Do you know any black, contemporary folk artists?

Contemporary folk is a broad genre, stretching out into indie folk, indie rock, americana, you name it. However, when I think of this genre and the especially famous artists that dominate it, I can’t think of any black artists or bands. There might be a couple Asian American artists, but the genre comes across as very white. Take the Avett Brothers, for instance: one member was born in South Korea, and the rest are white. And their audience is even whiter.

Described as a folk rock band, the Avett Brothers are seen here, playing guitars and singing in front of a picture of a tractor, which are common aspects of country music. Country and folk have similar sounds, so it would make sense for the folk of today to have adapted from the country of days gone by. If one listens to “Monterey” by the Milk Carton Kids, an indie folk duo, it’s possible to hear the calming guitar and harmony influences of songs like “Driftwood” by the talented Merle Haggard, who claims influence from the man deemed as the first famous singer in the genre, Jimmie Rodgers.1 People could assume folk and country are white today because it’s always been that way. However, that is not the truth.

Even Jimmie Rodgers mixed his voice and instrument with the beyond legendary Louis Armstrong and his wife Lil Hardin Armstrong, singing “Blue Yodel #9”, but it wasn’t as popular.2 When John and Ruby Lomax traveled around the South in 1939, they stopped in a jail and recorded Roger “Burn Down” Garnett singing “Eaton Clan”.3 He played guitar and sang, echoing previous country and folk artists, but he did not receive much recognition beyond the recordings conducted by the Lomaxes, as he was in prison. Yet, other folk artists, sometime between 1938 and 1950, were performing at the Mountain Music Festival, and they were white.

Five musicians and a singer performing at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina. Between 1938 and 1950. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

So if country and folk artists have always been black and white, how come white artists are the ones to be recognized? Jeffrey T. Manuel explains the phenomenon as having been created by the music industry making a conscious effort to attribute the sound of folk and country to the social group of the white, Southern middle class. Rhiannon Giddens backs this up with the fact:

Occasionally black string bands were put on the Hillbilly label but with their name obscured, such as when Vocalion Records released a set of tunes under “The Tennessee Chocolate Drops” for their race records and the exact same set of tunes under “The Tennessee Trio” for the Hillbilly division. It rarely happened the other way around… (10)

The music industry made sure to keep race records separate. If music crossed color lines, segregation would be disregarded. Therefore, white artists rose to the top, and black artists faded into the background.

Although erasure of black artists has been a real issue for the longest time, music can’t help but be heard by anyone and everyone. The influences of country and folk music, black and white artists, continue to spread. Now, I can’t think of any famous, black, contemporary folk artists at the top of my head, but perhaps we should be able to think of some. Because black americana is real too.

Manuel, Jeffrey T. “The Sound of the Plain White Folk? Creating Country Music’s “Social Origins”.” In Popular Music and Society, 417-431. City: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008.

Cooking with Crosby

Learned in the traditional Classical style, Will Marion Cook “brought the skills of a classically trained musician to an African-American musical theater” (Crawford, 534). Cook heavily inspired and popularized black theater productions, and made a name for himself by combining grand opera traditions with black folk culture.

Will Marion Cook, a heavy influencer in black theater

“I’m Coming Virginia” was written in 1926 by Donald Heywood with lyrics by Cook. The song has been adapted numerous times over the years and is now a staple in dixie-land repertoire. One recording of this song appears on an album by Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong called “Havin Fun”. Recorded from 1949-1951, this two hour album features songs by Crosby and Armstrong recorded from Crosby’s radio program. What I find most intriguing is how the theatrical style of the album echoes that of Will Marion Cook’s original theatrical music and productions. 

Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, ca. 1950

The first track “Where the Blue of the Night” is all banter between the musicians as they settle in for the night. The first track helps to set the scene for what one can imagine was a program filled with laughter in and out of the music. I think it is a bit of stretch to say that Crosby and Armstrong were performing in this style as an homage to Cook, but I do think that Cook’s works heavily influenced the looser performance styles heard on this album. Crosby and Armstrong were close friends outside of the performance hall, and they both recognized the value created in sharing their friendship with others. Like Cook, Crosby and Armstrong did away with a traditional form of musical presentation. The constant banter mingled with the audience laughter adds a level of genuineness to the album, while the talent of singing and playing by Crosby and Armstrong respectively grounds the album in legitimacy.

As mentioned earlier, Will Marion Cook had a huge influence on the Broadway performance styles of his time. Crosby and Armstrong experienced similar success and influence on their industries. While Cook did not directly influence the duo, parallels in the theatrical performance style are evident. One thing that they also have in common? They were havin’ fun.

Works Cited

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

Dryden, Ken. “Havin’ Fun” AllMusic, accessed October 9, 2017.https://www.allmusic.com/album/havin-fun-2-cd-mw0000584963

Havin’ Fun. Recorded June 20, 2007. Storyville, 2007, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 9, 2017. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Crecorded_cd%7C1023638.

Armstrong’s LR9

Us Americans love our musical stars. In fact, many people idolize them so much so that what they say and do can have a significant impact. If Taylor Swift is seen wearing a certain dress one week, the next week it is sold out from every Forever 21 in the nation.  Likewise, if Adam Levine gets a new hairstyle, every other young adult male will be making an appointment to their local Great Clips to rock the new do. Okay, so maybe shifting one’s physical appearance isn’t what you would call significant, but what about political opinions? Many artists choose not to share their views in fear of influencing their fans, but that certainly doesn’t stop some musicians from offering up endorsements. In the most recent presidential elections, music stars such as Rodney Atkins and the Zac Brown Band sent their support to Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the form of new songs and live performances.1 Musical celebrities hold a fair amount of clout in society and, for some, are not afraid to use it.

Louis Armstrong is still a beloved American musical figure for his soulful trumpet playing and unique blues and jazz sound who was also lucky enough to bridge the color gap with his music.  Adored by both white and black audience members, Armstrong had it all as a performer of the era, and he was able to shake the world with his influence.

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Little Rock Nine – LIFE.com

After the Supreme Court’s ruling that segregated schools was unconstitutional in the 1954  court case Brown vs. Board of Education, nine african-american students (later dubbed “The Little Rock Nine”) were refused entry in to the previously white Central High School in Little Rock, AK by the governor at the time, Orville Faubus. It wasn’t until the involvement of President Eisenhower did the students finally overcome their first of many hurdles by physically entering the building.2  The events surrounding the Little Rock Nine sparked media attention across the nation, but it not only reached American citizens everywhere, but also a number of famous celebrities including Louis Armstrong.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 3.49.42 PMArmstrong was furious at the discrimination faced by the Little Rock Nine and did not hold back.  In what was described as having the “explosive effect of an H-bomb”3, called out both Governor Faubus and President Eisenhower for their poor leadership. Armstrong was also quick to call off his government-sponsored tour to Russia, stating that these instances have adverse affects on U.S. relations with other countries and that when he was asked “What is wrong with you country”, he wouldn’t know what to say.4  Louis Armstrong stood by his beliefs and with his national image, was able to cause a noticeable impact. Some believe that it was Armstrong’s “verbal explosives” that expedited the whole process.5  Even if this is not the case, however, he did spark a bit of a push back among his peers. An article published in the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, displayed that many many other african-american celebrities agreed with Armstrong’s thoughts. Singer Lena Horne and baseball legend Jackie Robinson are just two of the multiple black stars that took a stand with Louis Armstrong to show the power of what a little clout can do.6

References:

1 Lee, Kristen. “Country Music’s Biggest Stars Singing Mitt Praises  .” NY Daily News. August 27, 2012. Accessed April 6, 2015.

2 Wallace, Vaughn. “Little Rock Nine: Photos of a Civil Rights Triumph in Arkansas, 1957 | LIFE | TIME.com.” LIFE. 2014. Accessed April 6, 2015.

3 “Ole ‘Satchmo’ Shook the World.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Oct 05, 1957. http://search.proquest.com/docview/492966958?accountid=351.

4 “Satch Blows Up Over Ark. Crisis.” Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960), Sep 19, 1957. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493670599?accountid=351.

5 “Ole ‘Satchmo’ Shook the World.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Oct 05, 1957. http://search.proquest.com/docview/492966958?accountid=351.

6 “Back Satchmo’s Blasts at Ike, Gov. Faubus.” Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960), Sep 24, 1957. http://search.proquest.com/docview/493577546?accountid=351.