Only one African American appears in “The Origins of Country Music,” the latest painting by Thomas Hart Benton, which adorns the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. But African influences were much more prominent in the genre’s early days, according to the first episode of “Country Music,” Ken Burns’ 16-hour eight-part docuseries.
“It’s probably white man’s soul music,” says Kris Kristofferson, followed immediately by Charley Pride, one of the few African-Americans in the genre, who says, “You can find a country song to suit your mood. “. Bill C. Malone, the leading historian of country music, says, “You can’t conceive that this music exists without the African-American infusion.
The show notes that country’s audience was “predominantly white working-class Southerners”, which black and country recording pioneer Ralph Peer called “hill country music”, then “hillbilly music”, which which some people didn’t like. The adjective “is almost like a racist remark,” says Dolly Parton.
This suggests a middle ground; Screenwriter Dayton Duncan says the music responded “to the need of Americans, especially those who felt excluded and disrespected, to tell their stories.”
The first episode is called “The Rub”. When the genre formed in the 1920s, segregation was enforced except in music, and “the catch is that people mix,” says Rhiannon Giddens, a black violin and banjo player and singer.
You may know that Jimmie Rodgers was influenced by the black people he worked with on the Mississippi railroads, but did you know that Rodgers recorded with Louis Armstrong? That DeFord Bailey, son of a slave, and Dave Macon, son of a Confederate soldier, were the first stars of the Grand Ole Opry, and that Bailey played the opening tune the night the Opry was named? And this AP Carter, who couldn’t remember the melodies, scoured the ridges to find songs with black guitarist Lesley Riddle, who could?
“It’s about those things we believe in but can’t see – dreams,” says Merle Haggard, who died shortly after being interviewed. And the old songs imported from England, Scotland and Ireland were also an early form of rural journalism; Parton says his mother told him that songs used to be how people got the news.
A thread that runs through the series is the role of the Carters, whose extended family has come to include Johnny Cash; in the first episode, Maybelle Carter is credited with popularizing the guitar style in which the thumb plays the bass or rhythm line; his granddaughter and step-granddaughter, Carlene Carter and Roseanne Cash, remember and even sing along to recordings of their ancestors. Magical moments.
Watch, listen and explore this history of country music
Full episodes can be streamed on PBS.org, your local station’s website, through the PBS Video app and Amazon Prime Video. Trailers for each episode and video extras are also available online.
A Spotify playlist featuring the film’s iconic songs takes audiences on an “audio-visual journey”.
The film’s website also features an interactive look at the roots of country music, a collection of “Country Music” photographs, and resources for the classroom.