Hidden in the Mix, pt. 2

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Excerpted from “Black Hillbillies: African American Musicians on Old-Time Records, 1924-1932” by Patrick Huber. From “Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music,” edited by Diane Pecknold:

 

Much of the music found on the hillbilly records of the 1920s and early 1930s was the product of decades or even centuries of dynamic cultural interplay between white and black musicians, and many of the songs and tunes issued on these records were of black origin or borrowed from black tradition. Occasionally record catalogues and monthly supplements even mentioned these cross-racial borrowings.

Victor’s 1924 Olde Time Fiddlin’ Tunes brochure, for example, remarked that on its record of two “wonderful old Negro Spirituals,” former governor Alf Taylor and His Old Limber Quartet rendered the selections “exactly as they took [them] from the lips of the old Negro master of the hounds.” But the accompanying photograph of the string band made clear that these records were decidedly white interpretations of traditional black songs.

Although talking-machine companies occasionally issued African American artists’ recordings in hillbilly series, no photographs of these recording artists, to my knowledge, ever appeared in the promotional literature for these records. With few exceptions, old-time record catalogues and advertisements disseminated images of an idyllic white rural Mountain South that existed outside of modern urban America, a closely knit, socially homogeneous and harmonious world free from flappers, foreigners, and African Americans.

Talking-machine companies’ use of these “whitewashed” textual messages and pictorial images effectively concealed the interracial character of much of the music heard on prewar hillbilly records and thereby rendered practically invisible African Americans’ involvement in early commercial country music.

When U.S. talking-machine companies began to record and market blues and old-time music during the early to mid-1920s, they effectively began the process of transforming southern vernacular music, heard for decades at fiddle contests, dances, house parties, tent shows, and other social gatherings, into immensely popular commercial products. This music, the product of more than three centuries of vibrant cross-racial exchange and adaptation, was profoundly and inextricably multiracial, but talking-machine companies, in an effort to streamline their marketing efforts, separated the music of black and white southerners into special categories of “race” and “hillbilly” records.

First commercially recorded in 1920, race records encompassed blues, jazz, gospel numbers, and sermons marketed to African American consumers across the nation. Hillbilly records, first recorded in 1922 and so named in order to capture the music’s supposedly white rural southern origins, consisted chiefly of southern fiddle tunes, string-band numbers, old parlor ballads, and religious songs, and were marketed primarily to rural and small-town white consumers, particularly in the South.

But contrary to the claims of Donald Clarke and other music historians, this industry-wide practice of separating the music into two racially encoded categories had little to do with the existence of de jure racial segregation in the American South. Rather this decision was motivated primarily by practical and commercial considerations. Dividing race and hillbilly records into special series allowed talking-machine companies to target specialized markets of consumers more effectively with their advertising and marketing campaigns.

Moreover such series also made it easier for the firms’ jobbers (local or regional distributors) and retailers to select from an entire catalogue of several thousand records those releases that would most appeal to their customers. This division was, however, premised on the racialist beliefs of northern white middle-class executives who assumed, as the folklorist Bill Ivey has written, that “consumers select music based upon race” and that “musical style and race are inextricably linked.”

What began as merely marketing categories soon evolved, for all intents and purposes, into musical genres, as the sociologist William G. Roy has noted, and the generic labels of race (first applied in 1921) and hillbilly (first used in 1925) would remain the sound-recording industry’s dominant terms to describe black and white southern vernacular music until rhythm and blues and country and western replaced them shortly after the end of World War II.

 

 

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