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Feature

From Back Roads to Big City

American Music Finds a Voice

By Pedro Ponce | HUMANITIES, March/April 2003 | Volume 24, Number 2

By 1937 Fred Maddox had grown tired of picking fruit and cotton and decided to try show business. He and his family had ridden the rails from Alabama to central California in search of better fortunes. “We sold everything we had, we sold our two mules, wagon, milk cow, and all our furniture and got thirty dollars for ‘em, and this was in 1933,” he said.

But for them, the road to a better life would come through a friendly furniture storeowner who agreed to sponsor the musically talented family on the radio. The Maddoxes went from migrant laborers to stars of stage, radio, and eventually television with a musical repertoire that drew from styles as diverse as gospel, jazz, and blues. The Maddox Brothers and Rose were soon billed as “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band.”

The experience of the Maddox family brings to light the social and economic forces that helped shape American roots music. Their story is told along with dozens of others in Honky Tonks, Hymns, & The Blues, a thirteen-part radio series that will air weekly later this year on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

The radio series tracks musical shifts and innovations in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from the history of accordion music to the electrification of the guitar.

The evolution of country, blues, gospel, and other styles of music is a gauge of the social, economic, and technological transitions of the time. “Black and White: Crossing the Border, Closing the Gap” will deal with the interaction between white and black musicians when segregation was the norm in American culture. “In rural areas during the 1920s and 30s, of course there was some level of segregation,” says Kip Lornell, who teaches music and Africana studies at The George Washington University. “But a lot of the folks had very similar levels of income, the majority of them were sharecroppers, and the community dances were surprisingly integrated in central North Carolina at that time, so you would have white string bands, black string bands playing together and you’d have an interaction that engendered a shared repertoire.”

The rural music of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and elsewhere mingled in migrant working camps, bringing together different kinds of church music, fiddle music, and cowboy songs. “Because of the population that migrated to California, not only were there musicians who came, but an audience ready-made for that kind of music, and so dance halls and venues sprung up all through-- especially the central valley--coastal areas, Los Angeles as well,” says Charlie Seemann, executive director of the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada. Southwestern dance halls led to the rise of the honky-tonk, a place where working people could go to unwind and listen to music, and where stars like Hank Thompson, Kitty Wells, and Hank Williams got their start.

Bob Wills honed his blend of jazz and rural music--which came to be known as “Western Swing”--at roadhouses in Oklahoma and Texas. While it is easy to see Wills as an innovator, David C. Barnett, who produced the series segment on Wills and his music, emphasizes that there was a practical side to the fiddler’s play with musical genres.

“This is something he could do and he could make money doing this,” says Barnett, adding that Wills came from a poor family. Finding Hispanic audiences unreceptive to his fiddle playing, Wills started changing his sound--a decision that influenced the first song he wrote, “Spanish Two Step.” He reworked the song for nearly a decade, finally turning it into the hit “San Antonio Rose.” According to the Nashville Songwriters Foundation, Wills once commented, “Now, ‘San Antonio Rose’ is one instance of a mistake. We just did it! Nobody knew what we were doing. We just did something to get out of there.”

Kitty Wells came to prominence at a time when female musicians were gaining attention as performers in their own right. Wells’s song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” was a 1952 answer to Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life.” While tame by today’s standards, her song voiced sentiments then seen as so shocking that she was not allowed to perform it on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry:

It wasn’t God who made honky-tonk angels
As you said in the words of your song
Too many times married men think they’re still single
That has caused many a good girl to go wrong

“For her to say that,” says Barnett, “that was electrifying to the audience at that time and her record immediately became a number one song. Women were buying it and saying, ‘Yeah!’“

Cindy Walker was another figure who challenged gender barriers. “She marched right up to Bob Wills’s bus, banged on the bus and said, ‘I’ve got some songs,’“ says Kathleen Hudson, executive director of the Texas Heritage Music Foundation. Walker’s gamble paid off; she went on to write “Dusty Skies,” “Cherokee Maiden,” and other songs for Wills.

A century before the Maddoxes arrived in California, migration had been fueling musical innovation in the South. German immigrants brought the accordion with them to Louisiana and Texas. This instrument became an element of Cajun music and the fusion of European and Mexican styles known as música norteña or conjunto.

Migration was a crucial element in the development of the blues as well. The blues originally developed in the South as a hybrid of many different musical styles that included work songs, ragtime, and religious music.

“During the great migration in the teens and twenties, many African Americans left the rural South for two destinations,” says Lornell. “One was larger cities in the South--Memphis, Jackson, etc. And an even greater percentage of them moved up to the North--Chicago, Detroit, even as far north as Milwaukee and Minneapolis, in search of jobs and trying to get away from the Jim Crow South. And of course they brought with them all kinds of cultural artifacts, including blues.”

Chicago stood out as the city where the blues both relocated and adapted, giving rise to performers such as Tampa Red and Memphis Minnie and, later, to Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters.

Writing about Muddy Waters in his History of the Blues, Francis Davis says the amplification and the big beat Muddy added to his music “were necessary responses to the roar of the city, vehement attempts by him and his audiences to make themselves heard above the din. But you’ll listen in vain for references to Chicago’s stockyards and elevated trains in Muddy’s songs of the forties and fifties, or in the songs of those who followed in his path. What you’ll hear instead, over the slap of the drums, are shibboleths about black cat bones and mules kicking in their stalls. Even the singers’ accents sound Southern, as though they and their listeners were still living there.”

Muddy Waters and other artists such as Otis Spann would use amplified harmonicas and guitars to be heard over the din of small but noisy clubs. Through local labels such as the Chess Record Company, this sound would be heard across the country.

“Chess Records were very well distributed across the country,” says Lornell, “so people got to hear Muddy Waters with a small ensemble that would have included an acoustic bass, drums, piano, guitar, and harmonica. Then rock ‘n’ roll artists like Elvis Presley and others in the mid-1950s started to incorporate some of the blues form--twelve-bar blues form as well as the guitar as a lead instrument--and that’s one of the basic ingredients for the development of rock ‘n’ roll.”

Blues records were imported to Europe, Lornell continues, “which is how groups like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles heard Chicago blues, and Muddy Waters appeared in London as early as 1958.”

By this time, radio had become an important promotional tool for Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and Chicago’s National Barn Dance. These broadcasts helped build larger audiences and influence country stars such as Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.

Blues festivals today are seeing increasing attendance and younger artists such as Chris Thomas King are borrowing elements from the blues and combining them with rap music.

“The well of the blues is very deep and there’s not an American music form that’s not affected by the blues,” says Brett Bonner, interim editor of Living Blues magazine. “You listen to the songs and you hear things in there that are just core about what it is to be alive.”

Pedro Ponce is a writer in Denver, Colorado.

The University of Texas at San Antonio has received $110,000 in NEH support for the radio series Honky Tonks, Hymns, & the Blues. The program’s website is www.honkytonks.org.