and separate themselves from the mainstream of cultural life. To the extent that the host society was willing to permit the existence and maintenance of significant sub-cultures in an arrangement of egalitarian co-existence, or to use the Suttles' phrase, "ordered segmentation" (1968: 31), a pattern of cultural pluralism existed. The Amish are a clearly separate, culturally independent and highly visible sub-culture. Their segregated status is one of their own choice and their participation in the institutional structures and processes of the larger society is not restricted in any normative way. The host society would be willing to assimilate them -- after all, they are white, Protestant, free enterprise capitalists -- but the Amish have preferred separatism.

Throughout the immigration history of the United States there have been those unfortunate instances where the decision to segregate has been made by the dominant group and imposed upon the subordinate group. Black African immigrants have, since their arrival in North America in 1619, been the targets and victims of structural pluralism. Beginning with slavery (1660 to 1861), continuing throughout the Jim Crow era (1877-1954) and persisting to the present through institutional discrimination, blacks have experienced institutional duplication, de jure and de facto segregation and cultural racism in institutional form which have precluded their entry into the institutional processes of American life. Similarly, native American Indians, Oriental-Americans, and Latino-Americans have found assimilation impossible and even cultural pluralism difficult to achieve.

Significantly, though, all immigrant groups, regardless of their specific patterns of adaptation to the core culture, have been required to conform to WASP institutional norms. Blacks, during slavery, were not permitted to retain their native languages, family patterns or religious systems. Rather, they were subjected to an amazingly effective stripping and re-socialization process (Goffman, 1961:14ff; Elkins, 1968:81ff). If they worshipped, they worshipped the God of the Judeo-Christian system in a European manner; if they married, they did so by accepting with gratitude the crumbs that fell from the economic system. Following emancipation, with the brief exception of the Reconstruction Era, blacks were systematically excluded from the institutional life of their society by the oppressive Jim Crow system.


The music of the English, Welsh, Irish and Scotch-Irish blended quickly and easily in the same process by which these groups blended demographically and culturally to form the core culture. The music of northern European groups such as the French and Germans assimilated fairly easily into the folk tradition. Other musical traditions, however, experiences greater difficulty. It is apparent that some musical forms such as polkas from eastern Europe, the music of the Jewish, Slavic and Greek immigrants, experienced the same relationship to the musical core that the groups themselves experienced with regard to the core culture--a pluralism more or less of choice.

The African tradition, however, is a unique and segregated case and the relationship between black and white musical forms, particularly in the South, mirrors southern race relations. The South today, from all outward indicators, has made significant strides toward homogenization with the rest of the nation (Bertrand, 1966) in the areas of urbanization and industrialization. Whether these developments have weakened or seriously damaged the historical continuity and cultural unity of the South and the southern regional identity is a matter of some controversy (Rubin, 1980:9-14; Reed, 1982:162-185).2 There is substantial agreement regarding the historical existence and viability of the southern identity. W.J. Cash (1954) suggests that historically the South has been almost a society within a society. The outlines and characteristics of southern culture have been the subject of fairly extensive research (Rubin, 1980; Cash, 1954; Roebuck and Hickson, 1982; Reed, 1972, 1982) and are readily identifiable. The rural South from Colonial days through the post-World War II era, if not to the present, was religiously fundamentalist, occupationally and ideologically agrarian, racially segregated, chauvinistic, economically depressed, highly patriotic and nationalistic, politically conservative and vicinally isolated.

This regional culture produced two structurally distinct, yet very similar, intimate and symbiotic subcultures (Van den Berghe, 1978:30-33), one white and one black. The two were kept segregated by what Van den Berghe calls a "highly symbolized system of racial etiquette" which permitted intimacy at the interpersonal level. An elaborate caste system, born in slavery and perpetuated by Jim Crow, maintained clear status differentials despite physical proximity, work-sharing, neighboring, mutual assistance and similar occupational, religious and social values. However successfully structural segregation was imposed and however effectively it functioned to maintain the social structure of the South, we must never lose sight of the fact that a common cultural heritage and identity underlies the two subcultures. As Rubin observes (1980:19), "...the same heritage,both." Dick Gregory, the black comedian, was asked to explain the difference between race relations in the South and in the North. His response was both humorous and insightful: "In the South they don't care how close you get as long as you don't get too big; in the North they don't care how big you get as long as you don't get too close." In very non-sociological terms, Gregory underscores the essence of southern race relations: interpersonal intimacy in a structurally segregated social system.

The two subcultures, in turn gave rise to two musical traditions: white country ("Hillbilly") and black country blues. White country music, as noted at the outset of this paper, is distinctively British. In its American folk form it is based on the rational tempered diatonic scale (two whole steps, a half-step, two whole steps and a half-step in an eight note scale), and standard four/four, three/four or six/eight time in a monorythmic pattern. The classical European tradition employed a "music-as-language" approach to its vocal and instrumental arrangements. The African tradition, by contrast, was not bound by these structural limitations. Chapele and Garofalo (1977:243) observe that African culture was inherently more musical than the European in that "...the meaning of words depended upon the pitch at which they are spoken. This gives African speech patterns their own musicality." This concept of "language-as-music" is applicable to instrumental as well as to vocal arrangements. The instruments developed in the African tradition, both stringed and percussion, "spoke" and expressed feeling as well as lexical content. Further, African music made extensive use of call-and-response and polyrhythms.


In the social structure of the South, interaction between the two musical traditions was extensive and intimate at the interpersonal level. John Morthland comments: "...bluesmen and country singers shared a common pool of songs and of motifs, since the seventeenth century. When it comes to American music, there's no such thing as racial purity..." (1984:30). During slavery, blacks were often required to attend the religious services of the dominant class where they learned the religious music of white society. On the plantations, slaves generally provided the musical entertainment for dances, weddings and other social gatherings where they played the popular reels and square dance tunes of the day. It is generally agreed that African slaves brought the banjo (bania) from Africa and introduced it into the American folk tradition where it took its place alongside the fiddle, dulcimer, and guitar. Wherever blacks and whites shared common geographical space, they have also shared their music and influenced each other's music. As Bill Malone states:

Black-white contact began so early and was so omnipresent in American life that it is virtually impossible to know who profited most from the resulting musical exchange. From the time they first saw them on slave ships, white observers have commented frequently on blacks' alleged penchant for music. In the four hundred years that have passed, white musicians have continually drawn on black sources for rejuvenation and sustenance. Anywhere that blacks and whites mingled in the United States, in field, in factory, or mine, on railroad section gangs, in juke joints or taverns, at camp meetings or in church, at county fairs or on street corners, the potential existed for mutual cultural transmission (1985:5).

This potential was not evenly distributed throughout the South. The mountain country of Appalachia, the lowland agricultural areas, the Mississippi River delta, the Texas plains and even a few sophisticated urban centers provided very different contexts for black/white interaction. Blacks were not distributed evenly throughout the South. In Tennessee, for example, blacks made up only about fourteen percent of the population in 1800; in Mississippi and Alabama the proportion approached fifty percent. Plantation agriculture was not practiced in Appalachia and, consequently the black population was typically small. Thus mountain music remained remarkably true to its Scotch-Irish roots. The Mississippi delta area, however, provided much greater opportunity for musical cross-fertilization.

In the context of slavery in the American South, much of the African tradition was stripped away. Some vestigial characteristics did survive despite the systematic nature of the stripping process. In the field hollers, work songs and chants, and the spirituals, call-and-response was utilized not only as a musical form, but also as a communicative device. Limited to the stringed instruments available in their host society (with the above noted exception of the bania), black musicians found ways to violate the diatonic scale by bending the strings of the guitar to achieve tones which expressed their feelings. These "bent notes" became a standard feature of the blues. Call and response patterns were intricately interwoven into the instrumental and vocal arrangements of black music, both spiritual and secular. Yet another Africanism which deserves attention is the extensive use of the "falsetto wail" or "falsetto leap" in which the voice was raised an octave "generally in the last syllable of a word, at the end of a line" (Russell, 1970:67). It is generally believed that this trait was preserved in the field hollers and work songs of the slavery period and found its way into the early blues form. Some scholars (Russell, 1970:67; Morthland, 1984:57) have suggested that the "blue yodel " popularized by Jimmie Rodgers and his many imitators may have been an intentional blend of Swiss yodeling and the African falsetto leap.

Despite these surviving Africanisms, and with no intention of demeaning their significance, blacks in America adopted the basic chord structure of their host society and generally restricted their melody patterns to the three chord structure of the folk tradition. Within this structural similarity, however, stylistic innovations such as the use of flatted thirds and sevenths and the use of minor chords gave the blues a distinctive sound. Perhaps the most striking deviation from the European tradition was the introduction of polyrhythms, i.e., two or more rhythms or beats simultaneously, resulting in the syncopated meter of the blues, and later jazz. Setting aside these fascinating and delightful Africanisms, most of the black blues could be, and often was, performed by white country musicians using three chord progressions with which they were familiar. Conversely, much of the white folk tradition was performed by black bluesmen who subjected it to their stylistic innovations.


Thematically, the music of southern blacks parallels that of southern whites in that both are soulful expressions of and responses to a very similar, if not identical, set of overriding concerns, hopes, fears and frustrations. Linneman (1985:185-187) examines some of the dominant themes in black country blues. Some of the concerns are specifically black, such as references to racism, e.g. Big Bill Broonsy's "I Wonder When I'll Be Called a Man?" and songs relating to the proper length of a woman's hair. Far more themes, however, are cultural rather than racial. Poor blacks and whites alike were victimized by the share-cropping and tenant-farming system of the post-slavery South. Lacking the resources to travel, or the skills to find employment elsewhere combined with a deep attachment to place to bind the poor to the land almost as feudal serfs. Songs about the automobile, and even more predominantly, the train, are prominent in both traditions. The old black blues song says, "When a woman gets the blues she hangs her head and cries/ But when a man gets the blues he gets him a freight and rides." This song was also recorded by the legendary white country singer Jimmie Rodgers in the late 1920s. Also dominant in both traditions is the theme of the hero--the oppressed, hopeless individual struggling against the odds of poverty, unemployment and other forces that threaten to emasculate--who somehow prevails even if prevailing is nothing more than the moral victory of survival (cf. Murray, 1973).

Paul Dimaggio has argued that the basic themes in country music are love, liquor, hard work and the passing of the good old days (1972:41). McKern (1979: 106) identifies the basic themes as lovin', leavin' home, cheatin', ramblin' and old-time religion. Not only are these themes also the dominant themes in the black tradition, they are treated similarly by white and black songwriters. Ambivalence toward alcohol, a fatalistic orientation toward stability in relationships, the acceptance of hard work and the inevitability of unemployment and a romanticization of the South despite its attendant hardships are unmistakable in both traditions. And why not? They are the deeply felt personal expressions of the southern experience. This is not to say that black and white experiences in the South were identical; but both subcultures had to deal with the realities and inevitabilities of a racially stratified society, albeit, from different sides of the fence. And the two musical traditions do reflect these differences and the resulting perceptions of reality. There is, however, a much larger area of shared experience and consequently, shared perception which has served to provide the two traditions with a significant similarity of theme and lyrical content. Perhaps more important that shared experience is the sharing of a common stock of folk material from which black and white musicians were able to draw. The corpus of folk songs, ballads, gospel songs and cultural imagery provided both groups with a beginning place. As one might suspect, musicians added their own interpretations and often their own lyrics in the process of adapting the material to their specific needs (Russell, 1970:26ff).5

Black and white music touched each other at virtually every point in southern history.6 The minstrel shows and later the medicine shows and vaudeville, brought a mixture of black and white music to southern white audiences. The musical offerings of these venues included traditional fiddle tunes, blues, Tin Pan Alley songs and show tunes along with comedy, drama and dance. Following Emancipation, black musicians were free to travel and music was their only means of financial support. Bluesmen travelled throughout the South, including Appalachia, playing for whatever they could get. While their acceptance by white audiences is difficult to assess, one can well imagine that their skills did not go unnoticed by appreciative white musicians who borrowed their style and, in many cases, their lyrical material. No doubt the borrowing was a two-way street. In the 1920s Bob Wills and his band, the Light Crust Doughboys, brought "western swing" (an amalgam of country, blues and the big band sound) into popularity. Significantly, Wills occasionally hired black musicians for his recording sessions. From the same period, numerous country performers made extensive use of black material: Moon Mullican, Alton and Rabon Delmore, Jimmie Davis, Uncle Dave Macon, Sam and Kirk McGee, Frank Hutchinson, to mention only a few of the most notable examples. On the other hand, numerous black musicians borrowed from the white tradition: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sam Butler, Blind Willie Johnson, Spark Plug Smith, Brownie McGhee, Deford Bailey (the first black person to perform on the Grand Ole Opry), the Mississippi Sheiks, Muddy Waters and Blind Willie McTell. In the late 1920s and early 1930s country music's first recording superstar, Jimmie Rodgers, combined traditional country and black blues, even recording several standard blues songs (Malone, 1985:166-167). In the recording of his famous "Blue Yodel No. 9", Rodgers was accompanied by two young black musicians, Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong (Russell, 1970:64).

Also, during the 1930s, the "urban folk revival" which grew out of an intense period of political consciousness spawned by the labor union movement and the Great Depression brought the music of Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger and Josh White, to mention only a few, to the listening public. Their music was a melange of country, blues and radical political protest.


The World War II period saw the nationalization of country music (Malone, 1979:87-94) as southern boys, both white and black, were displaced and stationed all over the country and all over the world. Nostalgic songs about home and family, sweethearts and good times were immediately and powerfully appealing to lonely servicemen regardless of race or national background. The simplicity of country music, white and black, along with the minimal requirements for musical accompaniment, a guitar or harmonica, made southern music easy to transport and perform in the barracks, aboard ships and in the informal gathering places where servicemen congregated.

By the end of the war, southern blacks had become urbanized to a much greater extent than whites. The tremendous out-migration of blacks from the South, fleeing Jim Crow and seeking employment in the industrial North, had the effect of transforming the country blues into an urban phenomenon (Keil, 1966). From that point the blues followed a course of development that moved it, at least in style and performance, away from its country sound. It became "Rhythm 'n' Blues". Forgetting for the moment that many of its most notable artists such as Muddy Waters, Ivory Joe Hunter, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Little Richard and Antoine "Fats" Domino had deep southern roots, the rhythm 'n' blues they performed was largely urban and was directed to urban black audiences. There were always those black musicians who remained "country" both in residence and in musical orientation. Rufus "Teetot" Payne, a black street musician in Georgiana, Alabama, taught a young Hank Williams to play the guitar and sing a country song. Carl Perkins put together his brand of "rockabilly" by blending the black blues he learned from his fellow workers in the cotton fields of Lake County, Tennessee with the music he heard over WSM radio, Nashville, and southern gospel. Jerry Lee Lewis and his two famous cousins, Mickey Gilley and the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart, learned their honky-tonk ragtime piano style and vocal presentation while hanging out at Haney's Big House, a black night spot in Ferriday, Louisiana. Elvis Presley, from Tupelo, Mississippi, auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee in the early 1950s. Phillips had said repeatedly that if he could find a white man who sang with the Negro sound and the Negro feel he could make a million. In Elvis, Phillips found what he had been looking for (Pareles and Romanowski, 1983:438). Presley's first big hit was a rockabilly "cover" of Big Boy Arthur Crudup's old blues song, "That's All Right Mama". Another of his early hits was Kokomo Arnold's "Milk Cow Blues".

When Charlie Pride, black country recording artist, was named as the Country Music Association's "Entertainer of the Year" in 1968, he said he had learned his brand of country music from Hank Williams. And so, the circle completes itself.


Throughout southern history, black and white music have interacted at the interpersonal level. However, just as the two subcultures were structurally segregated, their musical traditions were structurally segregated by the music industry through its marketing practices. These policies not only make a statement about the "impact of racism on the business world in America" (Linneman, 1985:187), they also make a profound statement about race relations in America. The marketing of "race music" is well-documented (Murray, 1982:72-73; Malone, 1979:47; Chapele and Garofalo, 1977:231-267; Wolfe, 1979:33; Charters, 1975:258) and needs only a brief restatement here. Upon discovering, around 1920, that there was profit in the marketing of "hillbilly", black, and other (see above and preceding samples of these marketing strategies from the pre-World War II period) ethnic music, recording companies instituted the practice of marketing black music under a special series number and catalogue designated exclusively for black audiences. Okeh Records began the practice in 1921 and most of the major labels followed suit in the early 1920s. "Hillbilly" (this was the accepted designation for country music for many years) was treated in a similar fashion and marketed to country audiences.

The segregation process was further supported by the music industry's practice of differential charting of black and white music (Chapele and Garofalo, 1977:236). The two leading trade magazines, Billboard and Cashbox, have historically maintained separate chart listings for Rhythm 'n' Blues, Popular and Country. To the extent that such a practice merely reflects genuinely different musical forms and purely volitional purchasing practices, a good case can be made for its legitimacy. There is reason to suspect, however, that it has reflected something more -- the race of the performer. In the early 1950s when rhythm 'n' blues began to cross over into the pop market, the record companies adopted policies that resulted in clearly segregated distribution and promotional efforts. And, it was not until 1962 that a black performer, Ray Charles, was successful in breaking into the country and western charts, and it was 1968 before the feat was repeated by Charlie Pride. The maintenance of separate promotion departments within the industry reflects a continued musical segregation.


Urban black blues and white country music were well on their way to rediscovering their common heritage long before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s began the process of dismantling Jim Crow. American youth in the post-World War II period discovered, apparently for the first time, the polyrhythmic beat of rhythm 'n' blues and were "bopping to the sounds" of "Tutti Frutti," "Ain't That A Shame," "Good Golly Miss Molly," and "Sweet Little Sixteen." The rockabilly synthesis coming out of Memphis set them rocking to "Blue Suede Shoes," "Great Balls of Fire," "Whole Lotta Shakin'" and "Wake Up Little Susie." The legendary Buddy Holly came out of Texas with a blend of music that appealed to whites and blacks alike. Having heard him only via radio and records, a number of concert promoters were surprised upon meeting him that he and his band were white (Pareles and Romanowski, 1983:256).

In a segregated society in the earliest stages of a civil rights movement, these new sounds produced a hostile reaction from white parents, ministers and other representatives of the WASP core culture. The "evils" of rock and roll and the eminent dangers it posed for traditional morality were dominant editorial themes of the 1950s. The early days of television seem to reflect an attempt to "whiten" rock and roll by having most of the "hit" rhythm 'n' blues songs "covered" by less threatening white performers such as Pat Boone, Paul Anka, Bobby Vinton, the Diamonds and the Crew Cuts. Chapele and Garofalo (1977:247) suggest that the early American Bandstand was designed, in part, to perform this "whitening" function, over the objections of its now famous host, Dick Clark.

The coming of the British rock invasion beginning with the Beatles in the early 1960s captured the passions of American youth, including southern youth, and postponed the rediscovery of country music. The potential for that rediscovery was always very real. Southern young people, intent upon homogenizing with the broader youth subculture, seemingly shunned the music of their own heritage. It was difficult to find a teenager in the early sixties who would admit to listening to the Grand Ole Opry, a fact which later prompted Barbara Mandrell to proclaim, "I was country when country wasn't cool." They preferred, instead, the hard rock sounds of the Grateful Dead, The Who and Jefferson Airplane. It was not until the emergence of southern-based, blues-oriented country-rock bands such as the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top and early Charlie Daniels that southern youth found a way to participate in the rock revolution and celebrate their southern heritage at the same time. It may be that the emergence of these bands served as a critical transitional bridge between rock and the "urban cowboy" movement. At any rate, the return of acceptability of southern music opened the door for a re-acceptence of more traditional, though progressive, country music. The popularity of folk festivals, bluegrass festivals and old-time fiddlers' jamborees was in great evidence as the sixties came to a close.7

It now appears that the Civil Rights Movement had the latent function of removing the structural barriers that had separated black and white music in the United States, particularly in the South. No clearer signal of this development can be found than the landmark release of Ray Charles' first country album containing two Hank Williams classics and Harlan Howard's "Busted." Of equal significance is the fact that few listeners, either white or black, accused Charles of "changing music." This should come as no surprise; in fact, he had not changed music. In his own words:

I really thought it was somethin' about country music, even as a youngster. I couldn't figure out what it was then, but I know what it is now...Although I was bred in and around the blues, I always did have an interest in other music and I felt the closest music, really, to the blues (was country music. They'd make them steel guitars cry and whine, and it really attracted me. (Interview, Rolling Stone, January 18, 1973)

In fact, Ray Charles' first professional job was a three or four month stint touring with a Tampa-based white country band called the Florida Playboys. Charles tells us (Rhodes, 1975:19) that he wore a cowboy suit and even yodeled. He concedes that his famous falsetto wail may well be an offshoot of his early yodeling. The tremendous success of Charles' venture into country music signalled a joint market for black and white artists. Following his lead, several top blues performers have recorded traditional country music since the late 1960s: Big Al Downing, Joe Simon, Bobby Blue Bland, Otis Williams and the Midnight Cowboys, Gladys Knight (sans the Pips), the Pointer Sisters and Dobie Gray are notable examples. Country performers have had no less success in bringing a distinctively blues sound to their appreciative audiences: Tompall Glaser, Doc Watson, the Earl Scruggs Revue, Billy Joe Shaver, Freddie Weller, Mickey Gilley, Delbert McClinton, Mickey Newberry, Merle Haggard and, more recently, Razzy Bailey, Hank Williams, Jr. and T. Graham Brown. Thus a process which was implicit in the intimacy of the segregated South has been made explicit in the years following the Civil Rights Movement. Once the chasm of race was bridged by the removal of Jim Crow, blacks and whites have been permitted to come together as never before (Rubin, 1980:22).

The two musical traditions, despite symbolic and real segregation, are essentially the same (Walton, 1972; Grissom, 1970) in cultural origin, theme, lyrical content and, to a significant extent, in musical structure. As Frye Gaillard says:

...the two musical forms historically have been as similar and yet as separate as the two cultures out of which they grew. Country was the music of redneck soul, and though the hopes and failures that gave it its power were inescapably intertwined with those that nourished the blues, the entire history of the South - at least until very recently - has been an attempt to deny that fact.

The historical relationship between white and black music parallels the historical relationship between the races in the United States and particularly in the South. The analysis of that relationship provides an excellent mechanism for the sociological examination of inter-group dynamics.


1Tony Russell suggested some years ago (1970:85) that sociologists might find useful information in this field for the study of attitudes. In recent years, studies of attitudes toward alcohol (Chalfant and Beckley, 1983), sexual behavior (Chandler, et al, 1982), sex roles (Meyer and Vander Wey, 1983), urbanization (Austin, 1983), aging and the elderly (Aday and Austin, 1987), social class (McLaurin, 1986) have employed this approach.

2While the ideological dimensions of this issue are outside the scope of this chapter, the debate between the Nashville Agrarians and the Chapel Hill Regionalists provides a fascinating context for examining the impact of technology upon the culture and identity of the south.

3Commenting on Carey McWilliams' observation that blacks, once they were assured of the sincerity of Jimmy Carter's beliefs in racial equality, voted for him because he was southern, Rubin says, "...since southern whites and blacks alike have been shaped by the region's historical experience, they share many qualities of outlook and expectation which make for loyalty to a common community, and which, when the old chasm of race has been bridged, are free to assert themselves as never before."1980:22)

4Malone cautions is against a view of total isolation in the hill country. Blacks and their music did come into the mountains very early and their influence was felt far in advance of the commercialization of folk music (1985:5).

5An interesting issue which lies outside the scope of this chapter is the question of regional variations in the use of the folk tradition. It may well be that region is as important a variable as race. Delta musicians, black and white, may have had more in common with each other than would musicians in other regions, e.g., Appalachia, the Texas plains, etc.

6One of the best sources of information available is Tony Russell's Blacks, Whites and Blues, 1970. Though somewhat dated, Russell documents the black/white interchange from slavery days to the 1960s so well that is unnecessary to repeat the effort except in highlight.

7In a fascinating parallel, Rob Tannenbaum finds that the new traditionalists in contemporary country music such as Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakum and Steve Earle are making inroads into the west-coast rock markets (Rolling Stone Magazine, December 18, 1986:109ff).
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