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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Racism and Popular Music in the 1940s

     The conventional wisdom when it comes to the creation of rock and roll is that it is a musical combination of country music and rhythm and blues: both of which have there own distinct categories.  The primary division in these categories was race: white people played country music and black people played rhythm and blues.     From the perspective of the music industry institutions during this period, they saw the audience in terms of race.  Racism in the marketplace was institutionalized to an extent that it almost apriori in any discussion of music industry institutions.

      When you look at the creation of a musical genre like rock and roll, you can't underestimate the impact of racism on the behavior of institutions.  Institutions are inherently conservative: amalgamations of people who share mental attitudes while being focused on the common goal of the 'bottom line.'

      Before Country and Western was called "Country and Western" it was called several different things by Billboard Magazine as well as the general public, following the lead of the institutions of the culture industry.  First of all, Country and Western was wholly subsumed within the larger category of "Folk" almost from inception.  In the 1940s, Billboard Magazine created a Folk category that included Hillbilly, Western and Americana.  The important fact to understand here is that Hillbilly WAS Country music.  It wasn't like, a sub-category of Country music- it WAS Country.

     Ok, now if you then stack up the economic impact of hillbilly music in the 40s and 50s up against rhythm and blues:  There's no comparison.  Hillbilly music was big business BEFORE Billboard started covering it in 1943.  Hillbilly music was big business before the recording industry itself grew to maturity.  Rhythm and Blues still didn't 'exist' in the same way.   This reality has been obscured by two generations of  music critics focusing on neglected blues artists.  The economic discrimination, explicit and overt, negatively impacted the ability of African American artists and business people to reach the mass media audience that had been invented by Radio and Television.

      The impact of racisim on music was to push African American artists towards experimentation and improvisation, while white artists were pushed toward increased sophistication of arrangement and vocal technique.  Undoubtably, the experience of racism in the day-to-day lives of skilled  African American musicians-artist-professioinals would induce the kind of creativity that has historically led to great art in many western settings.  Hillybilly music was different only because white artists  both shared some of the same values and methods as African American musicians in blues and jazz.   At the same time, the music industry was cognizant of the market value of Hillbilly music at a much earlier point in time then they were aware of a similar value in rythtym and blues.  The hits of the late 1940s are neither hillbilly nor 'race records' but hillbilly is a lot closer to breaking through.

    As a result of the percolation of African American artistic technique into the market for Hillybilly music, audience taste was transformed and developed a new found appreciation for the experimentation with vocals and instrurments that characterized the music produced by Hillbilly artists in the 30s and 40s.

    One of the areas to look at here would be the way that non-Hillbilly pop music in the 1940s incorporated vocal or insturmental techniques from Hillbilly recordings.  Presumably, there was a period before Hillbilly records were being marketed to the general 'pop' audience, where music industry professionals analyzed the techniques involved even as they eschewed the style itself and you would be able to observe some level of infiltration.  The incorporation of rawer techniques from blues into popular music would have to wait another decade, giving Hillbilly/Country a decade head start in impacting general audience taste in the United States market for popular music.

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