Putting light on this since African Americans have no culture.
...Life magazine, in a 1994 tribute to the "100 most important" contributors to country, said of Ray Charles: "Charles took back what his people had given." While it is a stretch to say that black people gave the world country music, African immigrants and their descendants did give America's heartland music a range of musical style influences, one of its earliest dominant instruments--the banjo--its first recording using another of its dominant instruments--the steel guitar--and many of its earliest and subsequent practitioners, teachers and audience members.
Yet these and other elements of the African diaspora's country music heritage are known to relatively few people in the general public and even fewer in the country music industry. This is another of our stories that simply has not been cohesively told.
To be sure, every serious account of country music pays homage to the music's black influence. These mentions, however, are typically sparse, unemphasized and rife with other defects. They fail to explain the true nature of the relationship between black people and country; they tend to limit black people's offerings only to the musical genres the writers know as"black," i. e. blues, spirituals, jazz, ragtime, and rhythm & blues. But black people did not just contribute a narrow range of instrumental techniques and singing styles to country. And they did not contribute them only to white country practitioners, but are themselves significant country practitioners in a wide variety of styles.
The reality is that black people have been involved in every stage of country music's development and in every facet. We are 19th century fiddlers and banjoists, we are shower singers and square dancers, record buyers and road managers, artist managers and musicians, lead singers and backup singers, writers and record label owners and executives, radio station executives--and the buying and listening audience.
This is why I wrote my book, My Country: The African Diaspora's Country Music Heritage: to provide a basic understanding--and show highlights--of black people's endeavors in country. You'll not only learn how Ray Charles, Huddie Ledbetter and Charley Pride became the only black people to earn spots on Life's "100 most important" list, but also of the country music activities of more than 450 other black people. You'll learn what they've done in country, sometimes why they cherish country or how they have acted on that love, and how their experiences will influence continued black participation in country music.
Additionally, you'll learn how the culture and geography of the antebellum South provided fertile ground to develop the black audience for country--and how throughout the more than 70-year recording history of the music that audience has continued across the United States and around the world in Africa, the Caribbean and wherever else members of the African diaspora have found themselves. You will become familiar with media depictions of the relationship between black people and country and some of the obstacles many black people have faced in their effort to pursue their interests in the music.
You will learn why it is not an anomaly for Kango Laré-Lantone, a native of the tiny West African country of Togo, to have been nurtured on country. "When I was growing up in Lomé (Togo's capital), most people around me were listening to country music," Laré-Lantone says, "and when I came to the States to go to university, I had to send a lot of country albums back home to family and friends." Nor is the experience of Nashville songwriter Dwight Liles uncommon: that during a performance in Nigeria not long ago a crowd of several thousand Nigerians responded to his friend's question of whether they liked country music by breaking into "thunderous applause." Liles goes on to say that, "Not merely a few people said yeah or scattered clapping, but the crowd literally gave him an ovation. Then the audience just went crazy over the song he played. It was country. The one obvious thing I saw in the Nigerian audiences is that when they would hear the music of rural America, they resonated with it....When the indigenous Nigerian bands that played really syncopated, polyrhythmic music with the talking drums and everything would get on stage, almost all of them had a steel guitar player. And whenever that steel guitar player would get a solo, he would play that thing in the manner of Nashville music, in the manner that steel guitarists play in the country music industry and on country records."
In writing about the Don Williams song, "You're My Best Friend," which in 1975 became Williams' second No. 1 country hit, author Tom Roland says of Williams that "Even in Africa's Ivory Coast, he has been named that country's All-Time Favorite Artist." Williams, in the same Billboard Book of Number One Country Hits passage, explains his international black and other audience by saying, "We're basically all the same....(T)here's no difference. We all have the same feelings, the same desires and questions."Country music industry journalist Jim Bessman wrote a similar account of a visit to Jamaica. "I was in this treacherous ghetto in Kingston and what is blaring out of the speakers but Kenny Rogers' Greatest Hits. They just love the music."The stories culled together in this book come from several years of researching and gathering stories from such writers as Roland and Bessman, who have produced the printed material currently available on the subject of black people and country. Much of it is available at the Country Music Foundation Library and Media Center in Nashville. The hundreds of writers and resources used are credited in context. Separately, these stories could leave the impression that black contributors to country are somehow rare and anti-cultural, rather than prominent representations of the integral role country plays in the African diaspora's heritage. But taken together, they serve as a solid platform for a presentation of the broader picture of black people's relationship with country.
Many other bonds between black people and country exist. The links are too numerous to document and assemble them all. Still, I've tried to present definitive evidence of the close, long-standing and tumultuous relationship between the children of the African motherland and the musical core of the American heartland.
I am honored to help bring you this story. As a black woman who has enjoyed country music since my childhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a journalist who has written about the country music industry since 1993, I feel it only natural that I should help chronicle for you this important yet largely overlooked aspect of black culture. The depth of feeling I have experienced over the years when I've listened to and sung along with my favorite country songs is difficult to explain. I don't have words that go as deep as my feelings.
One way to at least partially explain my relationship with country came to me several years ago. I was feeling self-centered and vain--and intuitively turned on a country song, as if I subconsciously thought of country as an antidote to focusing on myself. And indeed, it is such an antidote for me. The messages in the music tend to be expressed so clearly that listening to it is my way of feeling someone else's experiences as deeply as I feel my own.
In some way I hope this book helps to stimulate pride and validation in the many black fans of country music who have heretofore hesitated to share their musical tastes with others for fear of reproach. While I personally have not been so inhibited, I have learned many stories, and share some of them with you here in these pages, of black people who have. Some of the feelings of shame people have expressed are heartbreaking. It pains me to confront the reality that large numbers of black people look to their comrades in color and mass media depictions for cues on what they should do, not do, like or dislike, rather than accept their independent assessments, based not on color but on personal choice. Nonetheless, some black people will clearly be more comfortable embracing country, knowing that at least in some black circles, it's not only culturally acceptable but a source of pride.