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The American South: Theme Song

Have you heard the short riff that begins each video? Learn more about the American South theme song.
Hopefully, some of you will have noticed this course actually has a kind of musical theme tune. There’s a kind a haunting guitar riff in the background to some of the videos and you can hear it playing now.
That only seems appropriate that we should use music extensively given that an extraordinarily rich musical culture is often considered one of the defining features of the region and with good reason. When you think about it, many of the most popular Western forms of music of the past century or so can claim at least some Southern roots, spirituals minstrelsy, jazz, gospel, blues, country, Cajun, zydeco, rock and roll and soul with all their many subdivisions each have genuine historic connections to the South. Moreover, for all purposes, Southern music offers a really wonderful way to think about the intricate interplay of black and white and Hispanic cultures that have together spawned many aspects of Southern culture.
That’s interesting because of the formal and informal barriers that have often seemed to separate the races. As historian an ethnomusicologist Charles Joiner once suggested, music exemplifies how the South “Has been and will remain a multicultural mix of European and African elements.” That shared heritage constitutes the cardinal test of Southern identity and the central theme of Southern culture. But I want us to pause for a moment to think about what we really mean when we say that a particular song or a musical genre is Southern. Where does that strong sense of regional affiliation come from? Is it mainly a function of sound of sonic characteristics and instrumentation derived from formal structures or is it located in the subject matter?
Is a piece of such music Southern if the themes or the characters, the geographic settings are Southern? Or is southerness to be found in the biography of the artists involved, the places where they lived, composed, performed, and recorded or in the locales from which they drew their musical inspiration? On the other hand, perhaps it’s dependent on commercial branding whereby the music and broadcasting industries designate certain sounds and artists as being Southern. Or perhaps is the southerness of a style or piece of music only really clinched at the point of consumption when a bunch of listeners recognize or perhaps imagine the regional provenance of the music that they hear and declare it Southern.
Now, frankly, these are certainly not mutually exclusive factors in what makes a piece of music Southern. This is a complex matter. And just to give you one concrete example of that kind of complexity, country or hillbilly music is pretty much universally accepted as something with roots in the white South.
Yet between 1924 and 1932 when the cannon and stylistic range of country or hillbilly music, as it was then called, were being defined by the likes of Fiddlin’ John Carson and Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter family, about one third of the estimated 22,800 sides of country music released in the US were cut in Northern studios using professional freelancing as in session musicians, not in the rural South by indigenous Southern folk artists. Remarkably, about 85% of those releases were cut by six artists Vernon Dalhart, Carson Robinson, Arthur Fields, Frankie Marvin, Bob Miller, and Frank Luther, who recorded under a variety of pseudonyms.
During the same period, perhaps even more interestingly, 49 African-American musicians recorded 178 hillbilly sides for the white hillbilly market. But to help me think through what we mean when we talk about a piece of music or a style of music being Southern, I’m joined by Allan Symons who’s an expert on country music and hillbilly music particularly of the interwar years, but he’s also the composer and the performer of the theme song, the theme tune that’s been working through the course. So which part of the South are you actually from Allan? I’m from a small town in the north of England called Birtley, which lies somewhere between Durham and Newcastle.
So do you think it actually matters for making Southern music that you don’t actually come from the US South? Hopefully, I’ve just proved that it doesn’t matter. But I think it appears to have some kind of familiarization with certain sonic qualities. And some musicians I know might immerse themselves fully in sounds of the South, but it begs another question as to what we consider to be Southern music. OK, well, we asked you to compose a theme song for the course, and we said we want it to sound quintessentially Southern. From your knowledge of Southern musical forms over the years, what sorts of things did you sort of gravitate towards to make a distinctively Southern sound?
I instantly thought of a resophonic guitar, ball neck slide, a really slow blues lick. And the reason I thought of that is it’s almost a contrived thing, I suppose, but whenever I’ve played that music, the amount of people who’ve said they imagine someone sitting on a porch in the Southern states, the minute you hear that combination of those two, the instrument and the slide, you think you’re there, right? And so I think that says a lot about how certain sounds shape how we feel about ourself or imagine the South to look through the medium and perhaps film, you know? OK.
I mean, one of the other questions I’d sort of ask is given we only ask for two and a half minutes, three minutes of music, you know, what other sorts of sounds, styles could you have drawn upon that actually you think have that same sort of instant connotation of the South? OK. I think Bluegrass instantly the minute you hear Bluegrass, certainly, I think of mountainous regions in the South. Southern gospel, you know, when you hear certain kinds of music just invoke images of the South. Whether that’s because of how we’ve been exposed to them through the media, that remains to be seen. But, yeah, they are two forms I would definitely bracket as quintessentially Southern. OK.
And as we go through the course, we’ll actually pick up on many kinds of Southern music so many kinds of Southern forms. And there’s a sort of– you know a lot about country music and you know a lot about Blues music as well. How do you think those two forms of music sort of intersect in the South? I think they intersect quite a lot and if you consider in the 1920s the way the music industry segregated musical markets when really there was a lot of interpolation of cross-fertilisation of styles. So people generally tend to think of as Blues as a distinctly black music. Hillbilly is distinctly white, but there is a lot of crossover between the two. OK.
Thank you, Allan and we look forward to hearing more strumming and picking as the course goes on thank you.

You may have noticed a short riff that opens each video on the American South course. It’s our theme song and this step explains the origins of the tune written and produced by PhD candidate Allan Symons. Allan, in conversation with Brian Ward, explains the musical ingredients he used to make a quintessential “southern” sound.

The purpose of this step is to help you think about music as a part of cultural identity.

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The American South

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