By Ben Sandmel
Country music encompasses an extremely wide range of material created over a broad span of time. The term itself did not appear in common usage until the mid-twentieth century. Country’s oldest origins can be traced to British folk-music traditions – including ballads (“The House Carpenter”) and fiddle tunes (“The Devil’s Dream”) – that were brought to America by English and Scots-Irish emigrants during the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. In some remote rural areas of America, such music survived for generations, well into the twentieth century, beneath the radar of mainstream culture – although a long succession of more modern styles dramatically superseded them. Appalachia saw the heaviest concentration of such retention, but remnants of this material reached rural north Louisiana during the course of westward expansion.
Today, country music is a highly commercialized, sophisticated, high-tech industry that generates billions of dollars. (An annual two-day event, in Baton Rouge, for example – the Bayou Country Superfest – draws 75,000 ticket-buying attendees.) Musicians who learned archaic traditional material solely by oral tradition, with no exposure at all to mass media, are virtually extinct today. Even so, some observers claim that contemporary country remains grounded in such “pure” roots, and still preserves them. By extension, this viewpoint stakes out country music as the exclusive bastion of Anglo-Americans who are staunch social/political conservatives. While such self-identification certainly does characterize some contemporary country fans, country music in its totality constitutes a complex, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic hybrid and an equally diverse following.
During the 19th-century, the unadorned Anglo traditions that had survived in rural isolation began to interact with a wealth of other genres. For instance, the banjo – an African-rooted instrument – was increasingly used to play the old British repertoire alongside the fiddle, as was the guitar, an instrument of Spanish origin. Anglo-American music also began to absorb such African and African-American musical aesthetics as syncopation, improvisation, melisma, and the porous conceptual boundary between performer and audience. Conversely, Anglo-American songs such as “Little Sally Walker” took root in African-American folk tradition.
Beyond this grassroots/folkloric level, one significant manifestation of such cultural interchange was the rise to prominence of minstrel shows. Highly offensive by today’s standards, the minstrel shows featured white performers in blackface make- up who purported to portray African-American culture and the worst sort of demeaning racial stereotypes resulted. In purely musical terms, the minstrel shows expanded the range of black and white interaction. Some material used in and/or written for these shows attained long-standing popularity in mainstream America, long after the shows themselves ceased. A case in point is the work of the talented songwriter Stephen Collins Foster, of “Oh Susanna!” fame.
As the nineteenth century progressed, songs introduced by minstrelsy were absorbed by a much broader body of popular music. Some of this material was categorized with the genteel catch-all term “parlor music,” while other facets, by contrast, heralded the arrival of ever-changing new dance crazes. Spirituals, hymns, and shape-note singing factored into this mixture as well. Meanwhile the on-going synthesis of Anglo- and African music had evolved into a distinctly American folk-rooted sound with an extensive repertoire of shared songs such as “John Henry.” At the same time, a variety of other ethnic groups continually contributed to the nation’s musical métissage, in tandem with waves of immigration. Immigrants played a key role in the emergence of vaudeville, which had a strong musical component that drew on a wealth of European traditions. Immigrants also contributed to the growing popularity of brass-band music around the nation. The interaction of these European traditions and African-American musical aesthetics…