When it comes to tracing the roots of American music, there’s just no place like the South: jazz, rhythm & blues, rock ‘n’ roll, gospel—most music that comes with a “made in America” stamp originated south of the Mason-Dixon line. While the world obviously owes a huge musical debt to African-Americans for their contributions in the aforementioned genres, what we now call “country” music primarily evolved from the souls and throats of white rural southerners. It is these singers—and their songs—that are the focus of Bill C. Malone’s Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers.
Malone’s first concern is to precisely define white rural southern music, especially that which was sung in the 19th century South (just before this music was discovered by the rest of the world). Was it—as early 20th century British musicologist Cecil Sharpe wanted to believe—merely a twangy redefinition of ancient British ballads? Sharpe collected hundreds of Appalachian songs that were clearly traceable to the British Isles, but as Malone points out in Singing Cowboys, Sharpe was in the South specifically looking for this connection. He found it in spades but because the other songs he surely heard echoing through the mountains didn’t concern his thesis, he simply ignored them.
There was a lot to ignore. Country music has many primary sources, and although Malone claims that a detailed history of the genre is nigh impossible, he does a masterful job of describing most of its influences in fascinating detail. British ballads, black spirituals, minstrel show songs (most of their composers ironically Northern), German bands, and hymns all had a major role in shaping the white folk music of 19th century America. Rural southerners were very catholic in their love for music: a good tune was a good tune, whether it originated in ancient Britain or at the desk of a contemporary New York composer.
By far the most fascinating aspect of Malone’s book is hinted at in its title and answers this question: why did country singers such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Alan Jackson—who all hailed from the southeast—dress as though they had been raised on a Texas ranch? Simple: a national hunger for symbols. Before the cowboy singer took over as country music’s mascot in the 1930s, it was the mountain man of the 1920s, romanticized by novels and the Great War hero, Alvin “Tennessee Mountain Boy” York, that exemplified a rural, unfettered, Anglo-Saxon America for an increasingly urban and immigrant-heavy America. It was primarily the Carter family and Bradley Kincaid whose performances first personified this mountain personality; their success paved the way for many other southern musicians of the era to cash in on the hunger for the quintessential American symbol.
However, when reports of aberrant behavior and oppression from coal companies began to trickle out of the Appalachians, along with the proliferation of vaudeville acts that degenerated the mountain man’s vigorous image into a ridiculous caricature (think The Beverly Hillbillies), the cowboy—whose manly persona and limitless freedom was being popularized in countless films and dime novels—became the preeminent and permanent symbol of country music. The actual canon of authentic cowboy songs is much smaller than the amount of folk songs originally from the eastern south, but an image is an image and the singing cowboy is here to stay.
Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers is a very enlightening read regarding the roots of country music and provides the definitive explanation for the ubiquitous connection between country music and cowboy hats.