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Country Music
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Country Music

Definition of Style

Generally regarded exclusively as the music of white southerners (and often called "the white man's blues"), country music has in fact been deeply influenced by African Americans, who have contributed and listened to country music from its origins to the present day.

Blacks and whites in America have exchanged musical ideas since the first Africans arrived in the seventeenth century, and this exchange occurred in both religious and secular music. Slaves brought many new elements to the music of the Protestant church, particularly through the camp meetings of the Second Awakening during the early nineteenth century. Outside the church, slaves were performing as fiddlers as early as the eighteenth century, and the banjo – an adaptation of an instrument originating in Africa – soon followed. Both the fiddle and the banjo, popularized particularly through the minstrel stage, soon became two of the principal instruments of the string band tradition (both black and white) that would form the foundation for commercial country music in the twentieth century. Though the recording companies in the 1920s segregated Southern rural music into "race" and "hillbilly" music, black and white Southern musicians drew from a common well of musical sources.

Many of country music's most influential figures learned their skills from black musicians. Maybelle Carter, Bill Monroe, and Hank Williams have all cited black musicians as early musical influences and tutors. Jimmie Rodgers, known as "the father of country music," was greatly influenced by the music of black railroad workers and black musicians with whom he played in medicine shows. And legend has it that Bob Wills, the most important bandleader in western swing (a country style that borrowed freely from jazz and blues), once rode over thirty miles on horseback to hear Bessie Smith perform.

This musical interchange has been mutual. Jimmie Rodgers was the boyhood idol of legendary bluesman Howlin' Wolf, who claimed that Rodgers gave him his nickname and that Rodgers' famous "blue yodel" influenced his signature howl. Ray Charles, whose early musical career included performing in a country band called the Florida Playboys, has stated that he never missed a Saturday night broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry while growing up.

Other African-American musicians who have made their mark as country musicians include the great harmonica player DeFord Bailey, who was the Grand Ole Opry's first black star and one of its most popular performers during his time on the show from 1926 to 1941; Charley Pride, who has unquestionably been the most well-known black country singer (and one of the most successful country artists of any color) of all time; and musicians such as O.B. McClinton, Stoney Edwards, Ruby Falls, and Cleve Francis, who have enjoyed chart success. Many black artists have performed country songs throughout their careers most notably, Ray Charles (who has recorded several remarkable country albums), Fats Domino, the Supremes, and Al Green.

A revealing study was published in 1993 by the Simmons Research Bureau, which reported that between six and eight million African Americans, or 24 percent of America's black adult radio audience, listened to country radio. This, perhaps more than any other fact, illustrates that country music is a part of African-American culture and that it can clearly be regarded as part of the black music tradition.

Musical Example

Edwards, Stoney. "Hank and Lefty Raised my Country Soul" (Dallas Frazier, A.L. "Doodle" Owens).(Capitol 3671). Released 1973. From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music (3-CD set). Warner Brothers 9 46428-2.

Introductory Bibliography

Cantwell, Robert. Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound. New York: Da Capo Press, 1992. Critical examination of bluegrass music. Discusses the style's connections with jazz. Explores the musical roots of bluegrass, including the minstrel tradition.

Foster, Pamela E. My Country, Too: The Other Black Music. Nashville, Tenn.: My Country, 2000. Explores the topic of blacks in country music. Provides biographical information on numerous black performers and other significant blacks in the country music industry. Includes an extensive discography of black country performances. (Currently out of print.)

Hoskyns, Barney. Say It One Time for the Brokenhearted: Country Soul in the American South. London: Bloomsbury, 1998. History of "country soul," a style with its roots in gospel, R&B, and country music. Explores black and white musical interaction in the South and the cross-pollination between country music and soul music.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music, U.S.A. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985. Universally regarded as the definitive history of country music.

Russell, Tony. Blacks, Whites, and Blues. New York: Stein and Day, 1970. Classic study of the musical interchange between the black and white folk traditions of the United States.

Selected Discography

Black Appalachia: String Bands, Songsters, and Hoedowns (Rounder 1823).

From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music (Warner Bros. 9 46248-2). 3-CD box set.

Rhythm, Country and Blues (MCA 10965).

Bailey, DeFord. The Legendary DeFord Bailey: Country Music's First Black Star (Tennessee Folklore Society 122).

Charles, Ray. The Complete Country & Western Recordings, 1959-1986 (Rhino R2 75328). 4-CD box set.

Pride, Charley. The Essential Charley Pride (RCA 67428).