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  • Front Porch
  • Harry L. Watson, Editor

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Where music, dancing, and whiskey flowed, the dual demands of Sunday and Monday mornings seemed far away. “Moonshine,” dancing in the home of James Thomas’s friend, Shelby “Poppa Jazz” Brown, in 1967, photographed by William R. Ferris, courtesy of the William R. Ferris Collection in the Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Southern music is special. Everybody says so. The South is the home of blues, jazz, Cajun, zydeco, bluegrass, country, spirituals, gospel, and rock. A few other musical traditions that originated elsewhere—fife and drum music and shape-note singing come to mind—have flourished in the South after fading in their birthplaces. I’d go so far as to say that no major American popular music form originated outside the South until the recent rise of rap. And rap’s debt to other black music makes it a southern grandchild at least.

What explains this rich heritage? You’ll hear a different explanation from everyone you ask, but all of them include tributes to the extraordinary musical heritage of Africa and the haunted ballad-singing of the British Isles, combined and pressure-cooked in the isolation created by racial oppression and economic backwardness. While other Americans were constantly moving, growing, absorbing, and assimilating newcomers—and forgetting their traditional music in the process—black and white southerners were drowning their sorrows in song. The result was an extraordinary musical richness that the rest of the country discovered after 1920 with the rise of the recording industry.

But pointing to all the Historical Forces at work hardly begins to explain what really inspires southern music or what people take away from it. Here the answers splinter off in dozens of directions. Take the blues. In this issue, blues scholar William R. Ferris quotes Ralph Ellison in saying that the blues springs from the pain of racial oppression. Ellison calls it “an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a haunted experience alive in one’s consciousness.” But Ferris also shares the thoughts of Delta blues master James “Son Ford” Thomas, who doesn’t say anything about race. “You’ll be thinking way back about how some woman left you,” he reflects. “You want her, and she don’t want you. That’s what the blues is about.”

So what part of the soul do the blues really come from? The agony of collective oppression or the pangs of disappointed love? Torment unique to one people or pain that happens to everybody? You can find a cloud of witnesses on either side. Perhaps the final answer—if there is one—involves generous portions of both. And that would explain why the blues and the rest of the South’s music have such powerful ties to distinct people in specific places but also reach out to universal human experience.

Whatever feeling you are looking to explore or express—misery, elation, spiritual ecstasy, or low-down lust—chances are that some southern musician has done it already, better that you could hope to do yourself. No brief sampler can illustrate the emotional work that southern music can do. This year’s music issue focuses on two: joyous celebrations of good times, inescapably tinged with the lure of sex, and feelings of social solidarity that range from outraged protest to poignant affirmations of identity. But just to show we know there’s more to southern music than just those two, we’ve also asked four great judges to share their personal “top tens” [End Page 2] with us: Charles Joyner on jazz, Jocelyn R. Neal on country, William R. Ferris on blues, and Joshua Guthman on rock. The results show that no pigeonhole is big enough to hold the South’s great musicians—and that nobody can try to pick the best ones without starting an argument with other fans.


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The South’s music has powerful ties to distinct people in specific places but also reaches out to universal human experience. The unnamed strawberry picker, 1939, courtesy of the Collections...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 1-4
Launched on MUSE
2009-08-13
Open Access
No
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