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Is southern music special? What makes it different from “American” music, unless most American music is southern anyway? At the least, why has so much American music originated in the South or among transplanted southerners and their descendants? Why does the South continue to nurture so many different American genres and talents?
These kinds of questions elude any final answers, but that doesn’t stop us from wondering. Most good answers will begin with the unique encounter in the South of the melodic folk traditions of the British Isles and the rhythmic legacy of West Africa. Together with fainter strains of American Indian music, these two bodies of musical lore steeped together over centuries of pain, conflict, celebration, and mutual exchange, clearly enriching each other in ways that would never have been likely in isolation. Fold in a long history of poverty, defeat, and suffering on all sides, in which music in its multiple forms became an indispensable source of solace, renewal, and strength, and you have the making of intertwined cultures in which dozens of distinct genres have become central aspects of community identity and affirmation, from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first. [End Page 1]
Southern music is no more static than unmixed. Starting well before the late twentieth century, another great musical tradition stemming from the richly diverse cultures of Latin America came north and east to join the black and Anglo legacies of the Old South. Recent immigration has intensified this mingling, and enriched the southern musical environment even further. While different cultural combinations bred Tin Pan Alley and other sounds in the urban North, the South and its migrant communities have remained America’s richest source of vernacular musical creativity.
In one way or another, all the articles in this music issue of Southern Cultures explore some aspects of southern musical creation. Some focus on individual artists; others look at the musical communities that train them, inspire them, and sustain them. We have interviews where key musical figures speak for themselves, essays that interpret specific topics, and two original compositions, one a poem and the other a ballad lyric. As always, we offer no definite answers; only more tracks on an endless album of creation and reflection.
Two pieces stand out as portraits of musical communities. In “Helping Pave the Road to FAME,” Christopher Reali looks into the distinctive recording industry that first emerged around Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in the mid-1950s, and eventually embraced such artists as Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Duane Allman, and the Rolling Stones. Even more remarkable than its unpredictable location, the early Muscle Shoals scene stood out as an interracial environment in which whites and blacks worked productively together while the rest of Alabama seethed with racial conflict. Recent press items and a documentary movie give most of the credit to Rick Hall, founder of fame Studios, the first of a cluster of recording studios in the Shoals vicinity. Reali concedes Hall’s important role, but broadens his emphasis to describe the circle of singers, instrumentalists, engineers, and house bands that first came together around fame and then moved beyond it. His point is that individuals may lead, but continued creativity demands a network of performers who spend years together refining their art and sustaining each other.
Michael Urban tells a similar story about the New Orleans music scene in “Nice to Meet You, Three, Four.” Drawing on fifty-one interviews with Crescent City performers in 2013, Urban explains how the experience of improvising together over and over is the essential characteristic of genuine “New Orleans musicians.” Hundreds of performers slip in and out of each others’ bands, all learning to play in each unique style, and all making their own contributions to an evolving play-list. “This is a very artistic town,” one observes, “but New Orleans is more about...