The creative freedom of early country music
July 29, 2013
I am currently reading Richard Peterson’s Creating Country Music (University of Chicago Press, 1997). Peterson is a long-time professor of sociology at Vanderbilt, and this is the fruit of decades of archival research and interviews. His focus is on the critical formative period from 1923, when the first country record was pressed in Atlanta, to 1953 when Hank Williams died at the age of 29.
One of the most striking features of this thirty year period, albeit not too surprising, is how country music’s birth depended upon the ambitions of businessmen who thoroughly disliked country music (termed “hillbilly music” at the time), including Southern businessmen in cities like Atlanta who were intent on distancing themselves from their rustic past and embracing the urbane sophistication of Northern cities. But, country music sold, to the dismay of record executives, and the prejudice would continue for a long time. The most important figure at the birth of country music, as a commercial enterprise, was Polk Brockman of Atlanta. He hated country music, but he could profit from it.
However, this disdain for country music actually served to benefit its development as a creative expression of rustic scenes, its joys and sorrows, and with its hard edges. From Jimmie Rodgers to Hank Williams, you have yodels and nasally voices that grated the sophisticated, classically-attuned ear. Here is Peterson discussing the A&R men (the scouts and promoters for the record companies):
…this first generation of A&R men did not try to impose their own aesthetic standards, either during the recording process or in the process of selecting which of the cuts to release. It is not that they were enlightened or that they were lazy. Their reason for not interfering was much more basic. In most instances they didn’t like the music, didn’t understand it, and had no respect for its audience. Ralph Peer, for example, was circumspect in public while he was active, but in later life he voiced great contempt for the blues and country artists he recorded and for the music they produced. …In effect then, because of the snobbish attitudes of A&R men like Peer and others, Jimmie Rodgers and the generation of artists who began to record in the 1920’s had great artistic freedom, greater freedom, in fact, than has been enjoyed by any later generation of beginners in country music.
[Creating Country Music, pp. 46-47]
Speaking of Jimmie Rodgers, here is a great recording of him from 1930 by Columbia Pictures: