Race in America, Race in Music

Different Trains, Same Two Tracks

by Mark Reynolds

27 May 2010

'Bullseye' guitar (partial) found on MakeNMusic.com 

Segregating Sound

I’m glad to see that the Carolina Chocolate Drops are doing all right for themselves. Two years ago in this space (“Retelling the History of Black Music Part 1: Adventures in Retro-ism”), I pondered this trio of 20-something black musicians exploring the black stringband tradition, a style of music played and recorded by blacks for years, but which hardly any black folk since World War II (if not further back than that) have considered black music. 

The good news is that they’ve released a third CD (Genuine Negro Jig, Nonesuch, see Ross Langeger’s PopMatters review, here) and they continue to receive critical acclaim. The bad news is that much of that acclaim still revolves around the fish-out-of-water metaphor in talking about their art, and has only barely moved past considering them as novelties within the broader black music spectrum. The worse news is that even with all their good press, and even a cover of a recent R&B hit (Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style”) on their new album, they still can’t get arrested anywhere in the ‘hood that sells music.

Karl Hagestrom Miller’s new book Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow is the most thorough achievement thus far in a growing body of scholarship and criticism demystifying and dissecting the roots of American music, and by extension the American music industry.

The same goes for Darius Rucker, but at least he ought to be used to it by now. His old band Hootie and the Blowfish sold a trizzuckload of records in the ‘90s, almost all of it to non-blacks, seeing as how their loping soft-rock wasn’t a regular staple of black pop culture. Now he’s a solo artist, and did bang-up business with his 2008 CD Learn to Live (Captiol), racking up three #1 singles and earning best-new-artist honors. Those hits were on the country charts, and that honor came from the Country Music Association. He was the first black performer to win the CMA’s rookie-of-the-year equivalent since the award was created in 1971. Yet given the fact that, for the most part, black folk and country music never interact, Rucker’s historic achievement drew nothing but crickets in the ‘hood.

Now, it’s not like The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Rucker are the first black folks to dive into their respective musical pools. Anybody who knows anything about The Carolina Chocolate Drops knows that they’re tapping back into a vibrant tradition that few realized had black roots. As for the broader arena of country music, Rucker has lots of black company. The essential three-CD compilation From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music (Warner Brothers, 1998) chronicles a surprisingly rich legacy, from early black stringbands like the Mississippi Sheiks, to country-soul hybrid tunes from Wynonie Harris to Al Green, to a heaping dose of Charlie Pride, still the first name on the black-country-artist shortlist, and other straight-up country tunes by contemporary black performers.

cover art

Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow

Karl Hagstrom Miller

(Duke University Press)
US: Mar 2010

So how is it that within black culture, folk and country music became foreign languages? Like much else in American life, the answer has a lot to do with race, and how it was used to classify and separate people with many otherwise common bonds. Karl Hagestrom Miller’s new book Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Duke University Press) is the most thorough achievement thus far in a growing body of scholarship and criticism demystifying and dissecting the roots of American music, and by extension the American music industry.

The bulk of this line of revisionist thought takes on one of the creation myths of American pop music – that blues and folk music developed along two distinct tracks, with their own distinct traditions, conveniently divided along racial lines.  Blues artists, who were always black, drew from a wellspring of influence just barely grazed by white folk music, the myth goes. Likewise, country music emerged as something by, for and of white culture, completely untainted by those dark blues chords and darker blues lyrics. That’s what made the ascension of Elvis Presley such a shock to the system, for he dared to celebrate his love and respect for black music at a time when most people didn’t believe a right-thinking white person could possibly do such a thing.

The truth is, of course, far more slippery and complicated. Black and white musicians from the South, working and sometimes even living in close proximity to each other, routinely drew from each other, with the evidence lying everywhere from instrumentation (there were outstanding banjo players, fiddlers and jug bands of both races) to repertoire. There were black rural performers like Mississippi John Hurt, whose 1928 recordings had nothing to do with the 12-bar blues already codified as the expected default mode for music from black rural performers. Later on came the case of how country legend Hank Williams learned much of his game from an obscure black Alabaman named Rufus “Tee-tot” Payne.

This more intricate recasting of pop music’s evolution has been crafted in several places, including in books such as Marybeth Hamilton’s In Search of the Blues: Black Voices, White Visions (Basic Books, 2008) and Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Amistad, 2004); I’ve discussed their research previously here in “Retelling the History of Black Music: Everything You Know about the Blues Is Wrong”. Miller goes several steps further than prior bodies of research, tracing back the artificial distinction to a confluence of marketing, scholarship, and music classification decisions, each driven to some degree by the prevailing racial attitudes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Miller begins in the 1880s and 1890s, during the waning years of minstrelsy and the dawning of the music business Touring productions and sheet music sales brought a new range of music, from hoary sentimental ballads to “coon songs” a step or two removed from minstrelsy’s worst excesses, from New York City to southern audiences. Even as southern musicians incorporated the new songs into their acts, white audiences and black audiences often took radically different messages from the same material.

While the audiences may have been in two separate camps, shrewd musicians found that they could appeal to both. It helped to know a lot of songs, enough to tailor a performance to the dancers and listeners footing the bill. It also helped that, at least in the early 20th century, the line between “black” music and “white” music wasn’t firmly drawn, and white and black musicians could freely appropriate songs and styles, all in an effort to generate more commercial viability.

Miller locates the earliest evidence of drawing strict boundaries between black and white music in, of all places, academia. The study of folk culture, beginning with the founding of the American Folklore Society in 1888, considered various philosophical underpinnings before the notion took hold that folk cultures were best studied where they existed in isolation from the world at-large. This stripped much of the fuller complexity and diversity of those cultures away from folklorists’ perceptions. It also made it easier for preconceived notions about those cultures to become received wisdom, leading to the calcification and perpetuation of stereotypes about both white and black Southerners.

The burgeoning record industry came to similar conclusions about the separateness of the white and black markets, buoyed by its experience overseas. Record companies would, after various missteps, find it easier to record music that conformed to their own notion of what “local” meant in each far-flung locale – conveniently brushing past any idea that those “locals” might be influenced by Western music. That theory would find application back in America during the ‘20s, when black and white music officially became two separate genres.

Black music, be it the northern “vaudeville” blues or the southern “rural” blues, would be known as “race” music (since black folks called themselves “The Race” back then). White music would become branded as “old-time” music, since it presumably looked back to a simpler, less complicated era of white American life. Both genres were marketed separately, and record companies discouraged artists from “crossing over” to draw from the other pool (or to record straight-up Tin Pan Alley songs, lest they diminish the patina of folkloric “authenticity” the companies strove to market).

Miller stops well short of delineating the effects of this artistic segregation on the music industry (or American culture in general) in the 80-odd years since the practice took root. However, he makes clear that racial attitudes were never too far from the surface as the lines between musical genres and markets were coming into shape. Over time, Americans would take away from this forced, all-but-unseen separation the idea that artistic style is the primary marker of an ethnicity’s cultural primacy, and any deviation from the straight-and-narrow could get one branded an outcast. 

Thus, years later, white artists who play a style of pop music accepted by black audiences (and acknowledge the influence with sincerity), from the Righteous Brothers to Hall & Oates to Robin Thicke, get love from black audiences. Conversely, while Thicke holds his own on the black pop charts, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Darius Rucker get their support from, respectively, the folk and roots music scenes, and the country side of the pop landscape – decidedly non-black worlds. 

The difference is that since black pop is at the heart of American pop, it’s not so hard for a non-R&B fan to bump into Thicke’s music by accident. On the other hand, any black person interested in The Carolina Chocolate Drops or Rucker (or, in earlier times, Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley, to name but two) will have to leave the friendly confines of mainstream black pop culture and media, and risk being considered some sort of traitor to the race by those who hew more rigidly to the boundaries.

Those boundaries have become far more porous in recent years, as more critics and scholars have taken note of the diversity within black culture. It’s still taken generations for black people to cut through some of the more artificial constructs about racial purity, though – and that’s just within pop music. Black and non-black alike tackling racial constructs within the American two-party political system…well, good luck with that.

Obama’s election and the Tea Party backlash to it have abruptly shifted the parameters, and upped the urgency, for all Americans considering race within our national political discourse. We’re still stumbling around in the wilderness about that job, still trying to grasp what this political moment means for the future of race in American life.  As we’ve seen thus far, that process will neither be simple nor pretty. There’s an awful lot of baggage to unpack, history to understand, and honest conversation to broker. We’ll find out soon enough if Americans have the interest, will and stomach to make something more substantial than a passing soundbite out of this current bluster.

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