Whilst roaming around the southern states of the US on various quests to visit sites associated with the Civil War (or the War Between the States), I’ve ended up visiting a fair few places associated with Southern music, which is why I’ve been looking forward to Reginald D Hunter’s three-part series on the “Songs of the South”. And I wasn’t disappointed with the first episode, which covered Tennessee and Kentucky.
It started off with “Dixie” … which isn’t a song you’d really associate with Tennessee or Kentucky but I suppose is the quintessential song of the South. I’ve got a recording of Elvis singing it, but Elvis didn’t get a mention! However, Dolly Parton got plenty of mentions. Reginald went to the wonderful Grand Old Opry in Nashville, and also to the “Dollywood” theme park. I’ve been to both those places! Dolly Parton comes across as being such a lovely person, and that style of country ‘n; western music really is very good to listen to even if you’re not particularly a country music person.
That’s the … what’s the word? Public? Marketable? Outward-looking? Glamorous, even? Anyway, that’s one side of country music. He then went more into the darker type of music, all those songs about death and murder. There is a lot of that, even in well-known songs. I don’t think he actually mentioned it, but “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge” was the one which occurred to me. “Southern Gothic.” It’s – obviously! – not very cheerful, but it’s an interesting genre.
He also looked into “hillbilly” music … and there was a bit of an undertone there, “hillbilly” sometimes having the sort of unpleasant connotations than “redneck” does. However, he said that he – an Afro-American man, born in Georgia – had been made to feel very welcome there. The discussions about Appalachia and its music were very interesting, although one woman, when talking about how the term “hillbilly” might have originated from the fact that many of the early settlers in the Appalachians were supporters of William of Orange, seemed to think that they’d fled to America because they were being persecuted. No, dear – William of Orange won the Glorious Revolution (so to speak). Then there was a bit of square dancing – not something I’ve ever done much of, LOL, but which, as was pointed out, was traditionally a very good way of getting to know people in rural communities.
He also talked about the importance of railways in Southern songs – specifically, the Chattanooga Choo Choo! He got to go on a ride along the line, but the actual train to which the song refers is in a museum … I know because I’ve been there and had my photo taken with it :-). I’d never really thought about it much, but, yes, you do get a lot of rail-related songs in the South.
Then on to bluegrass music. This is a very Southern thing, but it’s also got strong roots in English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish folk music, and it’s good to see that this sort of music’s still going. “Bluegrass” is a term generally associated with Kentucky, and it was also in Kentucky that he covered the most challenging part of the programme – minstrel music.
The idea of white musicians putting on black make-up and playing stereotypes of black people is so offensive to modern eyes that it’s a difficult subject to tackle, but, as the people interviewed on the programme said, you can’t pretend that black and white minstrel shows never existed, and you can’t ignore their importance in the development of musical performance. Or how good some of the music genuinely is, especially that written by Stephen Foster, someone who does seem to have sympathised with the plight of the slaves in the South. Reginald visited the house in Bardstown, Kentucky, which is thought to have inspired “My Old Kentucky Home”, to discuss the subject with singers there.
I’ve been there too :-). I saw an outdoor evening performance of “Show Boat” there. That’s got nothing to do with this programme :-), but it was a very good evening and I’ve got fond memories of it. I’ve got a lot of fond memories associated with Songs of the South, and I’m looking forward to the next two episodes in this series. Recommended viewing!