The region’s rich musical heritage dates back hundreds of years, painting an ever-changing picture about how life in the South has evolved over time.
By Ashley Ryan
The story of Southern music is a complicated one, characterized by seemingly endless genres, lyrics, instruments and fabled artists. More than simple notes scrawled on paper or heartfelt tunes strummed on a guitar, Southern music has come to be a pivotal piece of the region’s cultural fabric.
Country, blues, jazz, folk and even rock ’n’ roll got their start in the American South before spreading across the country and, eventually, the globe. These genres are now household names, demonstrating the vast appeal of Southern music, both in the past and in modern times.
“Southern music is everything from Appalachian folk music to New Orleans blues to the Nashville sound [a subgenre of country music],” says Terry Klefstad, an associate professor of music at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.
While there is no doubt that Southern sounds have changed over time, the heart of the tunes lives on, inspiring music lovers of all types to push the envelope and share their own tales with anyone interested in listening to the song of the South.
Music in the American South predates European settlers, starting with Native American tribes that would reveal certain narratives or use music and dance as part of their many ceremonies and rituals. While those were some of the first instances of musicality in the southern United States, many of the sounds that inspired genres that would eventually become synonymous with the region were the result of the unique mix of cultures that later settled in the New World.
“To understand the music history of the South, you’ve got to take into account the real variety of musical cultures from many different backgrounds that come together in this kind of alchemy of culture and race and musical expression,” says Darren Grem, an associate professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi and a member of the college’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. “You can still hear the sounds of that, and the rhythms of that, in much of the contemporary popular music.”
The Africans living in the area in the 18th and 19th centuries had a major impact on regional music development. Just as with indigenous music in Africa, early Southern music was passed down orally. Work songs and spirituals, as they were often called, were a prominent part of everyday life, serving a variety of purposes. While many would sing repetitive tunes to pass the time or keep the rhythm while performing the task at hand, others would create music to tell stories, inspire and motivate others, show solidarity, express their opinions and even serve as a communication tool.
Another group to note, according to Klefstad, is the Jubilee Singers from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, who she says made it “their mission to spread African-American spirituals throughout Europe and the rest of the world” in the late 1800s.
Grem says early music was brought to the United States by way of Europe as well, with Irish, Scottish, English and Welsh settlers moving down the Appalachian Mountains into the South. Oral tradition, along with songbooks, continued to be the main source of spreading musical seedlings, until about the 1920s, when record companies began to make music more accessible. Shortly after, the emergence of radio altered the spread of music through the South and beyond, offering mass records that were advertised regularly with radio singles. In the 1930s came rural electrification, which Grem says allowed a greater number of Americans to plug in and connect with those tunes as well.
Record companies worked to expand their reach, partnering with radio stations to broadcast music near and far. “The signal coming out of Nashville can reach far outside the region and exposes the sounds of the South … [to] anybody that can flip on a radio,” Grem says. This eventually became the main source of listening for many. “ … That’s still how the majority of Americans and folks around the world experience music,” he adds.
Many of the most popular musical genres of the past century got their start in the American South. But these different styles weren’t always as defined as they seem today. “The real differentiation … wasn’t necessarily between blues and country and to some extent jazz—it was between sacred and secular music,” Grem says.
That all changed in the 1920s and ’30s, when distinct sounds became more isolated. One of the most recognizable genres that got its start in the South—and that continues to thrive—is country music. Within a few decades, the Grand Ole Opry and Nashville’s WSM radio station had become major players in the music industry, pushing music featuring guitars accompanied by banjos, mandolins and fiddles with a unique singing style: a high lonesome sound. Country music’s Golden Age featured hits by performers such as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb and more, as well as singers like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, who are still performing today.
“It’s by that period of time that you have these differentiations in [the] market,” Grem says, noting that country music was the first to become mainstream. In response, blues music gathered steam. Drawing in major ways from the region’s early African communities, the blues was a loose, visceral style of music filled with emotion—and often with a 12-bar chord progression.
Heavily focused around the guitar, blues can be acoustic music filled with passion, like that of Robert Johnson or John Lee Hooker, both born in Mississippi, or electric tunes by artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, better suited for urban theaters and dance halls. The blues is said to have “grown up” in the Mississippi Delta, lingering in the region for decades before spreading to the Midwest and beyond.
In New Orleans, another genre was gaining momentum around the same time: jazz. Borrowing elements of the 12-bar blues and often using its structure as an early template, jazz was, and still is, characterized by experimentation. “You just lay down a seemingly basic chord pattern—that actually can be pretty complex, with a lot of shifts and changes and tones—that a saxophonist or a trumpeter or even a clarinetist will play over with lots of improvisation,” Grem says. Though guitars and drums are present in jazz, it is the brass and woodwind instruments that give it its identity. Big names like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald helped spread the word about this emotive style.
Gospel music was also a prominent genre for Southern listeners, especially in the 1940s and ’50s. Tight, four-part harmonies permeated many gospel tunes, with the singing centered around a simple piano accompaniment. Often, music from African-American churches was, like jazz, improvisational and soulful, with a call-and-response element.
While country, blues, jazz and gospel music all got their start in the South, they’re not the only musical styles to flourish there. In the second half of the 20th century, a mixture of other genres began to emerge, borrowing elements from the classifications that came beforehand. These include soul, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll and funk, which were in turn blended to create other genres, from Southern rock bands like The Allman Brothers Band and The Marshall Tucker Band to Southern hip-hop artists like Jay-Z and the duo Outkast.
Sites and Sounds
The rich, diverse history of Southern music resulted in a strong foundation for sounds that continue to have a wide-reaching influence. “Don’t think about Southern music as this thing that has passed,” Grem says, citing popular music scenes in Atlanta, Houston and college towns throughout the South. “You’re living right now in arguably one of the most active periods for whoever deems themselves Southern to have a voice.”
The spread of Southern music still relies heavily on radio airplay and record releases as well as live performances, but the internet has changed the game, allowing smaller artists from the region to toss some songs on YouTube, SoundCloud or Spotify and be heard around the world. With music more readily available, it’s easier to get your hands on classic tunes as well, inspiring those from all around the U.S. and beyond to visit the American South due to an interest in the local music scene.
“You go to Clarksdale, Mississippi, or anywhere on the Blues Trail here and you’ll see folks who are touring Mississippi from Sweden who are attracted to the music from the South in its supposedly authentic form,” Grem says. The Mississippi Blues Trail consists of more than 200 markers, placed at train stations, city streets, cemeteries, music clubs, churches and cotton fields, giving visitors a glimpse into the musicians’ histories and influences.
Those making a musical pilgrimage to the South wouldn’t get the full picture without a trip to Tennessee. Nicknamed Music City, Nashville is home to historic venues such as the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium and the Bluebird Cafe as well as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, while Graceland, the former home of rock ’n’ roll icon Elvis Presley, and the Blues Hall of Fame are located in nearby Memphis.
“Every form of American music was basically birthed in and around Memphis, Tennessee,” says Tim Sampson, the communications director for Soulsville Foundation, the parent organization of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Billed as the only museum in the world dedicated exclusively to soul music, the Stax Museum offers a variety of interesting exhibits, from a reassembled 1906 African-American chapel from Mississippi and a re-creation of the original Stax Records recording studio to a dance floor playing footage from the 1970s “Soul Train” television show. “In a world that is filled with as much angst as there is at times, coming to a nice music museum and dancing on the dance floor can be a really therapeutic,” he says. Soulsville Foundation uses proceeds from the museum to benefit local youth and instill a love for music in the next generation, funding the on-site Stax Music Academy—which is designed for at-risk, inner-city youth—as well as The Soulsville Charter School. “We have about 800 children here every day,” Sampson says.
In Georgia, there are plenty of other historical sites to visit that offer the chance to step into the past. In Macon, Southern rock enthusiasts can tour a vibrant attraction that was once home to the original members of The Allman Brothers Band and their families. Venture through the Fillmore East room, where the band would rehearse, to see a collection of instruments and other memorabilia, or into the living room, which now houses exhibits showcasing handwritten lyrics. A few bedrooms also have original items belonging to those who lived in the house, as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction certificate posthumously awarded to Duane Allman.
Athens is another city with some legendary places for music lovers. Iconic rock band R.E.M. got their start in Athens in the 1980s, with the cover of their first studio album featuring a photograph of Dudley Park’s trestle bridge. The St. Mary’s Steeple is another site often visited by R.E.M. fans. It was once a part of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, where the band played its first show, but is now located in a parking lot. The town is also the birthplace of the B-52s, the innovating new wave band with hits such as “Rock Lobster” and “Love Shack.” While the inspiration for “Love Shack” has since burned down, fans can still pay homage to the band with a visit to the Morton Building, where members of the band both worked and practiced music.
In 2008, legendary blues icon Ma Rainey’s former home was reopened as a small museum in Columbus, Georgia, offering a glimpse into the blues singer’s life. As one of the first blues artists to record music, she gained notoriety in the 1920s for her powerful voice and collaborations with Louis Armstrong.
Even closer to Sea Island, in Savannah, a bronze statue of lyricist and songwriter Johnny Mercer graces Ellis Square. Though he made it big in Hollywood and New York City, it was the city of Savannah where he was born and where his body now rests. A memorial bench in nearby Bonaventure Cemetery features a caricature line drawing reproduced from a portrait Mercer himself created.
As the song of the South continues to blossom, places that are frequented by current musicians are sure to become meccas for music lovers of all types hoping to visit