HIDDEN IN THE MIX

HIDDEN IN THE MIX: The African American Presence in Country Music. Edited by: Diane PECKNOLD                                                                                                      Duke University Press (2013) Durham, NC/London.                                                                392 pp. – 9 essays, bibliography, contributor bios, index.                                                       US$ 27.95 (pb)/US$99.95 (hb).

The major problems/situations that must be faced regarding “American” vernacular musics are those of authenticity and genre designation which usually come with some form of racial modifier attached. The editor of this book tries to weave a whole cloth out of disparate threads, but only succeeds in creating a raggedy bit of a patchwork where most of the pieces are missing. This is not necessarily a negative, and many of the individual pieces are interesting in and of themselves, but they are unsuccessful in the attempt to make a coherent whole out of them all. While there has always been “White music” and “Black music” in the descriptions of generations of genres, the truth is that none of this stuff is “pure”.

Musical forms and instruments have been passed back and forth between various sub-populations ever since Europeans first hit the Western Hemisphere’s shores with their slaves. We, as outsiders to the cultures being examined and categorized (which we all are, “white” or “black”), attempt to impose our accepted and mutually understood categories onto the cultural expressions of others. It’s a natural thing to place the forms of expression of “others” into some frame-work that we understand (and are not necessarily the categories of the practitioners) and can work with. And it’s our only common approach. Truth be told, music is music, and musicking about music is more useful than writing about it. But most of us cannot do that, so we are left with these written approaches.

In this book are nine essays on various aspects of the various African-American/Anglo-American musical interfaces and interchanges over time in what is generally referred to as “country music” done by a collection of musicologically-oriented “American” scholars[1]. There is not much regarding the Euro-American presence in “black music” here, although that bi-directionality may be considered a given even though not necessarily stated as such here. “Racialization” goes way back to the beginnings of the United States and is a constant factor in the lives of all “Americans” over time. It is a presence throughout our histories, full stop.

My impression of the book as a whole is that it is what the British would refer to as a curate’s egg – good in parts. The tone and scope of each piece is extremely varied and some “work” better than others within this book’s title/framework, while a few are more in the “why is this here” category[2]. Sometimes academics and their writings go too far towards the old “angels on the head of a pin” territory by trying to score academic points with their vocabulary and showing off their supposed erudition. Generally well written, the pieces are just that – pieces or fragments – in an unsuccessful attempt to pull it all together as a whole. We struggle, but will never succeed in that attempt; that doesn’t mean that trying is pointless, just that attempts will be only partially successful and one must be aware of that conundrum.

As I’ve written, the editor is trying too hard to connect all the pieces together in her introduction (“Country Music and Racial Formation”) into some sort of smooth whole, but it just doesn’t work for all the contributions. The best of the entries are very good in their intent with a few of the others kind of muddled in trying to make their points. Truth be told, IMHO, African-American and Anglo-American musical traditions have been scavenging from each other ever since their respective populations hit the North American shores! It’s the nature of music and musicians and this book tinkers mainly around the edges! Alan Lomax’s concept of the “American Patchwork” is valid, indeed. This book is worth browsing, picking and choosing one’s way through the various essays that strike one’s fancy or deal with one’s points of interest, but it’s not on my top ten list of last year. Have your library get a copy, though, for those times of possible need!

[1] Patrick Huber, Diane Pecknold, Erika Brady, Jeffrey A. Keith, Tony Thomas, Kip Lornell, Michael Awkward, Jeffrey Wever, Adam Gussow, Barbara Ching, Charles L. Hughes, David Sanjek.

[2] “Black Hillbillies: African American Musicians on Old-Time records, 1924-1932”; “Making Country Modern: The Legacy of Modern Sounds in Country and Western”; “Contested Origins: Arnold Shultz and the Music of Western Kentucky”; “Fiddling with Race Relations in Rural Kentucky: The Life, Times and Contested Identity of Fiddlin’ Bill Livers”; “Why African Americans Put the Banjo Down”; Old Time Country Music in North Carolina and Virginia: The 1970s and 1980s”; “’The South’s Gonna Do It Again’: Changing Conceptions of the Use of ‘Country’ Music in the Albums of Al Green”; “Dancing the Habanera Beats (in Country Music): The Creole-Country Two-Step in St. Lucia and its Diaspora”; “Playing Chicken with the Train: Cowboy Troy’s Hick=Hop and the Transracial Country West”; If Only They Could Read between the Lines: Alice Randall and the Integration of Country Music”; “You’re My Soul Song: How Southern Soul Changed Country Music”; “What’s Syd Got to Do With It: King Records, Henry Glover, and the Complex Achievement of Crossover”

Peter B. Lowry                                                                                                                             Sydney, Australia

Published – Western Folklore: Vol 74, #1 – pp 107-109.

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