„The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.“ (W.E.B. Du Bois: the Souls of Black Folk)
In June 2020 we have the feeling something weird, dangerous, (some say) apocalyptic might be happening. It’s the time of Corona/Covid 19, the pandemic disease which alters all live in all countries. And there is no end in sight. Yet there might be an even greater disaster looming. Donald Trump is fueling race war, preparing for an election which he threatens as unfair and fraud. I take the moment (not to speak of a chance or opportunity) to have a look at race relations in the USA – not in a political or sociological way.
I want to look at the color line in music, the way country or folk music has been used as a weapon by white supremacists, as a way to speak out against racism or simply get clear about the role of country and folk on this sharp color-line. As I often do I’m currently reading some books on this item to prepare one or two or three specials of my radio programm ROOTS.
This first part relies completeley on this book: Sounding the color-line, Music and Race in the Southern Imagination by Erich Nunn, Jon Smith, Riché Richardson.
To many the song „Home on the range“ is a prototype song when you think about country and western music (as it has been told). It has been made famous by John Lomax. In Cowboy songs and other frontline ballads. On southern ranches many black people worked as cooks and Lomax had heard about one of them in San Antonio. He met him and recorded some tunes on „cylindrical record“. Later on he refered to this cook as „my San Antonio Negro house-keeper.“ That was the first time he heard Home on the Range. In Austin Henry Leberman, a blind teacher, set down the music. An further on Lomax and Leberman a refered to as sources of the song. The cook’s name is never mentioned at all. Lomax doesn’t consider him as a contributer of the folk tradition, he’s just a transmitter with no active role.
Dom Flemons, an Afro-American songster, does a version of the song. Flemons became famous through the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Lomax method of “ leaning“ traditional folk music fom black influences does not mean that he had no interestes in Afro-American musical heritage. He simply wanted to draw the color-line really sharp. He did so when he had a conversation with Blind Willie Mc Tell. This conersation has been preserves so we can know about it.
lomax: Any complaining songs, complaining about the hard times, and some-times mistreatment of the whites. Have you got any songs that talk about that? mctell: No, sir, I haven’t. Not at the present time because the white people’s mighty good to the southern people, as far as I know. lomax: You don’t know any complaining songs at all? mctell: Well . . . lomax: “Ain’t It Hard to Be a Nigger, Nigger,” do you know that one? mctell: Well . . . that’s not in our time.
Besides the mighty lie of white people being mighty good McTell seems rather hesitant in fulfilling the role that Lomax wants to put him into. McTell’s repertoire was quite divers and he obviously doesn’t want that one black label stuck upon him. So he says the song Lomax had in mind is from days of slavery and he sees his role within the 20th century. Lomax nevertheless tries quite hard to keep him in the old position. All efforts to divide black and white music went on and was quite successful – but now it’s time to listen to the song Lomax wanted to hear.
On of the most pure, clean, clear bearer of white hillbilly music is Bradley Kincaid. King of Hillbilly with a pure Anglo-Saxon soul he was called. His mother was Dutch and his fathers origin isn’t known. He may be Irish-Scot but thre’s no evidence. So is precisely as Scottish as Muhammad Ali is Irish. Also born in Kentucky his great-grandfather emigrated from County Clare in 1862.
So why is it so important to attribute the Ango-Saxon origin to Kincaid. Kincaid was born into a family of land laborers without own land. His sociologic situation was quite similar to the poor black people in the Appalachian And the songs he sang weren’t pure Ango-Saxon either. He learned them from black minstrelsy. And his guitar was swapped by his father for a fox hound dog. He got it from an African-American his father knew. The guitar was called Hound Dog ever after and you can see it in the Kentucky Museum Hall of Fame in Renfro Valle. The presence of this former guitar owner (who got away with a hound dog) complicates the picture but doesn’t blur the color-line. As. he progressed with his carreer Kincaid tried to get rid of all black influence, skipped the songs he and his father had learned from black people. When I got into radio, I couldn’t use them. They were a reflection on the Negro.
(Erich Nunn, Sojnding the color line, p. 21)
Fiddlin John Carson recorded what is believed to be the first country tune ever: The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane. I won‘t pay too much attention to this Ku Klux Klan man but turn to Carroll C. Clark, the premier African–American baritone of his time. He too recorded Little Old Log Cabin, a minstrel song in the first place. This piece of music is a perfect example of black music turnef white, because whites don‘t learn from blacks and minstrel songs can domesticated and become pieces of art. How do you do that?
- Change the words: Ole massa an‘ ole miss’s am dead, dey’re sleepin‘ side by side becomes Ole master and ole misses, they are sleeping side by side. Just to name one example.
- Change the music. Erich Nunn writes: The piece undergoes significant formal transformation in Carson’s hands. He elongates some notes, truncates others, and at times collapses space between adjacent notes.
- Don‘t talk about the artist‘s race. There is no mentioning of Clark‘s blackness, no picture information is given, no biographical information passed on.
And what do you get: a black singer imitating a white man imitating a black man singing a black song. This isn‘t exactly stealing, it‘s more of stepping over race lines to create the impression of a pure color-line between simply minstrel songs and art songs.
The last example of all these great efforts to seperate black and white music is the example of Jimmie Rodgers. But that story is to be continued later …