We are pleased to post a guest blog by Cliff Murphy, folklorist at the Maryland State Arts Council and co-director of Maryland Traditions. While a graduate student at Brown University, Cliff interned with us. In 2008 he received a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from Brown University, where he wrote a history and ethnography of New England Country & Western music.
On any given weekend night, head out to the Canadian-American Club in Watertown, Massachusetts and you’ll find the unmistakable sound of New England Country & Western music. Honky-tonk steel guitar blends with Acadian twang and the occasional song that alternates verses sung in French and English. The house band – the Country Masters – and the lead vocal of singer Jimmy Spellman will remind you of Nova Scotian country star Hank Snow – or, better yet, Maine’s legendary truck-driving songster Dick Curless. And the community that gathers here – a community predominating in immigrants from maritime Canada or their descendants – never questions the authenticity of its country musicians.
Yet in the popular imagination, Country & Western music is firmly rooted in the American south, an expression of Protestant, white, working-class Southerners. A scan of modern Country radio reveals song after song with a deep southern twang in the vocals – even when it comes from Massachusetts natives like Jo Dee Messina of Holliston.
So what do we make of the fact that Country & Western has been a rich and vibrant form of multicultural working-class expression going all the way back into the 1920s? And, perhaps even more puzzling is how we come to grips with the fact that Massachusetts has been a hotbed of cowboy yodeling for just as long – a place where women like Georgia Mae Harp of Carver, Kenny Roberts of Athol, Vinny Calderone of Everett, and Johnnie White (Jean LeBlanc) of Stoneham have been yodeling their troubles away for the better part of a century?
As a graduate student in ethnomusicology at Brown University in 2003, I had the good fortune of landing an internship with Maggie Holtzberg – folklorist extraordinaire and editor of this blog – who encouraged me to find the answers to these questions, and even accompanied me on fieldwork visits with a few of the abovementioned yodelers. What emerged over the next four years of fieldwork throughout New England was a picture of Country & Western music as a deeply expressive form of multicultural working-class culture.
The highly ornamented, virtuosic yodel of cowboy music (as opposed to the “blue yodel” of Mississippi Brakeman Jimmie Rodgers) can be traced directly to the farms and lumber camps of Maritime Canada and Maine. An intensely personal form of expression, men generally developed their yodel while working alone with animals – driving teams of oxen in the Maine woods, or driving apples to market in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.
Massachusetts remains a vibrant center of country music-making, and its style is distinguished from its Southern counterparts by the multicultural background of its participants. Massachusetts’ country music community has produced a number of nationally significant figures like surf guitarist Dick Dale of Waltham and bluegrass banjoist Bill Keith of Brockton. Down-home local country music associations like the New England Country Music Historical Society and the Massachusetts Country Music Awards Association remain dedicated to promoting the region’s musical legacy through live events. And while network country radio remains unfriendly to local music, friends have been found in the most unlikely places, like WHRB-FM at Harvard University, whose “Hillbilly at Harvard” broadcast has been a staple of that station’s Saturday morning programming since 1948.
Those looking for quality Country & Western music from Massachusetts should check out the recordings of John Lincoln Wright and the Sour Mash Revue of Cambridge, who achieved legendary status in the late ‘70s with the single “Living in Braintree with You In Methuen (Is Almost Like Living In Lowell).” Another sure bet is the Country Masters or Dick Curless’ posthumous “Traveling Through” on Rounder Records. You might also wait for a collection of 1940s radio transcriptions from Georgia Mae Harp, star yodeler of WBZ radio, forthcoming from the British Archive of Country Music.
One outgrowth of New England’s Country & Western legacy is its vibrant bluegrass scene. That scene is too vast a topic for this blog entry, but Boston honky-tonks like the Hillbilly Ranch helped spur an explosion of bluegrass music in this region, launching the careers of many, including Joe Val (born Joseph Valiente in Everett), whose name graces the annual Joe Val Bluegrass Festival each February in Framingham.
We just learned from Georgia Mae Harp’s nephew Fred Kingsbury, that Ms. Mae passed away on July 25, 2014 at the age of 93.