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Peter Guralnick (in his 08/11/07 Op-Ed in The New York Times titled “How Did Elvis Get Turned Into a Racist?”) is the latest critic to distance Elvis Presley from the blacks from whom he borrowed, claiming that Presley fused rock ‘n’ roll (black), with what is known as country western or “hillybilly” music (white). This achievement was credited by one NPR commentator with “changing American music forever.”
One problem with this description, which seems to be the consensus among white critics, is that others had accomplished this fusion before Presley. And Mr. Guralnick’s article, even though pointedly including Elvis Presley’s acknowledgement of his black mentors, still presents a musical racial divide that historically did not occur. He, like many critics, omits the black contributions to country western music, an amalgam of African and Celtic musical traditions which evolved across the American South.
Country music is considered, along with southern folk hymns and the New England hymns, to be an indigenous American music form, one that provided the basis of what is called the “American” music tradition. Case in point, the easily documented development of the banjo, a signature instrument in the country music sound: In the 1740s it was introduced to colonists by enslaved West Africans, as a two or three stringed instrument made out of a gourd, called the banjer, which was played in a melodic downstroke “picking” style. Travelers’ journals document the banjo had reached Wheeling on the Ohio River (in present day West Virginia) by 1806, twelve years ahead of the new National Road, and was heard in western Kentucky by the early 1820s, with its evolution into the five string banjo occurring by the late 1840s, when one of the earliest known white banjo players, Virginian Joel Walker Sweeney (1810-1860), was making the instrument popular while appearing in early minstrel shows.
In regard to the critics’ claims that Elvis Presley set the precedent in fusing country western and rock ‘n’ roll, the bestselling hits of Fats Domino (“Goin’ Home/Reeling and Rocking, 1952,”; “Goin’ to the River/Mardigras in New Orleans, 1953”; “Thinking of you/I Know, 1954”; “Ain’t That a Shame,1955″ ;”Blueberry Hill, 1956”) and Chuck Berry (“Maybellene/Wee Wee Hours” 1954; “Roll Over Beethoven, 1956” ; “Rock and Roll Music,1957” and “John B. Goode, 1958”) could as accurately be said to deserve the credit for that innovation. In James Brown’s I Feel Good: A Memoir of a Life of Soul, Brown recounts that when he first watched Elvis Presley in performance, Presley imitated him so closely that Brown commented, “That’s me up there.”
Also around this time, the black performing artists Wynonie Harris (“Bloodshot Eyes”1951), The Orioles (“Crying in the Chapel” 1953), Ray Charles (“I’m Movin’ On,” 1959), Bobby Hebb (“Night Train to Memphis” 1960) and Solomon Burke (“Just Out of Reach” 1961) were creating some of the many other “soul” hits by black performers which also fused country western and rock n roll.
Moreover, to claim that country western music is white music is to ignore black country western artists, who have been disappeared from American musical history by chauvinistic critics. Some of these black musicians were recorded in the 1920s to 1940s, often as members of integrated stringbands, their music mixing traditional ballads and fiddle tunes with blues and ragtime.
Other black country music musicians were mainly soloists, like the legendary twelve string guitarist Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter (1888-1949) whose concerts and Library of Congress recordings of folk classics such as “Midnight Special,” “Goodnight Irene,” and “Rock Island Line” in the 1930s and 1940s, which, when re-recorded by many white folk and country singers fueled an American folk music revival in the 1950s and 1960s; and DeFord Bailey (1899-1982), the master harmonica stylist who was the first star of the Grand Ole Opry, the premier country western showcase located in Nashville, Tennessee. Bailey appeared as a regular Grand Ole Opry act for fifteen years, between 1926 and 1941. Since its beginning in 1925 as the radio station WSM (after the logo of its sponsor, National Life and Accident Insurance Company: “We Shield Millions”), the Grand Ole Opry’s radio show and performance space has been home to country western music’s top performers. As the legend goes, even Grand Old Opry’s name was inspired by a DeFord Bailey performance in 1927, when the announcer, George Hay, commented, “For the past hour we have been listening to music taken largely from the Grand Opera, but from now on we will present the Grand Ole Opry.” The Grand Ole Opry has made billions; DeFord Bailey died penniless. Finally, after years of debate, Bailey was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
White rock ‘n’ roll musicians–like Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones–and jazz musicians like Bob Brookmeyer, admit to their indebtedness to African American mentors. It’s the critics who somehow claim that these white musicians have somehow transcended the efforts of those who inspired them. These critics not only insist that white males be at the center of their own narrative, but also the American narratives of everyone else.
CARLA BLANK is the author of “Rediscovering America” (Three Rivers Press,
2003). She plays violin on the new CD “For All We Know” by the Ishmael Reed Quintet, available for $12.75 plus $1.00 for mailing, from Ishmael Reed P.O. Box # 3288 Berkeley, Ca. 94703.