Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music
(Duke University Press)
US: Jun 2013
Excerpted from “Black Hillbillies: African American Musicians on Old-Time Records, 1924-1932” (footnotes omitted) by Patrick Huber. From Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music edited by Diane Pecknold. © Duke University Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
African American Musicians on Old-time Records, 1924–1932
In the summer of 1930 Ralph S. Peer, RCA-Victor’s A&R (artists and repertoire) man, arranged a working holiday in Hollywood for Jimmie Rodgers, the nation’s leading hillbilly recording star. There, working at a relaxed pace during the three weeks between June 30 and July 17, Rodgers recorded fifteen selections at the newly completed Victor Hollywood Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard. Several of these sides would become among his most famous recordings, including “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues),” “Pistol Packin’ Papa,” and “My Blue-Eyed Jane.” But the most celebrated recording Rodgers made in Hollywood, what his biographer Nolan Porterfield calls the “pièce de résistance” of these sessions, turned out to be “Blue Yodel No. 9,” recorded on July 16 and composed by Rodgers himself. Originally titled “Standin’ on the Corner,” “Blue Yodel No. 9” was a standard twelve-bar blues featuring Rodgers’s signature yodeling refrains and comprising verses in which Rodgers, adopting the persona of a Beale Street hustler, boasts of his sexual prowess, his expensive clothes, and his handiness with a .44 Special.
On September 11, 1931, fifteen months after its recording, “Blue Yodel No. 9” was released on Victor 23580, coupled with “Looking for a New Mama,” in the label’s “Old Familiar Tunes and Novelties” series, among other records intended for sale chiefly to southern white record buyers. Considering Rodgers’s primary audience, RCA-Victor’s release of the record in its flagship label’s hillbilly series made commercial sense. At the same time, however, this decision effectively obscured the extraordinary interracial collaboration that produced this now-classic recording, for accompanying Rodgers on “Blue Yodel No. 9,” as is now commonly known, were the brilliant young trumpeter Louis Armstrong (1901–71) and his estranged second wife, the pianist Lillian Hardin Armstrong (1898–1971). The exact details of how this remarkable session came together are now unfortunately lost to history. But regardless of its origins, it ranks as one of the most famous recording sessions in the history of American popular music, touted by country music and jazz scholars alike as a seminal event that brought together two of the twentieth century’s greatest musical entertainers at the peak of their artistic abilities. And the recording itself, one of thirteen blue yodels that Rodgers recorded between 1927 and his death in 1933, represents an amalgamation of musical styles: a standard twelve-bar African American blues composed of floating verses, sung in a nasally white Mississippi drawl, that featured both vaudeville-inspired yodeling and New Orleans– style jazz accompaniment. Indeed the inclusion of “Blue Yodel No. 9” in the most recent editions of both Brian Rust’s Jazz Records, 1897–1931 (1982) and Robert M. W. Dixon, John Godrich, and Howard Rye’s Blues and Gospel Records, 1890–1943 (1997) indicates, as Porterfield has observed, that this particular Rodgers recording transcends the genre of what we today call country music. Although “Blue Yodel No. 9” may stand out as one of the truly great American recordings, Rodgers’s collaboration with the Armstrongs was only one of at least twenty-two racially integrated hillbilly recording sessions that occurred before 1933. And Louis and Lillian Armstrong were only two of the nearly fifty African American singers and musicians who appeared on commercial hillbilly records between 1924 and 1932.
Country music scholars have long acknowledged the significant African American influence on country music prior to World War II, in the form of ragtime and blues, vocal and instrumental styles, musical mentors, and even the West African–derived banjo itself. But they have far less often recognized the actual participation of African Americans in the recording of this music, then called “hillbilly music” or, alternately, “old-time music.” Since at least the mid-1950s, scholars and discographers have been aware of a handful of prewar hillbilly recordings featuring racially integrated bands or African American artists, but these records have received surprisingly little scholarly attention, and have generally been treated either as historical anomalies or as interesting but otherwise unimportant curiosities. And much misinformation continues to circulate, even within country music books and liner notes to CD anthologies published within the past decade. For example, in the booklet accompanying Yazoo’s seven-CD boxed set, Kentucky Mountain Music: Classic Recordings of the 1920s and 1930s (2003), the chief annotator makes the bogus claim that Taylor’s Kentucky Boys, an otherwise all-white string band featuring a black fiddler, represents “the only group to record in the 1920’s and 30’s with an interracial construct.” Elsewhere another eminent music scholar declares that this band’s April 1927 sessions rank as “the first integrated recording sessions in American music history; jazz could not claim an integrated session until 1931”; both halves of this statement are patently false.
The chief reason for these historical inaccuracies, as well as the primary obstacle impeding research in this subject, has been the lack of a comprehensive discography of prewar hillbilly records. But now, thanks chiefly to the publication of Tony Russell’s monumental Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921–1942 (2004), which was more than twenty years in the making, the fuller history of African Americans’ participation on early country music recordings can begin to be told. Russell’s reference work and its race records counterpart, Dixon, Godrich, and Rye’s Blues and Gospel Records, 1890–1943, allow scholars to compile an accurate and fairly complete discography of all of the known commercial hillbilly records on which African Americans performed before World War II.8 And what this newly emerging discography reveals is that African Americans actively participated in the hillbilly recording industry almost from its very beginning. To be sure, records featuring African American artists were far from common, constituting only about 1 percent of the approximately eleven thousand hillbilly records released in the United States before 1933, but their numbers are far greater than most country music scholars and fans have generally appreciated. Between 1924 and 1932 black and white artists collaborated at twenty-two racially integrated sessions that produced sixty-nine recorded masters (see appendix A). Additionally fourteen different African American artists or acts recorded forty-three known selections that appeared on hillbilly records during this same period (see appendix B). Altogether forty-nine African American musicians participated in the recording of at least 112 masters for the hillbilly recording industry before 1933. These recordings were released, in various series, on a total of 204 domestically issued sides, and of these sides, no fewer than 178 of them appeared on hillbilly records or on records otherwise intended for sale in the hillbilly market.
Examining these prewar records on which African Americans performed can tell us much about the commercial hillbilly music of the 1920s and 1930s. Far from being merely historical anomalies, these records not only document the remarkable, though too-often-unacknowledged participation of African Americans in this genre of American music, but they also reflect the significant amount of interracial musical cooperation and exchange that produced these recordings. Far more than being merely interesting and important examples of interracial musical collaborations, these prewar records also expand and deepen our understanding of the hillbilly recording industry during its formative period. They indicate that the commercial hillbilly music recorded before 1933 was far more complex and diverse than the narrow marketing categories created by talking-machine firms suggest. Finally they offer important and tantalizing glimpses into the unspoken perceptions and production decisions that guided the recording and marketing of such records, areas of inquiry for which much, if not most, of the industry-generated documents have been lost, discarded, or destroyed.
These African American records raise a number of intriguing and important questions about the prewar hillbilly recording industry that produced them. For example, how, in an age of pervasive racism and Jim Crow segregation, did so many racially integrated sessions occur? Whose idea was it to record white and black musicians together, and why? How was it that a commercial music genre, which from its earliest advertisements was so deliberately and overtly linked to whiteness, came to include more than 175 records featuring African American artists? In promoting these records, did companies attempt to conceal the racial identity of these African American artists from the southern white consumers who supposedly constituted the chief market for hillbilly records? While it remains difficult, if not impossible to formulate definitive answers to such questions, studying these records suggests new ways of thinking about and understanding commercially recorded hillbilly music prior to 1933.
When U.S. talking-machine companies began to record and market blues and old-time music during the early to mid-1920s, they effectively began the process of transforming southern vernacular music, heard for decades at fiddle contests, dances, house parties, tent shows, and other social gatherings, into immensely popular commercial products. This music, the product of more than three centuries of vibrant cross-racial exchange and adaptation, was profoundly and inextricably multiracial, but talking-machine companies, in an effort to streamline their marketing efforts, separated the music of black and white southerners into special categories of “race” and “hillbilly” records. First commercially recorded in 1920, race records encompassed blues, jazz, gospel numbers, and sermons marketed to African American consumers across the nation. Hillbilly records, first recorded in 1922 and so named in order to capture the music’s supposedly white rural southern origins, consisted chiefly of southern fiddle tunes, string-band numbers, old parlor ballads, and religious songs, and were marketed primarily to rural and small-town white consumers, particularly in the South. But contrary to the claims of Donald Clarke and other music historians, this industry-wide practice of separating the music into two racially encoded categories had little to do with the existence of de jure racial segregation in the American South. Rather this decision was motivated primarily by practical and commercial considerations. Dividing race and hillbilly records into special series allowed talking-machine companies to target specialized markets of consumers more effectively with their advertising and marketing campaigns. Moreover such series also made it easier for the firms’ jobbers (local or regional distributors) and retailers to select from an entire catalogue of several thousand records those releases that would most appeal to their customers. This division was, however, premised on the racialist beliefs of northern white middle-class executives who assumed, as the folklorist Bill Ivey has written, that “consumers select music based upon race” and that “musical style and race are inextricably linked.” What began as merely marketing categories soon evolved, for all intents and purposes, into musical genres, as the sociologist William G. Roy has noted, and the generic labels of race (first applied in 1921) and hillbilly (first used in 1925) would remain the sound-recording industry’s dominant terms to describe black and white southern vernacular music until rhythm and blues and country and western replaced them shortly after the end of World War II.
In developing these two musical genres, talking-machine companies applied many of the same methods and policies that they had been successfully using since at least 1904 to market foreign-language records to various immigrant communities in the United States. Chief among these was the practice of dividing catalogues into separate series of discrete, numerical blocks of records designed to target particular groups of consumers. Originally, most companies had released records of blues and old-time music in their standard domestic popular series, usually “without racial designation,” as Roy notes. In 1921, however, OKeh inaugurated the first race series, its 8000 series, and within two years Paramount and Columbia, eventually followed by Vocalion, Brunswick, and Victor, established similar series for their African American records. This marketing practice was soon applied to hillbilly records. Around January 1925, the Columbia Phonograph Company became the first to establish a special series for what it defined as “old-time music” when it created its famous 15000-D “Familiar Tunes—Old and New” series (originally “Old Familiar Tunes”), the counterpart to its 14000-D race series. Prior to the mid-1930s, all of the major record labels involved in the hillbilly music field except for Gennett released such records in specially designated numerical series that paralleled their special numerical blocks of race records (see Table 1.1).
To obtain new material for their expanding race and hillbilly record catalogues, talking-machine companies either invited southern artists to record in their northern studios or, increasingly after the adoption of the electrical recording process in 1925, sent mobile crews to record these artists on portable equipment at southern field sessions, particularly in Atlanta, Dallas, Memphis, and New Orleans. Although talking-machine firms usually marketed the recordings of black and white southern artists in separate record series, their crews typically recorded the selections for their race and hillbilly catalogues on the same “recording expeditions,” as they were called at the time, using the same temporary studios for both groups but often scheduling sessions for black and white musicians on different days or sometimes different weeks.
In hindsight, the artificial categories of “race” and “hillbilly” records did far more than help talking-machine firms organize their inventories and rationalize their marketing and distribution efforts. These classifications also contributed to what Christopher A. Waterman, in his provocative essay in Music and the Racial Imagination (2000), has called “the naturalization of racial categories” within American popular music. Through their advertisements, record catalogues, and monthly supplements, record companies imbued both race and hillbilly records with certain social and cultural meanings that were intimately connected to race and racial difference. For example, the literature developed to promote hillbilly records emphasized the supposedly white, Anglo-Celtic origins of the music heard on these discs by portraying it as the authentic folk expression of southern mountaineers. As the 1928 Brunswick Record Edition of American Folk Songs explained, “The only True American Folk Songs… are the songs of the Southern Mountaineers. Like the minstrels of old, the modern Bards of our southern mountains go about singing the simple songs of the people’s own making, relating the gruesome details of a local murder, the latest scandal of the community, the horror of a train wreck, the sorrow of unrequited love, etc.” The associated marketing labels for hillbilly series, such as OKeh’s “Old Time Tunes,” Brunswick’s “Songs from Dixie,” and Vocalion’s “Old Southern Tunes,” as well as the quaint pastoral images of the barn dances, log cabins, and stands of mountain pines that often graced the covers of hillbilly record catalogues and promotional brochures, all hearkened back to a preindustrial rural South, particularly a Mountain South, that was deeply embedded in the American popular imagination. But within this sentimentalized advertising landscape, African Americans were almost nowhere to be found, except for an occasional image, such as the plantation scene of “happy darkies” featured on the cover of a ca. 1928 Old Time Edison Disc Records brochure (fig. 1.1). In fact promotional literature sometimes explicitly defined hillbilly music in direct opposition to the African American–inflected jazz and popular offerings that composed the bulk of record sales during the 1920s. A 1927 newspaper advertisement for Columbia’s “Familiar Tunes—Old and New” series, for example, promised to satisfy the musical tastes of those record buyers who “get tired of modern dance music—fox-trots, jazz, Charleston— and long for the good old barn dances and the ‘Saturday night’ music of the South in plantation days.” Amid the widespread concerns that Henry Ford and other cultural conservatives harbored about the morally corrupting influences of jazz music and modern dances, copywriters and illustrators tried to present hillbilly music as a wholesome, white Anglo-Saxon alternative to the growing sensuality and crudeness that seemed to define the nation’s mass culture. And it was as a result of being defined in opposition to these other genres of popular music that hillbilly music gained much of its social significance and meaning in Jazz Age America.
Front cover of Old Time Edison Disc Records brochure,
ca. 1928. Author’s collection.
The truth, of course, is that much of the music found on the hillbilly records of the 1920s and early 1930s was the product of decades or even centuries of dynamic cultural interplay between white and black musicians, and many of the songs and tunes issued on these records were of black origin or borrowed from black tradition. Occasionally record catalogues and monthly supplements even mentioned these cross-racial borrowings. Victor’s 1924 Olde Time Fiddlin’ Tunes brochure, for example, remarked that on its record of two “wonderful old Negro Spirituals,” former governor Alf Taylor and His Old Limber Quartet rendered the selections “exactly as they took [them] from the lips of the old Negro master of the hounds.” But the accompanying photograph of the string band made clear that these records were decidedly white interpretations of traditional black songs. Although talking-machine companies occasionally issued African American artists’ recordings in hillbilly series, no photographs of these recording artists, to my knowledge, ever appeared in the promotional literature for these records. With few exceptions, old-time record catalogues and advertisements disseminated images of an idyllic white rural Mountain South that existed outside of modern urban America, a closely knit, socially homogeneous and harmonious world free from flappers, foreigners, and African Americans. Talking-machine companies’ use of these “whitewashed” textual messages and pictorial images effectively concealed the interracial character of much of the music heard on prewar hillbilly records and thereby rendered practically invisible African Americans’ involvement in early commercial country music.