Celebrating Black Music Month 2023: African American Roots in Country Music by Mark Puryear

As June wraps up, DiMA continues to celebrate Black Music Month. We asked music curator and educator Mark Puryear to offer insights into the history of Black music as part of our ongoing work to look at ways music streaming can open doors to past eras and underrecognized artists. His insightful contribution to our project takes us primarily back to the advent of recorded music in the 1920s to examine the African Roots in Country Music. Puryear’s playlist also offers a chronology of Black country music contributors across decades and culminating with stars of today such as Darius Rucker and Lil Nas X. Even a decade ago, only specially curated exhibits and collectors might have had ready access to all the country music highlighted in this historic narrative. But thanks to streaming, you can take a musical journey into the music of this history on your favorite streaming service through the playlists we’ve assembled to match Puryear’s research. We hope you enjoy this trek through history to join in the celebration of Black Music Month.

Celebrating Black Music Month 2023: African American Roots in Country Music by Mark Puryear

June 28, 2023

African American Roots in Country Music

American popular music genres such as Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, Country, and Gospel all took form during a technological revolution brought on by advances in sound recording and playback machines at the beginning of the 20th century. And now, with the 20th century revolution in digital technology, people anywhere on earth can access a mass of information as long there are means of connecting to the Internet. It may be challenging for those born after 1989 to imagine a world without all the related tech that we use every day. Popular music, video, and streaming are now mated together into powerful media presentations that dazzle us and appeal to our emotions in ways so sophisticated, it can boggle the mind. Today, if anyone is interested in a particular genre or style of music, they can find amazing resources from digitized audio recordings and films to historical and biographic documentation. So, in celebration of Black Music Month, I am going to provide some insights about a few contributions African Americans made to the creation and continued sustenance of country music. This includes a playlist and selected web resources to both historical and contemporary materials focusing on African American musical and intellectual contributions to country music.

Early commercial record companies created racial categories for marketing their products with “race records” being the overarching category for records intended for the African American market. And the early commercial recordings of the musical precursors of today’s country music were marketed as “Hillbilly” and “old time” music. This marketing strategy belies the fact that enslaved and free African American musicians lived in the same regions of the country identified with the birth of country music. And it clouds the fact that for over a century before audio recording technology existed, there were interactions involving musical knowledge, instrument technology, and performance techniques despite the centuries-long legacy of racial segregation. Another notable fact is the same instrumentation, consisting of fiddle, banjo, guitar, string bass, and mandolin used by both communities. And, we must not forget that the banjo itself is an African musical instrument. Speaking of the trademark sounds of country and Texas swing music, by the 1960s, the lap and pedal steel guitar had become permanently associated with country music. Yet the slide guitar technique has origins in Hawaiian culture, being introduced by Hawaiian musicians who toured throughout the country during the late 19th century and influenced the guitar techniques used by a variety of mainland musicians.

The musician, Leslie Riddle, made critical contributions to the development of country music by joining A. P. Carter as he collected songs in and around the Blue Ridge Mountains. Riddle learned, memorized, and transcribed the collected songs for A.P. And A.P. and the Carter Family recorded some of these songs during the legendary Bristol Sessions in 1927. Those recordings are now regarded as the beginning of country music. You can listen to Riddle’s playing and singing on a recording released by Smithsonian Folkways. Many people know of Deford Bailey‘s historic impact on country radio and the Grand Ole Opry with his masterful and influential harmonica playing. In the 1930s, the Black string band, The Mississippi Sheiks, recorded a song composed by members Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon titled “Sitting on Top of the World.”

Their song was so popular it continues to be a standard among blues and country and western artists. Notably, during these early years, country music legend Hank Williams was taught guitar by the African American musician Rufus Payne in Alabama. In the 1940s, two Black string bands were recorded in Tennessee–one consisting of Nathan Frazer and Frank Patterson, and the other group being Murph Gribble, John Lusk, and Albert York. These recordings attest to the sustained importance of local performances of vernacular music in rural communities. The African American musician Arnold Schultz was influential in the development of Bluegrass music made famous by Bill Monroe and now an internationally popular genre. Dom Flemons, a founding member of the seminal Black string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, composed a wonderful song, “Schultz’ Dream,” in tribute to Arnold Schultz with traditional instrumental accompaniment.

Every decade since the 1940s, Black artists have engaged in and influenced the development of country music. Most notably, Charley Pride made historic impact on the field of country music and is considered a superstar in the genre. By the 1960s, the lap steel and pedal steel guitar had become one of the trademark sounds of country and Texas swing music. The now legendary artist Ray Charles’ 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, is considered landmark for when country songs became standards in popular music. Linda Martell, a vocalist from South Carolina, was the first African American woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry in 1970. And throughout the 1970s, African American songwriters and performing artists made significant impacts on the country music world. Black songwriters Jerry Williams and Gary U.S. Bonds wrote the song “She’s All I Got” which became a hit for Johnny Paycheck in the 1970s. These are just a few accounts of the African American intellectual and cultural contributions to the creation of country music from its earliest beginnings.

More recently, a new generation of African American musicians, composers, and performers have engaged in the country music scene. This group of artist includes Darius Rucker, Cleve Francis, Valerie June, Rissi Palmer, Mickey Guyton, Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, Lil Nas X, Amythyst Kia, Allison Russell, and Jake Blount just to mention a few. The future holds even more promise of musical developments that echo the past while reflecting the musical tastes and aesthetics of today.

Blacks in Country Music Playlist:

  1. Leslie Riddle – “John Henry”
  2. DeFord Bailey – “Pan America Blues”
  3. Mississippi Sheiks – “Sitting on Top of the World”
  4. Nathan Frazier, Frank Patterson – “Eighth of January” (from Altamont: Black String bands)
  5. Murph Gribble, John Lusk, Albert York – “Apple Blossom” (from Altamont: Black String
  6. Dom Flemons – “Schultz’ Dream”
  7. Charlie Pride – “Is Anybody Going to San Antone”
  8. Ray Charles – ” I Can’t Stop Loving You”
  9. Linda Martell – “Color Him Father”
  10. Johnny Paycheck – “She’s All I Got”
  11. Darius Rucker – “Wagon Wheel”
  12. Cleve Francis – “Walking”
  13. Valerie June – “Wanna Be on Your Mind”
  14. Rissi Palmer – “Country Girl”
  15. Mickey Guyton – “Black Like Me”
  16. Rhiannon Giddens – “We Could Fly”
  17. Dom Flemons – “Nobody Wrote It Down”
  18. Allison Russell – “Returner”
  19. Amythyst Kiah – “Black Myself”
  20. Jake Blount – “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”
  21. Lil Nas X – “Old Town Road”

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