by John Morthland
NOTE: This originally appeared in Oxford American, issue #21/22 (1997), revised May 2000 by the author.
Black people began adapting white music to their own ends almost as soon as they arrived in America. The earliest African-Americans, forced into slavery in New England around 1619, were allowed but one communal respite from work: the white man's church. Blacks sang the same religious musics as whites, most of it written by Methodist ministers from England and brought to this country by missionaries. Before long, blacks has grown especially partial to the stern but redemptive hymns of Dr. Isaac Watts, which were published in America during the Great Awakening of the 1730s. Those hymns remained the backbone of black gospel music all the way into the 1950's and '60's.
The musical miscegenation that began in those New England churches is arguably not as vital as it once was, but it continues today in various forms, from white rap, and black hip-hop that samples hard-rock guitar solos, to the blues that have been appropriated by whites and turned into simple party-down music since being abandoned by most blacks. As the blues example suggests, such interplay always has its ups and downs. You won't find many black people who recall with affection minstrelsy and blackface, the popular musical forms of their time, and you also won't find many whites who'll admit today that a performance at the House of Blues is the current equivalent of those forms.
In the 1920's, the earliest days of the recording business, cross-pollination was still going strong. Consider the instruments used by blacks and whites in their traditional musics. The fiddle, small and portable came to the U.S. with the earliest settlers, and blacks slowly adapted it. The banjo, originally an African instrument, was popularized among whites via minstrel shows and, by the 1830's, was common in country fiddle bands. The guitar, a European instrument first used in this country by well-bred Northerners, was made more accessible by the Sears catalog. Soon after the turn of the century, black railroad workers took the guitar into the Southern mountains, and whites picked it up too. The Dallas bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson cut the first steel-guitar record in 1926, and West Virginian Frank Hutchison five months later with the first country record to use steel. Whatever they started as, these were not white or black, country or blues instruments; they were Southern instruments, the sound of the Mississippi Delta, the Tennessee mountains, and the Kentucky bluegrass country. Traditional songs likewise bounced back and forth between the races.
This give-and-take rarely occurred in the North; it's almost exclusively the province of the South, where isolation from the outside world sustained a musical culture between peoples who otherwise had little to do with each other. This is the turf explored by From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music, a three-CD boxed set produced by the Country Music Foundation of Nashville and released by Warner Brothers.
The most obvious link between earlier generations of black and white Southerners was the land; those who didn't own it worked it- the races sometimes toiling shoulder-to-shoulder, sometimes not. That's the life evoked by the first CD, "The Stringband Era," featuring DeFord Bailey, a harmonica player distinguished from his white counterparts primarily by the extent to which his sound verged on boogie (which otherwise didn't exist yet). Bailey was a popular member of the Grand Ole Opry from 1926 to 1941 before being drummed off for reasons to appear to have been mostly racial. But Bailey's full, charging performances of tunes like "Pan American Blues" and "Fox Chase" were crowd-pleasers no matter what the crowd, and though his records were released on the "race" rather than the hillbilly line, they sold well to both audiences.
With "Midnight Special" and "Rock Island Line," Leadbelly represents an even more archaic strain of black country, the solo singer-guitarist- whom most would rather think of as a bluesman. But there are other, more obscure musicians worth a mention, like Taylor's Kentucky Boys, an integrated group whose traditional "Gray Eagle" achieves a ringing, echoing sound thanks to black fiddler Jim Booker. And the Mississippi Sheiks' "Yodeling Fiddling Blues" is what might have happened had Howlin' Wolf ever met Jimmie Rodgers (Wolf always explained that his trademark howl was his attempt to imitate Jimmie's blue yodel). Though blacks were simultaneously developing their own music- the blues- at the time, this disc leaves no doubt that many blacks and whites were then playing the same music. But that kinship would fade following the rise of a (virtually all-white) commercial country music business in the '30s. In the postwar years, just thirty-two African-Americans have placed records on the country charts.
The second disc, "The Soul Country Years," proves that by the '60's the two musical cultures- black and white- had become very different, even if the songs had across-the-board, working-class appeal. This set leaves off some great ones (Otis, Aretha, Johnny Adams, James Carr), presumably because of licensing problems, but it could also stand to lose at least one of the two Bobby Hebb tracks. He may be a Nashville native, but his takes of "A Satisfied Mind" and "Night Train to Memphis" are thin and slight, neither soulful nor country in feel. Diana Ross and the Supremes' out-of-it reading of "It Makes No Difference Now" could easily be traded out for something on which the singer sounds interested in the song.
While the first disc shows blacks and whites sometimes sharing songs and styles, the second one presents soul singers putting their own horn-laden sound to tunes that were first done with fiddlers and pedal steels. These artists are the children of Brother Ray Charles and his 1962 Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, the landmark LP of transcendent vocals set against kitschy orchestrations that (along with early rock 'n' roll) illuminated black-white roots connections for a popular audience. (It went to number one on the pop charts, and a second volume followed.) But even before that, in 1959, Charles had shown a strong affinity for country with "I'm Movin' On," which had a lot more kick to it than the songs on either of his later country albums.
Others had cut country songs before him in different black idioms (Wynonie Harris's jump-blues "Bloodshot Eyes" and the Orioles' "Crying in the Chapel"), but what Charles's biggest records proved was that blacks would appreciate a country lyric- temptation, hard times, hurting, cheating- if it was sung by the right voice. The best tracks here are on ballads that let a voice stretch and wander: Esther Phillips's "Release Me," Arthur Alexander's "Detroit City," Etta James's "Almost Persuaded," Al Green's "For the Good Times," and especially Joe Tex's "Half A Mind." Tex, the most countrified soul singer of them all, brought distinctly Southern stateliness to everything he did.
CD number three, "Forward with Pride," is the least satisfactory in the set. It aims to show how blacks assimilated into modern country and the Nashville Sound, but instead it represents growing alienation between blacks and whites. There are four tracks by Charlie Pride, country's only black superstar, and three by Stoney Edwards, an Oklahoman who only modest mid-'70s success, although his music was as soulful and sensitive to country's roots and branches as anyone working in that era. The rest of the disc offers provocative tracks by artists who went nowhere (Otis Williams & the Midnight Cowboys' great "How I Got To Memphis"), with others who usually brushed the bottom of the country charts at best (O.B. McClinton, Linda Martell, Dobie Gray), and a slew from other genres (Professor Longhair, Ted Hawkins, Aaron Neville) who happened to cut a country song. The Pointer Sisters, who recorded in Nashville with local pickers, even got a country hit with "Fairytale." But the main thing this disc suggests is that, except for Cleve Francis, who had a few minor hits in the early '90's before quitting the music business, new black artists haven't had a presence in country music since the mid-'70's.
Unless, that is, you count Herb Jeffries, my very favorite example of musical miscegenation (and he's not even a Southerner!), who's represented here by "I'm a Happy Cowboy," from a Western album he released in 1995, when he was eighty-four years old. Jeffries was born and raised in a mixed neighborhood in Detroit by a mother who was Irish and a father who was English, Italian, Chippewa, and Ethiopian (and the Ethiopian blood, he notes, is not African but Semitic). In other words, though his complexion is slighter darker than a Caucasian's, Jeffries is, by virtually any definition, a white man. This might surprise the producers of this album of black artists singing white music, but Jeffries fooled a lot of people. Jeffries entered showbiz in 1933 as vocalist for all-black Earl "Fatha" Hines Orchestra. While touring the South, he was disturbed to find that the segregated movie theaters had all-white Westerns for the white audiences, but that black kids had no cowboy movies of their own. Being a Western buff and a good horseman, he came up with a movie called Harlem on the Prairie, and finagled funding from a B-movie mogul. Unable to locate a leading man who could act, sing, and ride, he took the role himself. And thus did Jeffries become "the Bronze Buckaroo." He had four highly successful black Westerns before Duke Ellington wooed him to join his orchestra from 1939 to 1942 (that's Herb singing "Flamingo"). Since the end of World War II, he's done all manner of showbiz odd jobs. The whole time, Jeffries says, nobody asked him if he is black or white, and he has never bothered to say anything himself.
Now, it's safe to assume there aren't a lot of Herb Jeffrieses out there. Yet here's something else: Surveys show that black listeners make up 10 to 20 percent of the country audience. And black artists are still coming to country music; a series of auditions for black artists in Nashville has drawn numerous singers and enthusiastic salt-and-pepper crowds. Yet only two (a black band named Wheels and a singer named Trini Triggs) have been signed. Are the labels bucking to radio, which is immensely powerful and also one of the most segregated industries in the nation today? Or does the problem lie with people like MCA Nashville president Tony Brown, one of the most respected judges of talent on Music Row? "Country basically is white music. Why would black people want to sing those straight notes...?" he asked in a November 1996 New York Times interview. "To me, black music is about feeling and white music is about no feeling." Even if there is a kernel of truth there, how could a black artist possibly get a fair hearing from someone with such a wholly dismissive attitude? Whatever the source of the problem, country music has spent most of this century moving farther away from a deep, rich part of its heritage. This boxed set documents that movement. Don't hold your breath for a Volume Four.
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