“My version of ‘Georgia’ became the state song of Georgia. That was a big thing for me, man. It really touched me. Here is a state that used to lynch people like me suddenly declaring my version of a song as its state song.  That is touching… What makes my approach special is that I do different things.  I do jazz, blues, country music and so forth.  I do them all, like a good utility man.”   (Ray Charles)

I still chuckle when I recall how Ray Charles ticked off a lot of folk, about 18 years ago, by telling NBC News reporter Bob Costas, and others, that he was sick and tired of hearing about Elvis Presley being some kind of King of Rock and Roll music.

According to Jet Magazine back then (July 25, 1994), Brother Ray told NBC’s Costas that Elvis “…was doing our kind of music.  He was doing the Willie Mae Thornton Jailhouse Rock.  That’s Black music. So what am I supposed to get so excited about, man? I think all that stuff about saying he’s the king, that’s a piece of bunk.”

I agreed…

But, I never believed all that I was hearing about Mississippi-born Elvis being racist, stemming from some rumor about him once saying that the only thing Negroes could do for him was to shine his shoes and buy his records. Besides, it was later debunked by black musicians close to Elvis. Yet, I’ve always been a little miffed how African-Americans never seemed to get the proper credit for the American music forms (i.e., blues, spirituals, jazz, soul, R&B, marching band performances, etc.) they originated or influenced- and, yes, that includes so-called Country Music.

That’s why I was glad to see the recent CBS country music special with Alabama-born, R&B legend Lionel Richie (“ACM Presents:  Lionel Richie and Friends,” April 13, 2012), as well as hearing about his new album, “Tuskegee,” racing out of the chute as #1 on the Billboard Country Music album chart. As far as I’m concerned, the Lionel Richie and Friends special concert was outstanding, although the music didn’t sound exactly like what we called country music, while growing up in Kentucky, when Old Jim Crow was gasping for air.

Long before Mississippi-born Charley Pride’s 39 #1 hits on the Billboard Country Music charts, or Texas-born Mary Anne Palmer, the crowned “Princess of Country Music” and 1990’s “Miss Collegiate African American” (while at Prairie View A&M), historical archives document black influences on country music- yes, even “Country Music”- back to the 1920s and the Grand Ole Opry stage appearance of Tennessee-born Deford Bailey (aka, “Harmonica Ace”). 

Shucks, I still crack up at how we used to listen to “hillbilly” and Bluegrass, what we called country music and the Grand Ole Opry on radio, during the 1950s.  It was just about the only music being played, locally, unless black oriented music drifted over the Appalachian mountains, on the “magic carpet” of southern night-time breezes, like WDAS in Philadelphia and WDIA in Memphis. Black radio stations were just being born.

At times, that old “carpet” also “flew” in the more powerful white metropolitan stations which began to play night-time jazz, blues and soul, like WLS in Chicago and WABC in New York, as well as some down-home gospel music from the nearby big-city stations in Lexington and Louisville.

And, like a bunch of starving Rhode Island Reds, and other barnyard birds about to be fed, we flocked to the Rhythm and Blues LP (Long-Playing) recordings and “45” (45 rpm) vinyl records that some grownups brought back from travels out of the state, especially a few local globe-trotting musicians returning home, to roost for a spell. I’m not aware of anyone bringing country music records back. We just weren’t in to “hillbilly” and Bluegrass like that.

But, I can admit that I loved the Gran Ole Opry’s radio comedy skits.  My favorite was “Minnie Pearl” and whomever she encountered with that forever-present price tag dangling from the side of that countrified, fruits-and-vegetables-decorated hat.

Recently, I shared with one of my sons, from my memories of being stationed overseas, recollections of mostly good-natured arguments which broke out between black and white sailors and Marines, when one group played “their music” too loud for other discerning ears.  Yet, over time, we grew to respect our strangely different music tastes, and often engaged in somewhat intelligent conversations about various music forms. My son easily understood, since he is a Marine Corp Gulf War combat veteran and now a musician, as well.

I told him how the twanging, banjo-thumping “hillbilly” sounds just proved too much for black sailors and Marines; perhaps, as tough as it was for whites to appreciate what some southerners called noisy “jungle music.” Yet, I remember some pretty savvy white guys that easily grooved to all kinds of music including the popular “Doo Wop,” jazz and R&B sounds. There were a few Hispanic- and Italian-Americans who could dance and sing “Doo Wop” as good as any African-American serving in uniform, too. It reminded me of the “blue-eyed soul,” I first heard about from local black musicians, when they returned home from gigs on the road. But, even they weren’t in to “hillbilly” music.

Back then, around the early 1960s, I believe the use of either term, “hillbilly” or “jungle music,” among other terms, was still considered a racial slur; and, it could set off more “barracks” arguments and street woofing until the bugle sounded “Taps,” signaling time for the lights to be turned off.  From what I recall, that was the period just before the term “hillbilly” was quietly ushered off stage and “country music” was front and center. The twanging dialect seemed to disappear, too.

It seems to me that when we stopped calling white music “hillbilly,” whites stopped calling what we listened to as “jungle music.” Considering all the other racial tensions, stemming from various Civil Rights incidents, it was definitely a welcomed improvement in race relations.

My parents and grandparents often said that music was the universal language around the world.  I didn’t understand it, then. But, after traveling half the globe in the Navy, myself, I began to appreciate what they were trying to say. After observing how all of us, Americans and foreigners, too, reacted to various music forms in the Caribbean and Mediterranean seaports we visited, from Calypso, Afro-Cuban and Reggae to Flamenco, Bagpipe and, yes, Arabic Belly Dancing music, as well, I began to look at all music forms a little differently- even classical stuff.

My mother, a Tennessee native, wasn’t a musician, like a few others in the family or community. She was the proverbial preacher’s wife and church deaconess who, many times, seemed to use music as a cultural teaching moment or behavioral guide.  She often pointed out how black slaves- as fiddlers and banjoist- separately entertained whites, as well as blacks, in what she called big-time “shindigs.” It wasn’t until much later that I could appreciate “the Booker folk” she sometimes spoke of. They were the Kentucky blues-playing fiddlers of the Booker Orchestra family. I later learned that Jim Booker once recorded songs with a white group, called the Taylor Kentucky Boys, in the 1920s, just before mother became a teenager.

Before I became a teen, I recall hearing mother humming tunes to herself, during household chores, that I later heard being played at a couple of local juke joints.  At least, the tune to “Salty Dog” sounded pretty close to one of her tunes, although I never heard her sing the lyrics. When I first heard them, I could understand why. “Salty Dog,” at least the version I heard, was a rather raunchy song about a sailor- which I didn’t fully learn to appreciate until I later joined the Navy.

I wondered whether or not my mother, being a preacher’s wife and all, even knew what she was humming about, although I never confronted her about it. She also used to demonstrate- just a tad- certain versions of African rhythms-influenced dances, like the “Black Bottom” and “Lindy Hop,” which were popular when she was a teen. It used to make me wonder about how she really grew up, knowing how prudishly stoic my Pentecostal grandmother was in public. But I knew better than to ask. I just assumed, like much of our history, that she would tell me if there was something I really needed to know.

As for the slave musicians they talked about, there’s a book called “My Country: The African Diaspora’s Country Music Heritage” (by Pamela E. Foster, My Country Pub., June 1998, 378 pages) which reveals the country music activities of hundreds of  black individuals, involved in all aspects of country music development. It should help fill in the gaps of the reams of ‘missing pages’ to classroom history books.

Fortunately, another resource, a Nashville-based group, called the “Black Country Music Association,” was formed about 20 years ago by black song writer and singer, Frankie Staton, to help showcase black talent and assist black musicians in obtaining gigs in country music. According to Staton, during an earlier interview with a journalist on the presence of blacks in country music history, she noted that, “Whites and blacks in rural communicates in the South played in string bands… Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, learned guitar from black laborers he worked with.”

Mississippi-born Jimmie Rodgers, with his unique blues-yodeling and guitar playing, often teamed up with the baddest young trumpet-player around, Louis Armstrong, in the 1930s. The music they played together gave rise to Gene Autry and other singing cowboy heroes of mine.

Like other cultural stitchings within the blended fabrics of our nation, the music genre of America seems a little like Louisiana Gumbo- a little mix of Native American flavoring, a distinctive twist of African, a dash of Latin, Cajun and Creole, some genetic strands of French, English and Spanish melodies, some occasional a cappella, a taste of folk music, a little polka, some soul-stirring patriotic ballads, a pinch of jazz, blues and gospel- and, some pure de Funk.

Similarly, the blended music of our nation- including country music– is an excellent reminder of what America strives to be, in spite of the political race baiting, bantering and fear mongering which seems so prevalent, today.  These days, it even seems that foreign nations respect the office of the President of the United States more so than Americans do.

Years ago, while I was stationed overseas (homeported in Ville Franche), the French, Africans and others within the Mediterranean Basin didn’t refer to our music as black music or white music, nor “hillbilly,” country or soul.  To me, the way they saw it was a lesson in itself on how we have yet to see ourselves, at times. They simply called the music what they believed it to be:   American music.

In a sense, the way I see it, the music quilt of our nation is even similar to the lofty Latin phrase within the great Seal of the United States, which says”E Pluribus Unum,” translated: Out of Many One- just like the recent Lionel Richie and Friends special concert happened to remind us all.

“Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.


About William "Duke" Smither (a.k.a., "Backstreet D'jeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at and former contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy. A second installment ["Passage(s) to Saint-Domingue...."] is pending completion.