The history of America is a complex narrative that includes many voices of varying ethnic and religious backgrounds. Founded on an ideological framework of freedom and liberty, paradoxically, this same framework was built on the backs of individuals who were unfree in the land of the free. Thus, the question of the true American identity is a complex one, discussed and argued by intellectuals and historians since the beginning of this unique experiment in self-government and freedom.
As an educator who teaches an American musicology course, as well as other classes in the social science discipline, the question of an American identity is intriguing. Students, when asked in discussion sessions, or when answering the question in an essay, have answers that are incredibly diverse. This study of an American musical identity will serve as a lens for which I can teach American identity concepts in relation to American music. Doing this will provide a different viewpoint for students to analyse the issues surrounding American identity.
American identity reveals itself in various cultural manifestations, both popular as well as marginalized. Literature, film, art, music, poetry, architecture, food and technology are examples of human expression that exists in the pluralistic culture of the American experience. Music is a vital and important element of the American heritage and plays an important role in the creation and perpetuation of American identity. A counter argument to this would argue the widespread popularity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of novels like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or films such as D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Films and novels such as these have a role in the formation of a certain American identity, but considering the accessibility of music to all Americans, rural and urban, music plays a more effective role in identity formation than novels or movies. This is especially true when one considers the fact that not all rural Americans during the time period had access to movies or novels. In 1920, 49% of the United States population was considered rural (Bryan). When considering the rural, common American of the early twentieth century, American vernacular music has had a more profound and effective role in the formation of an American identity than other forms of mass media and art during this era. Music in rural America was more accessible and thus more effective creating and perpetuating an American identity among rural markets than movies or novels.
Early 20th century Southern music projects a hypnotic, mystical or transcendental sound that has a prevalent underlying African quality to it. Even when the sounds originate from a white country string band, that sound is there. Music critic and historian Greil Marcus, in the liner notes accompanying the 1997 re-issue of Harry Smith’s 1952 compilation of 78rpm records of American vernacular music, the Anthology of American Folk Music, calls it the sound of the “old, weird America” (Marcus 5). To this day this unique music captivates us, and the well of American identity and American heritage on these recordings is deep and wide.
From the slave music and dance of the 18th and 19th centuries in Congo Square in New Orleans, to early 20th century blackface minstrelsy, through jazz, blues, country and rap, an underlying African base has infused our musical heritage, whether it is folk oriented or pop based. The mix of the African banjo and rhythms with the preexisting multicultural European influenced Appalachian fiddle tunes, ballads and rhythms has produced a style uniques to America. There is a certain underlying ruggedness to the music, its rhythms and syncopations, along with the vocal characteristics inherent in African and African American styles, that is a crucial element to the core musical identity of Americans.
Music is a core element of the American identity. Blues and jazz are uniquely American and could have only developed in one place and environment, America and its slave heritage. The banjo, rooted in Africa, evolved and developed in America. Originally a three or four stringed instrument, the addition of the fifth string and subsequent development of different playing styles, necessarily made the banjo a unique American instrument (Gura 2-5).
The success of American capitalism and technology during the late 19th and 20th centuries brought this new American sound to the everyday people of America. The story of this sound and how its uniqueness was created and perpetuated begins with the early black minstrel shows, America’s first pop craze and white appropriation of black music. It continues to the state of Mississippi in the early 20th century. During this era, Mississippi’s culture was a vestige of a slavery dependent oppressive plantation system, based around sharecropping and the heavy use of unskilled, poor black and white laborers. Forced to live side by side, there was musical cross pollination and the mixing of the blues and white country music became a vital force in American music. Two of America’s greatest and influential recording artists, both examined in the context of their time, place and influence, come from the state of Mississippi: Jimmie Rodgers and Charley Patton. From there, a trail winds through the development of the recording industry and it’s marketing of “race” and “hillbilly” records. It continues with the rise of America’s first mass media market, records. This vital period of change, from rural folk styles to the current mass produced pop sounds of the record and radio industry, provides a backwards glimpse into an America that once contained very regionalized styles of a musical multiracial society.
Early record companies played an important role in the perpetuation of racial identity. The marketing and recording of black musicians, of varying genres, as “race” artists as well as white artists, of varying genres, as “hillbilly” artists created specific racial and class identities that were commonly accepted among the mainstream community of musicians. Musical segregation was perpetuated by record companies and as a result, niche markets were created that were race and class specific. The environment among the musicians, in states like Mississippi, was an environment where blacks heard white music and whites heard black music in the juke joints, honky tonks, dance halls, and tent shows popular in the region. This created a great, mixed genre of blues and country music. Outside of the community of musicians, however, mass marketed records racialized their audiences, creating specific identity concepts about race and class.
Beginning the Dance: Antebellum America
Kidnapped African slaves found themselves in a nightmare of epic proportions. After surviving a journey where one-seventh of them died, they wound up on a foreign continent, where the language was unintelligible, and the culture they were forced into was drastically different. The masters they lived under regarded them as sub humans, and the likelihood that any aspect of their heritage surviving longer than a few generations was exceedingly low (Mcnally 25). In his book, On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom, Dennis Mcnally points out that yet, in the end, they would forge a unique and powerful cultural identity that has been extremely influential in many aspects of American culture. This is an immense testament to the resilience, strength and vitality of the tribal cultures of West Africa. Music and religion were all that was left for Africans who found themselves on these strange, foreign shores and they used these elements to form a new culture (Mcnally 25).
Many slaves found themselves in the cotton based economy of the south, which, some would argue is a different place from the rest of the United States. Though the southern existence is a complex and fascinating element of the country, there are certain defining characteristics of the region. According to Ben Wynne in his book In Tune: Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers and the Roots of American Music, there have always been two Souths, one white and one black. They represent two populations with very distinct and deeply ingrained perceptions of one another and the tension, anxiety and weariness of one another has never disappeared. Despite this tension and the presence of two races, a common culture exists in the region: music. This long tradition, that in many cases can often be heard before it is recognized by the very people who are deeply immersed in this culture, is especially true with southern music based on vibrant forms of of oral traditions. Folksongs, old-time spirituals, hymns, country string bands or juke joint blues, accompanied by guitars, banjos, harmonicas, pianos or mandolins, all come together in various formats to create a specifically southern sound that is uniquely American (Wynne 15-16). The region's music, the blending of white and black influences, has always made the south different from a cultural perspective. Nowhere else in the country, or the world for that matter, has white and black culture mixed to form a unique and powerful form of expression. Blues came from the south as did country music and jazz, all powerful forms of expression with roots in African American culture (Wynne 16).
This expression is a crucial element in identity formation among whites and blacks in the south and eventually the rest of the country. This identity took shape in the antebellum period with slaves interacting with their white masters, and continues with the rise and popularity of the black faced minstrel shows and the popularity of the banjo. White culture first became captivated with African American music during this time, incorporated it into mainstream culture and simultaneously mocked and degraded its source. Historian Roger Abrahams points out that,
the masters came to regard their charges as exploitable for their capabilities as both workers and players. The planters constructed situations in which blacks played in front of whites for their musical enjoyment. The slaves represented an exotic presence to their masters (qtd. in Mcnally 30).
It didn’t take the slaves long to realize that playing, dancing and singing for their masters was easier than toiling in the hot sun. Soon there were slave groups singing and playing the west African instrument, the banjo. This also created a situation where the slaves began to make fun of their owners through songs that mocked them using various codes or through dances that mimicked white culture in a sarcastic and comical way. As early as the enlightenment era, observers noted that masters began to imitate black dancing styles (McNally 30).
Although blacks served as entertainment for plantation owners, the national fascination with African American culture began with the proliferation of the minstrel shows in the 1820s. This was the first mass appropriation of black culture on a scale that reached pop culture status. Commercial interests such as the minstrel troupes that travelled from city to city performing in theatres were the first to spread songs, dance, jokes and comedy derived from African American culture on a mass level to white, as well as black, audiences (Bloomquist 411).
These travelling variety shows dominated American entertainment well into the 1890s. The acts featured “Ethiopian delineators” who were all white, all male casts who performed in black face. The comedy and the songs that were featured in the minstrel shows were gross misrepresentations of what the performers interpreted as southern black culture. Musically, minstrelsy was a sincere form of flattery. They provided white America with their first taste of black music, no matter that it was secondhand and often presented as travesty (F. Davis 37). The performers on these minstrel troupes had little to no contact with African Americans and their version of black culture depicted wild stereotypes (Bloomquist 411).
Historically it’s interesting to note that African culture, and therefore African American culture, has always held some sort of fascination in the mind’s eye of white culture. Londa Schiebinger in her book, Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science, discusses the fact that as far back as Roman times, whites have been fascinated with African culture. She states that,
It was fashionable among the wealthy to collect Africans as exotica-along with apes, camels, leopards, and elephants. Dukes paraded them as buglers and drummers in their militia, and noble families exchanged them as gifts, dressing them in gay uniforms to serve as butlers and maids, pages and coachmen (Schiebinger 116).
In Ken Burns's episode Gumbo, from his documentary, Jazz, critic Gary Giddins states that the minstrel shows were America’s first true national pop culture. It was the first time that American’s were all hearing the same songs, the same jokes. It created a national consciousness of entertainment that at it’s core was African American (Gumbo).
When discussing blackface minstrelsy in relation to cultural identity, Philip Deloria and his book, Playing Indian, comes to mind. Deloria’s psychological analysis of why white Americans have dressed up and portrayed Indian culture is in line with the practice of minstrelsy in the 19th century, and the general idea of “playing black” in American culture. He states that, "Disguise readily calls the notion of fixed identity into question," and "At the same time, however, wearing a mask also makes one self-conscious of a real 'me' underneath" (Deloria 7).
The music and the performances of the minstrel shows was ideologically charged. They contained not only cultural identifications, but hostilities, social and political commentary and of course ethnic satire (Gura 17). It’s important to note that as white America was embracing the caricatures and performances of the minstrel shows, these shows were also reinforcing identity concepts of African Americans. White perceptions of what it meant to be black in America were reinforced in these shows. According to Francis Davis, in his book, The History of the Blues,
Only a white man knew how a “coon” was supposed to act. Minstrels are still with us, though they now forgo the burnt cork. Mick Jagger, the most famous of contemporary minstrels, sings and struts as though trying to get in touch with his inner Negro (F. Davis 36).
The depictions of black life were image-damaging due to the fact that at the height of their popularity, the minstrel shows were performed in large cities as well as small towns, in every region of the country. The shows were common in the north and the south, and their popularity also extended into the west in frontier towns like Louisville and Cincinnati. They also were enormously popular in Europe and the British Isles (Bloomquist 412).
Dennis McNally states that it’s interesting to note that the minstrel shows were created by working-class performers and performed largely for working class, mostly Irish, audiences. These shows were used to mock someone who was below them on the social hierarchy of society. Many of the events portrayed in the show such as being swindled by a trickster, getting arrested, or being run over by a trolley, were simultaneously being experienced by the lower class whites who were the primary audiences of these shows. Mcnally states that, “the minstrel shows could pour balm on deep feelings of class insecurity by deftly reminding the white victims of their racial superiority” (Mcnally 35).
Although they were the scapegoat of most of the mockery in the minstrel shows, blacks were not the only target. Italians, Jews, Germans and poor southern whites were also lampooned, but it is the depiction of African Americans that is the most widespread and lasting. Minstrelsy created a frame of reference for African American identity in America. Even after the popularity of minstrelsy faded during the early 20th century, many of the characters and roles of minstrelsy were adopted by vaudeville and film. Comic archetypes developed in the minstrel shows like Zip Coon, Uncle Tom, Sambo and Jim Crow are still prevalent in the 21st century (Bloomquist 412).
Besides song, dance and comedy, the minstrel shows single handedly thrust the banjo to the forefront of American musical consciousness and identity. It is well documented that the banjo had been a common instrument on the plantations among the slaves since at least the early eighteenth century (Gura 12). By the mid-eighteenth century the instrument was noted in the mainland colonies of North America and many travel and newspaper accounts report seeing and hearing banjos being played by slaves for the entertainment of whites well before the popularity of the minstrel shows. Thus, the banjo was already a popular and well known instrument before it was co- opted by black face minstrels in the nineteenth century (Gura 12-13).
Through all of this, it was essentially the music that was most captivating to the audiences. After all the gross stereotypes, dance and comedy, the heart of minstrelsy was music. Dennis Mcnally states that the music was, “party music, vigorous and sexy in contrast to the prissy bourgeois music of the era. That is why it succeeded”. He goes on to say that the music,
established the central role of African American music in American culture, one that has endured to the present, and made a first introduction of African American culture to the greater American culture. The first minstrels violated, distorted, and ridiculed the black man’s music, but they also clearly demonstrated and appreciation for it. They were as confused about race as America has always been, but they loved the music dearly. Some things don’t change (Mcnally 36-37).
In the deep south of America, and in particular Mississippi, there exists a certain kind of racial and cultural mystique, a mystique that cannot be replicated elsewhere, and which many outsiders find baffling. Economically, in 19th century Mississippi, the Mississippi River and the delta region, also known as America’s “Cotton Kingdom”, held more millionaires per capita than any other region of the country. Steamboats travelling up and down the Mississippi River were the lifeline of the cotton industry. Hundreds of millions of cotton producing acres upriver, combined with the port at New Orleans were key to the exportation of cotton that was used in the British textile industry. Between 1820 and 1861 the need for labor in the region resulted in the importation of most of the million slaves that arrived in New Orleans (D.B. Davis 326).
The unique environment in the Mississippi delta during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a breeding ground for one of the most influential and important musical art forms to emerge from this country. Musicologists have debated the origin of the blues for decades, and although it is impossible to put a precise location or date to the formation of the blues, it is generally agreed upon that the blues, if not born there, was bred and grew up in Mississippi. The environment of sharecropping, Jim Crow segregation, lynchings and desperation that, although found in other parts of the deep south, was especially intense in Mississippi. Black and white identities were established and enforced in Mississippi through Jim Crow laws. However, musically, there was a lot of interaction and intermixing among the musicians, and as a result, this cultural miscegenation had a great effect on the music (Wynne 22-25). In addition, it was societal forces like the record industry marketing forces that created ideas of “whiteness” and “blackness” through music categorizations like “race” and “hillbilly” or later, blues and country. The plantation system, the blues, and the intermixing of whites and blacks created a sound that is distinct on its own.
When W.E.B Du Bois travelled through the south by segregated “Jim Crow Car” around the turn of the century, many of the old ways of the south still existed. The countryside was bleak and filled with one room cabins and the laborers and renters who lived in them. Du Bois sensed that it was here in the heart of the Black Belt, that he had come face to face with his cultural and racial heritage. The vast majority of blacks in the south worked as sharecroppers, tenants or wage hands. It was the same system in Mississippi that insured that the black workers would still be under the direct or indirect control of the white landowners just as they had been during the slavery and plantation era of the 19th century (Litwack 114).
For black people, Mississippi in the early twentieth century was notorious for its brutality. Between 1900 and 1930, a third of the lynchings that were reported occurred in the Mississippi Delta. The delta’s vast cotton plantations, poverty and devastating floods, combined with a plantation system of sharecropping and brutal Jim Crow laws created a culture unique to Mississippi. It is often argued that it was this particular environment and misery that fueled the raw, emotional power of the area's great blues singers (Wald 84-85).
In addition, and outside of these societal influences, culturally the blues was influenced by church songs, prison work songs, syncopated African rhythms, and American folk traditions. The music incorporates vocal rhythms and complex syncopations; notes are commonly bent or slurred. The songs were social commentaries about the hardships of being black in the early twentieth century American South. The music was often performed at parties, juke joints and at festivities for the white farm owners (Dockery Farms Foundation). Although it came from a segregated, Jim Crow society, the musicians and patrons of musical events mingled and were forced to interact inter-racially. The musical styles began to mix as well, and as a result white musicians began to adapt black elements into their sound as well as black musicians incorporating white elements into black styles (Kopp).
Although Mississippi in the early twentieth century was strictly segregated and blacks suffered under this system, so too did poor whites. This segregation created a system where it made it almost impossible for poor whites to make any advancements. There were three separate classes in Mississippi: the African American community, mostly poor, the poor white community, and the wealthy white community, the smallest group of the the three. The system, by nature, was designed to subordinate the African American community. It also created a false impression that all whites in society had privilege. As bad as they had it, they never believed they had it as bad as blacks in this system. The poor white class could draw strength and self- esteem from the fact that they were on the right side of the color line. It allowed them to create an identity that was aligned with the prosperous whites in the community. Much of poor white identity was borrowed from black culture as well. Although they disdained the culture from which they were emulating, whites would borrow from black culture for songs, rhythms, folkways, stories and superstitions (Wynne 24-25). Blacks and whites incorporated each other’s style into their music. It would be the record companies need for categorization and marketing that would create a racialized identity through music.
Most poor, southern whites in Mississippi were not blind to their economic conditions. The early decades of the twentieth century saw the increase of mechanization and the onset of modernization; this began to put pressures on the working poor, both black and white. Small groups of bankers, merchants and railroad executives began to control more and more resources (Wynne 24-27). During this era, social commentaries in both white country music and the blues became more common, and white country musicians began to adopt the use of the blues idiom.
A very specific musical identity was being created in the fields and plantations of Mississippi that would have a great impact on recorded music in the years to follow. This was one of the bluesman/entertainer, who was becoming popular among the juke joint circuit in the rural areas of Mississippi. The music started off on the plantations and in the juke joints with performers like Charley Patton and Son House who were regionally famous and crucial to the popularization of the blues in Mississippi. Because of the close proximity of whites and blacks in the area, and mixing across the racial divide, white country musicians adopted black styles due to this mixing. Record companies would ignore this fusion and market what they saw as white music and black music in separate markets, thus creating very separate cultural identities along racial lines. The lives and influence of two of Mississippi’s most important musicians o the 1920s and 30s further illustrate this point.
Charley Patton and Jimmie Rodgers
One of the most influential black musicians of the region, who was popular both in live performances as well as on records, was Charley Patton, who performed extensively during the 1920s and 30s. Patton is remembered throughout Mississippi and bordering states as having been, during his lifetime, the most popular guitar playing bluesman and songster in the region. There were many other popular singers in the region like Son House, Willie Brown, Skip James and Ishmon Bracey, but Patton was popular due to the fact that he was more than a singer of just blues songs. Although a great blues singer, he was known more as a ‘songster’. Patton had a large repertoire of blues, ballads, ragtime pieces, religious songs and country breakdowns (Fahey 7). Looking at the records that Patton made, it must be noted that he included a great variety of performance styles and did not just record specifically just the blues, as did his contemporaries. Although he recorded a variety of styles, including some white popular styles, he marketed by his record labels, Paramount and Vocalion, on their ‘race’ series (Spottswood et. al). The era is very different from the 1950s and 60s, when the similar integration between white and black styles is given a new name, rock and roll and marketed to white audiences. The record industry in the 1920s and 30s was still divided along racial lines.
Patton was born near Bolton, Mississippi in 1891. His family moved to Dockery Farms plantation around 1900, seeking opportunity and a better life. Dockery Farms was a plantation that worked black sharecroppers and was known throughout the region as being a good place to live and work where workers were treated fairly. It was located near Cleveland, Mississippi in the northern region of the delta. Charley’s family achieved some success on Dockery’s, with his father and brother-in-law eventually reaching foreman positions on the farm (Dockery Farms Foundation). Patton never worked much on the farm. He preferred developing his musical skills and playing in juke joints. A contemporary of his, Son House, stated that “Charley hated work like God hates sin” and recalled that, Charley thought he “was too smart to work” (qtd. in Litwack 449). He lived a hard-drinking rough and tumble life, marrying several times, and having many affairs over his short 40 year life span. It was on Dockery’s, however, as well as neighboring plantations and towns, that Charley Patton began to build a reputation and make a name for himself (Dockery Farms Foundation). This reputation would influence white players in the region and eventually attract the attention of A&R scouts from a few record labels, thus carrying his music outside of Mississippi to neighboring regions.
There was a very specific culture surrounding the performances that musicians like Charlie Patton would give. Some rural blacks turned their houses into juke joints on Saturday nights where homemade food and liquor was served. There was a circuit of juke joints, stores, and cafes that existed on the plantations like Dockery’s Farm. These existed at the tolerance of the plantation owners who often received a portion of the house profits (Litwack 451).
A very specific identity was associated with black musicians that was not always found among white musicians. The black performers of blues were mostly poor, disreputable itinerants who were often illiterate. They were outliers who lived outside the conventional norms of society who prided themselves on not having a boss or an overseer (Litwack 452). This reputation was not always widely accepted in the norms of society. By 1921 Charley Patton had been banished from Dockery Farms. He had a negative effect on the female workforce as they often stayed out too late listening and partying where Patton was performing, and this would have a negative impact on their ability to work during the day. Patton, in the eyes of society had become the “bad nigger” and most blues players, although popular entertainers, were viewed in this negative light by both white and black society (Litwack 450).
There were certain expectations for certain audiences and the repertoire would vary greatly depending on whether the audiences were white or black. Most black musicians who made a living playing music had to be versatile in their approach to their audiences racial make up. Blacks playing for whites, and blacks playing for blacks was very common, each with different repertoires. Whites playing black influenced music for white audiences seemed to be common as well. White country string bands playing banjos, fiddles and guitars, heavily influenced by African American songs and dance became the paradigm for hillbilly string bands. Black country string bands are an old tradition. Much of what we now think of as “old time” or “hillbilly” music comes from black slaves having to learn irish reels or jigs on the fiddle in order to perform for white audiences. This carried into the black string band tradition in the years that followed. Elijah Wald states that,
Our view of the music has been forever slanted by the vagaries of the record scouts who arrived in the 1920s and, having learned that such pieces sold much better to white customers than black, discouraged black musicians from playing them. This is why all but a tiny sample of the rural fiddle music recorded during this period and afterward comes from white players (Wald 47).
The isolated poverty in the rural south insured some cultural interaction and mixing. Historian Arnold Shaw writes that “there was enough sharing of feeling between alienated white Southerners and segregated black bluesmen to give ‘hillbilly’ handling of blues a vigor, excitement and rich sense of authenticity” (qtd. in Thomas 76). Whites and blacks may not have been able to eat together or use the same establishments, but they still existed in the same towns and lived side by side. They had been listening to each other’s music for generations. The music of white southerners and black southerners was the same, with environmental factors accounting for the cultural and social distinctiveness. The themes that exist in country music: loneliness, struggle, drinking, gambling, love, the devil and God, also exist in the blues (Wynne 59).
As previously stated, blues music, was nurtured in the soil and cultural environment of Mississippi. It branched out in many different directions in American popular culture over the ensuing years. One of America’s greatest recording artists was Jimmie Rodgers. He was white, from Mississippi, and one of the most influential musicians in the genre of white country music. An examination of his music is an intriguing look into the styles of not only Mississippi, but of early, rural America. Stylistically he represents blues, jazz, jug band music, Anglo ballads, and Appalachian country music; a fascinating amalgam of black and white styles.
Jimmie Rodgers, born in 1897, in Pine Springs Mississippi, would go on to become one of the most influential and pioneering recording stars of the twentieth century. He was the first white performer to be convincing as an interpreter of the blues (Russell 70). From a musical family, he grew up living a life on the road. His father worked on the Mobile & Ohio railroad, and during his youth Rodgers travelled and saw and heard many musicians throughout the state of Mississippi and surrounding areas. Eventually Jimmie would also work the railroads as a brakeman, which would give him the moniker that would follow him for the rest of his life: “The Singing Brakeman”. He performed around Mississippi with various medicine shows as well as other venues of entertainment. Between his railroad work and his work as a musician in the area, he came in constant contact with many black musicians and that is where he picked up the blues (Olson 23).
In 1924, Rodgers was diagnosed with tuberculosis. As the disease got progressively worse, his work as a railroad man had become almost impossible. In 1927 he moved to the mountain city of Asheville, North Carolina, leaving the brutal Mississippi weather for a comparatively more mild climate. This would be a crucial development in the history of American music. Rodgers eventually joined a string band, the Tenneva Ramblers, who were set to record records for the Victor label in Bristol Tennessee. The year was 1927, and the resulting Bristol sessions are considered by music historians to be the “big bang” of country music, as the Carter Family would also record their first records at these sessions. Johnny Cash would later call the sessions “The single most important event in the history of country music.” (Stimeling 219-22).
In Bristol, after a falling out with the Tenneva Ramblers over financial issues, Jimmie Rodgers, with the encouragement from Victor talent scout Ralph Peer, records his first records under his own name. The first records he recorded at Bristol, a ballad “The Soldier’s Sweetheart”, and a Tin Pan Alley pop number, “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” did not sell particularly well, but Peer felt he had promise and invited him to make a few more records later that year at Victor’s studios in Camden, New Jersey. One of the records he recorded in Camden, a blues, “Blue Yodel” (T for Texas), immediately made him a star. He went on to make over 100 records for Victor and became country music’s first bona-fide superstar. Arguably the most influential performer in the history of country music, he died of Tuberculosis in 1933 (Olson and Russell 23-24).
In a major development in the history of American Music, many white performers, influenced by Rodgers, began abandoning ballads and pop oriented songs for the blues (Russell 70). This music was now marketed by record companies to white audiences as “hillbilly”, “old time” or “country”music. Jimmie Rodgers also kept other kinds of material in his repertoire. Although blues songs are very prevalent, and along with his trademark yodels, he included a versatile collection of pop songs, ballads, cowboy numbers, Hawaiian influenced pieces and songs with jazz and jug band accompanists (Russell Country Music Records 799-809). His trademark style of what is called the blue yodel became popular with some black blues singers as well. A popular black string band from Mississippi, the Mississippi Sheiks, who were already known for their versatility in both white, as well as African American styles of music, imitated his yodel in their 1930 recording of “Yodelin’ Fiddlin’ Blues”. In 1934, Tampa Red used this yodel style in “Worried Devil Blues” and blues legends like Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett) and Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), both have reported listening to Jimmie Rodgers records when they were young (Wynne 152). A particularly good example of a deep Mississippi blues singer incorporating a Rodger’s style yodel is Howlin’ Wolf’s record, “Smokestack Lightning” (Burnett). Musician Cliff Carlisle who knew and recorded with Jimmie Rodgers stated that, “Jimmie, he reminded me more of a colored person, or a negro, or whatever you want to call them...than anybody I ever saw, in a way. He had that old southern, long southern drawl, you know” (qtd. In Nunn 639). Erich Nunn in his essay, Country Music and the Souls of White Folk argues that the recordings of Jimmie Rodgers, the “Father of Country Music”, are the beginnings of the genre of country music, a music primarily associated with white culture. His music comes at a time when folk traditions and commercial forms, both black and white, were merging and taking the shape of a new, forward thinking style of music that blended the best of both genres. Rodgers’ music became “white” through the combined and often contradictory actions of academic minded folklorists and the commercial industry of culture (Nunn 625). He states that,
the investment of this new music with whiteness in the 1920s should be understood as a response to the threat that the potential permeability of this racial sound barrier poses to the cultural logic of segregation. In response to this threat, a range of discourses, academic, literary and commercial, work to police this border in order to keep different musical forms on either side of the line (Nunn 625).
Race and Hillbilly Records
One of the most effective ways that music was spread throughout the countryside during the 1920s was through the rise of a relatively new media form: the phonograph record, which became readily available even in the most rural of areas. Individual and group identity concepts are easily through the art and ideas that are often spread through these mediums (Delaney). In the 1920s and 30s the rise of the recorded music industry played a huge part of a racialized American identity through vernacular music. Rural areas in the early part of the twentieth century were not as isolated from the rest of society as one might believe, and music travelled quickly through the countryside. Most small towns were visited by travelling medicine shows and had vaudeville stages. After the harvests people spent money in small country stores, and migrant laborers during this time became an important aspect of the agricultural economy (Monod 196). Local musicians were hired to play various events around the countryside, and would often sell songbooks containing words to their popular songs. They would pass songs around from region to region, and with this cultural migration song titles and sometime lyrics would be adapted and changed to suite the needs of the locals. For example, within a year of the publication of W.C. “Handy’s Hesitation Blues”, a folklorist recorded three different versions of the song in Auburn, Alabama (Monod 196).
In the 1920s, record companies began to realize that there were huge profits to be made recording regional and niche markets like the blues and hillbilly markets. Okeh records, the first company to take advantage of this new market, recorded Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920. A huge selling record, “Crazy Blues” subsequently popularized the blues as an emerging popular art form (Barnett 124). Okeh took another chance in a niche market, and in 1922 recorded country fiddler, Eck Robertson accompanied only by his fiddle singing and playing “Sally Goodin” (Russell Country Music Records 757). They started to market their black artists as “Race” artists and their white country artists as “Old Time” which was eventually changed to “Hillbilly” (Barnett).
People in the rural areas were not only craving the hits coming out of the urban centers, but were also yearning to hear localized styles sung by people who sounded like they were from their community (Wald 30). Although radio was becoming popular during this time, the most effective way that the blues spread throughout rural America was by records. In the 1920s, records sold for between fifty and seventy five cents, which was not inexpensive. However, it is crucial to remember that during this era, few homes in rural areas had electricity, therefore making radios unusable. The wind up Victrola record player in most rural homes during this era, were a cherished commodity, and the records it played were an important factor in the creation of a specific American identity related to music (Monod 196).
In an era before television where most rural homes were without a radio, records were an important factor in the creation of a specific American identity related to music. Although the record companies were marketing blues music (“Race”) and white country music (“Hillbilly”) to very different audiences on opposing sides of America’s racial divide, there was a large amount of stylistic cross pollination that blurred this racial divide. This bi-cultural mixing is a crucial element to the creation of the American musical identity.
Whites recorded and played black styles, but very rarely, did blacks record white repertoire. Black musicians, if they wanted work, had to be able to perform for both white and black audiences. The record companies limited white and black musicians in many ways. Despite the fact that rural musicians were performing the current pop hits to appease their audiences, virtually none of this was ever recorded by the record companies. The record companies could just as easily sell these same songs performed by the sophisticated jazz orchestras recording in New York. Elijah Wald states that,
Such rural artists could play the uptown pop hits well enough to satisfy folks in a neighborhood saloon or at a country dance, but not many record buyers, even in rural areas, cared to hear a bunch of hicks playing “I’m Coming Virginia” when it was just as easy to get a Bing Crosby record (Wald 53).
Folklorists, Alan Lomax and John Work, on their 1941 field trip recording music in Mississippi, recorded a young and unknown (at the time) blues singer, Muddy Waters. Muddy Waters was living on Stovall’s plantation outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi. Along with recording music, they also conducted interviews and gathered stories among the musicians. Muddy’s interview gives interesting insight into how the rural musicians viewed themselves as opposed to how the record companies would pigeonhole black performers as “race” artists and market them as such to the general public. Muddy gave Alan Lomax a list of songs in his repertoire that he knew and liked. He was often called upon to play white dances and functions in the area. According to Elijah Wald, less than half the songs he states in his list were blues. Outside of the blues pieces, he listed seven Gene Autry hits like “Take Me Back to My Boots and Saddle”, “Deep in the Heart of Texas” and a dozen mainstream pop songs of the day like “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”, “Red Sails in the Sunset” and “Whatcha Know Joe?”. Lomax also reports that Muddy Waters had a wind-up Victrola in his house that had a great variety of records that included modern jazz hits, urban blues, and Jimmie Rodgers records (Wald 58-59). These “down home” blues musicians were not just playing back country blues as is the popular mythos created by record companies, they were enjoying and playing a variety of styles, on both sides of the racial divide.
Elijah Wald states that,
In a pattern that has been repeated ad infinitum, black performers were ghettoized, and their access to the recording world was dependent on their singing “black” music, whatever their own tastes or the repertoire they may have featured in their live shows. In person they were performing as wide a variety of material as their white counterparts, and it was racism and the vagaries of the recording industry that kept more of this from being preserved on records (Wald 22).
It was also during this time that record companies began shifting their focus towards the rural markets, both black and white, away from the larger, urban bands and pop acts. They looked to lower production costs by employing solo artists or small, rural acts. Radio had begun to take away the market for records in the urbanized regions due to the increasing availability of electricity in urban versus rural regions. Sales of records were greater in rural areas and companies began to record and market more “race” and “hillbilly” acts towards rural markets. Catalogue companies like Sears and Roebuck, the Amazon of the time, made delivering products to rural areas efficient, thus also increasing the sale of musical instruments, songbooks and records to these regions (Monod 198).
Kyle Stewart Barnett, in his dissertation, Cultural Production and Genre Formation in the U.S. Recording Industry, 1920-1935 focused on the rural economy in the 1920s and gives insight into rural consumption habits. Farm Life magazine published a promotional booklet for advertisers titled Consider Fifty Million Customers: A Study of the Rural Section of the American Market. It sought to highlight the potential market and importance of the rural economy and culture in the twenties. In1920, before record companies were recording rural white Southern music, the phonograph seller’s trade journal reported the results of the Farm Life survey. In a survey of over 6,000 readers that polled their families’ household equipment, farm equipment, livestock, and other possessions, phonograph ownership was common. Out of 6,115 homes, 2,058 owned phonographs (Barnett 186-187). This supports the fact that records in rural areas were more popular than radios because of the issue of available electricity. Despite marketing attempts to create distinct racial identities through “race” and “hillbilly” music the proliferation of records was a crucial element necessary to a biracial identity.
Another important part of the marketing of the “race” and “hillbilly” series from the record companies comes in the development of advertising campaigns in print mediums like newspapers and catalogues (Monod 199). The evolution of the imagery used in the marketing schemes of the record companies progressed from ads that clearly were being marketed to an urban audience, to those being marketed with rural, down home communities. Following the success of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920, other record companies began to record female blues singers. They were marketed to urban audiences with fancy head shots with the singers finely dressed, wearing jewelry. Even though singers like Mamie Smith, “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith came from essentially rural backgrounds, they were given names like Empress of the Blues or Queen of the Blues, with an emphasis on their wealth and fine things representing fancy urban lifestyles (Monod 199). A black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, played a large part in the advertising of the record companies, particularly for the “race” series. Founded in 1905 by Robert Abbott, The Chicago Defender became a forum against racial injustice from the outset. It had southern distribution among blacks in the south and was a strong advocate for blacks migrating out of the Jim Crow south to northern cities where work outside the fields could be found (Tolly). Crap games in back alleys, men and women partying in apartment buildings, crime and workers sneaking away from their jobs are examples of some common urban themes used in advertisements.This enforced a very specific identity among listeners of blues markets in the urban areas.Rural images in Okeh records advertisements began to appear in 1922 with an ad in the Defender for “Lonesome Mamma Blues” with Aunt Jemima type characters holding frying pans and other exaggerated depictions of rural life (Monod 199).
Angela Hammond, in her dissertation, Color Me Country: Commercial Country Music and Whiteness states that the national identification of “we” is best defined as identifying who “we” are not. In order to establish a national identity, it is necessary to identify and control the “others” on the margins of society. In the United States, these “others” have always been represented by certain characters in the cultural domains of literature, music, theatre and art. Various black stereotypes from minstrelsy, American Indians, Asians, Irishmen, Jews and other immigrant characters define the normative state of existence by being outside of that state. This racialization of whiteness is important to understanding the formative years of commercial country music on record and the resulting creation of a cultural identity through this art (Hammond 37-38).
During the twenties, records gave rural people the awareness of regional differences and similarities in music. Record companies, looking for new markets, looked towards the rural, immigrant and working classes, whose performers were only previously known at the local or regional level (Rosenberg 19). A vast difference existed between the marketing of early white country musicians and that of the black blues singers. Before the “Hillbilly” label was added to Okeh’s catalogue, they were marketed to the white audiences as “Old Time Tunes” or “Old Fashioned Tunes”. Whites saw their music a part of a treasured past, a relic of good times (Wald 31). This played an important role regarding identity formation of the two groups, not only among rural blacks and whites, but among urban blacks and whites whose perception of the people on the margins of society was formed by media like records, radio and advertisements in catalogs and newspapers.
Race, Hillbilly, Irish, Cajun, and Mexican were all promoted separately from the master catalogues, and eventually this trend spread throughout the rest of the record industry. This communicated to the record buyer that hillbilly records were outside the mainstream. The graphics on the record sleeves and catalogues relay an exotic type of music performed by an usual type of white person that was clearly identified by the record companies as outside the mainstream. There are many stereotypes of the rural, white America that are portrayed in American culture and that were perpetuated by marketing of “hillbilly” records (Hammond 30). A Columbia records catalogue from 1928 states that,
Columbia was a pioneer in the idea of recording the fascinating rhythms and humanely appealing songs of the Southern Mountaineer artists. These selections are old in fame and popularity in the South. To other Americans, they offer an exotic charm, and a genuine novelty (qtd. in Hammond 30).
As with the blues, hillbilly music had common themes of displacement, being homesick or left behind by a lover. Yearning for home and life on the road or railway were frequent themes of nostalgia that ties into what was a rapidly growing and modernizing America during the 1920s. There was a general sense that the good old days of down home, country living were rapidly disappearing. This had a powerful effect on the subconscious of the record consuming society (Barnett 186). By the end of the 1920s, records had helped to bring many performers into the spotlight, eventually leading to an even bigger focus on radio and eventually television. Greater audiences would be reached through these new mediums, and as a result a new American musical identity was being perpetuated and expanded (Rosenberg 19). They key to understanding the power of these records is to understand the role they played in leading to these larger mediums for the performers and thus greater exposure on a nationwide level. This exposure would come later during the 1930s and 40s with the rise of radio due to the spread of electricity to rural areas and the virtual destruction of the record industry as a result of the depression.
The history of race relations in America is tenuous at best. Living side by side in urban and rural communities, blacks and whites have been intermixing and co-mingling since the founding of this complex American experience. Beginning with slaves on plantations across the south and the rise of America’s first popular entertainment, minstrelsy, black music has continuously been appropriated by white culture, and as a result new artistic expressions have been created through this relationship. Mississippi was an environment where this relationship was nurtured and matured in the early years of the twentieth century. The plantation system of sharecropping created an environment in the Jim Crow south where poor blacks and poor whites lived in close proximity, often exchanging and adopting musical ideas to fit their own needs and blending tastes.
It was from this environment in Mississippi that one of the region's most popular performers, Charley Patton, came of age and influenced many people in the state, black and white. Also rising from this environment would be one of America’s founding fathers of country music; Jimmie Rodgers, who was heavily influenced by the black blues tradition. His influence would live on in American country music styles into the 21st century. Ben Wynne states that,
Today, the names Charley Patton and Jimmie Rodgers are rarely uttered outside the confines of documentary films or scholarly publications dealing with American roots music. Most people do not routinely listen to Patton or Rodgers records. Then again, the work of Charley Patton and Jimmie Rodgers is everywhere, in every American generation, because members of every generation listen to music that they like. Every generation listens to music that is influenced by something that came before. On the quest to find the origins of American popular music, the trail does not end with them, but it goes through both men at a critical juncture during the early twentieth century (Wynne 14).
The environment and artists in Mississippi serves as a case study about the cross-cultural exchange between white and black musicians.This southern state also serves as proof that there was a strong mixing of black and white styles that were essential to the formation of an American music style that would develop in the following years.
There is more to look at here to further advance the thesis presented in this paper. Further advancing the thesis of this paper would be an examination of the concepts of gender identification and stereotype perpetuation in both the “race” and “hillbilly” categories of early American music. An additional advancement of the thesis of this paper would be an examination of the effect of the rise of radio in the 1920s on the creation of an American musical identity. The popularization and cultural hegemony that radio creates in the ensuing decades is dependent on the creation of a particular American musical identity created with the record industry.
Although early 20th century American music was a potent mix of black and white musical styles, it was the actions of record companies that created a clearly divided line between black and white performers and the marketing of these performers along racial lines. The promotion and marketing of “race” and “hillbilly” records to the record buying rural public created a concept of cultural identity that followed societal concepts of class and race.
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