Race (and) Music

By Dr. Joycelyn Wilson and Chuck Reece

Consider this column to be the beginning of a long mission to prove the truth in these words: “Nothing crosses racial barriers more easily than music." 

That assertion comes from Dr. William Ferris of the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of the American South, arguably the greatest living scholar of Southern cultural and musical history.

The Bitter Southerner’s music column will draw its purpose from Ferris’ words. We’re going to explore Southern music from both sides of the racial barrier by alternating columns between two writers and music geeks: Dr. Joycelyn Wilson and Chuck Reece.

Dr. Joyce is one of the leading academic authorities on hip-hop music and culture – particularly in the South. She grew up in Atlanta as part of the community of Southern hip-hop that changed the world in the 1990s. That is the music of her youth. Chuck is the editor-in-chief of The Bitter Southerner, and his musical tastes were shaped by the explosion of indie rock in Athens, Georgia, during his collegiate years. 

We are both students of music’s impact on Southern culture. Our chemistry, however, emerges from the fact that we come at the idea of “Southern culture” from different perspectives. Chuck is a white man, and Joyce is a black woman. Joyce is a daughter of the urban South; Chuck is a son of the rural South. The music that fills Joyce’s head is typically identified by its beats and rhymes. The music that fills Chuck’s is identified by its twangs and whines.  

Despite our differences, we both believe that, as Joyce puts it, "all popular music in America comes out of Southern music, one way or another." 

We believe, to the bottoms of our souls, that the musics of our different childhoods come from the same places. Joyce is going to teach Chuck what he needs to know about Black Southern music, Chuck is going to teach Joyce what she needs to know about White Southern music. We hope that everybody will all learn things in the process. That, at least, is the intention of this column, with its simple title, “Southern Music.”

We started this project with a conversation at SXSW 2016 about the South’s role in digital culture. It resulted in multiple discussions at coffee shops, over the phone, and at The Bitter Southerner office. From the jump, we were interested in learning from each other about our respective musical loves, trying to find out what we had in common, where we differed, and why. We always came back to our common home, the South. The gospel music of the South, its blues, its Appalachian musical traditions are the ingredients that went into the gumbo that made rock and roll. And Joyce argues the theory is equally true of the musical styles that merged into Southern hip-hop music, even though the Dirty South is too often left out of both the Southern-music narrative and the larger story of hip-hop’s emergence.

"I have an issue with the typical narrative about hip-hop — which is that it started in one particular location, the Bronx,” she says. "It may have converged in the Bronx, yes. But why does the South get written out of that story when the very music hip-hop samples from comes out of music originally ‘created’ in the South? Slave work songs, blues, spirituals, jazz, rock and roll — all those forms of music come out of a deep Southern experience." 

That’s how Joyce sees the truth in Bill Ferris’ words. How Chuck sees it is essentially the same. So, our goal in this column is simple: to explore sometimes controversial perspectives and see how far we can push to find the truths in Dr. Bill’s good words. We want to discover ways music helps black and white folks alike get beyond the rhetoric that divides us. We seek to teach each other and learn from each other. 

Where we will end up? We have no idea, except for this: Everybody’s gonna get turned on to things they’ve never heard. Which, of course, is good for us all.