Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Movin' the Mountains: An Overview of Rhythm and Blues and Its Presence in Appalachia

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Movin' the Mountains: An Overview of Rhythm and Blues and Its Presence in Appalachia

Article excerpt

Think of Appalachian music and, initially, the associations are likely Anglo. Terms like "bluegrass," "country," "old-timey," "string band," "hillbilly," and "mountain music" spring to mind. However, given the enormous sweep of Appalachia--from the northeast corner of Mississippi across northern Alabama, through northern Georgia to the western corner of South Carolina, then on north through adjacent sections of North Carolina and Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky, all of West Virginia, across to Ohio, and into Pennsylvania before finally trailing off in southern New York State--logic dictates that African-American music in all its manifestations, rhythm and blues included, must have been a part of the historical regional mix. Indeed, rhythm and blues was and continues to be a viable presence in the Appalachian cultural region.

Whereas older genres of African-American music--blues, jazz, gospel--blossomed early in the twentieth century, rhythm and blues flowered at midcentury, a time when mass media sources, especially radio and records, afforded access literally to any ears that cared to listen. Riding in on the airwaves, rhythm and blues from its inception reached every corner of Appalachia. As a result, while it was initially a black performance genre marketed to black audiences, rhythm and blues rapidly developed cross-ethnic appeal, as Hugh Gregory (1998, 7) observed, "to include a young, white audience" and in the process achieved "a wider ... influence," opening the way for early rock and roll. In fact, the two genres--rhythm and blues and rock and roll--were for a time virtually synonymous when in the early 1950s, Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed began playing rhythm and blues for white teens, calling it "rock and roll."

Early Rhythm and Blues as a Genre

Rhythm and blues, or more familiarly, R&B, arguably had a "pure" period, according to the late musicologist and producer Arnold Shaw (1978, xv), in "the era, post-swing to pre-Beatles (1945-60), when the style flowered and established itself as an identifiable sound." Later, Shaw (1986, 166-167) defined "pure" R&B as an "indigenous black music played by small combos," and he distinguished three principal characteristics: "'The beat' (rather than the accented downbeat of pop music, accent on upbeats or afterbeats), singing style (rather than the 'resonant vibrato of pop,' a more 'raw, shouting style'), and instrumentation (electric guitar and saxophone in the spotlight)."

But the music was always more than a mere genre. "Rhythm and blues," wrote Stanley Booth (1991, 73), "is the music of the Negro masses." According to Nelson George (1988, x), R&B is a style of music but also a cultural demarcator. R&B, he wrote, has "been an integral part of (and ... a powerful symbol for) a black community forged by common political, economic, and geographic conditions." It is not simply R&B, he contends, but a "rhythm and blues world." Indeed, R&B would be the primary music of the post-World War II generation of African Americans who fought victoriously on the domestic front for equal rights under the law.

In the years immediately following World War II, when the music began to be identified as a genre, R&B was indeed an eclectic mix centered on small combos, groups of four, five, six, or so in number. Rather than rising up out of any particular geographic region, R&B was a cumulative amalgam, bringing under one umbrella a diversity of black musical styles from across the country.

Some of the late-1940s R&B hits were straightforward instrumentals performed by combos primarily made up of drums, bass, electric guitar, acoustic piano, and saxophone. Others, the majority in fact, featured combos fronted by blues-based singers, both male and female; some were "shouters," to use Arnold Shaw's term, while others were more mellow.

Another facet of R&B was the vocal harmony group. These groups "jumped" the rhythm and infused stage performance and lyric with sexuality and innuendo, reflecting the liberated tastes of a younger generation free from the weight of war. …

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