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Southern Cultures: Special Roots Music Issue: Fall 2010

Southern Cultures: Special Roots Music Issue: Fall 2010

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Southern Cultures: Special Roots Music Issue: Fall 2010

281 pagine
2 ore
Aug 15, 2010


The Special Roots Music Issue features:

B.B. King on Bukka White's legacy;

The Top Ten Folk Singers of All Time;

Bob Dylan backstage in '63 and other rare photographic gems;

Swamp bluesman Jimmy Anderson's first published interview in the U.S.;

Lynyrd Skynyrd vs. the Allman Brothers;

Pete, Peggy, & Mike--and all the rest that Charles Seeger gave to the world of music;

Willie Lowery--musician, songwriting sensation, and humanitarian;

Saxie Dowell, the great saxophonist and war hero;

a sneak peek at NASHVILLE CHROME, the sizzling new novel from Rick Bass; and much more.

The Roots Music Issue comes with a classic FREE CD full of great roots musicians, including BUKKA WHITE, ETTA BAKER, THE BYRDS' ROGER MCGUINN, WILLIE LOWERY, IDYLL SWORDS, ALABAMA SLIM & LITTLE FREDDIE KING, JIMMY ANDERSON & THE MOJO BLUES BAND, MICHAEL HURLEY, FILTHYBIRD, MEGAFAUN, PRESTON FULP, JOE BROWN, AND MORE OF THE SOUTH'S BEST ROOTS MUSICIANS—old and new. We'll mail the CD separately to our Roots Music e-book customers at no extra charge.

Southern Cultures is published quarterly (spring, summer, fall, winter) by the University of North Carolina Press. The journal is sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Center for the Study of the American South.

Aug 15, 2010

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Southern Cultures - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for the Study of the American South


front porch

In our Upbeat Down South, Vincent Joos tells how Jimmy Anderson grew up in fife-and-drum hotspot Natchez, Mississippi, and Dick Waterman's amazing photo essay includes a classic image of Otha Turner, thought to be the last fife musician of his generation. An Appalachian fifer and friend, c. 1914, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

This edition of Southern Cultures's music issue deals with roots music, a label that grew especially well known and popular after the Coen brothers' remarkable movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, appeared in 2000. America's diverse cultures have inspired an immense variety of musical forms and styles, nowhere more than in the South, and roots tries to capture that variety at the deepest level among families and communities, before the process of commercialization and homogenization begins. Our inspiration came from the North Carolina Humanities Council, which throughout 2010 is sponsoring a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution entitled New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music. Southern Cultures is pleased to offer our support for New Harmonies, and you can visit for more information on the tour.

As we started to consider this issue, we looked for some help in defining just what roots music really is. We decided to ask an expert, our dear friend and southern music authority Chaz Joyner of Coastal Carolina University, to give us a list of the ten best southern folk singers, an older but still useful musical category that could tie contemporary ideas of roots to something earlier.

Chaz then sent us two lists, one devoted to traditional folk singers, whom he defined as those who learned their songs from the oral traditions of their families and communities, and the other naming singers of folk songs who sang for a living (or still do) and mostly learned their repertoire from recordings. The division didn't surprise me; distinguishing between real folk and their imitators comes naturally to almost everyone who explores folk or roots culture, however they decide to define it.

I also didn't recognize a lot of the traditional names, but that didn't surprise me either. After all, being obscure and commercially undiscovered is a cardinal test of traditional authenticity, and unlike Chaz, I hadn't spent a lifetime exploring the South's best music. Like lots of other half-educated consumers, I love what I hear but my life goes on in different directions.

But when I read the list of professional imitators, I was dumbfounded, because right there in first place was North Carolina's own Doc Watson. Let me say right away that Arthel Lane Watson and I are not related, except of course in my dreams. But how could anybody put the sublime Doc Watson in a category of professional singers who acquired their material from the channels of mass culture? Sure, Doc has recorded a bazillion albums, won three Grammys, and made a worldwide name for himself, but how could anybody who taught himself to play the guitar while growing up blind in Deep Gap, North Carolina, be anything but traditional? Chaz, say it ain't so! You're breaking my heart here.

Still disbelieving, I dragged myself to my unimpeachable fountain of folk wisdom, Wikipedia. And sure enough, right there in black and white pixels, it says that the first song Doc ever learned to play was ‘When Roses Bloom in Dixieland,’ which he must have learned from a Carter Family recording of the 1920s. At least a dozen other sites have the exact same language—so it must be true. And it goes on to say that Doc's early street performances covered popular hits by the Delmar, Louvin, and Monroe Brothers. I was crushed. If Doc Watson isn't traditional, how can anyone be?

I applied various restoratives, and when I came to I began thinking about these opposing categories of traditional and professional. The power of authentic tradition is unarguable. Without its riches, the popularizers would be nowhere. But does true roots music come only exclusively from these sources? Or does it include the music that more or less uprooted people buy to make themselves feel otherwise, even if the artist is no more rooted than they are? And what do you call it when a traditional singer makes a record that nontraditional people buy and love?

Truth be told, that last sentence applies to me and most of the roots music fans I know. Apart from a few hymns, lullabies, and campfire songs, most of the traditional southern music in my head comes from commercial recordings. I first learned about the blues from a double album called Blues Roots and about fiddle and banjo tunes from another one called Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians. I bought them both in a college-themed record store in New England. Where does that leave me—equal parts southern, suburban, and academic—in the roots department? Could it be that the purist distinction between traditional and professional is obsolete or at least unhelpful? After all, how many people today learned a pristine version of Barbara Allen from our grannies in the hills? Let me see a show of hands. I thought so.

Several of the pieces in this issue explore the tension between authentic roots music and—what shall we call its opposite? Commercial? Imitative? Or just plain fake? Are these words fair descriptors of the cultural soup we actually live in? For most of us, roots music is not something we absorbed with our first breaths, but something we looked for and seized on, hoping to fill a void that other music could not plumb.

Bartow J. Elmore explores this dilemma in his essay on the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. As founders of southern rock, both bands tended an anti-establishment image in their lyrics and album covers—the Allman Brothers from a pastoral, back-to-nature perspective and Lynyrd Skynyrd from an edgier stance—as hard-drinking, hard-fighting, blue-collar white guys who sported Confederate flags and sang about George Wallace. But in both cases, Elmore shows that the bands' authentic images were assumed. Most of their members grew up well-behaved in middle-class Florida neighborhoods, and they started out as typical suburban high-school garage bands. Both groups felt stifled by convention, however, and went looking for something else. They were especially alienated, Elmore finds, from the postwar transformation of the southern landscape of which their fans and their families were part: the spread of subdivisions, military bases, and shopping centers as the South moved from farm to city and moved away from tradition. They used their music to create something that felt more authentic, and through their music, millions of consumers bought a piece of their discovery. Were they faking something or sharing a dream?

For most of us, roots music is not something we absorbed with our first breaths, but something we looked for and seized on, hoping to fill a void that other music could not plumb. A guitar-fiddle duet, c. 1940, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

Charles Seeger (1886–1979) was definitely sharing a dream. Born to a Boston family with abolitionist ties, Seeger's southern roots were nonexistent, but when he and his family, especially his sons Pete and Michael, led the post–World War II folk music revival, millions of listeners discovered roots they never knew they had. Seeger was an academic musicologist who lived and breathed the world of European classical music and made his scholarly reputation studying dissonant counterpoint, but was drawn to southern black and white folk music through the left-wing politics of the Popular Front and Great Depression. Before his death, Seeger spoke to folklorist William Ferris about his links to musical giants ranging from Aaron Copeland to Lead Belly (who incidentally tied for first place on Chaz Joyner's list of traditional southern folk singers). Along the way he describes the racist discrimination that drove a wedge between Lead Belly and his discoverer, John Lomax. Seeger told Ferris that his work with musicians in the New Deal, as well as his work collecting, recording, transcribing, and publishing authentic folk music, was inspired by the idea that whatever music was done with the people had to be done in the terms of the people—the terms that the people understood and the music they could sing themselves.

In keeping with the documentary impulse that first inspired Seeger and other collectors of traditional songs, most other pieces in this issue are also interviews or profiles of representative artists. They are mostly stories of hard-working performers who struggled and suffered before finding commercial success—and often struggled and suffered when success left them behind. One tale is technically fiction, but based on the real-life story of the Browns, a 1950s country group from Arkansas. With an introduction by Southern Cultures editor Jocelyn Neal, novelist Rick Bass explores their hard lives on the road and their exploitation by an unscrupulous promoter. In the same vein, independent scholar David Johnson shares his interview with dying Mississippi bluesman Bukka White, whose fame and talent could not bring him security or even a decent hospital in the end. Vincent Joos tells a similar story of Jimmy Anderson, a less well-known figure from the Natchez Swamp Blues scene. Lumbee Indian artist Willie Lowery shares his story with Michael Taylor, telling how he rode high up in the circles of Paul McCartney and José Feliciano in the 1960s before dedicating himself to singing the story of his own people, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi. Terrence Tickle shares the very different story of Saxie Dowell, a successful saxophonist of the Big Band era who never suffered from want or neglect but found himself in an exploding aircraft carrier in the closing days of World War II. His bravery and service then brought him a citation for heroism, but could not save his career when big bands fell from favor in the postwar era.

What do these stories have in common? They are mostly not the accounts of superstars, but tales of journeyman artists who gave their lives to a genre and made it sing. They built on roots to make leaves and branches for the rest of us, and we owe them all our gratitude.

The photographs of Dick Waterman bring distant musicians to life in a different way. A New Englander like Charles Seeger, Waterman promoted the blues revival and arranged concerts for stars like Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt, and Son House. He also took pictures that capture the souls of these artists, their pains, their warmth, their genius. He shares many previously unpublished images with us in a photo essay that takes us from the bluesmen he promoted to the likes of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Bonnie Raitt.

Closing out the issue, we have two reminders of what makes music so precious and why people like Charles Seeger prefer it to words. A poem by Cathy Smith Bowers captures the joy and transformation that music brings to a couple of dancing mothers and their babies. And our southern roots music compact disc gives you a taste of what the words are all about. Listen long and hard and love it. If these weren't your roots at the beginning, they can be now.


FICTION Fabor from the forthcoming novel Nashville Chrome

by Rick Bass with an introduction by Jocelyn R. Neal

The Browns signed with Fabor Records and faced all the adventures and trials of naïve musicians in a cutthroat business. At a diner with the King: Jim Ed Brown (left), Maxine Brown, and Bonnie Brown (right). From Maxine Brown's Looking Back to See. Copyright 2005 by Maxine Brown. Reproduced with the permission of the University of Arkansas Press,


The mid-1950s in popular music resembled the Wild West. New sounds, new styles, and new business models collided with a teenage audience that had unprecedented buying power. As those forces converged, popular music entered about a half-decade of uncharted territory where shady businessmen exploited ambitious but naïve musicians while the throbbing pulse of rock 'n' roll destabilized the traditions of both pop and country music.

Of all the genres, country music in particular emerged from World War II as a booming segment of the music industry with a strong national presence. With its southern working-class identity, country had thrived when a large population who grew up on the music took it with them into the armed services, and there spread it to fellow soldiers and, soon thereafter, their families back home. In the 1950s political forces seeking to shore up patriotic fervor in the wake of perceived Communist threats readily adopted the music as a wholesome, intrinsically American part of popular culture, which increased its audience yet again. But in spite of the genre's growth, country music was still Hank Williams and honky tonk, bluegrass and barn dances, western swing and wistful nostalgia. Then came Elvis.

In 1954, Elvis Presley introduced the world to rockabilly on a small, independent label called Sun Records, run by Sam Phillips in Memphis, Tennessee. Presley's pounding backbeats and tantalizing gyrations sent the music business scrambling to harness this new force. Within half a decade, the shock waves of that musical development had challenged and inspired the country music industry to establish the Country Music Association (CMA), forge plans for a Hall of Fame, and saturate the airwaves with a new, cosmopolitan, crossover style—the Nashville Sound. By the early 1960s, country music had reinvented itself as a sophisticated new genre that found pop stars rushing to Nashville to join the country music bandwagon.

Yet it was a turbulent journey that led the country music business from homegrown honky tonk to a glitzy industry, and this flux created a wealth of opportunities for independent record labels and managers, both scrupulous and unscrupulous. Where the big record companies were slow to pick up on the new trends and out of touch with local music scenes, small labels quickly filled the gaps. These small labels were on the front lines of popular music, experimenting with radical musical styles and attempting to satisfy the frenzy for new music. If and when one of their records broke big, the small label would usually negotiate with one of the major record companies to handle the distribution. And if an artist showed real potential on the national scene, a major label would buy out that artist's contract (as RCA did with Presley). Thus, the small, independent labels had nothing to lose and everything to gain in these gambles, and how well the artists fared depended entirely on the scruples of the producers and the savvy of the artists in negotiating those first contracts.

The same story appeared over and over again: a young artist, excited by that first contract, signed away too many rights for too long and too little money to a producer, who then exploited that artist through grueling appearance schedules, doctored balance sheets, restrictive musical selections, and countless other maneuvers. Much has been written, for instance, about how Patsy Cline signed with 4Star Records, run by Bill McCall in California, and how that first contract was so stifling that her career almost stopped before it started. When that contract finally expired in 1960, Decca Records immediately snatched her up (and then the hits began to flow), but historians have held McCall accountable for many of Cline's early professional struggles. The Maddox Brothers and Rose, also with 4Star, openly accused McCall of cheating them out of royalties, a common complaint among artists signed to the smaller labels. Jim Reeves similarly chafed under his first contracts with Fabor and Abbott Records, both run by Fabor Robinson. In 1955, Reeves was able to switch to RCA, where he and legendary producer Chet Atkins crafted the Nashville Sound that made him a superstar and crossover success until his untimely death in 1964.

On the small labels, where money was tight and shoe-leather the promoter's best resource, the schedule required of these musicians was exhausting. Life on the road in those years was undeniably rougher for women than for their male counterparts, and, consequently, fewer women made a go of it. As a result, fewer still were around to mentor the younger ones. Country audiences tended to demand respectability from their female stars, and a career as a traveling entertainer threatened that respectability: a woman's responsibility was home and family, not touring in the company of men, improperly chaperoned in many instances, or carousing with questionable colleagues

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