Country music was influenced by African music

by Murphy Browne
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By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“I was wondering about our yesterdays,
and starting digging through the rubble
and to say, at least somebody went
through a hell of a lot of trouble
to make sure that when we looked things up
we wouldn’t fare too well
and that we would come up with totally unreliable
portraits of ourselves.
But I compiled what few facts I could,
I mean, such as they are
to see if we could shed a little bit of light
and this is what I got so far:
First, white folks discovered Africa
and they claimed it fair and square.
Cecil Rhodes couldn’t have been robbing nobody
’cause he said there was nobody there.”
Excerpt from Black History/The World
by Gil Scott-Heron
In 1980, African American jazz poet, singer, musician, author and spoken-word artist Gilbert Scott-Heron released “Black History/The World” on the album: “Moving Target.”
Gil Scott-Heron deconstructed colonialism, racism and African history as told and documented by people who were not African. Those “historians” told their version of our story.
In “Black History/The World,” Gil Scot Heron illuminated the African proverb: “Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” Similarly, until the Africans from the African continent and in the Diaspora began documenting their own stories, everyone else told and wrote their version of African stories.
Gilbert Scott-Heron wrote and performed “Black History/The World” in 1980. In 2024, several decades later, some people who do not know the African stories are telling their version.
I was reminded of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Black History/The World,” when I read about Asa Blanton, a White Indiana State University nursing student who said Beyoncé is “not country” because Beyoncé is not White. Blanton said in a video shared on TikTok: “I’m sorry, but if you’re Black, you’re not country. I don’t care, I wish I meant that in the nicest way, but babe, I know you were raised in the country or your grandparents were … but they was picking, OK? They wasn’t planting. Just keep that in mind. They wasn’t making money. They were getting sold for money. You ain’t country.”
Asa Blanton and many others like her do not know of the historical African influence on country music, even during the enslavement of Africans. “In reality, just like most popular music genres, country music in the U.S. began with Black people.”
The story of country music begins with the banjo. The modern-day banjo is a descendant of a West African instrument, made from gourds, called the Akonting. When Africans were taken from Africa and enslaved in America, the knowledge of making their instruments came with them. Enslaved Africans created their own music, hymns, spirituals and field songs – all with roots in African music. The banjo was seen as an exclusively African American instrument. White people did not play the banjo during that time.
In the 1850s, minstrel shows became popular with the racist satirical form of entertainment where White performers in Blackface mockingly used the banjo as a musical instrument as they imitated the music and dance of enslaved Africans. The minstrel shows brought the banjo to White audiences and gave rise to hillbilly music during the 1920s.
Hillbilly music was renamed country and was claimed as the music of the south. The performers drew inspiration from slave spirituals, field songs, hymns and the blues, which were African American music.
In the 1920s and 30s, despite segregation, some White hillbilly performers collaborated with African American artistes to record music. Patrick Huber, a White history professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology acknowledges: “Nearly 50 African American singers and musicians appeared on commercial hillbilly records between those years – because the music was not a White agrarian tradition, but a fluid phenomenon passed back and forth between the races.”
In 1778, James A. Bland, an African American from New York wrote “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” which became the official state song of Virginia in 1940. An African American minister wrote a hymn “When the World is On Fire” which became a 1928 hit “Little Darling, Pal of Mine” by “The Carter Family,” a White family of musicians. That song inspired “This Land is Your Land” sung by White performer, Woody Guthrie.
In Nova Scotia, Canada on May 12, 1785, under the heading “Negro Frolicks” Prohibited: “Officials in Nova Scotia ordered “50 Handbills [to] be immediately printed forbidding Negro Dances & Negro Frolicks in [the] town of Shelburne.”
“Libya and Egypt used to be in Africa,
but they’ve been moved to the ‘middle east’.
There are examples galore I assure you,
but if interpreting was left up to me
I’d be sure every time folks knew this version wasn’t mine
which is why it is called ‘His story.’”

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