Race in Country Music History
Pride, Prejudice, and Presley: Race and Racism in Country Music
In 1954, a country boy with a funny name from Tupelo, Mississippi cut a handful of songs with a small southern R&B label. The recordings brought a revved up country sound together with distinctly African-American vocal stylings and turned the boy into the nation's biggest star, or biggest scandal, depending on whom you asked. Ten years later, as the Civil Rights Movement demanded the nation's attention, a Cajun singer recording as Johnny Rebel, became the Louisiana-based Red Rebel record label's best selling artist with songs like "Move Them Niggers North." And not ten years after that, a charismatic African-American singer whose own record label had initially hid his racial identity from the industry and fans became one of country music's superstars. To reconcile these three stories is to understand something of the nuanced and sometimes strangely contradictory history of race in the development of American country music.
Country is a style most readily associated with a demographic that is white, rural, southern, and male—precisely the demographic that figures as the most intransigent in histories of America's troubled race relations, but while certain country records were undeniably racist, we need to be careful where and how we point fingers. From the days of black face minstrelsy through (at least) the tremendously popular "Amos 'n' Andy" radio show that ran into the 1940s, racism was a significant part of American popular culture, a culture of which country music was a relatively minor part. Attitudes, fortunately, have progressed. But while understanding the broader context may in some ways explain a decidedly un-PC song like Cowboy Copas's 1946 hit "Filipino Baby" ("she's my treasure / she's my pet"), it doesn't begin to account for the popularity of Johnny Rebel, whose string of records embodied everything the Civil Rights revolution was trying to combat. Throughout the highly politicized 1960s, the Red Rebel label stood on the extreme, reactionary right of country music's political spectrum, and Johnny Rebel—also known as Cliff Trajan—was their best-selling artist. With "Move Them Niggers North" and "Looking for a Handout," Johnny Rebel staked out some of popular music's ugliest territory. And while few other artists went as far in that direction, the stir created by Marty Robbins's "Ain't I Right," a song against the freedom riders (northern college students who rode busses into the South to register black voters in the early '60s), and Guy Drake's "Welfare Cadillac," a No. 5 hit on the country charts in 1970, suggested that the country music fan base was far from progressive.
And yet, during the same period, an African-American artist named Charley Pride became a country superstar. Pride's background sounded a bit like something from the blues—born in Mississippi in the 1930s to cotton sharecropping parents, and from a young age, he immersed himself in country music. After catching the attention of a few Nashville producers, Pride cut a taut, striking single called "The Snakes Crawl at Night" for RCA. Despite the fact that African-American performers had achieved some success in country music since at least the 1920s, when the harmonica player Deford Bailey appeared on the Grand Ole Opry program, RCA apparently felt it best not to send a press photo of Pride when promoting the single, allowing DJs to assume that "Country" Charley Pride was actually white. By the time Pride appeared on Opry himself a year later, he had become popular enough that the color of his skin no longer really mattered to most fans. That Pride scored 29 No. 1 hits over the next couple of decades suggests that country music could be open to performers of color (and that fan base was hardly a single reactionary block), but the fact that even Pride's own record label initially hid his identity as a black man suggests that those performers faced considerable prejudice.
If Pride's story of overcoming country prejudice by mastering the Nashville form hints at the porousness of some cultural borders, the story of Elvis Presley describes their complexity. Elvis is a figure that every history of every musical genre wants to claim as its own. Country is no different. The King of Rock and Roll was a country boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, and his early rockabilly singles, cut for Sun Records in 1954, drew heavily on country influences (his "Blue Moon of Kentucky" is a cover of a signature Bill Monroe bluegrass tune). They also drew on the distinctly African-American influences of the blues and R&B, and as is widely repeated in the lore of rock and roll, Sun Records honcho Sam Phillips had been searching for a white singer with black vocal style. Elvis was that singer, and as Phillips had predicted, the musical marriage of black and white styles made for some exciting and incredibly popular records, defining the rockabilly sound that kick started the rock and roll revolution. To some country fans, Elvis was a genius. To others, particularly traditionalists and conservatives, he was a pervert, and this split, with its blurring of cultural prejudices and musical tastes is probably as emblematic as anything of the complicated attitudes toward the issue of race that run through the history of country music.
Even folks who took issue with Elvis's mingling of black and white music might have had to reconsider had they realized just how deep the connections between the two musical cultures went. Country musicians borrowed the banjo from African music and the steel guitar from Hawaii, and the stories of some of country's most legendary performers—Maybelle Carter, honky-tonk demigod Hank Williams, and bluegrass progenitor Bill Monroe, to name just a few—hinge on the young white musicians being schooled by older black players. Ultimately, the inescapable conclusion is that without the cultural crosspollination of whites and blacks in the South, country music would not have developed as it did. Nor would it have grown nearly so rich and varied.