- A Few Thoughts on Provocative Points
[Editors’ Note: In keeping with JAF editorial practice, we engaged a single evaluator, Norm Cohen, for this special issue on country music. Because Cohen eschewed “detailed critiques” to emphasize additional matters worth pondering and researching, because he has the long view of a key contributor to the path-breaking 1965 JAF “Hillbilly” Issue, and because our editorial intention was to foster open discussion and debate through essays and commentaries, we herewith include his slightly revised remarks.]
This is an interesting collection of articles—with lots of data, especially from fieldwork—that together raise provocative points about hillbilly/country music. I see no need for any detailed critiques on my part. This is not to say I agree entirely with their theses, but I feel it is appropriate to bring this discussion to the open as a proposed antithesis to the original thesis that has come to be associated with Bill C. Malone’s name. It’s surprising that it has taken this long for the troops to come up out of the trenches. I suspect there will eventually be a synthesis that takes a measured middle view. That said, I have a few thoughts to share with the editors and authors.
A major theme of these papers is the extent to which “hillbilly” music is not accurately characterized as “southern.” Malone is repeatedly blamed for this association, but he is not its author. Academics in general, and most fans, since the 1950s, have made this assumption. Older still, the industry itself did as much—in their choice of locations for field recordings, in where the records were primarily placed for sale, and also in their advertising copy; the author of “The New York Sound: Citybilly Recording Artists and the Creation of Hillbilly Music, 1924–1932,” Patrick Huber, cites the Old Time Melodies of the Sunny South brochure issued by Victor in 1926. Brunswick designated their hillbilly releases as “songs from Dixie.”
One academic who challenged the southern character of hillbilly was Simon Bronner—who may deserve more credit than he gets in these papers—although Tyler does refer to him. Bronner’s work in the JEMF Quarterly [John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly] elicited some strong negative reactions from some readers, who felt we were straying from our original charter (Bronner 1976). I believe some threatened to terminate their subscriptions if this sort of work continued.
Huber’s “New York Sound” discusses Vernon Dalhart at some length. Dalhart also evoked strong reactions, especially among urban aficionados. Dick Spottswood, whose ear is as good as anyone’s, spoke of him with undisguised contempt. Even the more [End Page 233] eclectic Mark Wilson was dubious about his hillbilly credentials. However, none of the southern musicians I spoke with had anything negative to say about him: I recall in particular Asa Martin and Buell Kazee, who were very approving.
There is an interesting question in why the 1960s string band revival was so enamored of southeastern music to the exclusion of southwestern. I think some of this was due to the New Lost City Ramblers, who for many years virtually ignored the southwest (Eck Robertson was, of course, an exception). I suspect their bias may have been due as much to the high proportion of older traditional folk songs and ballads in the southeastern repertoire (absent in the southwest) as much as to instrumental differences. Then, too, there may have been a semi-political agenda: easier to associate hillbilly/southeastern with Appalachian/Ozark poverty than it was for southwestern music.
Tyler is quite right to criticize my focus on recordings to the exclusion of radio shows; I was uncomfortable at the time about making the assertion. But I felt that if there wasn’t some reliability to the evidence presented in recordings, then there was no real justification for our studying them so intently—a position I didn’t want to accept then. I doubt that radio shows will ever be able to present the quantitative evaluation that discs do, but that is a different question.
Tyler’s paper, “Hillbilly Music Re-imagined: Folk and Country Music in the Midwest,” also characterizes early fiddle contests...