Sing and Swing

Big Chief Henry's Indian String Band, 1920s

Big Chief Henry’s Indian String Band, 1920s


The two earliest distinctly American music forms – country music and the blues – are usually presumed to be a clear evolution of “white” and “black” musical traditions.

In other words, country music is presumed to find its ultimate origins in European music, while the blues are presumed to be rooted in African culture.

Regarding country music in particular, some people go even further, and attempt to pin its origins in specifically in the Protestant communities of 1700s Northern Ireland.

I’ve already written elsewhere and at length as to why this is a belief without foundation, so we’ll skip that argument for now.

Today, let’s throw another cat among the pigeons.

What if the blues didn’t originate in Africa at all?

Before anyone spits out their coffee, thinking it might be my intention to rob the blues from the early African-American musicians and singers who played and sang it, catch a breath and read on…


Let’s travel back in time to 1920s America, after the First World War, but before the Great Wall Street Crash of ’29.

The recording industry was still in its infancy, but showing signs of the boom to come.

Ethno-musicologists began to traipse into the mountains, swamps, and other rural places of America in order to document and collect old-time American folk music before it could be drowned under the oncoming tidal wave of record industry-produced “popular music”.

This was the golden age of field recording, and it was the first time that many of America’s city dwellers got to hear “Old Time” or “Blues” records, instead of marching bands and la-la-la songbirds and nasal crooners.

It is an old truism that people tend to see and notice the things they are looking for in the first place.  I have often said that Buddhists do not tend to see the face of Jesus on burnt toast.

The same could be said of music history.  People hear what they are expecting to hear.

Some of these early field recorders (like Alan Lomax), were magpies, eager to record and collect just about anything.

Other early field recorders of American folk music came looking to “collect” specific things.

Recorders like Cecil Sharp were specifically looking for connections between Southern Appalachian ballads and traditional English folk songs, hoping to draw a line of cultural continuity between musical traditions largely disappeared from an industrialised England, and a living tradition still clinging-on in rural Appalachia.

These folk historians, field recorders, and music enthusiasts did not say “Let’s just record everything we hear, and let others figure out where it came from”.

Even the most enlightened and sympathetic musicologists carried certain presumptions about the origins of the music they were documenting in the 1920s – whether it was the music being played and sung by “white” mountain folks, or by African-Americans.

Most of these early recorders and collectors of “black music” in particular just presumed that African-American musical traditions could – and should – be traceable back along a river with its ultimate source in Africa.

So these early recorders and collectors of “negro music” tended to focus on collecting music which THEY perceived as being distinctly “African-American music”, BECAUSE THEY HAD NO OTHER REFERENCE POINT FOR IT.

This act of unconscious “curation on the hoof” is why old-time ballads were more often recorded in Appalachian homes, and the blues were more often recorded in the Deep South.

This is also how “old-time” or “hillbilly” music (later called “country” music) came to be seen solely as “white” music, with the blues seen solely as “black” music.

If early field recorders of American folk music had chosen to simply record EVERYTHING being sung by “black”, “white”, and “brown” folks, a different picture might have emerged – one in which the lines between musical genres were far more fluid and blurred, with multiple styles being sung and played by all ethnic groups.

America being America – a nation built on capitalism and a racial caste system – music soon became a marketable and controllable commodity, and musical forms had to be slotted into “racial” categories in order to be marketed to their “target audience”.

Under the American binary race system, the music of the rural hinterlands and heartlands had to be clearly divisible into a European tradition, and an African tradition.

But that’s not how music works, and has never been how music works.


Let’s set aside for the time being the old-time ballads and blues laments which were being sung into a can for field recorders, and ask ourselves a question.

What would any of us – black, white, or other – sing or play into a microphone for a stranger who came asking for an old song today?

Would we sing the oldest one we knew?  Our favorite?  The one best suited to our own voice?  The one we remembered all the verses to?  The one our old fingers could pick on a banjo or guitar without stumbling?

As a child of the 60s and 70s, most of the songs I might be able to belt out today at a drunken karaoke night were written or performed by people like Sam Cooke, Waylon Jennings, or Simon and Garfunkel.

Does this say anything concrete about my ethnic background?

Of course, I have had access to far more musical variety than rural dwellers of the 1920s, but still.  Did the choice of music played and sung by people – even then – really say anything concrete about their ancestry?

So let’s leave aside “party pieces”, and ask what was actually happening on the ground during the 1920s – at county fairs, at medicine shows, in dancehalls and roadhouses…

What was being played and recorded in the 1920s by less self-conscious rural people when they felt unconstrained by ethnographers or researchers?

The answer would be mostly folk songs, ballads, gospel music, blues, rag and ragtime, swing, and early jazz.

And if we look back now – again with no agenda – and ask which ethnic groups were playing and recording all this music during the 1920s, what would the answer be?

The answer would be EVERYBODY.  Black, white, brown, or red.

Now, I can hear some people already saying “Okay, sure.  But you’re still talking about a mix of “black” and “white” musical traditions.  Blues music is still a “black” tradition, and country music is still a “white” tradition.”

Not so fast.

Ask yourself this.

Does the western swing music of Bob Wills or the yodelling of Jimmie Rodgers REALLY have any parallel in the ballad and folk traditions of the British Isles?

Can anyone, anywhere, actually demonstrate a clear similarity between southern blues and any traditional musical forms of West Africa?

Maybe, just maybe, the thing which nudged both African and European musical traditions into a distinctly “American” space was the 400-year-long influence of indigenous American music.

Chants.  Call and response.  Was the “chicka-ching” of indigenous dance the inspiration for swing?  And if it was, the very essence of jazz is “swing”…


This is not the place to recount the decades in which Euro-Americans shared a common physical and cultural space with the Cherokee, Choctaw, and other tribes in North Carolina, East Tennessee, Mississippi and North Georgia.

The decades before “The Trail of Tears” and wider Indian removal to reservations.

This is also not the place to explain how the Creek, Cherokee, and Choctaw (often as slaveholders), left an indelible cultural and genetic imprint on African-American peoples for centuries.

But this IS the place for asking why almost no one remembers that early blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf (born Chester Arthur Burnett) were part-descended from Choctaw people.

It is also a good place to mention that musicians like Howlin’ Wolf thoroughly idolised singers like Jimmie Rodgers.

Finally, it is a good place to ask why Choctaw Indian musical groups like Big Chief Henry’s Indian String Band were making proto-western swing music in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, years before Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys made the genre famous…


#BeforeWeWereWhite  #history  #ethnomusicology  #swing  #jazz  #folk  #CountryMusic  #IndigenousMusic

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