Culture  /  Debunk

Rewriting Country Music's Racist History

Artists like Yola and Rhiannon Giddens are blowing up what Giddens calls a “manufactured image of country music being white and being poor.”
A woman with an Afro and wearing a flowered dress holds an electric-acoustic guitar and sings into a microphone.
AP Images/Amy Harris

How is it possible that a manufactured story comes to pass as established common knowledge? Rhiannon Giddens has been trying to expose the lie for years. Through her music, through her writing, through her speaking — by any means necessary.

Giddens has made a career of resurrecting. She’s a brilliant and acclaimed musician, and she’s also a historian of Americana. Her music — both as a solo artist and as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops — skillfully weaves black experiences, history, and roots and Americana music. That includes infusing her songs with slave narratives and difficult histories. In 2017, she received the illustrious MacArthur Foundation grant, the one sometimes called the “genius grant.”

“The idea of what country music is has been carefully constructed to seem like it was always white,” she says. I ask her why people don’t know the history of country music. This is not her first rodeo: She’s got this answer down to a science. “White supremacy,” she tells me. “There is no other way to put it: It was constructed by numerous people as part of the white-supremacy movement.”

Before long, she’s rhyming off examples. “You know, Henry Ford would hold fiddle competitions and forbid black people from entering. … Folk festivals were thinly-veiled attempts to recast the music as white mountain music, as part of a project to create a white ethnicity.”

At the turn of the 20th century, Giddens tells me, “half of the string bands are black. Within 20 or 30 years, you have complete erasure because what gets recorded is what gets remembered.”

Peer’s travels take him across the South, but he certainly does not record every artist he comes across. At a time where commercial record sales are exploding, what gets recorded is political. “What they leave out is more important than what they record,” Giddens says. “And what they didn’t record was massive.”

I mention one of country music’s foundational groups — the Carter Family, a Peer discovery. “Yes, but A.P. Carter didn’t know how to write music,” she says. “So who did he take with him to gather the songs? Lesley Riddle, who could take them to black churches.”

Riddle was instrumental to the success of the Carter Family, memorizing melodies while Carter transcribed lyrics. Today, the Carters are in the pantheon of country, but there’s a good chance the last paragraph was the first time you’ve heard Lesley Riddle’s name.

The image starts to come together pretty quickly. First, you exclude black people from the festivals. Then write them out by not recording them. And pretty soon, “you have this manufactured image of country music being white and being poor.”

“But when a narrative is that clean,” Giddens warns, “somebody wrote it.”

Country music has been packaged as music for white audiences. But it’s not like the apparatuses set up to promote and celebrate black people have been eager to embrace country, either. If country is going to reject black people, black people will reject country, too.

I put this to Giddens, and she offers a theory: “It’s wrapped up in our culture, which is forward-looking, while country is a music of nostalgia.” Do black audiences not gravitate to nostalgia? “Nostalgia ain’t really our bag. We keep moving forward. So we bought into the idea that country is white music, hook, line, and sinker.

“Lots of us think there ain’t nothing for us in that nostalgia.”