Marketing ‘Selves’ and ‘Others’: How a Biased Recording Process Divided Bluegrass

In our last class, we talked about the role of the record company and consumerism in the separation of bluegrass into its racially differentiated sub-genres.  I wanted to delve deeper into the idea, exploring the different ways recording and preserving music prioritized some identities and invalidated others within the genre as well as the way that marketing shaped these newly conceived identities.

Willie McTell, with 12 string guitar, hotel room, Atlanta, Ga.                                                        “A prolific musician, McTell had recorded not only 12-bar blues (in the so-called Piedmont style), but also ballads, spirituals and contemporary gospel tunes, songs from minstrelsy and vaudeville, rags, hillbilly songs, and tunes of traditional origin” (Nunn 265)

Despite bluegrass’s transracial origins, the history of the genre has been mired in essentialism and exclusion.  As we could see from Erich Nunn’s article and the “Monologue on Accidents”, folklorists like John Lomax, who were attempting to preserve the traditions of southern ‘folk’, asked specific questions of their African American informants to influence what types of songs were recorded:  

[The informant] McTell’s proffering a spiritual instead of the “complaining song” Lomax asks for speaks volumes about the uncomfortable relationship between white collector and black informant. So, too, does his insistence on the spiritual’s universality in the face of Lomax’s rather startlingly insensitive demand for a racially specific song of social protest. [1]

This is significant in that Lomax, whose supposed motive is to record authentic moments of music-making in southern society, asks pointed questions to certain informants in order to create and control the image he was to preserve, therefore undermining the original goal of the project.

Along with the biased method of preservation, companies recording the genre for entertainment purposes aided in this differentiation.  The common practices of marketing the same groups under “hillbilly” and “race record” labels in order to cater to perceived racial differences and turning away groups who didn’t conform to ‘their’ genre are more attempts at controlling, curating and marketing the images of ‘selves’ and ‘others’:

The record companies had the power, and they wielded it at will – as Ralph Peer himself was quoted saying in 1959, “I invented the Hillbilly and the Negro stuff.” Except, of course, that he didn’t say ‘negro’.  [2]

While the motives of the folklorists and record executives were different, what they have in common is that the bias of the person behind the recording equipment always shines through.  These disingenuous recording practices changed the face of bluegrass due to the misattribution of certain styles to different groups and the erasure and ‘othering’ of music created and performed by racially diverse groups, who have just as much ownership over the style as their white counterparts.

It is important for us to learn more about this complex history, as the consequences of this division are still at play in current music, and there are still efforts made to suppress diverse artists in today’s charts.  We, as informed listeners, should do more research into these issues and understand when bias could be introduced in any step of the music-making process.

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1. Nunn, Erich. “COUNTRY MUSIC AND THE SOULS OF WHITE FOLK.” Criticism 51, no. 4 (Fall, 2009): 623-649. https://search.proquest.com/docview/763194331?accountid=351.

2. Giddens,Rhiannon.“Community and Connection,” Keynote Speech at 2017 International Bluegrass Music Association Conference.

 

Works Cited

Blind Willie McTell, with 12 String Guitar, Hotel Room, Atlanta, Ga.

Giddens,Rhiannon.“Community and Connection,” Keynote Speech at 2017 International Bluegrass Music Association Conference.

Nunn, Erich. “COUNTRY MUSIC AND THE SOULS OF WHITE FOLK.” Criticism 51, no. 4 (Fall, 2009): 623-649. https://search.proquest.com/docview/763194331?accountid=351.

Stimeling, Travis.“Ken Burns’ Country Music does Little to Tell the Story of the Non-White, Non-Straight World of Country,” 15 September 2019.