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  • Give Me That Old-Time Music . . . or Not
  • Larry J. Griffin (bio)

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Figure 1.

American popular culture would be unimaginable without the music created by the South's disfranchised, impoverished, and forgotten peoples, black, brown, and white—jazz and country, gospel and bluegrass, salsa and zydeco, blues and rock 'n' roll. Photograph courtesy of the Mississippi Development Authority/Division of Tourism.

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Southerners have every right to be proud of the music we have produced and bequeathed to the entire globe. American popular culture would be unimaginable without the music—blues and rock 'n' roll, jazz and country, gospel and bluegrass, salsa and zydeco—created by the South's disfranchised, impoverished, and forgotten peoples, black, brown, and white. Toe-tapping, feet-shuffling, arm-waving music. Whiskey-drinking, down-in-the-dumps, my-baby-done-me-wrong music. That's southern music, whether it's exuberantly body-moving or mournfully storytelling. But the music originating or popularized below the Mason-Dixon line has always meant more to southerners than an excuse to shake our booties or, bottle in hand, get downright maudlin. Scholars believe that "southern vernacular music," to borrow a term from historian and folklorist Charles Joyner, has molded our racial and regional identities, reflected both our conservatism and our radicalism, expressed our class and racial resentments, spoke to our alienation from the prosperous and the proper, helped bridge our racial divide, and even, according to two sociologists, literally pushed us to suicide. 1 From its inception, the region's music thus has told us southerners about the hardships of this life and the joys to come in the next, told us who our friends and enemies were, told us about love, loneliness, and lynching, told us where we came from and who we are. And in the telling, it has also changed us.

Due to a whole host of factors unfolding over the past century—the migration of millions of southerners to cities in the North, technological innovations such as the radio, record player, and TV, and shrewd corporate packaging—"southern music" of virtually all flavors was long ago transmuted into America's music and then quickly integrated into much of the world's music. Coupled with the mainstreaming of southern culture in everything from race to religion since the 1960s, the nationalization and globalization of music first cultivated in southern soil raises interesting questions about our national tastes in music, about the audience for southern music, and about racial and regional patterns in music preferences.

To explore these questions, I turn to three nationally representative surveys of American music preferences: the 1993 General Social Survey (GSS), the Spring 1993 Southern Focus Poll (SFP), and the 2002 Survey of Public Participation in Arts (SPPA). These surveys, unfortunately, are not strictly comparable due to differences in the populations sampled and in how questions are worded, and only the 2002 SPPA includes a large enough number of black respondents to permit reliable regional comparisons among African Americans. Another limitation is that we do not know how respondents interpreted the meaning of the genres of music they were asked to evaluate. Is the kind of music played by Duke Ellington and Count Basie jazz or big band? What, exactly, is "New Age" music? When respondents say they like "oldies," do they have Fats Domino, the Beach Boys, or Queen in mind? None of the surveys, moreover, tell us why folks like the music they do. Still, each survey yields valuable information not contained in the others, [End Page 99] and the three polls, taken together, can help us better understand regional and racial tastes in music. Moreover, as we'll see, the three surveys yield surprisingly similar conclusions. 2

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Table 1.

American Music Preferences, 1993

American Music Preferences

The 1993 GSS asked respondents to state how much they liked or disliked eighteen genres of music. Folks could report that they liked as many kinds of music as they pleased. Table 1 lists the styles of music according to their overall popularity in the survey (entries in all remaining tables are ordered in the same way) and...


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