Music in the American South

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Photo caption

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Gift of Elsie M. Warnecke

(April 14, 2022)

From archival research on seventeenth-century Franco-Italian music and dance by scholars in Alabama to the expansion of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the exploration and celebration of music continues to thrive throughout the American South.

The birthplace of some of America’s most treasured musical traditions—such as country music in the hills of Tennessee and zydeco in the bayous of Louisiana—the South has a rich history of creating and adapting musical traditions from across cultures and countries.

Funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) supports institutions and individuals throughout the country in showcasing and expanding access to this scholarship through digital and physical museum exhibitions, research fellowships, education programs for K –12 and university teachers, and more. Explore some recent NEH-supported projects from Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and Arkansas focusing on music and its connections to the humanities.  

As ethnomusicologist Patrick Burke said in his 2015 piece for Humanities magazine, “What is Music”: “Whatever your source of inspiration, ethnomusicology demonstrates that making music is a fundamental part of what it means to be human.” Read a special 2020 issue of NEH’s Humanities magazine on music and the humanities here.

Courtesy of the Delta Blues Museum

The Story of America’s Music
Delta Blues Museum | Clarksdale, Mississippi
Division of Public Programs

In Clarksdale, Mississippi, situated at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, you’ll find the “land where the blues began” and the first museum devoted entirely to this uniquely American musical tradition. Since its establishment in 1979, the Delta Blues Museum has worked to preserve the history and culture of blues. Through exhibits and online programs, the museum takes audiences through the story of blues music, from its origins in the spirituals and work songs of enslaved people in the deep South through the Great Migration of the twentieth century to today.

In 2018, NEH supported the museum’s expansion with a grant for a new 9,000 square-foot home for “The Story of America’s Music” exhibition. The new installation is an immersive, interactive experience, allowing audiences to connect with the blues musicians who developed the genre’s signature sound and worked towards social change through their music, including B.B. King and Muddy Waters. Visit the museum online with virtual tours from contemporary artists, including Christone “Kingfish” Ingram.

Take a virtual tour of the Delta Blues Museum today!

See grant funding opportunities for museums, historic sites, archives, and more at NEH’s Division of Public Programs

Suiting the Sound: The Rodeo Tailors Who Made Country Stars Shine Brighter
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum | Nashville, Tennessee
Division of Public Programs

The costume is the first impression, and it should be flashy.” – rodeo tailor Nudie Cohn

Since the late 1940s, musicians from Nashville to New York have dazzled stages and red carpets with custom western wear. Through “Suiting the Sound,” a new digital exhibit made possible by an NEH CARES grant in 2020, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is giving unprecedented access to the story and works of the rodeo tailors who created the iconic rhinestone cowboy image of classic country music.

From the tailor shops of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, this exhibit tells the story of the American dream and one of the nation’s most treasured musical genres through fashion. The “Suiting the Sound” exhibition features couture suits, historical photographs from design studios and stages, and videos of designers and performers, including Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner, Jenny Lewis, and Lil Nas X. Museum CEO Kyle Young explains “a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities enabled the museum to create this novel exhibit platform. With it, we are not only able to reshare the story of the artists and musicians who helped to broaden Nashville’s reputation as a true Music City, but also to tell a new story, that of the clothiers who created unmistakable designs that are now synonymous with country music.”

Visit the “Suiting the Sound” exhibition online now.

See grant funding opportunities offered through NEH’s Division of Public Programs.

New Orleans: Music, Culture, and Civil Rights
Tulane University | New Orleans, Louisiana
Division of Education Programs

In the summer of 2017 and 2019, teachers from across the country traveled to New Orleans for a once-in-a-lifetime experience at Tulane University, supported by an NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture grant. A five-day workshop, New Orleans: Music, Culture, and Civil Rights, took educators on a tour of New Orleanian music and culture, exploring the city’s evolution and what it can teach us about the story of and continued quest for civil rights in America.

“The workshop is designed — through the profound teachings that New Orleans and our workshop team offer — to strengthen teachers’ abilities to be intellectually and emotionally present for a variety of student experiences and discussions,” explains Rebecca Snedeker, executive director of the program. Through the workshop, K–12 educators analyzed how New Orleanian residents have used art and music to address inequalities and harsh social conditions within the city. At the end of the workshop, teachers returned home with lesson plans for their classrooms.

Learn more about the program here.

Explore grant funding opportunities offered through NEH’s Division of Education Programs.


Rockabilly Exhibition
Arkansas State University Museum | Jonesboro, Arkansas
Division of Public Programs

A 2016 NEH grant supported development of Arkansas State University Museum’s permanent Rockabilly exhibition. A sub-genre of rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly music is distinctly Southern, born from the blues and the genres that sprung from it, like bluegrass and honky-tonk. Like many cultural traditions from the South, rockabilly sound was influenced by music from both Black and white artists throughout the generations, emerging into the mainstream after World War II.

The exhibition highlights Northeast Arkansas’s important but little-known contributions to this national sound. Marti Allen, former director of the ASU Museum, explains that in post-World War II Arkansas, “things were very hard on rural populations, both Black and white, who lost their livelihoods on farms due to mechanization. As they struggled in miserable conditions with racism rampant all around, they reveled in a rich repertoire of music at home, work, and church. Rockabilly was the product of these disenfranchised people in rural America.”

Learn more about the Arkansas State University Museum and plan a visit here.

View NEH grant opportunities from the Division of Public Programs.

A performance from Morgan Sexton: Banjo Player from Bull Creek (1991), courtesy of Appalshop Archives

American Rescue Plan: Preserving and Improving Access to Appalshop’s Humanities Collections
Appalshop | Whitesburg, Kentucky
Division of Preservation & Access

In the Eastern Kentucky mountains, Appalshop has been documenting and preserving the culture and traditions of Appalachia’s rolling hills since 1969. For decades, NEH has supported their work, awarding grants from multiple divisions to preserve film, audio recordings, photographs, and other artifacts. Most recently, Appalshop was awarded an NEH pandemic relief grant through the American Rescue Plan to help the organization retain staff and expand online access to its archival collections on Appalachian history and culture, as well as grants in 2021 and 2020 from NEH’s Division of Preservation and Access to digitize audiovisual materials documenting Appalachia’s coal mining history and improve storage conditions to safeguard its paper collection and an estimated 1.8 million feet of film footage recorded between 1969 and 2000.

Released in 1991, Morgan Sexton: Banjo Player from Bull Creek tells the story of the 80-year-old banjo layer and National Heritage Fellowship recipient, exploring the connection between banjo music and social conditions in Appalachia. Through interviews and conversations with his nephew and fellow banjo player, Lee Sexton, Morgan recounts his life and music, intercut with performances of classic songs. Through the rich collection of documentary materials preserved by Appalshop, the tradition of music in Appalachia is more accessible than ever to global audiences.

Visit the Appalshop Archive here.

S­­­ee grant opportunities offered through NEH’s Division of Preservation and Access


Italian Music in Louis XIV’s France
Don Fader, University of Alabama | Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Division of Research Programs

Each year, NEH’s Division of Research Programs awards fellowships that enable individual scholars and teachers at colleges and universities to pursue advanced research on topics in the humanities, usually with the aim of producing a book or article for either academic or general audiences.  In 2016, Don Fader, a professor of musicology at the University of Alabama, received this competitive award to research the social, intellectual, and musical exchange between France and Italy during the reign of French King Louis XIV.

In his resulting book, Music, Dance and Franco-Italian Cultural Exchange, c. 1700, Fader draws upon newly discovered records at the National Library of France to trace the intertwined careers of Charles-Henri de Lorraine, governor of Milan from 1698 to 1706, and French violinist and composer Michel Pignolet de Montéclair to show how cultural exchanges between Italy and France influenced music and dance styles in the era before the cosmopolitan epoch of Handel and Vivaldi.

Learn more about this exciting research here.

See grant opportunities offered through NEH’s Division of Research Programs.