The South is widely acknowledged as America's musical heartland. Other peoples and regions have done their part for the national chorus, from millions of middleclass children hunched over their piano lessons to the writers of Tin Pan Alley to legions of singing cowboys, but more of our popular music seems to come from the South than anywhere else. Renowned musicologist Bill Malone states it as a flat-out fact in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: "The folk South has given the nation much of its music," and he goes on to elaborate about minstrel shows, spirituals, blues, ballads, bluegrass, Cajuns, Tex-Mex, revivals, shape notes, and honky-tonks. The list goes on and on, and in the CD for this music issue, we bring you a sparkling sampler of examples, from Doc Watson and the Avett Brothers to the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Where in turn does southern music come from? Other places have been intensely musical without resembling the South at all--think of Mozart's Austria. And other rural parts of the United States received a similar mix of British immigrants with their ballads and fiddle tunes, without inventing bluegrass. What made the South different?
Most answers to the question rightly start with the South's African heritage. In his earliest autobiography, published in 1845, Frederick Douglass calls special attention to the songs of slavery, remembering how traveling slaves "would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing the highest joy and the deepest sadness." And he emphasizes that black music was rooted in suffering, for "the songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears."
The folk music of England, Ireland, and Scotland is the second great source of southern music. The same musical traditions must surely have come to New England on the Mayflower, frequently replenished by additional generations of British settlers who were both more diverse and less ascetic than the Pilgrims. And from there they spread across the rural North and Midwest from Maine to Iowa, but the hollers and textile towns of New Hampshire were never musical seedbeds like their southern counterparts.
For one thing, and for all the divisions between them, black and white southerners swapped tunes, rhythms, and instruments far more than their northern cousins ever could have. For another, southerners were more affected by poverty, isolation, and privation than their Yankee rivals. The musical traditions which attenuated and dissolved when Yankee balladeers moved west or to the city simply grew richer and more diverse in a world of poverty, defeat, and limited mobility.
The starting points for southern music hardly tell the whole story. Beginning with the same body of tradition, a wide variety of impulses now inspires southern music, producing a startling range of forms and messages. If the oldest and most powerful themes express privation and loss, the new ones can sing of religious anguish, sexual desire, business hustle, rebellious rage, and of course, love and heartbreak. And ironically, the music nourished by isolation and self-reliance has become wildly popular and endlessly commercial, purveyed by technology around the globe, and purchased in the mass market by millions of people who define themselves by the musical subculture they buy into.
This issue of Southern Cultures showcases a potpourri of musical inspirations, from existential angst to commercial ambition. One of the most elemental comes from our shortest piece, "Poem with a Refrain from Charley Patton," by Travis Smith. Patton was one of the earliest and most powerful bluesmen from the Mississippi Delta, and Smith cites one of his most poignant lines, "You gonna need somebody when you come to die." Listen to the track at http://www.youtube .com/watch? …