For more than half of the 20th century, segregation was the law in parts of America. But musicians rarely let race get in the way of making good music. The evidence in commercial recordings and in the stories of musicians is undeniable. Black and white players inspired and influenced each other, creating a common, musical culture though sometimes underground musical culture. This final segment of Honky Tonks Hymns and the Blues explores the crossovers of style and content, the “race records” that brought black music to all of America, and the racial divisions that remain in the music industry today. Interviews with Doug Wamble, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and Stax Records’ Memphis studio musicians; and the music of Lesley Riddle and the Carter Family.
Segment production: Leda Hartman

Sound Clips

Audio - Guitarist and vocalist Doug Wamble uses the example of his grandfather to show that "country" means more than just a style of music.

Audio - Doug Wamble talks about an increased willingness to acknowledge white appropriation of black musical innovations -- he argues that Elvis Presley employed black styles out of admiration rather than purely commercial motives.

Audio - Saxophonist Andrew Love and trumpeter Wayne Jackson, who together make up The Memphis Horns, say that musicans are less prone to racial prejudice than other groups of Americans, since what really matters in a band is whether a person can play.

Audio - Multi-instrumentalist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown argues that white musicians, particularly from the U.K., have been able to become superstars by copying black styles, without inventing anything new.

Audio - Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown says his prediction about rap -- that whites would start imitating it almost immediately -- has come true.

Listen to Part 11

“Whites and blacks…” writes Francis Davis in The History of the Blues, “…living in close proximity in cramped little Southern towns…were able to keep few secrets from each other [despite social dictates intended to keep them separate]. They smelled each other’s food and heard each other’s music…. Rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to have come screaming and kicking to life as the love child of blues and country & western in the early 1950’s. But blues and country may themselves have been among the fruit of an earlier back-of-town rendezvous, between the field holler and the rhymed, Scots-Irish narrative ballad.” Despite the segregation in American life and law, music didn’t follow lines put down by society. The evidence, as seen in both commercial and ‘field’ recordings, is rather that black and white musicians fed off of each other musically, and through this exchange created an American music; a common culture. We hear this continuing fusion and synthesis today in blues, bluegrass, country, pop, rap, and urban music.

Humanities Themes:

With the rich musical interchange between black and white, folk art became America’s unique musical tradition.

In fact, the lines between audience and artist blurred because of the everyday subject matter that many songs touched upon. Because of the participatory nature of performances, an audience member could easily cross the threshold and become a performer.

Black African / African American and White European music and the influence they had upon each other.Black styles on Italian Cremona violins dating from 18th C.

Music in a segregated society.

We look at common cultural elements that were exchanged and shared in social situations (like dances and other public gatherings) between black and white communities and musicians. A new American musical mainstream was created that both drew from and eroded local and regional black and white culture.

We explore the subject of segregation in the early recording industry and how it affected the exchange of information between blacks and whites. Also, as commercial interests began to influence the recording industry, we’ll explore how the industry’s segregation practices changed. Some key musicians circumvented segregation in the music industry, although some racial divisions (musical and social) remain in effect even to this day.

Music has long had an important role in social change. Social occasions that brought white audiences to hear black performers and occasionally to make music with them. Homegrown folks who played together thumbed their nose at Jim Crow laws. From at least the thirties, social protest movements brought musicians of different backgrounds together for a common cause. They established a common repertoire and shared elements from their own traditions.


The music of America is a distinct creation, based largely on a synthesis of African American and white European music and musical traditions.

Primary Storyline -- The pivotal character in our story is Lesley Riddle, who influenced the Carter Family: We’ll investigate the following questions: How did Riddle bring black music to the white Carter Family? What white influences did Riddle carry even before influencing the Carters, such as Scotch-Irish narrative ballads? How did the mixing of music in this instance mirror what was going on in American society at the time? We’ll explore the story of “Cannonball Blues,” a song Lesley Riddle taught to A.P. Carter around 1927.

Secondary Storylines – The secondary story line will revolve around black and white musicians’ interactions despite social conventions, dictates, and restrictions that were enforced successfully in the South outside of music. From plantation days, when black musicians entertained white audiences with their versions of white fiddle tunes along with their own repertoire (ex. Gribble, Lusk & York) there has always been a mixing of musical worlds.

In the remarkably fertile musical soil surrounding Galax, VA, fiddler Tommy Jarrell learned “Raleigh & Spencer” from black guitarist and singer Jim Raleigh. Hobart Smith adopted a blues guitar style and sang both black blues and white country songs. Fields Ward picked up style and repertoire (including “Chilly Winds and “Lonesome Road Blues) from black hobos around the Galax rail yards.


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