Sing Me Back Home: Southern Roots and Country Music

Sing Me Back Home: Southern Roots and Country Music

by Bill C. Malone

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For over fifty years, Bill C. Malone has researched and written about the history of country music. Today he is celebrated as the foremost authority on this distinctly American genre. This new collection brings together his significant article-length work from a variety of sources, including essays, book chapters, and record liner notes. Sing Me Back Home distills a lifetime of thinking about country and southern roots music.

Malone offers the heartfelt story of his own working-class upbringing in rural East Texas, recounting how in 1939 his family’s first radio, a battery-powered Philco, introduced him to hillbilly music and how, years later, he went on to become a scholar in the field before the field formally existed. Drawing on a hundred years of southern roots music history, Malone assesses the contributions of artists such as William S. Hays, Albert Brumley, Joe Thompson, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Gimble, and Elvis Presley. He also explores the intricate relationships between black and white music styles, gospel and secular traditions, and pop, folk, and country music.

Author of many books, Malone is best known for his pioneering volume County Music, U.S.A., published in 1968. It ranks as the first comprehensive history of American country music and remains a standard reference. This compilation of Malone’s shorter—and more personal—essays is the perfect complement to his earlier writing and a compelling introduction to the life’s work of America’s most respected country music historian.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806158501
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 02/17/2017
Series: American Popular Music Series , #1
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 14 MB
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Read an Excerpt

Sing Me Back Home

Southern Roots and Country Music

By Bill C. Malone


Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5850-1



Growing Up in the South and Writing the History of Its Music

I was honored and delighted when Professor John Boles, a historian at Rice University in Houston and onetime editor of the Journal of Southern History, asked me to be part of a group of southern historians who were asked to describe how their personal histories contributed to the kinds of academic histories that they wrote. This essay was first published in Shapers of Southern History (2004), edited by John Boles. While my original decision to write a doctoral dissertation on the subject of country music was rather accidental and unexpected, the actual tone that the subject assumed, for good or ill, was powerfully shaped by my having grown up in a southern working-class home.

* * *

I AM NOT ONE OF THOSE TEXANS WHO DENIES HIS SOUTHERN ROOTS. You know the kind. They argue that Texas is an exceptional place that somehow escaped the sin, guilt, and hidebound traditionalism that marks the southern experience. This argument, of course, is central to the Texas Mystique. In country music scholarship, the denial comes from those who rail against the corporate Nashville establishment and instead stress the alleged freedom and experimentation of such Texas musicians as Bob Wills and Willie Nelson and the Austin Outlaws and argue that this spiritual and psychological expansiveness derives from the vastness of the Texas landscape and the diversity of its culture. This conception, it seems to me, is essentially a West Texas vision and is of course linked to the romance of cowboys and the limitless western range.

My little corner of sandy and red-clay East Texas soil, with its wide variety of deciduous and pine trees, was thoroughly southern until the oilmen, bankers, and developers came in and appropriated the land and its resources. It was settled by folks who began coming into the area before the Civil War from thoroughly southern places like north Alabama and Mississippi, Tennessee, and North Carolina. If they knew for sure where their ancestors came from across the waters, they seldom passed the information on to children and their offspring. Local surnames such as Browning, Maxfield, Starr, Boyd, Bogue, Nipp, Goode, Gilbert, Owens, and Malone suggest that they came from various parts of Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, and even the European continent. The Foshees on my paternal side, for example, apparently arrived on the South Atlantic coast as part of a Huguenot French immigration. Some of the people claimed an Indian admixture, and my relatives were no exception. My mother spoke proudly of her grandmother's alleged Indian extraction. I suspect that most white people represented that glorious and untraceable mixture of ethnicity that virtually defined the South. Some of the white settlers brought slaves, and the culture that they created bore the marks of an interrelation between the two peoples — in folklore, foodways, religion, speech patterns — that had begun long before the trek to East Texas was made.

Most black people in our area lived nearby, only a couple of miles down the Willow Flat Road in the Clear Springs community. Blacks and whites frequently worked side by side, in the fields or at clearing off the land. White people often attended revivals at the black community, Clear Springs, in the Baptist and Church of God in Christ congregations, sitting in segregated sections. As a child, it was exciting to hear the music and watch the black church people dance, but for me, the most joyful aspects of the revivals were the stands that sold fried catfish and homemade ice cream. Yet I would never presume to romanticize this relationship. Even though some miscegenation occurred, and my parents could point out individuals who were the progeny of such relationships, we remained keenly aware of a social line that could not be crossed. White supremacy and racial segregation prevailed. Children easily absorbed the etiquette of racial relations and the hurtful attitudes that accompanied them. I remember one day when a fire broke out down in the pasture. A small cousin and I reflexively agreed, "I bet them niggers did it." The older folks had an even more malevolent heritage to deal with, because they still talked about a grim and grisly incident from the not-too-distant past, the burning alive of a black man on Tyler's courthouse square. In some ways that shameful incident paled before another local event, because it involved people that we knew. A man and his son, presumably drunk, went into a black home, began tossing an infant to and from each other, purely for sport, until the child died from a head injury. They were taken into custody but ultimately went unpunished.

We called our little community "Galena," and for a brief period around the turn of the twentieth century we even had a post office bearing the name. I don't know why or how the name was chosen. As far as I know, no lead deposits were ever found there. The name just sounded pretty, I suppose, although most people I knew pronounced it G'leener. One does find occasional references to a nearby two-room school, Elm Grove (pronounced Ellem Grove) or to the Wells' Gin Community (inspired by one of the names given to the cotton gin that long thrived there), and, recognizing a habit that was well-nigh universal among young and old, male and female, and blacks and whites, some observers called it "Snuff City." If a poll had been taken among local farmers selecting America's most renowned men, the name of the great snuff maker, Levi Garrett, would have ranked very high.

Located about twenty miles west of Tyler, and eighty miles east of Dallas, Galena consisted of widely scattered farmsteads that extended across the Smith and Van Zandt county lines. Paul Terry and Verner Sims, in their study of a similar community in Alabama, They Live on the Land (1940), had described such entities as "Open-Country Communities." Galena had no central or easily definable core, although at least three local institutions provided some social cohesion: the cotton gin that was located at the intersection of Willow Flat and Carroll Roads; the Elm Grove two-room schoolhouse; and the Tin Top Pentecostal Church. Cotton ruled the economy, and although a few semi-prosperous men owned their farms, most people lived as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, paying the owners a share of what they produced. When the Great Depression arrived in 1929, people in my part of East Texas already knew hard times and deprivation, a legacy of Civil War defeat and one-crop agriculture.

A rough equality prevailed at social gatherings — in church, at the cotton gin, at the little country store that functioned at the crossroads, or at country dances — but tenants and other poor farmers paid deference to their "betters" with respectful words and a tip of the hat. People always knew who ranked above and below them. If humble farmers recognized the existence of those above them on the social scale, they also knew that some white people deserved only contempt. Poverty itself was not a disgrace, because most people were poor. I don't remember ever hearing the word "trash" used to describe poor farmers. The preferred word was "sorry," and it was reserved for those who would not work, or who let their livestock run freely into their neighbors' fields, or who led morally contemptible lives.

I entered this world on August 25, 1934, the third son of Cleburne and Maude Owens Malone. I was born at home on the Bracken place (owned by a family in Tyler), in a little four-room, tin-roofed "boxed" house (with walls made secure by one-by-three strips of wood nailed over the cracks between vertically aligned one-by-twelve boards). A porch, or gallery as we described it, ran along the front of the house, about two feet off the ground, and just high enough that our dogs could find refuge there during rainstorms or the blazing heat of summer. Since the interior walls were unlined, Daddy placed cardboard on the walls of the "living room" to lend some insulation and protection against winter winds. A few pictures, some religious mottoes with inscriptions like "Only one life it will soon be past. Only what's done for Christ will last," and some hoary and long out-of-date calendars that had pleasant or comic illustrations, decorated the walls.

The floors had no rugs or linoleum, and the cracks were so wide in some areas that we could see the chickens scratching underneath the house. Only one room — the front room — had a ceiling. In the other three we could see the rafters, and the rain often seeped through. Our interior furnishings can best be described as modest and minimal: two beds, a few straight chairs (with seats generally made of closely woven binder twine), a kitchen table that Daddy had made, a small desk, a dresser, a sturdy high chair that was passed down from son to son, a kitchen pie safe (complete with built-in flour sifter), and a couple of wires strung up in the bedrooms where our meager supply of clothes hung. Privacy was hard to come by in this little house. My brothers slept with each other in one bed, and I slept with my father and mother in the other one. I do not recall where visitors slept, but I'm sure that pallets were often called into use.

My mother certainly spent too many precious moments bending over the big iron kitchen cook stove to regard it with any affection, but the rest of us felt it our home's most cherished centerpiece. Since the rigors of farmwork required it, meals were always substantial and, because we generally managed to maintain a garden, relatively balanced. We produced our own pork and poultry and sometimes had fried catfish or perch caught from Caney Creek down in the pasture or from Boyd Water (a locally named portion of the Neches River). Beef was highly prized but seldom consumed, largely because of the difficulty of preservation. During much of my childhood on the Bracken Place we had no icebox but instead wrapped a quilt around a block of ice and kept it in a firebox (where kindling for the fireplace was kept). We kept milk fresh by placing it in a tightly sealed syrup bucket, wrapping it securely with burlap, and lowering it into the well. At the time I did not comprehend just how much backbreaking labor and ingenuity had gone into the production of things that I took for granted. I only knew that the cornbread, fluffy biscuits, white gravy, sausage patties, pinto beans, homemade tomato soup, and Christmas pastries that graced our table when times were good were among the most sublime elements of country life.

My southernness and sense of history seem to have been Malone traits. My father, Patrick Cleburne Malone, named for a martyred Confederate general, was the son of Laura Foshee and Thomas Jefferson Malone, who in turn was the son of William Carroll Malone (named for a onetime Democratic governor of Tennessee). My parents were born in Van Zandt County, Texas — Daddy near the now-vanished community of Owlet Green, and my mother in the similarly defunct village of Primrose, not far from Edom. If opposites attract, then their union seems foreordained. He was quiet, and she was talkative. He generally held back his feelings but could explode into a furious rage. She was impulsive, and we always knew what was on her mind. He resisted going to church; she was passionately religious. He couldn't carry a tune; she was a wonderful singer. Both were intelligent and gifted individuals whose talents were unfulfilled or unrecognized, partly because of poverty and inadequate education but also because they lacked the will to seek new challenges. My mother longed to go places and see new things, but she never learned how to drive and permitted herself to remain confined most of her life to a relatively narrow strip of East Texas soil. My father spent most of his life as a farmer but could master any mechanical puzzle put before him. Yet he would take few risks and consequently remained a wage laborer all his life. The marriage was probably a mistake, but they stayed together for forty-eight years, until Mama died in 1971.

The house where I was born, and where I lived for the first ten years of my life, was about a mile and a half from the crossroads where the cotton gin and little country store sat. Daddy was a cotton tenant farmer, working the land with a mule and plow, and relying on the help of his wife and my two older brothers, Wylie and Kelly, for picking, hoeing, and other tasks related to farm life. The crop year began with a visit to Tyler and the general supply store — Caldwell, Hughes, Delay and Allen — where Daddy bought on credit needed merchandise for the coming year — cotton sacks, overalls, plow lines, bridles, and related material. After the cotton was ginned, he paid his bills and invariably found himself in debt, a situation that was carried over from year to year. Ours was a semi-isolated existence until 1939, when Daddy bought our first battery-powered Philco radio. I remember going to Dallas only once during the ten years that I lived on the farm, but if we could hitch a ride with some neighbor — usually Jess Starr, who owned an old beat-up truck — we might make it in to Tyler, twenty miles away, a couple of times a year (usually around Christmastime or during the East Texas Fair). Through the blessings of rural free delivery we did receive newspapers, religious and political tracts, and the Sears-Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs; and periodically a peddler made his rounds in the countryside, bringing us useful household items, candy, and gossip from the outside world. Otherwise, we were a true folk community that depended on its own resources and the time-tested traditions of our ancestors. Our lighting came from coal-oil lamps, our heat from woodstoves, and our water from a backyard well. The alum-infested water, however, was distasteful to drink and hard to wash clothes with. Mama caught some rainwater in a barrel, but she often went down to a spring in the pasture to wash our clothes. Wylie or Kelly would hitch one of the mules to a sled and transport the big black wash pot and our load of clothes down to the spring.

We permitted no blade of grass to grow in the yard but instead kept it swept clean with a rake and a home-made broom. I'm not sure that anyone ever stopped to think of why we did it — it was just one of the traditions we inherited — but swept yards were easier to maintain than grass-carpeted ones and would not harbor snakes. When we felt the call of nature, we made the trek to the outdoor privy, using pages from magazines or Sears catalogs as our toilet paper. On very cold nights, though, we had to resort to the appropriately named slop jar. As a consequence, bodily needs were too often repressed for much of the night. Medically, our treatment can only be described as substandard. We never went to the dentist and consulted a doctor only for the most severe ailments. Some of our neighbors occasionally visited old Mrs. Blackstock, who had the reputation of being a healer, someone who could cure complaints with her homemade concoctions or with appropriate scriptural incantations. One biblical verse, it was said, could even stop bleeding. My mother preferred to trust her own prayers, or those of her friends, but sometimes we had to resort to professional medical assistance. Dr. Montgomery occasionally drove his Model A Ford coupe down from Van to make house calls when we were seriously ill, but most problems were treated with coal oil, liniment, Alka-Seltzer, Grove's Chill Tonic, castor oil, or other patent medicines or home remedies.

One finds little romance, then, in those farm days in East Texas in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Life was often hard and lonely, but it was enlivened by periodic occasions of social intercourse — Christmas (the only time that oranges and apples entered the house), baseball games, fish fries down at Boyd Water, house parties (the commonly used designation for country dances, or what had once been called "frolics"), all-day singings, brush arbor revival meetings, quilting parties, ice-cream suppers, funerals, Sunday gatherings at Grandma Malone's, school closings, domino games (the new game of "42" was all the rage in the mid-1930s), and occasional trips to Canton for First Monday, a mule-trading day that has since become a giant flea market. Visiting, though, was the most common form of conviviality and even unscheduled trips were welcomed. I was always bemused when Miss Winnie Smith visited, because in her mind all useful philosophy came from the Holy Scriptures. During one of my childish frustrations, for example, she declared, "Just remember, Billy, as the Bible says 'if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.'" If a family's visit came at a time when the crops were "laid by," or when no urgent farm task was impending, the host family would often pack up the wagon and immediately follow the visiting family back home.


Excerpted from Sing Me Back Home by Bill C. Malone. Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Credits and Acknowledgments,
INTRODUCTION: Gathering, Reflecting, and Rethinking,
1. "SING ME BACK HOME": Growing Up in the South and Writing the History of Its Music,
2. NEITHER ANGLO-SAXON NOR CELTIC: The Music of the Southern Plain Folk,
4. WILLIAM S. HAYS: The Bard of Kentucky,
5. STRANGER PASSING THROUGH YOUR TOWN: Jimmie Rodgers and the Rambler Tradition,
6. THE BLUE SKY BOYS: The Sunny Side of Life,
7. ALBERT E. BRUMLEY: Folk Composer,
8. THE CHUCK WAGON GANG: God's Gentle People,
9. HONKY-TONK: The Music of the Southern Working Class,
10. JOHNNY GIMBLE: The Music Came Up from His Soul,
12. THE ROMANCE THAT WILL NOT DIE: Appalachian Music and American Popular Culture,
14. THE RURAL SOUTH MOVES NORTH: Country Music since World War II,

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