Television Tuesday: Country Music

Ken Burns turned his detail-oriented documentarian’s eye to American music for his latest PBS documentary, Country Music. The show runs four sixteen hours, in eight two-hour segments airing on KQED Sunday nights. Burns start before the turn of the 20th century and by the third episode, he is discussing the music of the 1950s.

The show headlines male performers like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, but women are not erased from the genre here. Singer-songwriters like Roseanne Cash, Dolly Parton, Rhiannon Giddens and Brenda Lee all contribute to the commentary; and the show does not skimp on the contributions of performers like the Carter Sisters and their mother, Maybelle Carter, who wrote hit after hit and whose guitar style influenced and inspired generations of performers.

I also learned from the documentary that it was the Carters who discovered Chet Atkins, that they went to the wall to bring him to Nashville when their studio thought his style wasn’t “country,” so that basically they started his country career.

I also learned a lot more about radio stations in the first half of the 20th century, and what a huge, direct influence they had on music.

In addition to being a brilliant instrumentalist and vocalist, Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is a historian with a concentration on American music. Giddens, who played blues and bluegrass, can also sing Welsh folksongs (Welsh!) and traditional ballads like Renardine and Barb’ry Allen. Giddens celebrates the confluence of Appalachian folk music in the late 1800s/early 1900s and black spirituals and blues. The banjo, for instance, an instrument almost completely associated with “country and western” music, came from Africa with the people who were abducted and enslaved. White musicians often “borrowed” songs from black churches and black musicians, and recorded those songs and made more money, but Giddens points out at the level of the musicians themselves, the flow went in both directions. Black players borrowed British-Isle folk tunes and jigs to add to their traditional music.

This is rabbit hole, but I just want you to hear her voice (and I highly recommend Full Screen.)

(As for appropriation, June Carter’s uncle AJ Carter made a tidy living traveling around the southeast, Kentucky and Tennessee going into each individual “holler” and talking to people, tracking down folk tunes. He’d get people to sing their songs for him. Then he’d go back, write them down, copyright them, and have Sarah and Maybelle Carter record them and have huge hits.)

Another thing that stood out in the first three episodes was how many of country’s big stars; Williams, Cash, Lynn as examples, grew up in grinding poverty. Even after the rest of the country moved out of the Great Depression, the southeast was mired in poverty. Did this background fuel the drive of some of these pickers and yodelers? I have to think it did.

We’re less than halfway through the documentary as I’m writing this; I’m still recommending it. There is one problem with it; it’s hard for me to listen to the speakers or the text, because I want to sing along with many of the old-time folk songs!

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