headshot of Alice Randall and her yellowish-colored book cover

A Journey Through Country Music’s Black Past, Present and Future: Alice Randall

American country music has black origins, but that’s been badly erased. So Black artists are often viewed as exceptions rather than representative of a long unbroken chain.

That’s from the new book from pioneering songwriter Alice Randall titled “My Black Country: A Journey Through Country Music’s Black Past, Present, and Future.”

This book has a soundtrack of black artists covering Randall’s tracks, and I found it from a Marketplace interview. Randall’s writing is captivating and soulful. She honors and respects country music, and country culture even though she’s had a complicated career turning, as she writes, “wound into sound.”

As a lifetime country music fan, she deepened my understanding of the genre — and Black culture and American identity. She complicates how we should view these relationships.

Of one, she artfully writes: “The South is the abusive mother of black culture but the mother nonetheless.”

Below I share my notes from the book for future reference.

My notes:

  • Her first chapter is especially great, effective and beautiful. Here is one defining section: “WHAT IS BLACK COUNTRY? Harlan Howard said that Country Music was three chords and the truth. I’ve said Country Music is three chords and four very particular truths: life is hard, God is real, whiskey and roads and family provide worthy compensations, and the past is better than the present. That last truth is one of the places where Country experiences a racial split. In the world of white Country, the past that is better than the present exists in a longed for and lost mythical Dixie. In Black Country, the past that is better than the present exists in a longed for and lost Africa before colonization. In my life it was the Detroit past that was better than the Washington, D.C., present. My ancestors come from Cameroon, Nigeria, and Mali and they come from Scotland, England, and Ireland. A common way to define Country Music is that it is American folk music that has Celtic, African, and Evangelical Christian influences. Twenty-eight percent Scottish, twenty-one percent English, sixteen percent Cameroonian, and fifteen percent Nigerian is the rough estimate I’ve been given of the ethnic identities of my ancestors based on an analysis of my DNA. I am embodied Country Music.”
  • “A difference between black country and blues? Black country, because of its embrace of evangelical Christianity, embraces hope.”
  • 1890s Black Bohees banjo duets predate famous (white) Bristol sessions and far earlier than the 1973 dueling banjos
  • 1624: she imagines first black baby born in colonies, William Tucker, being sung by his mother a mix of English ballads and African melodies
  • Author calls December 10 1927 the day black country was born, with Deford Bailey’s Pan American blues
  • She describes the erasure of the black origins of country music: age is a great messenger for this story; maybe country music should be seen as black first
  • Elsie Riddle trained Carter family songs ; he had eight fingers and played in a way that informed Marbella’s Carter family scratch sound
  • Lil Hardin influences Jimmie Rodger’s; Hardin did blue yodel 9 with Louie Armstrong and Rodger’s
  • Bill c Malone lie: country music is black influenced without black presence
  • Will the Circle be Unbroken: author calls part of black country canon
  • Author mentions her rape, and naming it is part of her power
  • Roberta flack fist time I saw your face
  • Swamp dogg
  • Jimmy cliff
  • Stoney Edwards
  • Lefty Frizzell ‘s biography by his brother says Lefty learned guitar by a Black man
  • Author’s Harvard roommate was coincidentally a country music exec
  • Frustrated by black absence in Smithsonian collection of Country Music from 1981, she begins her commitment to telling black and progressive stories or “preaching to the unconverted” where most liberal friends preferred to focus on already converts
  • Calls the “Sunny War Band” what she had been waiting for
  • Ronnie Grant wrote author that she has “no talent whatsoever “
  • Deford Bailey gave Roy acuff and the Opry a leg up
  • Steve Earle was an early songwriting mentor and partner for the author, and Diana Haig in Nashville
  • Fairfield Four early influence with gospel
  • Kossi Gardiner space country music
  • Wabash cannonball version by Blind Willi McTell
  • Deford Bailey a father of country music
  • Tells story of pitching Quincy Jones in his Bel Air home on her screenplay of cosmic colored cowboy, after being let in
  • Ray Charles, Bill Withers and Lionel Richie called part of black country (and part of why Los Angeles is the heart of black country
  • Herb Jeffries black singing cowboy as independent voice: not imitating white cowboys but echoing black cowboys (lil Nas X is a descendent culturally)
  • “Horse operas supplied country music with a visual grammar”
  • Wooten bothers
  • “The south is the abusive mother of black culture but the mother nonetheless”
  • “Change wound into sound”
  • P. 148 shoutout for The Links group founded in Philadelpia
  • A copy of Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird is visible in Reba’s Is There Life Out There, because Alice learned Maya liked county music and wanted to nod to it
  • The Thing Called Love” country movie was promising but didn’t include blackness — despite the author’s efforts
  • Her song “Xxx and Oos” came to her while in the shower after forgetting to send her daughter with her permission slip; that song went number 1 and had her as only black woman photo in Sony offices
  • Tells story of “blonde shark” publisher pressuring her to sign a deal after her big hit signing away the money from the hit, to which “BS” said “it’s my job to cheat you if I can”
  • She’s told: “love is largely a matter of paying attention”
  • On the anniversary of her 1974 15-yr old rape she sent her abuser a cake
  • Pointer Sisters won country Grammy for Fairytale but not celebrated
  • “Country and Western” genre: the “and western” refers to cowboys in Southwest like black cowboys
  • The 1907 collection “Songs of the cowboys” by Jack Thorp, though author questions whether this white man would have been given full songs by black cowboys
  • “Lil Nas x returns the black body to the minstrel stage —then burns the stage down”
  • “Confederate gallery” covered over for Aretha Franklin’s Opry performance (but Linda Martell had to see it in her debut)
  • Dorothy height
  • In the acknowledgements cites Trisha Yearwood and Garth brooks (him for “cutting” her a “square” deal in 21st century)

Leave a Reply