The following article was published by Rome's Palazzo delle Esposizioni in February, 1994, under the title: "Country Music, due secoli di musica americana dalle Appalachian Mountains a Nashville". It appeared in connection with both a "Country Music Festival" and a painting exhibition, "The American West - the art of the American frontier", sponsored by the museum.
The Italian public is remarkably
conversant with many different styles of twentieth century American
popular music: the syncopated, brittle sounds of the piano Ragtime
of the turn of the century, the smoother rhythms of the Swing
bands of the 30's, the 50's experimental free jazz and with a
variety of fusions of Jazz, Rock, the blues, etc. from the 60's
to the present. It is acquainted with the Delta blues of the 30's,
with Rhythm and Blues of the 40's and 50's, the Rock and Roll
of the mid 50's, the Soul of the 60's as well as with present
day Rap music. It is undoubtedly aware of the intricate intertwining
of African and European musical traditions which, in fact, each
these musics represented, yet this audience is rarely exposed
directly to one of the essential musical sources of these developments
- the American country music tradition.
American country music is a music with roots firmly within the Anglo-Celtic musical tradition brought to the United States by settlers emigrating from Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, Wales and England. While the first English puritan settlers of the seventeenth century may have looked askance at music (and for that matter at entertainment itself), later waves of immigrants (the Scotch-Irish from the north of Ireland who emigrated in the 18th century following repressive economic measures imposed by England, the Irish who emigrated at the middle of the 19th century following the potato famine, etc.) were hardly so severe. These hard working immigrants brought all the entertainments that they could transport - and music was by far the most important of these.
Their popular musical heritage was, in fact, rich and of long standing, and their intense love of music well documented. (Musicologist Herbert Hughes in the preface to his collection of Irish Songs (1909) made this observation: we must not forget that "over a thousand years ago Ireland was the most highly educated country in Western Europe, and that even in her decadence she has retained some of this old knowledge and culture; and, as a consequence, her contemporary literature and folk-music still have qualities that are peculiar to her, and do not quickly respond to the influence of antipathetic forces"). It was a music which was valued by the newly arrived settlers both for its use in praising god (often in a micro-tonal heterophony which would have done honor to any cult of the Mid-east) and for its undoubtable capacity to provide the atmosphere and rhythm for dancing and celebration.
The music itself consisted of ballads (many of which were at the time already 300 to 400 years old) which recounted remarkably dramatic if not extremely gruesome occurrences, songs (many of which were humorous), a vast repertoire of dancing tunes known as reels, hornpipes, jigs, etc. as well as a large number of sacred hymn tunes. The music was plain, simple, as portable as the human voice, the solo fiddle or the tin whistle. It was a music learned by rote, requiring only a glancing knowledge of the rudiments of music, but nonetheless quite capable of hauntingly expressive melodic power in its vocal ballads as well as of generating an exciting rhythmic power with its fiddle and pipe tunes. Its repertoire of reels and hornpipes accompanied community square dances (direct descendents of the circle dances of Elizabethan times) from the earliest colonial times while its old ballads, which recounted the tales of centuries long past, continued to entertain listeners grouped around Appalachian firesides far into the 20th century. It was a music which supplied the community's chief entertainment and at the same time gave it a sense of cultural identity. As folk music, it provided an audible link with a distant, romanticized past, and transmitted a sense of continuity with the values and customs of that past.
Inevitably, of course, as the settlers were gradually distributed throughout the United States, each geographical area developed its particular local variant of this Anglo-Celtic musical tradition (which in itself was quite heterogeneous). New England's version was not particularly innovative nor dynamic, but it did treat the tradition with the respect one should accord to a quaint old relative. In the West, the music mingled with Spanish elements, then in the early 1900's with Hawaiian instrumentation and later with the blues, finally developing a typical "Western Swing" feel which would create a distinctive country music style in the 1930's. In the Southern plantation lands, the tradition was totally transformed by its interaction with the African musical tradition as brought to the United States by African slaves. In the Southern Appalachian mountains (which extend through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and northern Alabama), however, the tradition found a watershed - a protected environment for conservation and growth - which was to make this area the "home" of American country music in the 20th century.
Because of its remote isolation, settlers in the Southern Appalachian mountains during the 18th, 19th and well into the 20th century were to lead a relatively isolated life. They were little changed by many of the technological and commercial developments which were transforming the rest of the country and they had seemingly even less interest in being a part of such a transformation of life style. From the beginning of their log cabin settlement of the Appalachians, they had been friends with the Indian tribe which was indigenous to the area - the Cherokee. Like the Cherokee Indians, they had become (if they were not already by tradition) "environmentalists", content to live out their life in the stunning beauty of this mountain setting without the much vaunted advantages of modern "progress."
By nature they were independent, and proud of that independence. They had left Scotland, England, and Ireland (and, for that matter, the English colonial taxation in America) precisely because they wished to be free of tyranny and injustice. As mountaineers, they were used to a rough , rugged existence where book-learning was less helpful to survival than was the knowledge of how to shoot a gun well. They were fundamental protestants in their religious beliefs. A great number of them were Baptists - a folky sect which did not acknowledge a central church authority and which put great emphasis on public manifestation of individual religious revelation. (It was the Baptists who spearheaded the "Great Awakening" religious revival that swept the American frontier at the beginning of the nineteenth century - a movement which, among other things, laid the foundation for the development of black and white gospel music).
Their survival in those frontier conditions - the Spartan life style which they had been forced to endure, had kept them a strong, god-fearing, honest people - a people with a strong sympathy for the "underdog", for the poor (which they, in actual fact, were) for the oppressed and exploited (which they often were). They were a people who having themselves been the victims of injustice, did not wish to do injustice to others. They sided with the Cherokee Indians, when the national government dispossessed that tribe of their land. And, by the same token, they were strongly opposed to any form of slavery (both West Virginia and East Tennessee, neither of which had a large black population, were anti-slavery in the Civil War).
Their geographical isolation and the fierce pride in their own independent traditions, then, was to make this insular mountain community particularly important in the preservation of many of the most distinctive aspects of the centuries old Anglo Celtic musical tradition - traditions which in less remote areas of the United States were gradually shorn of many of their most unique musical characteristics (those quavering, micro-tonal embellishments that so enrich a simple Appalachian melody, the unusual modal melodic lines, that peculiar high, nasal vocal color, the "open fifth" vocal and instrumental harmonies, etc.). While preserving these "high country" vocal mannerisms, this community also expanded and developed their inherited musical tradition. Respecting the traditional Celtic fondness - almost to the point of exclusivity - for plucked and bowed string instruments, mountain musicians gradually integrated a number of new string sounds into their music. Over the course of the centuries, instruments such as the guitar, banjo (an instrument of African origin), Hawaiian steel guitar (lap and pedal versions), dobro, and string bass were added while, of course, the primacy of the fiddle (the prima donna and "devil" of Celtic music) and the use of other traditional stringed instruments of equally ancient lineage such as the mountain dulcimer, the autoharp (developed from the zither family), the mandolin (developed from the lute family), and the ghironda (hurdy-gurdy) was continued.
From this brief look at the distant past of American country music, one can already deduce many of the themes which are natural to its lyrics - a respect of community traditions, a love of family, family values and a belief in the strength of family ties, a belief in the dignity of the individual no matter what his or her life conditions are, a stoic acceptance of hardship and poverty, an appreciation of nature and its beauties, a sympathy for the poor, the weak, the uneducated, a pragmatic Christian faith that could be summed up by the line: "God helps them who help themselves" and a deep sense of personal pride at belonging to such a stoic community and of enduring under such difficult conditions. Taken together, these themes presented an extremely democratic code of conduct well suited to American frontier society of the 17th, 18th and 19th century, just as the music, in its simplicity and utility, provided the ideal companion for whiling away time in the wilderness, on the range and on the frontier.
With the closing of the national frontiers and the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, however, the United States began to look towards consolidation of its national image. It was rapidly becoming a major industrial power and, consequently, was on the verge of assuming an international role in world events. The emerging national consciousness, formed as it was of a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, required a music of consensus - a music which instantaneously communicated the excitement and newness of the American experience to a large number and variety of Americans.
This consensus was reached, but not around the Anglo-Celtic country music tradition of the Appalachian Mountains (the existence of which was hardly even known nationally). Rather, it was reached around the music which had developed beyond the mountains- in the Southern flatlands - where, for more than one and a half centuries, the Anglo-Celtic country music had been given an entirely new rhythmic life at the hands of black slave musicians. These musicians, who had - from their earliest appearance in the South - been taught the basics of European instruments and put to work as house musicians on plantations, had gradually created, in effect, a black version of the Anglo-Celtic tradition - a parallel but separate, and quite original, music. The "African jig", in fact, was already mentioned in 1775 as a part of Southern white dancing music. Many other documents of that epoch attest to the keen appreciation that white settlers had of the peculiar euphoria that African performers could bring to Anglo Celtic music.
In the 19th century, this music was institutionalized within the American Minstrel Show where black-faced white performers joked in a broad Southern black dialect, then picked up their banjos to play "plantation songs" which had often been copied directly from black slave musicians. In effect, then, by the 20th century, there had been at least 150 years of constant give and take between Southern white and black musicians - and between the musical traditions they represented. Southern music was indelibly stamped by this exotic fusion of traditions.
In the 20th century, Southern black music such as Ragtime, Dixieland, Jazz, Swing, continued to create innovative new musical styles using European formal models as adopted to the African polyrhythmic and improvisational tradition. These musics were to become the national and the international popular music vernacular of this century. The fresh, extremely sophisticated rhythmic life of this bright new music seemed to provide the correct "feel" for the century.
By the same token, traditional Appalachian country music, though quite capable of boisterous rhythms and of a bouncing, infectious beat (inherited from the Anglo-Celtic fiddle reels), certainly never boasted of a sophisticated rhythmic life. In comparison to the black's polyrhythmic development of the same style, country music at the turn of this century, with its loyalty to the nineteenth century popular music tradition, to the waltz, the sentimental song, the simple accompaniment patterns and straight-forward melodies of that epoch, must have seemed rather square and anachronistic. Beyond that, country music's backwoods themes, ancient ballads and quaint morality certainly offered little of interest to the growing popular music market located in the big, bustling, multiracial cites - Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and above all New York - and that was where the twentieth century's "frontiers" were to be, in the cities. American popular music in the first half of the 20th century would be marked indelibly by the cultural dominance of New York City. By the end of the 19th century, New York was the uncontested center of American economic and cultural life. It was the first port for European immigrants and it was also, for many of them, particularly those with professional educations, their goal. The New York Philharmonic was conducted by European composers such as Dvorak, Tschaikovsky, and later by Mahler; New York's Metropolitan Opera was presenting the newest works of Puccini in the presence of the Maestro himself. In short, New York considered itself the equal of any European capital. What's more, within the United States, New York had become the accepted arbiter of "good (read European) taste."
It was in New York, then, that composers, versed in European classical music as well as in the latest styles of Southern black music, began to forge the songs of New York's famous publisher's row - "Tin Pan Alley". The black rhythms - sensuous and visceral - offered that slightly wicked, "forbidden" taste which so tantalized and excited white audiences, while the elegant finery of advanced European harmony and refined orchestrations seemed to hold this earthiness and sensuality delicately in control.
To a large degree, traditional white Appalachian country music was eclipsed in the national public's imagination during the first 30 years of this century by the exciting new Southern black music and by the sophisticated new popular music coming out of New York - off the Broadway stage or out of Tin Pan Alley. From the New Yorker's point of view, of course, traditional white country music, if it was taken into any consideration at all, was seen as a colorful, rustic remnant of the past, destined to disappear along with the horse and buggy and with the rural community organization itself - changing technological and economic forces would see to the latter.
As for the Southern rural communities themselves - black and white - the first 30 years of the century was a moment of significant change. While urban, black and white musicians were touring throughout the United States developing the sophisticated black music which mixed Tin Pan Alley songs with Ragtime, and the blues to become known generically as jazz, poor rural black "share cropping" musicians were regrouping around their Sears and Roebuck mail-order guitars (having abandoned the banjo which had been so dear to black plantation musicians of the 19th century) to develop the next generation of the Southern rural blues - the Delta blues - which, along with the remnants of Swing, would provide the basis for the development of "Rhythm and Blues" in the 40's. In the Appalachians, white country musicians, such as Bill Monroe, were beginning to create a faster, virtuoso instrumental music style based on the old Anglo-Celtic fiddle reels which would blossom eventually in the 40's as Bluegrass Music ("country music's string band answer to the Dixieland combo" - as ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax has observed).
Additionally, throughout the Southwest of the 1930's - most particularly in Texas, musicians were developing a typically white Southwestern "Honky Tonk" vocal style. (Honky Tonk was the name given to rural beer joints where clients drank, danced and, often enough, fought as well). This music, generally sung in a somewhat impassive, plaintive and subdued manner (influenced by the Southern blues "yodeling" vocal style of Jimmie Rodgers - the 'father' of commercial country music), was accompanied by the "Western Swing" beat (a straight forward, "bouncing", non-syncopated beat with heavy backbeat accents on 2 and 4). It often used drums - instruments which were not an important part of the traditional Anglo-Celtic tradition - as well as electric guitars in order to cut through the din of the dance floor. The melodies are often typical of the 19th century Irish sentimental songs, but the beat - though not syncopated - was contemporary and the lyrics were as well. The "heart on the sleeve" lyrics recount stories of deception and disillusionment in love - of "cheatin' hearts" and "slippin' around" - exposing the hedonistic, Saturday night side of country life. At the same time, Honky Tonk pianists, following in the footsteps of the black boogie-woogie style which had already been developed in the 20's, performed a repertoire of extremely rowdy "jump-blues" numbers. Together these musics would provide the next generation of country music.
At the same time there was also a renewed appreciation of what country music had been in the past. By the mid 20's, there was, in fact, a great deal of interest in "lost folk arts", in the music, crafts and the ways of the past. Musicologists armed with recorders were fanning out through the Appalachian mountains discovering, much to their amazement, an authentic "time capsule" of musical styles inherited from Elizabethan times (and earlier) as well as from the intervening centuries of American history. At the same time, the traditional values of this "old time" music, its innocence, family orientation, and the "good, clean, wholesome fun" it offered, seemed to provide an antidote to jazz and to the "loose morals" that many observers felt had swept the United States following the conclusion of the First World War.
Interestingly enough, the technological advances, which had seemed to threaten the very social foundation of country music's world, would prove to be, rather, its salvation, not only through the early "field" recordings of the 1920's and 30's which preserved marvelous examples of Appalachia's authentic Anglo-Celtic tradition, but in "regional" recordings and radio broadcasts throughout the 20's and 30's, which were gradually to bring this anachronistic, "hillbilly" music, once again, to the national public's attention. These, along with Hollywood's 1934 invention of the "singing cowboy" to re-launch "Cowboy and Indian" movies in the new epoch of sound pictures, served to reaffirm the presence of a large audience which still felt tightly bound to country music, and, of course, to all the cultural values and attitudes that country music, and only country music, represented. Not surprisingly, the center of the country music revival and commercialization was to be located in the Appalachian Mountain area. For a variety of reasons the choice of the central city for country music fell to Nashville - the state capitol of Tennessee, located in mid-state, halfway between Knoxville and the Appalachian "Smoky" Mountains on the eastern side and the broad lands of Memphis which border the Mississippi River on the western side. In effect, the history of commercial country music is the history of the growth of Nashville's epoch making country music radio program, "The Grand Ole Opry".
Begun in 1925 as the "WSM Barndance", the program was re-baptized "the Grand Ole Opry" in 1927. The name itself, which lightly parodies classical taste (the program followed the Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra) was to indicate that this music was "down to earth", frank, sincere and without "cultural" presumptions (i.e. definitely not from New York).
Performances of the show were done on stage, in front of an audience, with performers dressed in overalls and work shirts - projecting an image of informality and family warmth. The musicians, most of them "amateurs", laughed and joked gently with each other and with the audience as if the program were a huge family party - harking back to the frontier days of the past when barndances were celebrations of community efforts, a way of helping each other and having fun and sharing experience as well. Performers spoke with the appropriate country dialect that still characterized the rural Appalachian community. They danced the "buck and wing" and did clog and square dancing. They told colorful "tall stories", made stereotypical jokes about country life and contrasted it's joys with the problems and complexities of city life. Friendliness, concern, humility, sincerity, a belief in the ancient wisdoms imparted by country life, and a pride at being part of that tradition permeated the entire broadcast. If the radio audience were looking for a kind and gentle, somewhat nostalgic glimpse at America's past, this was the right program for it.
During the early years of the Grand Ole Opry, the music was intentionally kept in an older style - gospel music, sentimental ballads, solo fiddle music and "old time" country string band music (often with the addition of the harmonica). Contemporary, "blues" influenced music and styles were initially discouraged, as was the use of electric guitars and drums - perhaps to more clearly distinguish the broadcast as "country", or perhaps in order to satisfy a certain conservative strain that ran through the country community itself. In fact, from its very beginning as a commercial phenomenon in the 20's, country music has been wracked by controversy between conservative and progressive points of view. For the conservatives, traditional country music is essentially a vital repository of the country community's core values and, therefore, should remain as unchanged as possible. For the progressives, new musical styles are necessary in order to address new contemporary life experiences, for them the truly "country" part of country music is, above all, the frank, "down to earth" attitude which the music's lyrics express towards everyday reality, not the automatic repetition of a repertoire inherited from the past.
This fundamental controversy was present already in the Grand Ole Opry's initial rejection of its Western "cousin" - Honky Tonk music (the music which was, in fact, to become the strongest new voice of country music in the 40's and the 50's) and in later reactions against the Nashville recording industry's "Country-pop" sound of the 60's (which, in the interest of attracting a larger "cross over" audience, had sacrificed many of the old, country music mannerisms in favor of a blander, pop oriented, so called "Nashville sound"). Even later this conflict can be found in the resistance to the Country-Rock developments of the 70's. This controversy is further complicated by the massive commercialization of Country Music and all the suspicions and resentments that surround this undeniable fact.
Whatever the case, however, the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts and its country music enjoyed ever increasing success. By 1939 it was broadcast nationally on NBC. In 1943 the Opry acquired its own permanent home, Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, from which Saturday night radio and, in the 1950's, television broadcasts were made. The program, which had originated as an hour long broadcast in the 20's, was by then a four hour extravaganza featuring as many as 30 different country music acts. In 1974 the Grand Ole Opry moved to the gigantic "Opryland USA" auditorium and Disneyland-like amusement park located just outside of Nashville.
The phenomenal commercial success of country music, as underscored by the continual expansion of The Grand Ole Opry, mirrored, of course, a major change in demographics which had occurred in the first half of this century - the gradual urbanization of substantial numbers of Southern rural whites. Throughout the first part of the century, in fact, there had been a continual movement of white and black workers out of the South in search of employment. With the advent of the Second World War this trend was significantly accelerated - dislocating millions of Southern whites and blacks into the war-related industries located in the cities of the North and West. These "uprooted" people carried their rural music with them into the cities, just as their ancestors had brought their music to the "new world" centuries earlier. The resultant urbanization of the audience and the music, would inevitably bring both the new generation of Southern rural black music, Rhythm and Blues, and the new generation of Southern rural white music, Country Music, to the national attention following the end of World War 2. In the years immediately following the war, in fact, these musics effectively displaced jazz and Tin Pan Alley as the new popular musics. Unlike their predecessors which had been, to some degree, conditioned by New York's European tastes, these new musics were rawer, closer to the soil, less sophisticated and proud of it.
In the course of this century, then, the genre which had in the 20's (for commercial reasons) been called regional or "hillbilly" music, then re-dubbed "Country and Western" in the late 40's, then just Country Music in the 70's, has acquired an extremely large national constituency. Along with Rhythm and Blues, it has served as a reference point for practically all the significant new popular musics generated in the latter half of this century from Rock and Roll onwards. While conserving intact a repertoire of the old hymns, ballads, and reels which had been brought to America several hundreds of years earlier - the Anglo-Celtic folk music core which gives country music its sense of continuity and its claim to authenticity, country music, now in the hands of professional, commercially successful musicians who come from all parts of the United States, has created a new repertoire of music which convincingly carries on that authentic, "down home country" feel. It is represented by a plurality of musical styles (which range from Rock and Bluegrass to Gospel and "traditional" country ballad styles) and regional styles (including the Louisiana based Cajun style with its curious mix of Scotch-Irish fiddle music, German accordion music and French lyrics).
Confirming its origins, it continues to be a simple music, solidly located on the side of the poor and the suffering, and quite capable of righteous indignation in front of injustice. It still professes belief in the values of home life and the importance of sincerity, honesty and mutual respect. It most certainly is a music which addresses an entire variety of real life experiences - from making car payments to being an amputee soldier - which are not addressed by any other popular American music. At its best, country music continues to express in contemporary terms the experiences and core values peculiar to a large segment of the American population - "lonesome travelers", perhaps, who still look to this Anglo-Celtic music for companionship and consolation during life's fretful journey.
Richard Trythall, January, 1994