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Hearing the Color Line

For all our love of artful pop constructions like Lady Gaga, we still care a lot about authenticity. And by that, I mean that we want music and the person who’s making it to match up according to our long-held notions of what kinds of music belong to what kinds of people. Race plays a huge role in this, and has pretty much as long as there have been commercial recordings and strategies for marketing them.

From time to time, I’ve interviewed African-American performers who’ve shared with me stories of how they’ve been affected by racial barriers. One was Sister Lucille Pope, an unjustly overlooked gospel-soul singer from rural Georgia who traveled throughout the Deep South with her all-male backing group The Pearly Gates at the height of the Civil Rights movement. (If you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing her gritty contralto and from-the-gut original songs, here’s somewhere to start: http://tinyurl.com/78wnjtu.)

Pope testified to the challenges she faced in even the most basic aspects of her career, like simply getting to gigs. A car filled with black occupants drew attention—not a good kind, to be sure—at white-owned gas stations.

“Sometimes,” Pope recalled, “they’d just be standing out there looking when you’d pull up in there, like, they always had four or five white men standing ‘round looking and stuff. And sometimes we would ask the Lord to show us where to stop to get gas. We were some praying folks. And I’d tell the guys, I said, ‘Ya’ll just put the gas in.’ I said, ‘I’ll go in.’ And sometimes, sister, they had this little window where they let black folks pay them. But we never got into it with none of them or nothing.”

From those actually sworn to enforce the law, Pope and her group faced racial profiling. One particular trip, she said, “We went to South Carolina and one of the guys were driving. I think it was Sam. It was kinda bad icy. And we started sliding and slid over in an embankment. Didn’t nobody get hurt except me a little bit on my knees. I was smashed up against the car in the front where I was sitting.

“But the police, the state patrols and all got to getting there and everything. I was still sitting there in the car. The state patrol say, ‘I’ve been following you a while.’ Said, ‘Where ya’ll going?’ And went to asking us questions, who we were and everything. So we showed him who we were and everything. He tried to see if Sam was drinking. I said, ‘Naw, ain’t nobody drinking sir. We’re on our way to do a concert in South Carolina.’ …He said, ‘Y’all sing for real?’ We said, ‘Yes, sir, we sing.’ So he looked at the stuff we had and he said, ‘Alright, the only way I ain’t gon’ give y’all no ticket, y’all gotta sing me a song.’ Them rascals [The Pearly Gates] tuned up out there a capella and blowed him away. They let us on.”

Sure, a larger crisis was averted, but what a daunting thing to face each time you head out on the road. Because Pope and her group were black singers, as opposed to white ones, the likelihood of their being hired to travel as legitimate professionals was considered suspect, and they were made to prove that they could, in fact, sing right there on the side of the road.

Far better known than Pope is Charley Pride. As the first true African-American country star, he’s occupied what’s considered to be white musical territory. (Here’s a link to my Nashville Public Radio profile on him: http://wpln.org/?p=29241). At first, Pride’s handlers didn’t want him recording steamy love ballads (i.e. serenading white women); a a murder ballad, of all things, was chosen for his debut single. (That RCA head Chet Atkins, producer Jack Clement and all others involved were undoubtedly sticking their necks out by working with Pride, and that they were having to figure out what would work in an unprecedented situation shouldn’t be overlooked.) They also delayed circulating photos of him so that country DJs and fans would warn to his very fine, unambiguously country voice before they learned he was black. He diffused the situation himself once he began touring by making on-stage jokes micro electronic cigarette about his “permanent tan”.

Pride had to defend his country authenticity plenty, and he’s keenly aware of the fact that no other African-American country singers—and there are African-American country singers—have really been embraceed within the industry. Darius Rucker, Pride maintains, is a special case, since his path to country was essentially paved by ‘90s pop-rock stardom with Hootie & the Blowfish.

“People would say, ‘Well, why isn’t there any more of y’all, any more of y’all in country?’” Pride chuckles. “And I understand what they meant. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ There have been others. They had O.B. McClinton, they had Stoney Edwards, Ruby Falls, girls and all.”

Considering that Pride has had enough success in country music to earn a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame, you’d think mainstream country would’ve welcomed more black singers by now.

Says Pride, “So maybe—now here’s the clencher—maybe they don’t want anymore Charley Prides. Maybe the industry don’t want anymore Charley Prides. Now you say, ‘Well, Charley why would you say that.’ I’m saying it. If I’m saying the wrong thing, I say now you must go and talk to the industry. Because I’ve got a brother and a son that’s ready to go, voice-wise, talent.  …People ask me about Trini Triggs [a younger black honky-tonker]. I said, ‘He’s got a beautiful voice, he sings good. If they play his records, he can go.’  …But he’s only getting played in two places, like, he got played in Dallas and Atlanta. Still I don’t think they’ve ever released an album on him.  …So I’m saying I don’t know. Maybe they don’t want anymore Charley Prides.”

Ruthie Foster—to whom I devoted a chapter in my book, Right By Her Roots—got a small taste of what it must have been like for anyone who’s tried to become the next Pride, only she was pursuing a career in contemporary folk, rather than country. She had an artist development deal with Atlantic Records in New York around the time that Tracy Chapman was pretty much the only African-American female singer-songwriter on the popular radar. Otherwise, the singer-songwriter model was “white guy with a guitar”, the spitting image of Bob Dylan.

Says Foster of her days playing New York Clubs, “Yeah, there were people who would walk in and see me with a guitar, and I don’t think I had dreadlocks then, but they definitely related me to Tracy Chapman, you know, being the black girl up front who’s sitting and singing, playing guitar. You know, I can see that.”

In hindsight, Foster says, her then-label would also have been happy for her to shoehorn herself into a musical mold more closely associated with black women: that of the smooth, Anita Baker-style R&B singer.  It was years later, on a tiny Texas independent label, that Foster really began fleshing out her own identity as folk-, blues-, gospel- and soul-steeped singer-songwriter; she’s since become a compelling voice in the roots music world.

Suffice it to say, it’s well worth questioning our assumptions about music and race. The embodiment of identities and the making and enjoyment of music always, always intersect in more complex, category-defying ways than we might think.

Thankfully, there’s good work to read on the subject. Tony Russell’s Blacks, Whites and Blues—out of print, but worth the hunt—is an important early examination of the way black and white musical traditions are intertwined. Karl Hagstrom Miller’s Segregating Sound is a more recent book. (http://tinyurl.com/7detug7)He brings to light the artificial origins of racial dividing lines in music. In a nutshell, those who produced commercial records and catalogued folk music were only interested in recording black performers playing blues and white performers playing country, though the musicians’ repertoires were really much broader than that. They marketed those black performances to poor, black audiences as “race records” and those white performances to poor, white audiences as “hillbilly records”.  There’s another excellent, chapter-long exploration of this in Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor’s book Faking It. (http://fakingit.typepad.com/)

Right By Her Roots: Americana Women and Their Songs was published last year on Baylor University Press. (Find it here http://www.parnassusbooks.net/, here

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http://tinyurl.com/8y6mq8d or here http://tinyurl.com/6m6xg2x.) Jewly Hight ponders American music on the behalf of Nashville Public Radio, The Nashville Scene, American Songwriter, Relix and other outlets.

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