As a young lad growing up in the shadow of a thriving textile mill, I found a virtual paradise among the creosote-covered houses of the village—swimming pool, baseball, basketball, scouting and music. All were free and within walking distance. It was music that caught my attention at a very early age.
Occasionally, but not often enough for me, family members would gather on our front porch, retrieve picks from their overalls bib pockets and attack guitars, banjos and mandolins with unrestrained vigor. Kids would flail washboards and tap spoons in rhythm with the music.
This fascination with country music morphed into marching music in the fifth grade, when I joined the school band. Graduation from the mill school after ninth grade led to further expansion of my musical pursuits through the church choir, high-school chorus and band. Sousa was replaced by Wagner as symphonic band music displayed its charms.
Family members would gather on our front porch, retrieve picks from their overalls bib pockets and attack guitars, banjos and mandolins with unrestrained vigor.
During this process of expanding my musical appreciation and experiences, country music string bands lost their fascination. This “hillbilly” music now appeared to be low class and beneath the dignity of a “real” musician. The appearances of Grand Ol’ Opry performers on the edge of town in tents did little to attract this urbane teenager, although their dust-covered Cadillacs had some appeal. Also, the nasal pining of a lonesome Alabama cowboy did not sound like music to my ears.
I eventually finished high school, college and enjoyed six years teaching music in public schools. I never looked back at the stomp-down, tear-jerking hillbilly genre—that is until I began teaching in college. It was an era of increasing sophistication among youth as they began to dig into their roots, searching for cultural and personal authenticity.
During the decades of the 60s and 70s, students from upscale families discovered Bluegrass (a new synonym for Hillbilly) music as an appropriate expression and accompaniment for their journeys of discovery. On a dare from my teenage daughter, I accompanied her to a folk festival at Horse Pens Forty and began to see country music through fresh lenses. On becoming a music snob, I had denied the genuine reflection of humanity inherent in musical expressions that generate from any cultural group.
Now, I am proud to be a part of the Alabama Humanities Foundation’s efforts to promote the musical roots of our state’s rich heritage of authentic music, often described as folk music. AHF and six communities have arranged programs for the nationally sponsored Museum on Main Street celebrations of Alabama folk music.
Look for these “New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music” programs around Livingston, Chatom, Fort Payne, Troy and Tuskegee this year.
Written by: Bob W.