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The African American Music Tradition in Country Music
By David Winship, Birthplace of Country Music Alliance
(more articles from this author)
2003-02-05
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"The African-American music of the rural South provided the source for gospel, jazz, and blues, while the oft ignored black contribution to country and hillbilly music went far beyond providing the banjo and Charley Pride. Southern rural musicians drew upon a common well, segregated into blues, country, and folk by recording companies and folklorists only well into the 20th century. Until the explosive emergence of the blues a century ago, blacks played fiddle and banjo for dances throughout the South, entertaining audiences of both races and often playing with European-American musicians." -- Art Menius

The plucked banjo string. The field holler. The gospel spiritual.

Each of these traditions is an element of what has made country music. Each is rooted in the African American experience, in the southern Appalachian Mountains and through the South. The migration of the music and the influence on the musical traditions are so fundamental that what we know as country music would not be possible without the African American contribution.

The birth of country music, as we know it, can be traced to the recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee in the summer of 1927. The influences that brought those sessions to life go back much farther. Lesley Riddle of Kingsport, Tennessee was an African American guitar player who directly influenced the Carter Family, known as the “First Family of Country Music.” Riddle accompanied A.P. Carter on song collecting trips in the mountains and remembered how the melody would go as Carter would recall the lyrics. Riddle's influence on Maybelle Carter is seen in her distinctive "Carter scratch" style of guitar playing and particularly on the song "The Cannonball," which she learned from Riddle.

Also recorded was El Watson, a harmonica player in the style of DeFord Bailey, the first "star" of the Grand Ole Opry. Watson recorded solo and with the Johnson Brothers and was recorded again in the following years. Bailey's "Fox Chase" and train whistle songs set the standard for harmonica players to emulate in the early days of the emerging country music. Bailey made the first recording in Nashville in 1927 and performed on the Opry until 1941. Jimmie Rodgers, known as "The Father of Country Music," learned to play guitar and sing in the railroad yards of Mississippi, influenced by railroad workers, many of whom were African American. Many of the songs of Jimmie Rodgers were blues, from the fields and byways of the South.

Peer returned to Bristol in 1928 to further enhance his "Southern Series" and recorded Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay. The African American duo was known for its performances on piano, fiddle and banjo and played for events, clubs, dances and camps in the southwest Virginia and east Tennessee region. During the turn of the century and the early years of the twentieth century, the black string band tradition was strong, with musicians playing for both black and white audiences.

Carl Martin of Big Stone Gap, Virginia and Howard Armstrong of Lafollette, Tennessee, along with Ted Bogan of Knoxville, Tennessee, recorded for Brunswick Co. in 1930. They played the juke joints and coal camps in the 20s, 30s and 40s and eventually developed more of a blues style as they migrated to the north. Steve Goodman, singer/songwriter who performed with Martin in the 70s, considered their group "the greatest string band there ever was. Like so many great musicians, they were pretty much never recognized by the mainstream and their influences remain nothing more than a footnote in music's history." Howard Armstrong, who lives in Boston, Massachusetts, has been the subject of two documentary films and continues to play music.

Brownie McGhee also emerged from the southern mountain music tradition, a contemporary of Lesley Riddle from Kingsport, Tennessee. He learned to play music at an early age after suffering from polio as a child. His style of Piedmont blues music was steeped in the African American folk tradition of the region. His career on guitar included accompaniment by harmonica player Sonny Terry during many years, with the folk revival of the 60s bringing great attention to his music.

The middle years of the twentieth century brought the emergence of bluegrass music, which blended white and black influences on traditional music to create a new genre. Bill Monroe, "The Father of Bluegrass Music," learned to play from the street musician Arnold Shultz in his hometown of Racine, Kentucky. The drive of bluegrass music is attributed to the banjo, which originated in Africa, and was made with an animal skin stretched across a hole in a hollow gourd, featuring a fretless neck and three or four strings. It was called a "banjer" when it came to this country. The four-string tenor banjo was common in Dixieland jazz bands, as well as bands like the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers. The five-string banjo is produced in both open back and closed back, or resonator, styles. The five string banjo is played in both the old-time "clawhammer" style and the bluegrass style, popularized by Earl Scruggs, who transformed the instrument from one which had been supporting in the string bands into a hard driving lead instrument.

Country music came of age in the 1940s with Hank Williams, whose musical education began at the knee of Rufus "Tee Tot" Payne, an African American street musician. As a youth, Hank followed Payne around, periodically paying him for lessons. Said Williams, "All the training I ever had was from him." Following Hank Williams into country music and beyond was Elvis Presley, who was influenced his entire life and career by the blues and country music with which he grew up, particularly by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, a Mississippi-born blues singer who had a string of rhythm-and-blues hits.

The music of our country combined many elements during its growth, bringing together musicians from a wide variety of styles to create unique sounds. Jimmie Rodgers recorded with Louis Armstrong, the trailblazing jazz innovator, who later performed pieces that were adopted by western swing and bluegrass. Armstrong also recorded a country album. Bob Wills, "The King of Western Swing," fused black and white concepts into his unique music, which blended jazz, blues, Appalachian dance tunes, and Hawaiian-inspired steel guitar with popular and country songs. He particularly idolized Bessie Smith of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and adapted several of her songs. Bluegrass musicians continue to perform other blues material recorded by Bessie Smith and her contemporaries in the decades since.

A mural depicting these connections and influences in our country's music is in the Sherrod Library at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee. Modeled on original artwork by Willard Gayhart and inspired by musician Jack Tottle, "All in the Family" is a tribute to "America's Bluegrass and Country Music and Their Intimate Family Ties to Blues, Jazz, Folk, Pop, and Hawaiian Music." A soon to be released book entitled, ALL In the Family II: A Mural By Marianne DiNapoli Mylet At East Tennessee State University, by Jack Tottle, documents the musicians illustrated in the mural.

“Until recently, black musicians in country and bluegrass music were overlooked, despite being vastly influential; bluegrass father Bill Monroe himself was highly influenced by black string player [Arnold Shultz] who taught him details of his craft. Through simple exposure and lack of research, black music in the south was mainly thought of as blues and gospel, while black fiddlers, banjoists and mandolinists fell through the cracks." -- Meredith Ochs, from the liner notes to Altamont: Black Stringband Music from the Library of Congress (Rounder)

For more information about The Birthplace of Country Music Alliance, visit www.birthplaceofcountrymusic.org , or contact Bill Hartley, Executive Director at e-mail Hartley@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org , call 276-645-0111 or fax 276-645-0036. Write to Birthplace of Country Music Alliance, PO Box 216, Bristol, TN-VA 37621.

Article submitted by Bill Hartley, Executive Director, Birthplace of Country Music Alliance, to celebrate Black History Month.


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