- From the Editors
This Special “Country Music” issue of the Journal of American Folklore combines the complementarity and clash of emerging and enduring perspectives. But let us begin with a dose of retrospection. Nearly 50 years ago, in 1965, the JAF “Hillbilly Issue” (volume 78, number 309) marked the first edition of an academic journal devoted entirely to the study of what is nowadays known as “country music.”
From the vantage of 2014, one might wonder either what took so long, or why look back at all.
The always conservative academy’s constraints were coming apart ever-so-slightly, along with the greater society’s, in the 1960s. The same populist, pluralist, progressive, and public movements (still) striving to open up so many fields of study and practice were at play in the American Folklore Society as the expressive cultural traditions of ethnic minorities, women, workers, gays and lesbians, and even “hillbillies” were not simply examined but treated incrementally with respect and frequently invested with advocacy. Formerly ignored or shunned in the academy, sometimes even by folklorists, as the low, crude, beery, teary, Bible-thumping, crassly commercial, media-polluted property of working-class rustics togged up in gingham and overalls lusting for crystal chandeliers and steer-horn hood ornaments, country music won intellectual legitimacy thanks in no small part to a handful of folklorists. Assisted by overall JAF editor John Greenway, whose essay on the putative “Father of Country Music”— “Jimmie Rodgers: A Folksong Catalyst”—was published in the journal in 1957, the special issue in 1965 was edited by D. K. Wilgus, who led off with “An Introduction to the Study of Hillbilly Music,” then sounded a final note with “Current Hillbilly Recordings: A Review Article.” The essays in-between, all of them seminal, included: Archie Green’s “Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol”; Ed Kahn’s “Hillbilly Music: Source and Resource”; Norm Cohen’s “The Skillet Lickers: A Study of a Hillbilly String Band and Its Repertoire”; and L. Mayne Smith’s “An Introduction to Bluegrass.”
The Hillbilly Issue’s Back Matter aptly devoted an informational page to the John Edwards Memorial Foundation (JEMF), Inc. A nonprofit educational corporation, the JEMF declared its devotion not only to “the serious study, public recognition, and preservation of that form of American folk music commonly referred to as country, western, country-western, hillbilly, bluegrass, mountain, cowboy, old time, and sacred,” but also its commitment “to study and preserve parallel material referred to as race, blues, and gospel.” Eventually that grassroots mission would extend to country music beyond North America, and to such folk/vernacular musical genres as Cajun, Irish, Hawaiian, Mexican American, and even polka. Conjoined with active folklore programs throughout its existence—first at UCLA, and then at the University of North [End Page 123] Carolina—the JEMF was founded by board members (Wilgus, Green, and Kahn) who doubled as JAF “Hillbilly Issue” authors. As that issue was being published, fellow author Norm Cohen had just begun co-editing a newsletter that expanded into the JEMF Quarterly in 1969 (Porterfield 2004).
The collective efforts of these path-breaking folklorists drew upon years of deep, steadfast research and writing, often in the pages of JAF. In 1951, for example, D. K. Wilgus admonished folk song-oriented folklorists to develop “a more general awareness of the positive, shaping force exerted on traditional songs by ‘the hillbilly type of music’—the modern broadside, disseminated by radio and recording” (1951:320). By the decade’s end, he had begun an extended tenure as the JAF record review editor, penning review essays that regularly focused on “The Hillbilly Tradition.” Archie Green, meanwhile, commemorated the documentary quest of John Neuhaus, a machinist and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, by astutely chronicling the rich interrelationship between workers’ songs, oral tradition, print, and hillbilly recordings (1960).
The disciplinary zeitgeist swirling about and beyond the Hillbilly Issue helped inspire and support a history graduate student at the University of Texas, Bill C. Malone, whose dissertation formed the basis of Country Music U.S.A. (1968). The genre’s first serious book-length study—prefaced with acknowledgments of JEMF founders...