By Sam Parler
When Beyoncé took the stage with the Dixie Chicks to perform “Daddy Lessons” at the 2016 CMA Awards, she reignited the long-simmering debate over country music’s racial identity. Reactions were swift and polarizing. Over social media, some country fans invoked race to decry Beyoncé as an opportunistic interloper; as a black pop singer, they argued, Beyoncé didn’t really fit the typical rural, white image of “real” country. (Predictably, internet trolls engaged in more overt race-baiting.) Beyoncé’s defenders responded by citing country music’s long history of African American performers, with nods to Ray Charles, who recorded an album of country standards in 1962, as well as 1970s Hall-of-Famer Charley Pride and contemporary singer/songwriter Darius Rucker. This echoed the assessment of country music scholars, who have long acknowledged the genre’s indebtedness to black musicians.<1>
But the question remains: if country music has always had its share of black performers, why do audiences still think of it as a genre primarily by and for white people? The answer is, of course, complicated. In my dissertation, “Musical Racialism and Racial Nationalism in Commercial Country Music, 1915-1953,” I focus on the role of media and respectability politics in country music’s early turn towards a white identity. In the 1920s, many of the earliest country musicians projected a working-class image, epitomized in the figure of the hillbilly. As the genre grew in visibility and commercial viability, however, some musicians sought to deflect this negative stereotype in order to expand potential listening and purchasing audiences. To do so, these musicians often explicitly invoked a white identity to reframe country as a timeless, upwardly mobile, and American genre. As I argue, this shift relied upon the cultural logic of racial segregation and white supremacy as well as new technologies that divorced sound from the performing body. Over the course of four performer case studies, I examine how different media industries of recording, radio, publishing, and film deliberately crafted this white image, and how this ultimately made country music appear more respectable by midcentury.
Efforts to define country music as white began with the recording and radio industries in the 1920s and 1930s. As Karl Hagstrom Miller has documented, record companies developed “hillbilly” and “race records” categories to advertise vernacular music by white and black musicians respectively, regardless of musical style.<2> The resulting “musical color line” obscured performers of color who contributed to the stylistic and institutional development of country music. The Native Hawaiian steel guitarist Sol Hoʻopiʻi, whose innovative approach to the steel guitar was adopted by contemporaneous white musicians, was one such performer. (For example, compare versions of “Ten Tiny Toes” as recorded by Hoʻopiʻi and by white hillbilly artist Jimmie Davis.) Despite stylistic overlap, Hoʻopiʻi’s music was advertised by record companies as an exotic novelty, a view reinforced by his work in the Hollywood film industry (such as the 1932 short Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle). Hoʻopiʻi’s cultural identity thus stood in direct contrast to country music’s presumptive Anglo-Saxon origins and rustic authenticity, even while he was playing the same tunes.
By comparison, audiences accepted African American harmonica virtuoso DeFord Bailey as a country musician precisely because radio rendered his performances racially anonymous. Bailey performed regularly on the Grand Ole Opry radio program in the 1930s. In the context of these country music broadcasts, audiences heard his performances as white or un-raced rather than black. This racial confusion was by design: broadcasters discouraged Bailey from singing or speaking on the air and obscured his race in publicity materials. Bailey’s onomatopoeic repertory, including his popular “Pan American Blues,” also eschewed any obvious racial markers. Investigation of both Bailey and Hoʻopiʻi thus exposes the ironies of country music’s putative white identity and the ways in which new media amplified or masked racial difference.
As country gained greater national exposure in the 1930s and 1940s, some performers sought to escape the genre’s working-class stereotypes. White performers Carson Robison and Gene Autry both promoted an explicitly white, American identity that sought to appeal to middle-class audiences, yet their paths to middle-class respectability were strikingly different. Robison made his career as a singer-songwriter in New York, ingratiating himself with pop music publishers that typically barred country music as undesirable. Realizing his outsider position, in professional circles Robison struck an ambivalent tone towards country’s working-class status, emphasizing instead its Anglo-American origins and miming the rhetoric and formal sophistication of Tin Pan Alley in his compositions. During World War II, his mimicry included over a dozen anti-Japanese songs employing racial epithets like “yellow scum” that mirrored Tin Pan Alley stereotypes. Perhaps intentionally, in stressing the patriotic zeal of country music, these jingoistic songs helped Robison to achieve greater professional security within mainstream pop while also making country music appear whiter.
Like Robison, western films by Gene Autry downplayed country music’s working-class status, this time by swapping out the hillbilly stereotype for that of the rugged, all-American cowboy.<3> Autry’s performances of country music figure prominently in these films, underscoring whiteness through contrast with the culture of American Indians. In particular, Autry’s politically-conscious “pro-Indian” films in the late 1940s argued that the socioeconomic challenges faced by Indian communities could be remedied via assimilation to white cultural norms, including country music. This scene from The Last Round-Up (1947), in which Autry joins Indian students to perform “She’ll Be Comin’ ’Round the Mountain” at a reservation school, dramatizes this assimilationist ideology nicely. As the Indian characters struggle to adapt, country music is reframed as a central facet of white American culture, no longer marginalized as working-class and disreputable.
As with many other genres, country music was and is on one hand a fundamentally multiracial music, and at the same time inescapably racialized. Contrary to popular historical narratives of its origins, country music’s white identity was not inherent in the music itself but intentionally constructed by performers, entrepreneurs, and audiences. Far from denigrating country music as uniquely retrograde in its racial politics, however, this dissertation suggests that a middle-class investment in whiteness is largely responsible for country’s racial identity. As in other corners of classical and popular music, messages of racial nationalism by the likes of Autry and Robison arose as a strategic response to class-based concerns over the music’s social prestige.<4> This dissertation also continues the important work of documenting the careers and artistic influence of country musicians of color. Uncovering the contributions of figures like Bailey and Ho‘opi‘i reveals the limitations and contradictions of current genre labels and should point us towards a more nuanced, less segregated history of U.S. popular music.
<1>Some examples include Pamela Foster, My Country: The African Diaspora’s Country Music Heritage (Nashville, TN: My Country, 1998); and My Country, Too: The Other Black Music (Nashville, TN: My Country, 2000); David Morton and Charles K. Wolfe, DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991); Diane Pecknold, ed., Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); and the CD compilation From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music (Warner Bros. 46428, 3 CDs, 1998).
<2>Karl Hagstrom Miller, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
<3>For a more thorough comparison of the hillbilly and cowboy figures, see Bill C. Malone, Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993).
<4>This was hardly a new phenomenon. In the early 1900s, first- to third-generation immigrants like George M. Cohan and Al Jolson combined nationalist sentiments and racial humor, including blackface, to help shore up their whiteness for middle-class Broadway audiences. Beth Levy has observed a similar strategy of racial nationalism among twentieth-century American composers like Aaron Copland and Roy Harris, who used cowboy and frontier themes to define themselves both within and against the European-dominated world of classical music. See Elizabeth Titrington Craft, “Becoming American Onstage: Broadway Narratives of Immigrant Experiences in the United States” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2014); Beth E. Levy, Frontier Figures: American Music and the Mythology of the American West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012); and Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants and the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
Samuel Parler is Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology at Denison University. His research focuses on respectability politics in the U.S. music industry, considering how issues of class, race, and media intersect to create new commercial genres and aesthetic hierarchies. This includes current projects on early country music, 1960s novelty songs, and the rise of budget classical recordings. He is a recipient of the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship and the Mark Tucker Award from the Society for American Music. He completed his Ph.D. in historical musicology at Harvard University in 2017.