African American Influence on Country Music Can’t Be Understated, or Overstated

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In March of 2018, Smithsonian Folkways issued a unique collection of music from former Carolina Chocolate Drops member Dom Flemons called Black Cowboys. Full of primitive country and folk songs, recitations of black cowboy poems, utilizing primitive instruments like cow bones, quills, and 4-string banjo, it was a deep reenactment of what you might have heard from African American trail riders and pioneers during American expansionism, including modes of music making, lyrical phrasing, and instrumentation that went on to influence Western music and country styles that traditionalists in the country genre still employ today.

Since the motivation of Dom Flemons was just as much archival as it was commercial, Black Cowboys flew somewhat under-the-radar, unless you were looking for such a thing. But these types of projects play a pivotal role in keeping important traditions of country music alive. Fellow Carolina Chocolate Drops member Rhiannon Giddens has a similar project on the way called Songs of Our Native Daughters that will be released by Smithsonian Folkways on February 22nd. A collaboration with fellow female African American roots performers Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, and Amythyst Kiah, the album is said to portray the often overlooked suffering, resilience, and agency of black women during the slave era.

For many years, the influence and contributions of African American musicians in country music went mostly overlooked, or overshadowed by their Caucasian counterparts. Blues and country harmonica player DeFord Bailey wasn’t just the first black performer on the Grand Ole Opry, he was the first performer to ever be introduced on the radio program that they called “The Grand Ole Opry.” On December 10th, 1927, NBC radio announcer George D. Hay informed listeners that the previously-known “Barn Dance” program would henceforth be known as “The Grand Ole Opry.” The very next performer that aired was DeFord.

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