Music Maker Pulls Back the Curtain
inTheir Needson February 23, 2017
Many Americans are uncomfortable with the very idea of black people living in the rural South. “Black” plus “rural,” for them, evokes images of slavery and of the “Strange Fruit” hanging from Southern trees that Billie Holiday so hauntingly sang about. This discomfort is reflected in the mass media’s tacit erasure of anything connecting black folks to the country. Newspapers and TV news programs routinely use “inner-city” as a synonym for “black,” or speak of “urban culture” when talking about aspects of black life. FM radio formats that appeal to African American audiences are called “Urban Contemporary,” even when the format is carried by a station located in a rural area. It’s as if there’s a large-scale attempt to free ourselves from a painful past by permanently severing black people from the idea of the rural.
The reality is that the majority of black Americans live in the South—millions of them in rural areas. African Americans make up over 30% of the rural population in states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina (according to the 2010 census). When we buy into the idea that black culture is “urban culture,” we make it far too easy to ignore the lives and stories of all of these people.
Music Maker strives to give these people a platform to share their culture and stories. And what incredibly rich treasures they have shared! Just look, for example, at a few of Music Maker’s foundational artists who are profiled in the documentary Toot Blues. The eccentric blues philosopher Guitar Gabriel. The warm yet formidable, snake-handling Willa Mae Buckner. The blind Cootie Stark, fearless and unstoppable. There is nothing at all flat or predictable or stereotypical about the lives of these folks. And in their songs and stories lives a fascinating history that, sadly, much of American society has simply ignored.
As a white kid growing up in a small North Carolina town, my experience of Black History was basically this: every February in grade school, the Black History Month worksheets would go around. They contained a list of familiar names—Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr. We memorized the names, matched them with a few key accomplishments, and then we moved on. Of course, these figures heroically altered race relations in this country and deserve their place in the pantheon. But by learning Black History in this way, we students got the message that everyday African Americans—particularly those in the rural South—may aspire to Black History, but do not actually belong to it.
We lose so much when we acquiesce to these views—that Black History can be summed up by the achievements of a few great people who valiantly challenged racism, and that, thanks to them, black culture is now “urban culture,” severed finally from its sordid rural past. The work of Music Maker artists over the years attests to the multifaceted richness of the Black History that is passed down by older African Americans in the rural South. The thing about this Black History, though, is that we have to seek it out; and we have support the folks who carry it if we want it to be shared. It doesn’t come in a pre-digested form like the stuff on those grade school worksheets. It comes in stories and tunes. In the indomitable rhythm of a fingerpicked guitar. In the flash of an unguarded smile. In a despite-this-old-age swagger. In the weird words to those old songs that are simultaneously straightforward and mysterious. It’s a history lesson with a humanity that those in school never had, and it is way more fun to learn.
— Will Boone PhD