Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Bill Malone, Alan Lomax, and the Origins of Country Music

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Bill Malone, Alan Lomax, and the Origins of Country Music

Article excerpt

bill malone published the first scholarly study of country music in 1968, Country Music U.S.A., issued by the American Folklore Society, which would be the touchstone for all future studies. Born on a cotton farm in east Texas, he was raised on traditional songs during the later 1930s and into the war years, including songs by the Carter Family on border radio, before arriving at the University of Texas in 1954. For his doctoral dissertation in history, as he recalled, "the central question I faced was how to properly document and evaluate a topic as massive as the history of country music, and one about which so little had been written" (Malone 1991:47). Malone began his research with the premise that country music "was introduced to the world as a southern phenomenon, and in the sixty years or more since it was first commercialized it has preserved, to a remarkable degree, the marks of that origin" (Malone and Neal [1968] 2010:1). While briefly addressing country music radio shows, performance venues, and performers throughout the country, his primary focus remained on the South and southern musicians here and in his numerous later books. He has explained: "It might be correct to argue, as some have done, that early recording expeditions would have found comparable rural talent in other parts of the Unit ed States if they had chosen to travel there," but, for various reasons, they focused on the South. "By the time country music's commercial history began in the 1920s, Americans were already preconditioned to think of the South and its music in stereotypical ways" (Malone 1998:529). Moreover, he has more recently added: "Although commercial country music addresses longings that are universal, while speaking to an audience whose scope is now international, the music was born in the rural South" (Malone 2002:14).

Since the 1960s most scholars have followed Malone's lead in focusing on the South, although western music has also been part of the mix. This has not always been the case, however, and perhaps there can be a somewhat different approach in the future. Indeed, there are numerous studies that have already begun to challenge this southern emphasis, although they have not been taken seriously by the bulk of country music scholars.

In fact, almost a hundred years ago, Henry Shoemaker set out to make sure that Pennsylvania's native songs and stories were not forgotten, pushed aside by the focus on the folklore of the southern states. "Some day, when the beauty and picturesqueness of the Pennsylvania Mountains is appreciated by all, these books will have value and be sought after by litterateurs and collectors, but such is not the case at present," Shoemaker explained in North Pennsylvania Minstrelsy (1919:14).

Just the reverse. The very people-civic club members, local historical societies-who are indifferent to our local folk-lore and border history are eagerly reading every book obtainable on the mountaineers of Kentucky and Tennessee, or listening to lectures about them. Are these mountain people of the Cumberlands and the lower Appalachians more picturesque or different from our backwoods people of Central and Northern Pennsylvania? They are the same. (Shoemaker 1919:17)

This was certainly true regarding their music: "In appreciation of music and literature the older generations are fully as well developed. No hunting camp along the Sinnemahoning in the old days, or lumber camp in the Black Forest twenty years ago, was complete without musical instruments. The most numerous of these were violins and mouth-organs; there were many accordeons [sic], and even a few dulcimers and harps." As he concluded: "The local color and the vista of picturesque possibilities uncovered by a careful study of the ballads herein collected may send some of our investigators scanning our own mountain tops instead of traveling afar. The richest treasure is always nearest at hand" (Shoemaker 1919:29). Shoemaker continued in this vein in his expanded edition, retitled Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, published in 1931. …

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