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  • By Alan Richard


Updated: Nov 20, 2020

The African-American influence--and white appropriation--in country music goes even deeper than Ken Burns’ important new documentary suggests

Rhiannon Giddens

"You know what, Otis? You're country."

"That's alright."

"You straight from the Georgia woods."

"That's good!"

-Carla Thomas and Otis Redding, spoken part of "Tramp," from the album King and Queen, on Stax Records, 1967


Back in February, filmmaker Ken Burns stepped to the podium on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, where Hank Williams and Elvis Presley and Charley Pride and Loretta Lynn and Minnie Pearl and countless others have stood and played their guitars, twisted their hips, sang their souls out, and yelled “How-dee!” to the audience in country music’s most sacred shrine.

Burns, who was narrating a concert being taped for broadcast on PBS in September, then introduced two virtuoso musicians featured prominently in Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns, his eight-part documentary that premiered this month: Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show and banjoist Rhiannon Giddens.

“The fiddle came from Europe. The banjo came from Africa. And when they met,” magic happened, Burns said, before the two musicians tore through the banjo classic, “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?”

Indeed, the African-American influence on country music (and all of American popular music) runs deep.

“It’s no accident that the folks who deserve to be on the Mount Rushmore of early country music … all had musical mentors who were African American,” Burns told me in an interview for American Way, the American Airlines magazine (see pages 77-82 at the link provided).

But there's a fine line between the black influence in country music and white Americans' outright appropriation--or even theft--of the genre.

“Country music never had much room for black artists, even though several of the genre’s most prominent figures were African-American,” historian Charles L. Hughes argues in his book, Country Soul: Race and Music in the American South.

At the same time, Nashville music executives and some artists wanted to show they were “tolerant or even progressive when it came to issues of race,” Hughes wrote. “They claimed, in short, that country music was color blind.”

Burns’ powerful film, lovingly and beautifully written by Dayton Duncan, successfully helps us feel the depth and weight of country music and its impact on our culture even more strongly than Burns’ earlier documentary on the history of jazz (both featuring New Orleans-born jazz great Wynton Marsalis as a key voice).

In Country Music, Burns and his team tell us that Jimmie Rodgers, the “Singing Brakeman” from Meridian, Miss., and country’s biggest early star, was influenced by his working with mostly black laborers on the railroad.

Lesley Riddle was A.P. Carter’s song hunting partner on 15 trips across Appalachia. A black slide guitarist with one leg whom Carter had met in Kingsport, Tenn., “I was his tape recorder,” Riddle would say later. Among the songs found by Riddle and A.P. Carter was “When the World’s on Fire,” which became the Carter Family’s 1930s single, “Little Darling, Pal of Mine.” The same tune later would be translated by Woody Guthrie into “This Land is Your Land.”

Lesley Riddle, at right, with bluesman Brownie McGhee

Kentuckian Bill Monroe, the founder of bluegrass after combining Earl Scruggs’ brilliant, driving banjo picking into his string band, also was influenced by Arnold Schultz, a traveling Dixieland musician from Kentucky who reportedly gave the Monroe Brothers their first gig.

The most influential of all artists in country music, Hank Williams, was mentored by black musician Rufus Paine, nicknamed “Tee-Tot” for some reason. He taught Hank a few chords and let the boy hang out as he played on street corners in Montgomery, Ala.

“All the music training I ever had was from him,” Williams once said, as noted in Burns’ film.

“The black musical influence in country music is immeasurable,” mandolin virtuoso and former country star Marty Stuart says in the film. “If you took Mr. Lesley Riddle out of the A.P. Carter equation as a song catcher and a song gatherer, if you took Arnold Schultz out of Bill Monroe’s life, or if you took Tee-Tot out of Hank Williams’ life, just those three alone, look how differently we would have turned out.”

The gravestone of Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne, early mentor of Hank Williams

A new dawning

Early on, popular music could only be seen through the haze of race and even the legacy of slavery.

Ralph Peer had come to Atlanta in 1923 to record folk musicians--two women blues singers and the Morehouse College Gospel Quartet. This was the same Ralph Peer who in 1920 recorded Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” the first “race record” and first mainstream release for a black audience. It had sold 75,000 copies in the first month, the film says--which is about three times what a No. 1 country album sells in a week today.

Hillbilly records hadn’t yet emerged, although Burns’ film notes that Victor Records had released songs by ancient-sounding Texas fiddler Eck Robertson, but they hadn’t sold well.

Peer took a local a furniture store owner’s advice and recorded WSB radio’s (for Welcome South, Brother, Burns’ film tells us) Fiddlin’ John Carson, a manager at the Fulton Cotton Mill. Carson’s version of “Little Old Cabin in the Lane,” a pretty but ignorant minstrel tune about blacks happily hanging out in the woods, became the first national “hillbilly” or “hill country” hit.

Fiddlin’ John then recorded dozens of other records--including songs that fanned racist and anti-Semitic sentiment that likely contributed to the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish manager at a local pencil factory, after the murder of a 13-year-old girl.

Early Atlanta hillbilly star Fiddlin' John Carson

Strange bedfellows

Uncle Dave Macon was the Opry’s first radio and then TV star. He sang “Take Me Back to My Old Carolina Home” and other minstrel songs that had been performed mainly in blackface, adopting the nifty dance steps and banjo flipping of black musicians.

Uncle Dave’s companion and fellow car passenger for many shows across the country was harmonica player DeFord Bailey, the Opry’s first (and for decades its only) black star, a man not 5 feet tall. Burns’ film highlights Bailey’s famous number, “Fox Chase,” which he learned from his grandfather who played the tune on a fiddle. Bailey couldn’t eat in most of the same cafes or stay in the same inns as Uncle Dave. “But he’s free when he’s standing up on the stage,” Secor says in the film wistfully.

Of course, Bailey later would be fired for not learning new material and accused of laziness, and then ran a shoe shop on 12th Avenue South in downtown Nashville for the rest of his years. He returned to the Opry twice, in much later years, to be recognized.

The African-American thread in country and popular music, of course, stretches far beyond the early 20th Century into today.

Before he recorded at Sun Records, Johnny Cash was a door-to-door salesman in Memphis and befriended blues and early string-band singer Gus Cannon, whose Cannon’s Jug Band was known for “Walk Right In” and had been recorded by Ralph Peer decades earlier. Cash also has mentioned Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Pink Anderson (a more obscure black folk singer from South Carolina for whom Pink Floyd was partially named) and other black performers among his favorite musicians. Burns’ film credits this relationship of Cash’s and the South’s stew of gospel, blues, and country to sparking rockabilly, and rock ‘n roll.

Dom Flemons' album on black cowboys

Later, Dolly Parton’s 1974 farewell to Porter Waggoner, “I Will Always Love You,” in 1992, would become the greatest selling pop single ever (at the time) in the hands and voice of Whitney Houston. In 1980, Parton even used an R&B-influenced disco beat on “9 to 5,” earning an Oscar nomination for the song and making No. 1 country and pop.

Dom Flemons, who co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops with Rhiannon Giddens, is among the current artists exploring African-American roots music and these corners of history that have become so hidden by our society and white cultural control. His 2018 record, Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys, on Smithsonian Folkways, covers songs of and inspired by early black western artists, including some actual cowboys. From covering Texas songster Henry Thomas who famously accompanied himself on panflutes or “quills,” to displaying photographs his own relatives who settled in Arizona at the turn of the 20th century, Flemons' album shows how white “cowboy singers” (including those highlighted by Burns) appropriated the music and culture of early black settlers to the desert Southwest.

In the extensive liner-note book with Flemons’ Cowboys album, he cites Alan Lomax writing about the cowboy classic, “Home on the Range”:

“The cries and songs on this record are perhaps the most direct evidence we have of black participation in the cowboy song tradition, although it seems unquestionable that this participation was rich and important. My father recalled a black bartender in San Antonio who sang “Home on the Range” into his little cylinder recorder in 1908, and it was this black variant, not any of its predecessors, that became our national western hymn.”

This year, of course, Atlanta rap/hip-hop artist Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” owned No. 1 on the pop charts for more than three months in 2019 after Billboard removed the song from its country charts.

“It’s America, but it’s got Africa in it,” Rhiannon Giddens says of country music in the opening moments of Burns’ film.

The Genius at Work

No major figure in popular music shows the relationship between country and soul better than Ray Charles. As Burns’ film, acknowledges, Charles had dozens of top 40 pop and soul hits with country songs. Born in Albany, Ga., and growing up in a rural area, Charles recalls in his biography listening to the Grand Ole Opry radio show as a boy.

Like many of the best R&B and soul performers, Charles used his talents subversively, in his own way, to challenge racial segregation and cultural norms. He connected with country music through jazz and swing, recording jazzy versions of early blues and folk numbers such as the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sittin’ on Top of the World” in 1949 and Ma Rainey (and Lead Belly’s) “See See Rider,” (or “C.C. Rider”) the next year.

In 1959, Charles really took country to town. After his “What’d I Say (Part I)” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B charts, his next charting single was Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On,” reaching the pop top 40 and No. 11 R&B. Then Charles then made Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind” his own in 1960, hitting No. 1 pop and No. 3 R&B. The B-side, strikingly, was the old minstrel tune, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”

He followed that with Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” in 1962, making No. 1 on the pop and R&B charts, with Charles’ soulful vocals grooving across an overpowering white choral group on the chorus. The recording “did more for country music than any other artist,” Willie Nelson once said.

Charles’ version of Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me,” made the top 5 in pop and R&B. Then came “You Are My Sunshine” hit No. 7 pop and No. 1 R&B, with the flipside cut, Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” charting, too.

In 1963, Charles took Harlan Howard’s “Busted,” also a hit for Johnny Cash and a song to which both black and white country audiences could relate, to No. 4 pop and No. 3 R&B, and Williams’ “Take These Chains from My Heart” into the pop Top 10.

In 1965, he released Buck Owens’ “Together Again” as a single. Both Charles and Owens had parents who were sharecroppers.

Ray Charles burns through "Ring of Fire" on The Johnny Cash Show

Charles’ Modern Sound in Country and Western Music and Volume Two, hit No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on the pop albums charts, both in 1962, and became some of the biggest selling albums by a black or country artist to that point. The first album sold half a million copies in its first three months.

Charles didn’t actually make the country charts until the 1980s, but did so 12 times during the decade. Willie Nelson was his duet partner on the No. 1 smash “Seven Spanish Angels” in 1985. (Earlier, Nelson had teamed with Memphis soul master Booker T. Jones for Stardust, an album of American standards that went to No. 1.) At Charles’ funeral in 2004, a tearful Nelson sang “Georgia on My Mind” to the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.

Charles had lesser 1980s country recordings with George Jones and Chet Atkins (the funny and ironic “We Didn’t See a Thing”), and even Hank Williams Jr. (“Two Old Cats Like Us”).

“George Jones is my man. I mean, he’s a soulful mothafucker,” Charles said, as quoted in his country box set. “See, I like ordinary people. I don’t like nobody with something up their ass.”

Red, blue, black, and white

Nashville executives pointed to a gifted black singer from Mississippi as evidence of their relative progressivism. Charley Pride recalls in the Burns film how white children had taunted him with slurs whizzing by on a school bus as he walked four miles to school. Pride says he escaped the cotton fields by pitching in baseball’s minor and Negro league teams in Memphis and Montana, of all places. He also sang at night.

In a Helena bar, traveling country singers Red Foley and Red Sovine heard Pride sing Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” and encouraged him to move to Nashville, according to Burns’ film (although it actually appears the singers knew Pride from earlier). Producer Cowboy Jack Clement had been an audio engineer at Sun Records in Memphis, where Pride had recorded a few tracks. One of Nashville most eccentric and progressive figures in music, Clement warned Pride that singer and local power broker Faron Young wouldn’t be happy about his arrival.

“I said, 'Let’s go find him’,” Pride remembers in the film.

Pride’s simple, flawless delivery on “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” (see video below) won over country fans everywhere. The song was a No. 1 country hit for five weeks and spent four months on Billboard’s pop charts. (I also love Pride's fiddle-driven, "Is Anybody Going to San Antone?") Pride would have 29 No. 1 country hits in all, becoming the first black Opry member since DeFord Bailey. Pride and Faron Young would be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame together.

“Faron Young--one of my best, best friends who ever was,” Pride says in the film.

(Story continues after video below.)

The situation was less rosy at times, however, writes Hughes, the historian. “You gotta hear my n---r,” one “advocate” for Pride reportedly told friends in Nashville, music writer Paul Hemphill wrote.

There were other black entries into country music in the same era. Shelby Singleton’s Plantation Records in Nashville released right-wing salutes and borderline Black Power anthems, Hughes writes. Black musician Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams recorded “She’s All I Got” for the label, but then it became a country smash in 1971 for white singer Johnny Paycheck.

Then there was Linda Martell, the first African-American woman to sing on the Grand Ole Opry, who actually yodels on her 1969 album Color Him Father. She appeared the next year on the cornpone TV variety show, Hee Haw, with hosts Buck Owens and Roy Clark--an image of which is shown in the Burns film. Charley Pride was on the show’s first episode and returned several times; Ray Charles also was a guest.

“My black grandma who lived out in the country had blues and jazz records … but don’t get in front of her Hee-Haw every Saturday night!” Rhiannon Giddens says in Burns’ film.

With diversity creeping in, the pushback on the changes in country music also began to emerge.

“Country’s ascendance of white conservatism paralleled and opposed soul music’s rise as the voice of Black Power in the 1960s,” Hughes writes, citing examples such as “The School Bus,” an embarrassing country flop that blasted busing as a school-integration strategy. Nashville singer T. Tommy Cutrer, also on Plantation Records, sings, absurdly, of a fictional bus crash that kills all children on board, black and white, with a young chorus singing “My Country ‘tis of Thee” in the background.

South Carolina native Linda Martell

Being Haggard and Cash

Merle Haggard is one of country music’s most complicated figures when it comes to race and politics. Once an inmate who attended a Johnny Cash show at Folsom Prison, Haggard could relate to the African-American experience and says so in Burns’ film. His family had been labeled “Okies,” post-Dust Bowl migrants to California.

One of the best songwriters of any American genre’, Haggard released a daring song about interracial romance, Irma Jackson in 1972: “If my lovin’ Irma Jackson is a sin, then I don't understand this crazy world we’re livin’ in. It’s a muddy wall between us standin’ high. But I’ll love Irma Jackson ‘til I die.”

Haggard also had written “Hungry Eyes,” one of country’s most influential songs and released in 1969, with some of the genre’s most stirring and authentic lyrics:

“A canvas-covered cabin in a crowded labor camp Stand out in this memory I revived ‘Cause my daddy raised a family there, with two hard working hands And tried to feed my mama's hungry eyes.

He dreamed of something better, and my mama's faith was strong And us kids were just too young to realize That another class of people put us somewhere just below One more reason for my mama's hungry eyes.”

These songs came just after Haggard’s No. 1 country hit “Okie from Muscogee” had pined for America’s so-called good ‘ol days in 1968. Burns’ film accurately explains that the song was intended to speak from Haggard’s father’s point of view, but it became an anthem for disillusioned white Americans. Haggard was even more blunt in his “I’m a White Boy” from the late 1970s, as Charles L. Hughes points out, criticizing Americans who accepted government help: “I’m proud and I’m white, and I’ve got to sing a song.”

The great New Orleans trumpet player and singer Louis Armstrong on Johnny Cash's show

Haggard’s work that sounded a white-supremacist note at times contrasts with that of Johnny Cash. He had country hits with folk-protest songs such as the self-penned “All God’s Children Ain’t Free” in 1965, and Cash’s 1964 concept album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian spoke of Native Americans’ brutal experiences, as Burns’ film details.

The Burns film also smartly shows how Cash used his national TV variety program on ABC to bring progressive black and white artists further into the mainstream. Recorded live at the Ryman, the film shows clips from The Johnny Cash Show: Ray Charles, the Staple Singers, the great Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, white protest singer Pete Seeger (who co-wrote “We Shall Overcome”), and even Merle Haggard. Louis Armstrong joined Cash to sing “Blue Yodel No. 9” by Jimmie Rodgers, a musical hero to them both.

Early photograph of the Staples Singers

Black gospel goes country

One episode of Ken Burns’ film opens with a photographic image of black church-goers, with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” being sung by Nashville white-soul singer Leon Russell as the soundtrack.

Among those who brought the old Carter Family classic to popularity, especially among African-American audiences, were the Staple Singers, who’d been “injecting urban gospel with a rural vibe since the 1940s,” Chicago music writer Greg Kot writes in I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway.

After several popular recordings on Chicago’s Vee-Jay and Riverside labels, including their own bluesy version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?,” the Staples’ new record label paired them in the 1960s with Billy Sherrill, a white producer who soon would turn the studio knobs on Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” George Jones’ “The Grand Tour,” and Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl (in the World),” among other country classics.

Sherrill began to work with the Staples as they began to transition away from purely traditional gospel. For their first album with Sherrill, 1965’s Amen, the Staples covered “Be Careful of the Stones That You Throw,” recorded by Hank Williams as his gospel persona Luke the Drifter and written and originally sung by female steel guitarist Bonnie Dodd. Pop Staples' tone and delivery isn't all that different from Williams when he sings, “Unless you’ve made no mistakes in your life, just be careful of the stones that you throw.”

(Story continues after video below.)

Pops Staples, the family patriarch whose signature tremolo guitar picking sounded more like 1930s blues than Chicago gospel, also had begun to write songs about the rising struggle for civil rights. Also in 1965, the Staples recorded one of Pops’ masterpieces at South Side Chicago’s New Nazareth Church. The stunning “Freedom Highway” was inspired by the recent Selma march and police attack on protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In the same performance, the Staples sing Hank Williams/Luke the Drifter’s “The Funeral.” They also would record Williams’ “The Tramp on the Street” on their last album with Sherrill, 1967’s Pray On.

Soon, the Staples would find massive popularity with hits that appealed to preachers and hippies alike, merging their gospel and folk with the country-soul of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio musicians, virtually all of them white. In a cinderblock building in north Alabama, Mavis Staples belted the verses of the 1972 hit “Respect Yourself” over Roger Hawkins’ drums and David Hood’s groovy bass: “Take the sheet off your face, boy, it’s a brand-new day!”

Marty Stuart joined the Staple Singers on Rhythm and Country Blues, the wonderful album produced by rock’s Don Was and country’s Tony Brown in 1994. Stuart was enlisted to duet on “The Weight”--a staggering request, considering the Staples’ legendary performance of the song with The Band in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (see video below).

A native of Philadelphia, Miss., (where he’s now planning a music museum that will house his photography), Stuart found some of the Staples’ earliest records before the session. “I was driving through a Delta cotton field one night and I was playing their record… and I turned the car lights off, until all you heard was ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?’ and ‘Uncloudy Day.’ … It scared me, and it moved me,” Stuart tells in Kot in I’ll Take You There.

Stuart became close friends with the family and considered Pops his godfather and Mavis his god-sister. He told Kot his memories of Pops’ funeral: “As they lowered Pops into the ground, I started singing the first verse of ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken?’ to myself. That song yet again came alive, and it got me through.”

In May 2019, Mavis Staples held one of her 80th birthday celebration concerts at the Ryman Auditorium, featuring many guest Americana and country singers such as Jason Isbell, The War and Treaty, and Sheryl Crow. Nashville’s Margo Price joined Staples on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?,” which Mavis told the audience was the first song Pops ever taught his children.

Just like at Burns’ Nashville concert on the same old Grand Ole Opry stage earlier in the year, when the ensemble at his concert closed the show with the number, refashioned from a hymn and first made popular (as “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?”) by the Carter Family in the 1930s.

Burns told us that “Circle” brings country’s history together and “offers up the hope that awaits us, by and by.”

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