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The Bootleg South: The Geography of Music Piracy in the 1970s

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 19, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 82-97 | 10.1353/scu.2013.0008

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The history of bootlegging both liquor and music is filled with roguish characters who did not toil discreetly in the shadows. They became the heroes of early auto racing, such as Junior Johnson, who did time for bootlegging but went on to fame as a stock car driver, earning the designation of the "Last American Hero" in a 1965 essay by Tom Wolfe. Johnson (left) as crew chief and car owner at the Nashville 420 in 1983, photographed by Billferguson, courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

The hillbilly with his jug of moonshine (marked XXX) is a familiar, if problematic caricature of southern life. This figure has endured in part because it embodies so many tropes about the South, both good and bad. There is criminality, ill health, and poverty; the moonshiner engages in unlawful behavior to concoct a beverage of dubious safety, because he is too poor to drink anything but his own hooch. On the positive side, though, one finds more favorable qualities: a spirited resistance to authority, for instance, not unlike the image of the South exemplified by the Duke boys outsmarting Boss Hogg on the popular television series The Dukes of Hazzard. The moonshiner is independent, making a product without state sanction and despite his evident lack of capital. He is masculine, because he is strong enough to stomach white lightning. Bootlegging is even bound up in the mythology of an iconic southern industry and pastime, NASCAR racing, as the sport originated among southerners who souped up their cars to move illicit booze and evade law enforcement. According to historian Mark D. Howell, these bootleggers soon became "the subjects of regional folklore," whose stories embodied themes of "self-reliance and personal economic survival."

The South has also been home to a less storied form of bootlegging: music. Although the region saw little piracy of sound recordings prior to World War II, by the 1960s the South was emerging as a major center of pirate music production. Before, production of shellac and then vinyl discs had been highly centralized in pressing plants controlled by the major record labels. The introduction of magnetic tape in the United States during the late 1940s offered a new and more flexible form of recording, but the technology was used chiefly by broadcasters, recording studios, and a small number of high-fidelity enthusiasts at first. By the 1960s, however, new media such as the 8-track and compact cassette made recording and copying sound cheaper and easier for a wide range of consumers. Subsequently, media production decentralized and spread across the nation, as everyone from self-described socialists to mere profiteers seized the opportunity to reproduce and distribute sound recordings. North Carolina, in particular, saw numerous and repeated busts of tape bootlegging operations in the 1970s. As the federal government and the record industry expanded their war on piracy, they discovered that small towns in the South were connected to networks that spanned the country, north to south and east to west. Even the village that inspired the Andy Griffith Show—the urtext of small town life in the Tar Heel state—was raided by the FBI in the 1970s.

How the South became a hub of bootleg media is part of a larger story of freewheeling enterprise and political struggle over intellectual property. This conflict gave rise to a powerful new regime of copyright enforcement in the late twentieth century, which has been challenged in recent years by file-sharing networks, as well as the legal activism of groups such as Creative Commons and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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The production and sale of illicit music, like liquor, has been part of what the late historian Jack Temple Kirby dubbed the "countercultural South"—an undercurrent of defiance to both government and big business that persisted throughout the twentieth century among poor and working-class southerners, epitomized by moonshine, fast cars, and music pirates alike. Moonshine still at the McCreary County Museum, Stearns, Kentucky, photographed by Brian Stansberry, courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Long before Napster threatened the music industry, though, a handful of...

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