While I will argue that country music has a strand of racism in its roots, I doubt that is the case today, but it does seem to have emerged out of the growing popularity of black blues and rock and roll. The objection to the music of artists like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other early rock and roll musicians, owes far more to its undoubted black influence and sound than anything else (the term -rock and roll’ actually originates as black slang for sexual intercourse). Indeed Buddy Holly and the Crickets were invited to perform in Harlem at the famous Apollo Theatre, which was quite shocked to discover they had hired a white band!
The so called -British Invasion’ of the 1960’s owes its origins in part to American racism of the time. Sailors from Liverpool often bought recordings of black rhythm and blues and rock and roll musicians in the 1940’s and 50’s and took them home where their influence on local musicians was profound and, importantly, unaffected by racial bias.
This led to an interesting melding of the local -skiffle’ style (remember -I’m Henry the Eighth I Am’?) and American black rhythm and blues which culminated in the music of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jerry and the Pace Makers, and others. Thus -cleansed’ of its black origins this new sound came back into the US as -acceptable’ and, as we know, went on to sweep America and the world. It, along with the burgeoning civil rights movement and strong endorsement from highly respected British -invader’ artists also allowed black music to finally gain some major acceptance by white audiences.
The roots of country music are varied but many will agree that the single biggest influence was the music of The Carter Family, who began recording in 1927. Some of their songs then included -Keep on the Sunny Side’, -Can the Circle be Unbroken’, and -Wildwood Flower’. They went on to host a nation wide radio show for many years.
The Carter Family were also instrumental in the American folk revival of the 50’s and 60’s, with folk artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez often singing their songs. The family largely played songs they had written but they also played lesser known (and uncopyrighted) popular folk songs of the rural south. During the 30’s and 40’s, in search of further uncopyrighted material, A.P. Carter, the family patriarch, went around rural South Western Virginia accompanied by black guitarist Lesley -Esley’ Riddle, collecting songs from families and communities that had never reached the mainstream. Dylan’s -The Times They are A’Changing’ began as one of these, although he changed the words and reworked it into 3/4 time.
Shortly after the war the kind of folk/country blend started to split apart. The Grand Ole’ Oprey, around since 1925 was a huge influence then as now. It featured many famous country artists such as Hank Williams, who’s bluesy sound was very reminiscent of black rhythm and blues and ushered in a distinctly new country sound. Williams himself was actually banded from the Oprey because of his chronic alcoholism. He died at age 29 in 1953.
One telling feature underlying country’s racism was there banning, of drums, electric instruments, and horns, three strong features of black music then as today. Country musicians were rather outraged by this, finally breaking this barrier around the time of the British Invasion in the 60’s. This also brings up the important point that it was not country artists who were necessarily racist (most musicians of that time of all types generally were not) but country audiences. The type of music played works like Darwinian evolution: The more popular music gets played, listened to, and broadcast regardless of the personal beliefs of its players.
Unlike black blues which it more came to imitate, it never really came from the same authentic experience as black people’s did. Whites of the South and country in general had things to complain about like anyone else but it rang whiney and hollow, just like its ubiquitous steel guitars. Songs like Tammy Wynette’s -Stand By Your Man- even had one therapist calling it -co-dependency music’.
I do not think it co-incidence that country music truly took off during the 1960’s along with the rocket like rise of rock. My belief, born out by the evidence, is that it was in direct opposition to the black inspired pervasiveness of rock and roll, and to a lesser extent does so still. Witness the almost complete absence of black artists throughout its long history, while white artists proliferate in rhythym and blues, rock, and jazz.
It might do country well to acknowledge this unfortunate aspect of its long past. It is truly evolving into a solid and mature body of music today.
Barry Hames has been an addictions therapist and writer for over 25 years. He is also the author of A Sceptic’s Guide to Faith: The Sacred and Spiritual in Everyday Life (available through clublighthousepublishing.com). He works and lives in Vancouver, BC