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 whoâs 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, Iâve interviewed African-American performers whoâve shared with me stories of how theyâve 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 havenât had the pleasure of hearing her gritty contralto and from-the-gut original songs, hereâs 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 attentionânot a good kind, to be sureâat white-owned gas stations.
âSometimes,â Pope recalled, âtheyâd just be standing out there looking when youâd pull up in there, like, they always had four or five white men standing âround 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 Iâd tell the guys, I said, âYaâll just put the gas in.â I said, âIâll go in.â 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.â
From those actually sworn to enforce the law, Pope and her group faced racial profiling. One particular trip, she said, âWe 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. Didnât 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.
âBut 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, âIâve been following you a while.â Said, âWhere yaâll going?â 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, âNaw, ainât nobody drinking sir. Weâre on our way to do a concert in South Carolina.â â¦He said, âYâall sing for real?â We said, âYes, sir, we sing.â So he looked at the stuff we had and he said, âAlright, the only way I ainât gonâ give yâall no ticket, yâall gotta sing me a song.â Them rascals [The Pearly Gates] tuned up out there a capella and blowed him away. They let us on.â
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, heâs occupied whatâs considered to be white musical territory. (Hereâs a link to my Nashville Public Radio profile on him: http://wpln.org/?p=29241). At first, Prideâs handlers didnât 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 shouldnât 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 âpermanent tanâ.
Pride had to defend his country authenticity plenty, and heâs keenly aware of the fact that no other African-American country singersâand there are African-American country singersâhave really been embraceed within the industry. Darius Rucker, Pride maintains, is a special case, since his path to country was essentially paved by â90s pop-rock stardom with Hootie & the Blowfish.
âPeople would say, âWell, why isnât there any more of yâall, any more of yâall in country?ââ Pride chuckles. âAnd I understand what they meant. I said, âI donât know.â There have been others. They had O.B. McClinton, they had Stoney Edwards, Ruby Falls, girls and all.â
Considering that Pride has had enough success in country music to earn a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame, youâd think mainstream country wouldâve welcomed more black singers by now.
Says Pride, âSo maybeânow hereâs the clencherâmaybe they donât want anymore Charley Prides. Maybe the industry donât want anymore Charley Prides. Now you say, âWell, Charley why would you say that.â Iâm saying it. If Iâm saying the wrong thing, I say now you must go and talk to the industry. Because Iâve got a brother and a son thatâs ready to go, voice-wise, talent. Â â¦People ask me about Trini Triggs [a younger black honky-tonker]. I said, âHeâs got a beautiful voice, he sings good. If they play his records, he can go.â Â â¦But heâs only getting played in two places, like, he got played in Dallas and Atlanta. Still I donât think theyâve ever released an album on him.Â â¦So Iâm saying I donât know. Maybe they donât want anymore Charley Prides.â
Ruthie Fosterâto whom I devoted a chapter in my book, Right By Her Rootsâgot a small taste of what it must have been like for anyone whoâs 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 âwhite guy with a guitarâ, the spitting image of Bob Dylan.
Says Foster of her days playing New York Clubs, âYeah, there were people who would walk in and see me with a guitar, and I donât think I had dreadlocks then, but they definitely related me to Tracy Chapman, you know, being the black girl up front whoâs sitting and singing, playing guitar. You know, I can see that.â
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. Â 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; sheâs since become a compelling voice in the roots music world.
Suffice it to say, itâs 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, thereâs good work to read on the subject. Tony Russellâs Blacks, Whites and Bluesâout of print, but worth the huntâis an important early examination of the way black and white musical traditions are intertwined. Karl Hagstrom Millerâs 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 musiciansâ repertoires were really much broader than that. They marketed those black performances to poor, black audiences as ârace recordsâ and those white performances to poor, white audiences as âhillbilly recordsâ.Â Thereâs another excellent, chapter-long exploration of this in Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylorâs 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
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.