African American History in a Country Music Museum? Exhibits and Programs Explore the Connections - The Birthplace of Country Music
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African American History in a Country Music Museum? Exhibits and Programs Explore the Connections

Race records panel in museum, with descriptive text and three images: Lesley Riddle, a Victor race records catalog cover, and Stephen Tarter with his cousin

Each year February is highlighted as Black History Month. This call to recognize the central role of African Americans in our history was first put forward by Dr. Carter Goodwin Woodson in 1926. As a blog post on the National Museum of American History website notes: “When mainstream history either largely ignored or debased the Black presence in the American narrative, Dr. Woodson labored to inject a fair portrayal of African Americans into the national record.”

At first glance, you might not think that the history of early country music intersects a great deal with African American history. However, the intersections exist and are significant, and we’ve explored some of these in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum – for example, in the development of genre, with musicians who had impact on early commercial country music, and of course, through the African origins of the banjo, an instrument now indelibly linked to country and bluegrass music. And there has been a continuing presence of African Americans in country music beyond the early commercial years, for instance with artists like DeFord Bailey, Charley Pride, Linda Martell, and the celebration of black stringband music by the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Books like Diane Pecknold’s Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music and Francesca Royster’s Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions explore these connections more deeply.

Prior to the recording music industry, musical categories such as blues or rock or country did not really exist. However, the recording and marketing of music created a need to target audiences in order to make money, and so record executives began advertising music and musicians based on what they assumed different audiences would like, leading to the development of a variety of genres.

Detail from Decca record sleeve listing several genre types such as Hill Billy, Race, Sepia, Mexican, Irish, and Scotch, along with their price.
This Decca record sleeve in the museum collections includes a list of various genres and the price of records within each series. © Birthplace of Country Music; gift of Betty Lou Dean and Roger Allen Dean

One of these genres was known as “race records,” commercial recordings that were aimed specifically at African American audiences. Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” produced by OKeh Records in 1920, was one of the first recordings in this new genre. Selling around 8,000 copies per week over several months, the popularity of “Crazy Blues” proved to record executives that there was a market and an audience for “race records.” Companies began developing catalogues aimed at these audiences, and they often hired black talent scouts and agents to find musicians to record. Much of these early recordings were focused on blues artists.

Despite the seeming segregation of audiences – with black audiences targeted through “race records” and “hillbilly records” marketed to white audiences – the lines between genres were often crossed with musicians, styles, and songs from each influencing the other. And, of course, just because a record was marketed to a particular audience doesn’t mean that other audiences didn’t listen to and buy that record.

Photograph of "genre" panel in the museum exhibits with listing of different genres, descriptive text, and several images illustrating artists from these genres.
The museum panel on genre explores some of the different types of music that have been marketed to different audiences, including “hillbilly records” and “race records.” © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Haley Hensley

The Bristol Sessions involved few African American musicians. Each of the two Bristol recording sessions held by Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company – the 1927 and 1928 Bristol Sessions – featured only one such act. At the 1927 Sessions, El Watson recorded two instrumental harmonica pieces, “Pot Licker Blues” and “Narrow Gauge Blues.” The fairly arbitrary categorization of genre is reflected in the marketing of Watson’s recordings – Victor released Watson’s two sides in the label’s “race records” series, while two similar blues-inspired harmonica pieces by white musician Henry Whitter were marketed as “hillbilly records” and promoted predominantly to white audiences. Watson also played the bones on some Johnson Brothers (a white duo) recordings at the 1927 Bristol Sessions, and Charles Johnson played guitar on Watson’s sides; these are some of the earliest integrated recordings of country and blues music. There is little information about El Watson to be found in the historical record, but we do know that Peer was very much impressed by Watson’s sound and musical skills, inviting him to record four more songs with Victor in New York: “Fox Chase,” “Sweet Bunch of Daisies,” “Bay Rum Blues,” and “One Sock Blues.” It’s also likely that he recorded with Columbia Records in Johnson City, Tennessee, in 1928.

Left: Two sets of historic bones; center, a set of manufactured bones; right, a photograph of a group of customers in a record shop holding manufactured bones.
In 2015 musician Dom Flemons, cofounder of The Carolina Chocolate Drops and known as “The American Songster,” donated to the museum two sets of bones (ca. 1927), a set of manufactured bones patented by Joe Birl, “The Rhythm Bone King,” and a photograph of a group of customers in a music shop with their sets of rhythm bones. © Birthplace of Country Music; gift of Dom Flemons

The duo of Tarter & Gay recorded the next year at the 1928 Bristol Sessions. As with Watson’s recordings, the two numbers recorded by these talented musicians – “Brownie Blues” and “Unknown Blues” – were also issued in Victor’s “race records” series. Before they recorded in Bristol, Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay had performed live for white and black audiences at dances, and the style reflected on their Bristol Sessions recordings touches upon ragtime and stringband music, amongst others.

Race records panel in museum, with descriptive text and three images: Lesley Riddle, a Victor race records catalog cover, and Stephen Tarter with his cousin
This panel in the museum explores “race records” – an image of one of the Victor marketing pieces for their “race records” series can be seen here. The photograph to the upper left is of Lesley Riddle; the other photograph had been previously identified as Steven Tarter and Harry Gay, but new information tells us that it might be Tarter with his cousin Carson Anderson. There are no known photographs of El Watson. © Birthplace of Country Music

And then, of course, there’s Lesley Riddle, a hugely influential musician who worked closely with A. P. Carter in his search for songs and music worth playing and turning into hits. And don’t forget: Riddle has also been credited with sharing his style of guitar picking with Maybelle Carter, who built on this learning with the now well known and revered Carter scratch. His significance to the history of early commercial country music cannot be overstated – you can read all about his impact and influence in our blog post here and here.

While Black History Month may be a starting point for talking about African American history in early country music, it is not the stopping point. This is why we have worked to share relevant content within the museum’s permanent exhibits and also to continue the conversation through special exhibits and public programming outside of this one month of the year – for example, the special exhibit We are the Music Makers: Preserving the Soul of American Music in 2016, our display of the Smithsonian poster exhibit A Place for All People, the live simulcast of the opening ceremony for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a roundtable discussion about the history of the local African American community, and engaging performances by a host of artists. to name a few.

Two photographs of the Music Maker exhibit in the museum's Special Exhibits Gallery; the one to the right shows visitors enjoying the exhibit.
Museum visitors to the We Are the Music Makers exhibit really connected with Music Maker Relief Foundation founder Tim Duffy’s images and stories of southern old-time and blues artists. During the exhibit, the museum also hosted a performance by NEA National Heritage Fellow John Dee Holeman, a Music Maker Piedmont blues guitarist, and we got the chance to interview Dom Flemons about his work with the foundation and why its mission is so important. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum
Three shots showing different parts of A Place for All People, a poster exhibit from the Smithsonian.
The A Place for All People poster exhibit – a survey of the African American community’s powerful, deep and lasting contributions to the American story – marked the historic opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History. This poster exhibit is now a permanent part of our collection, and we rehung 10 of the posters this January to mark the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death. © Birthplace of Country Music
Photographs of Amythyst Kiah and Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton performing in the museum's Performance Theater.
We held several events as part of our “Lift Every Voice” series, based around a global initiative highlighting organizations co-celebrating the Grand Opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. These included a powerful performance by Southern gothic, alt-country blues singer/songwriter Amythyst Kiah, a fan favorite in Bristol, and an academic lecture by Dr. Cece Conway on the African roots of the banjo followed by a concert by Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, a multi-instrumentalist who not only shared some amazing music with us but also had everyone in the audience enthralled by his wonderful storytelling and his deep knowledge of the history of his craft. © Birthplace of Country Music

Today there are criticisms aimed at setting aside a month or a week or a day of the year to commemorate important historical subjects – for instance, the question of whether setting aside a designated time to explore those histories means that they aren’t fully integrated into the study and understanding of American history. While in some ways the name of our museum – the Birthplace of Country Music Museum – might seem to narrow our focus, through exhibits, programming, and even collections we have tried to bring together the histories and voices of a variety of musicians and communities in order to underline just how much American music has been built and created from the intersection of different styles, different stories, different artists, and different backgrounds.


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