Border Crossing: A Different Way of Listening to American Music

by Bill Ivey

“Jim Reeves is my absolute, all-time favorite,” the fan said to me at a society gathering, “and I’m old enough to have listened to him on the Grand Ole Opry.” It was not an unusual statement, except that it was uttered by an African American.

In cab rides and at cocktail receptions, over dinners and in community meetings, business people in all walks of life of Nashville’s music industry have encountered similar anecdotal evidence that the link between country music and African Americans is deep and passionate. For these music-business professionals, it has been obvious for years that many assumptions about the relationship between African Americans and country music are not based on reality.

In the spring of 1994, Cleve Francis, a Black artist then signed to Nashville’s Liberty Records, visited the offices of the Country Music Foundation to present a fascinating piece of hard evidence: a just-published 1993 Simmons poll of radio listeners had found that 24 percent of the Black adult radio audience listened to country. Lo and behold, Black fans apparently constituted a sizable segment of the country music audience.

Francis’s visit had a purpose. Frustrated by his lack of acceptance by country radio, he was determined to make the case for country music’s Black audience in the hopes of expanding the horizons of his career and the careers of other aspiring African American country singers. For the Country Music Foundation, the visit sparked renewed interest in a project that the staff had contemplated for several years: the assembling of a collection of recordings that would begin to document the historical relationship between country music and Black artists.

For most observers, the African American presence in country music begins and ends with Charley Pride. Pride’s brilliant career spanned more than a half-century and generated nearly thirty #1 recordings. But Pride is generally cited as the exception that proves the rule: the single Black star in a field that has ignored, or even excluded, African American entertainers.

However, an exploration of the historical engagement of Black artists in country music reveals a broader picture. From the earliest days of country recording, African American musicians have been a part of the country tradition. For some Black artists, country performance style has served as the vocal and instrumental techniques of choice; for others, the rich literature of country songwriting has provided a deep wellspring of material. For many, country music has provided a path to a career as a professional entertainer.

The depth and breadth of the relationship between African American artists and country music presents interesting and important questions. Should we begin to reexamine our view of America’s southern music heritage? Is the pervasive use of “white” and “Black” to denote musical styles outdated? Do the performances included in this set hint at a more useful way of thinking about music in the South?

If the idea of “frontier” serves as the great metaphor for the evolution of American society through the nineteenth century, the notion of “border” suggests a more appropriate context for change in the recent past. Finally contained by geographical and political boundaries, twentieth-century America has evolved within zones of intense cross-cultural interactions. These “borderlines” are not fenced or defined by the lines traced on maps by government agencies. Rather, they are areas in which peoples of differing race, ethnicity, or cultural tradition have lived side by side over decades or even centuries and have interacted as a natural consequence. There are many such borderlands—along the Texas-Mexico border, within urban ethnic neighborhoods of our great cities, in the city streets and bayous of south Louisiana, the isolation of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In these places, peoples and cultures come into contact and conflict. Along these symbolic borders—created by differences between peoples—historical and cultural traditions rub against one another and draw sparks. At these borderlines, some of the richest cultural products of this century—cuisine, music, and costume—have been created. In the truest sense, these unmapped boundaries are the metaphorical context for the American Dream: places in which conflict and accommodation teach a diverse citizenry about the ultimate necessity for living together in harmony and equality.

No symbolic border has been as long-lived, as troubled, or as fruitful as the boundary separating Black and white cultures in the South. It is a myth—all the more powerful in its truth—that the South has been a uniquely musical region. Music drawn from southern folk sources—blues, jazz, country, rock & roll, Cajun—constitutes perhaps America’s greatest contribution to world culture. In the very best sense of borderland life, these hybrid musical forms exceed in power and reach many of the pure folk musics from which they evolved.

Beginning in the early twentieth century, scholars worked the southern border, collecting the music of the region. By the 1920s, record producers had stumbled upon the remarkable fact that southern grassroots music was a salable commodity, and the music of the South and its derivative forms became, as the century progressed, the cornerstone of American popular music.

By the time the recording of roots music came upon the scene in the 1920s, the dynamics of the border had been at work for well over a century. Country music had already adopted many stylistic elements associated with the African American tradition (its rhythms, its “blue notes,” even instruments like the banjo). By the same token, many Black singers utilized narrative, storytelling lyrics drawn from Anglo-American balladry. Nevertheless, mostly for marketing purposes, the record industry promptly divided the music of the South along racial lines, with Black performers issued on “race” series and white artists released on “hillbilly” lines, regardless of how inadequate such distinctions might have been. These categories reflected the marketing perceptions (since proven broadly untrue) that consumers selected their music based upon race and that musical style and race are inextricably linked.

Meanwhile, as the commercial and artistic importance of southern grassroots music emerged, several generations of scholars began to analyze blues and country music. As in the commercial record industry, this academic work was most frequently organized along racial lines, with studies devoted to blues and country music generally emphasizing the unique characteristics of each tradition, frequently by linking stylistic elements with performance practices derived either from Africa or the British Isles.

Thus, from the 1920s forward, commerce and the academy have unwittingly conspired to obscure, and even suppress, the workings of the great cultural borderland along which Black and white lives intertwine in the South. Sadly, a process already accepted in southern cuisine was systematically denied in the world of southern music. America’s complete ease with the phrase “southern cooking” is tacit acknowledgment of the work of the border: after centuries of mixing, Black and white cuisines in the South are more often than not indistinguishable.

The determination to organize southern music along racial lines exhibited both by the record industry and folk music scholars has undoubtedly affected both the reality and the perception of African Americans in country music in the two decades preceding World War II. It is doubtful that record label executives would have dredged up much enthusiasm for musicians who did not fit easily into the “race” or “hillbilly” designations, and it is probable that recorded examples document only a handful of the multiracial ensembles or the Black old-time musicians who actually performed in a country style.

Equally significant, and more insidious, is the emphasis upon stylistic purity which can be found in much folk music scholarship. From the work of the great British folksong collector Cecil Sharp forward, collectors of ballads and folksongs in the mountains of the Southeast have emphasized elements of repertory and style that can be traced to the British Isles. In a similar vein, scholars have often argued the essentially African character of the blues, validating this important strain of southern music by emphasizing those elements of style retained from African cultures.

Such scholarship supports the unfortunate notion that authenticity in music is an attribute of race and that southern musical reality matched the “hillbilly” and “race” distinctions invented by the record industry in its early years. Moreover, this form of musicological segregation ignores the melting-pot power of the South, our most enduring borderland. To cite just one prominent result of this sort of thinking: Huddie Ledbetter, the remarkable folksinging talent discovered by folklorist John A. Lomax, is frequently anthologized in blues collections. However, both his songs and his performance style fit “country” criteria more completely. Lead Belly is, in many ways, the quintessential southern borderland folk master of his era.

What is most striking in this collection of recordings is the ease with which authentic country performances emerge from the hands and voices of African American interpreters and the ease with which country compositions fit the demands of rhythm & blues. Conventional wisdom demands that these two great traditions of southern music run side by side, on parallel tracks, separate but equal. Whites, after all, sing country, and African Americans sing blues. According to that view, then, each of the performances in this anthology must be declared an anomaly. That would seem to be quite a lot of exceptions proving the rule.

However, if country music is part of the common artistic heritage shared by a southern, regional culture, then the presence over time of African American performers and songwriters in country music makes complete sense. In recent years, much has been made of the “suburbanization” of country music, and some might claim that country radio’s appeal to Black listeners merely reflects the music’s abandonment of its rural, ethnic (or racial) identity. But that explanation is inadequate, for African Americans have been a part of country music, as performers and as audience, from country’s earliest days. It is more accurate to assert that country music is actually one dialect sung along our southern interior borderland, and that it is available to Black and to white, to all who share and appreciate this unique cultural heritage.

“Dad was a big, big country fan. Dad played harmonica. Not professionally, but ‘sit around the house playing,’ we called it. Dad played harmonica and a little guitar, and he’d always listen to country music. . . . We used to have to fight Dad for the radio on Saturday nights, because we wanted to listen to the blues, Muddy Waters and Fats Domino, Louise Jordan. Dad wanted the Opry. Dad loved Miss Minnie Pearl and Rod Brasfield, DeFord Bailey. Dad loved them. Dad wanted to hear some harmonica playing and songs about country, things like that. He’d always say, ‘Tonight, we’re gonna listen to the Grand Ole Opry.’ See, the country folks that I grew up with didn’t know a color in country music. All they knew was they liked country music, and it didn’t matter if it was a white guy singing or a Black guy, it didn’t matter. They liked country music. And I think most country folks are that way.”

—Big Al Downing, interviewed by John Rumble, January 1996