Black Artists Helped Build Country Music—And Then It Left Them Behind

7 minute read

Over the past few months, a contentious debate has raged over whether Lil Nas X, whose single “Old Town Road” spent a record 19 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 this summer, is a country artist. But for the filmmaker Ken Burns, the answer is clear.

“The fact somebody has walked into country music, that is not of the color that people presume the people of country music are, and just said, ‘I’m home’ — that is great,” Burns said in a Pitchfork video in June. “This is where we need to go.”

Burns’ new 16-hour documentary series, Country Music, arrives Sept. 15 on PBS, and covers a century of the genre with the same painstaking attention to detail seen in his other award-winning series like Baseball and The Vietnam War. He uses archival footage, photographs and extensive interviews to delve into the breakthroughs, tragedies and joys of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and many more familiar names.

But one of the series’ central tenets is that country music has always been home to African-American artists. Burns shows that, just like in rock, jazz and pop, every facet of country — from its instrumentation to repertoire to vocal and instrumental techniques — is indebted to African and African-American traditions, but commercial decisions by white industry executives led to their exclusion from the genre for decades.

The black influence on country music starts with the banjo, which often conjures the hazy image of a white pastoral South. But the instrument is a descendant of West African lutes, made from gourds, that were brought to America by slaves and which became a central part of slave music and culture in the South. Soon, the instrument was standardized, appropriated and spread to white audiences through minstrel and blackface shows — which deeply informed the rise of hillbilly music, a term that would later be rebranded as “country music.” (The blackface performer Emmett Miller’s “Lovesick Blues,” for example, inspired Hank Williams’ own rendition of the song, which is still one of the most beloved songs in country history.) White banjo innovators like Earl Scruggs and David Akeman later made the instrument integral to the genre’s DNA, and black musicians mostly abandoned the instrument.

Many of the songs that early hillbilly artists played were likewise inherited and adapted from black sources — like slave spirituals, field songs, religious hymnals or the works of professional black songwriters. In Country Music, Burns traces how “When the World is On Fire,” a hymn arranged by a black minister, was turned into the Carter Family’s 1928 hit “Little Darling, Pal of Mine” — which was then turned into Woody Guthrie’s quintessential “This Land is Your Land.” Meanwhile, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” was written by James A. Bland, a black New Yorker who would hardly have found himself welcome in parts of Virginia had he still been alive in 1940, when it was named the official state song.

While the South remained deeply segregated in the ‘20s and ‘30s, black and white musicians frequently engaged in musical collaboration, even appearing on many recordings together. Country Music details the collaboration between Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong on 1929’s “Blue Yodel Number 9.” On that song, the “Father of Country Music” yodels and sings the tale of a Tennessee hustler, while Satchmo seamlessly fills the space with jaunty blues licks. Despite the nearly diametrically opposed genre labels they carried, it’s clear that they were pulling from a shared musical tradition.

And that collaboration was just the tip of the iceberg, according to Patrick Huber, a history professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology. In his 2013 essay “Black Hillbillies: African American Musicians on Old-Time Records, 1924-1932,” he details the startling diversity of hillbilly music, which featured a higher frequency of integrated sessions than any other genre except vaudeville blues. Nearly 50 African-American singers and musicians, he writes, appeared on commercial hillbilly records between those years — because the music was not a white agrarian tradition, but a fluid phenomenon passed back and forth between the races.

“As a result of exchanges and borrowing and theft and parody, southern music pre-World War I was fundamentally multicultural,” Huber told TIME.

But as hillbilly music became a commercial product in the 1920s, record labels began dividing their releases into “hillbilly records” and “race records,” under the presumption that consumers bought music according to their race. Many of the black performers on hillbilly records went uncredited or were even scrubbed from marketing images in favor of white stand-ins. The genre was quickly positioned as an authentic return to the music of the idyllic rural white Mountain South, in direct opposition to the black “modern dance music” of the era.

This marketing ploy meant that many black artists were pushed to the margins of country music, even if they remained influential behind the scenes. Lesley Riddle, a black guitar player, helped A.P. Carter of the Carter Family hone his repertoire of mountain songs and greatly influenced the fingerpicking guitar style of Maybelle Carter, who is considered one of the most influential guitarists of all time. Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne mentored a young Hank Williams; Gus Cannon taught a young Johnny Cash. Bill Monroe, called “The Father of Bluegrass,” talked of his indebtedness to the guitarist Arnold Schultz. But all of those black artists would be vastly eclipsed by their mentees.

And the one black star of country music’s first era, DeFord Bailey, was likewise treated with an ambivalence that sometimes bled into contempt. The harmonica player, who was the grandson of a slave, became the most frequent performer on the Nashville radio station WSM’s Barn Dance, with his virtuosic renditions of “Pan American Blues” and “The Fox Chase” riling up audiences across the south. In 1927, one of his performances even provided the backdrop for the genesis of the Grand Ole Opry, the radio program that became country music’s central institution, with Bailey one of its pioneer members.

But Bailey’s race was mostly hidden from his radio audience, and when he did go on tour with the Opry, he was forced to find separate accommodations in a segregated South. “He was a mascot — he was very much treated paternalistically,” Huber said. Bailey was fired unceremoniously in 1941. George D. Hay, the founder of the Opry, wrote four years later that “Like some members of his race and other races, DeFord was lazy.”

DeFord spent the rest of his life shining shoes and renting out rooms in his home to make a living. It would take half a century for the Grand Ole Opry to admit another black member (Charley Pride in 1993); besides those two musicians, Darius Rucker is the only other black member in Opry history.

Burns hopes that Lil Nas and other rising black stars like Kane Brown, Blanco Brown and Jimmie Allen will help return the country genre to its diverse roots, and to a time before an early promise of integration was eclipsed by commercial interests. “You can’t conceive of this music existing without this African-American infusion,” the historian Bill C. Malone says in Country Music. “But as the music developed professionally, too often African-American musicians were forgotten.”

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