Nowadays everybody you know could get in trouble for some act of “cultural appropriation” or other: sports teams with colonialist logos, people who aren’t Native American getting tribal tattoos, servers of bogus banh mi sandwiches on the campus of Oberlin College, Westerners who practice yoga. The mandarins of political correctness patrol the field of music with particular zeal. They are fond of saying—and they’re not wrong—that white musicians have popularized, and profited from, the work of African-American songwriters and musicians who died in obscurity. They point to the imitative quality of Elvis Presley, Eminem, or the newer rap artists such as Asher Roth (whose mother, to add insult to injury, is a yoga teacher).
Elvis, if it’s any consolation, stole from white people, too. It’s true that “That’s Alright,” the 1954 hit that began his life of fame and fortune, had been written by the black Mississippi Delta blues musician Arthur Crudup, who had previously recorded it to little notice. But the material Presley grabbed next was “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” by the father of bluegrass music, the mandolinist Bill Monroe. Thus did the Tupelo-born sensation enter show business in a doubly derivative way: While rhythm-and-blues radio stations across the South, Southwest, and middle of the United States were playing Presley’s “That’s All Right,” the country stations flooded the airwaves with his sexed-up rendition of “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
The story of the “A” side and the “B” side of Elvis Presley’s Sun Records debut is told in Country Music, the 16-hour PBS documentary series that aired this fall. Whether you love this kind of music or can’t stand it, watching even a little of Ken Burns’s exhaustive and sometimes exhausting program will let you in on the fact that no American musical form would exist without its borrowers, blenders, adapters, revivers, and (in some cases) outright thieves. What we know as country music comes from gospel, blues, and Appalachian music. It coalesced in the 1930s, along with the nascent music industry, and it influenced what Americans listened to far beyond the mountains of Appalachia. As the songwriter Bobby Braddock puts it: “There was a saying: Blues had a baby, and they called it rock and roll. And I always said, yeah, and I think the daddy was the hillbilly.”
At times this creative cross-pollination raised hackles. Some in the audience at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, when Elvis took the stage and performed “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” complained that it was a travesty. On the other hand, songwriter Braddock describes a country tune that he co-wrote (“Golden Ring,” a hit for Tammy Wynette and George Jones in 1976) as sounding “like 10 or 12 gospel hymns thrown together.” This was a quality not many listeners would have picked up on; fans of both the sacred and the profane just knew they liked the duet.
Whether it raises hackles or not, all this mutual influencing crosses lines, be they racial, religious, socioeconomic, or political. But we don’t get dreary polemics on cultural appropriation from the black and biracial musicians who offer commentary here. Quite the opposite. “Music is always striving [toward] the best thing. And the best thing is a mix,” says Rhiannon Giddens. “That’s one of the reasons why American music has taken over the world: because everybody can feel that it comes from one plus one equals a hundred.”
The program stresses the black influence on country music, highlighting Hank Williams’s apprenticeship with a street musician in rural Alabama named Rufus Payne; the harmonica player DeFord Bailey’s participation in the Grand Ole Opry; and Johnny Cash’s friendship in Memphis with a jug-band player named Gus Cannon.
America was racially segregated, and so was radio. Whenever Americans spun the radio dial or walked into a record store, though, not everyone enjoying R&B was black and not everyone enjoying country was white. Episode Four covers the career of Ray Charles, and speaking about the Georgia-born pianist, Wynton Marsalis comments: “We tend to think of it one way—these white musicians heard these black musicians play. Black musicians were listening to the white musicians, too.” By 1962, Charles had been an R&B star for a decade. He earned the right to choose his own material and exercised it by making an album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. The rendition it contains of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” now a classic, won a Grammy for “best R&B release.”
The documentary is a good primer for those unfamiliar with the basic facts, like the common musical beginnings, in Memphis in the 1950s, of a rock-and-roller and a gospel-loving country musician. Not only were Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash buddies when they were young, so were two Texans, Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly. Viewers are told by Peter Coyote, the go-to narrator for the Burns documentaries, that only by happenstance did Jennings fail to board the small plane in which the rockabilly troubadour Holly and three others died in a crash in 1959.
The very term “rockabilly,” which was invented in producer Sam Phillips’s Sun Records storefront studio in Memphis, helps convey the hybridized and cross-over nature of American music. “Texas swing” is the country version of the “big band” sound. Most Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams tunes swing, as do (in a more “contemporary jazz” way) many of the arrangements and vocal phrasings favored by Willie Nelson. Among the vast number of songs sampled in Burns’s documentary is Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner’s rendition of “The Last Thing on My Mind,” a folk song by Greenwich Village habitué Tom Paxton.
“I Will Always Love You,” Whitney Houston’s 1992 pop blockbuster, was written by Parton in 1974 as her way of telling Wagoner that she was going solo. The voice of a caucasian hippie, Leon Russell, is heard as Episode Six opens; it is his raw yet satisfying piano-pounding rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
As a mini-college of musical knowledge, the series offers more than feel-good moments about how music can bring us together. We learn who instituted the electric guitar in country-music combos (Ernest Tubb); who brought in the use of drums (the Louvin Brothers); who was Garrison Keillor’s prototype radio storyteller (Minnie Pearl of the Grand Ole Opry); and what gave the virtuoso bluegrass players their (to me) surprising enthusiasm for raiding the oeuvre of Bob Dylan. He went to Nashville to make several of his records. And Dylan’s music was embraced by the legendary banjoist Earl Scruggs, who had grown friendly to the counterculture in the late 1960s upon being persuaded by his sons to oppose U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
The history offered here inclines strongly toward the singer-songwriterish, as one might expect from public television. Burns and scriptwriter Dayton Duncan anoint as the true kings and queens of country those who authored their own material, or at least some of it. That would be people such as Rodgers, Williams, Parton, Nelson, Cash, and Jennings, along with Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Mel Tillis, and Roger Miller. We also hear about and from clever Nashville songwriters who did not have performing careers, such as Braddock, Harlan Howard, and Hank Cochran.
Also receiving major attention are those who came later but explicitly tied their work to their predecessors. Dwight Yoakam, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, and Ricky Scaggs built careers as respecters of roots music. They, along with longhairs such as Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, Rodney Crowell, and roots-revival groups including the New Lost City Ramblers and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, forged a more collegiate-oriented or folk-rock side of country music that widened its appeal. That side is heavily represented in the documentary, which follows country music up to the year 1996.
Young performers make their appearance, but only as interviewees about what happened before that point. That hipsters such as Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, and Jack White of the White Stripes would be so admiring of this music—Giddens even regales us with how much her black grandmother doted on the cornpone-filled television show Hee Haw—is cause for celebration. These “influencers” might just be able to impress upon younger Americans who watch this program that they need to calm down a little bit about cultural appropriation. To culturally appropriate is human, and if done by Hank Williams, close to divine.