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  • Front Porch
  • Harry L. Watson

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Figure 1.

William R. Ferris's historic interview with B.B. King (center, with William R. Ferris to his left) headlines our first music issue, which includes the CD Passed Down Things (attached inside the back cover). Photograph courtesy of the William R. Ferris Collection in Wilson Library's Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Spirituals, blues, Dixieland, jazz. Ballads, old-time, hillbilly, bluegrass. Country, Cajun, zydeco. Sacred Harp, gospel, Christian rock. R&B, rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, "southern rock." Nashville, honky-tonk, alt-country, progressive country. The list of southern musical varieties and hybrids goes on and on. It's hard to imagine a richer legacy of southern culture than the music that southern people have brought to life. Larry Griffin calls it "toe-tapping, feet-shuffling, arm-waving music; whiskey-drinking, down-in-the-dumps, my-baby-done-me-wrong music." There is little about the South that has meant more to southerners than their tunes, and nothing from the South that has been more widely popular around the [End Page 1] world. The only other thing that even comes close is southern storytelling, but even the greatest writing or spoken word can't travel as far and as fast as a great sound. Knowing all this, it's a wonder that Southern Cultures hasn't done a music issue before now.

What has made the southern musical heritage so abundant? Surely it was the collision of great folk musical traditions from around the Atlantic basin, especially the pounding rhythms of Africa, the haunting ballads and rollicking dances of the British Isles, and the soulful cadences of Christian hymnody. Enliven these traditions with some great instruments like the banjo and the fiddle, shake and bake for centuries among folk too poor and overworked to write novels, paint pictures, or design skyscrapers, and you have a creative gumbo that can feed musical appetites around the world.

What is there left to say about southern music? After all, nobody buys a record for the liner notes. Plenty of folks would say that the best approach to southern music is just to make it or to listen to it, because the songs are just too great to waste any time talking and reading about them. With that in mind, we're especially proud of Passed Down Things, the CD we've included in this issue, featuring some of the best blues you've never heard before, a newly recorded hit by star country songwriter John Shelton Reed, and a couple of special numbers from North Carolina's own Red Clay Ramblers. The whole thing is stitched together with excerpts from a fascinating conversation between B.B. King and William R. Ferris. If reading about music makes you long for the real thing, slide this one into your machine and get on down right away.

But we think southern music is also worth talking about, and our authors and artists have quite a lot to say. It was B.B. King who gave us the title of our CD when he called the blues "a passed-down thing," and he explains what he means in his interview with Bill Ferris. Music prompts his words and the words evoke more music, as the King of the Blues shows how the tradition stays alive by continual innovation. And who can deny the power of stories to open up the lives of the great country singers? Throughout the issue, Red Clay Rambler Bland Simpson sprinkles stories of Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Uncle Dave Macon, and the Carter Family. These white artists couldn't be more different from B.B. King, except they are all so much alike. Hardscrabble origins, volatile lives, and passionate music tie them all together, and they draw us in, in turn. Connections like that need tales and stories to sort them out, and that's what our essays are all about.

The relationship between black music and white music is a central issue in any conversation about southern sounds. The two traditions are certainly not the same, yet every one of our essays...


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