Black Artists Built Country Music—And Then It Left Them Behind

Over the past few months, a contentious debate has raged over whether Lil Nas X, whose single “Old Town Road” spent a record 19 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 this summer, is a country artist. But for the filmmaker Ken Burns, the answer is clear.

“The fact somebody has walked into country music, that is not of the color that people presume the people of country music are, and just said, ‘I’m home’ — that is great,” Burns said in a Pitchfork video in June. “This is where we need to go.”

Burns’ new 16-hour documentary series, Country Music, arrives Sept. 15 on PBS, and covers a century of the genre with the same painstaking attention to detail seen in his other award-winning series like Baseball and The Vietnam War. He uses archival footage, photographs and extensive interviews to delve into the breakthroughs, tragedies and joys of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and many more familiar names.

But one of the series’ central tenets is that country music has always been home to African-American artists. Burns shows that, just like in rock, jazz and pop, every facet of country — from its instrumentation to repertoire to vocal and instrumental techniques — is indebted to African and African-American traditions, but commercial decisions by white industry executives led to their exclusion from the genre for decades.

The black influence on country music starts with the banjo, which often conjures the hazy image of a white pastoral South. But the instrument is a descendant of West African lutes, made from gourds, that were brought to America by slaves and which became a central part of slave music and culture in the South. Soon, the instrument was standardized, appropriated and spread to white audiences through minstrel and blackface shows — which deeply informed the rise of hillbilly music, a term that would later be rebranded as “country music.” (The blackface performer Emmett Miller’s “Lovesick Blues,” for example, inspired Hank Williams’ own rendition of the song, which is still one of the most beloved songs in country history.) White banjo innovators like Earl Scruggs and David Akeman later made the instrument integral to the genre’s DNA, and black musicians mostly abandoned the instrument.

Many of the songs that early hillbilly artists played were likewise inherited and adapted from black sources — like slave spirituals, field songs, religious hymnals or the works of professional black songwriters. In Country Music, Burns traces how “When the World is On Fire,” a hymn arranged by a black minister, was turned into the Carter Family’s 1928 hit “Little Darling, Pal of Mine” — which was then turned into Woody Guthrie’s quintessential “This Land is Your Land.” Meanwhile, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” was written by James A. Bland, a black New Yorker who would hardly have found himself welcome in parts of Virginia had he still been alive in 1940, when it was named the official state …read more

Source:: Time – Entertainment

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