- In Tune: Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Roots of American Music by Ben Wynne
Ben Wynne’s broad and engaging In Tune is a study of two giants of American popular music: blues legend Charley Patton, and the “father of country music,” Jimmie Rodgers. For two musicians with such similar biographies, it is surprising they are not compared more often. Both were born in the closing years of the nineteenth century into abject poverty, taking up the mantle of the itinerant but versatile musician in order to survive and avoid the drudgery of exploitative manual labor. Neither Patton nor Rodgers lived long—both were dead by the summer of 1934—but their surviving recordings are now widely regarded as foundational for blues and country music.
Despite these commonalities, Patton and Rodgers make surprising bedfellows. Each man is still ensconced to some extent on one side of the color line that was present during their emergence in the early decades of the twentieth century. Blues originated as African American “folk” music, born of its exponents’ experiences of slavery, reconstruction, and the segregated South. Country, on the other hand, is coded broadly as white, developing its “down-home” authenticity from the ballad and fiddling traditions of Old World settlers. Admittedly, Patton and Rodgers’s claims to fame were somewhat distinct: Patton was largely unknown outside of the African American communities that he [End Page 517] performed for and that bought his records. Rodgers, in contrast, saw considerable commercial success during his lifetime, and helped form the mold that future generations of “hillbilly” and “country” musicians would later inhabit through both his records and radio broadcasting (p. 12).
Yet what makes both musicians so interesting, and what makes it so apt for them to be woven together in a single study, is that their careers are underpinned by the almost continual overlap between “black” and “white” musical cultures. Each musician’s constant quest for mobility and appetite for musical eclecticism distinguished them in a segregated world “where everything was designed to remain the same” (p. 2). Their early musical development and later commercial recordings indicate patterns of interracial cultural exchange that were hidden beneath the surface of segregation, patterns that have only recently attracted scholarly attention (e.g., Karl Hag strom Miller, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010]).
For Wynne, perhaps the deepest foundation for cultural exchange between whites and African Americans in the South was a broader “class consciousness,” cutting across the racial divide. In the decades following the Civil War and into the twentieth century, states in the former Confederacy enshrined African Americans’ subjugation into law. “Vagrancy” laws, voting eligibility restrictions, and the segregation of public spaces confined African Americans to a life little better than slavery itself (pp. 19–21). The need to maintain white supremacy was totalizing, drawing attention away from the needs of poor whites. Racial segregation between whites and blacks was matched with “economic segregation” between whites themselves (pp. 25–26).
Both white and black poor were thereby drawn together through their common experiences of economic oppression by wealthy landowners. Although this rarely— if ever—translated into actual cooperation against their masters, Wynne hears the common need to survive as the source of the “many common elements and themes” in both blues and country music (p. 26). Both were based on a thriving network of oral dissemination, while themes of “struggle, hope and redemption” show the proximity of secular and sacred traditions in both cultures (pp. 38–39, 48).
These “class commonalities” set the stage for Patton and Rodgers’s formative years. Wynne shows how Patton’s family moved to the Mississippi Delta to work the land under the prevailing system of sharecropping. This system, which impacted both African Americans and whites, sustained farmers on credit until the “settle,” at which point the landowner would inevitably use one of a number of tricks to bind the...