I heard a fellow on the radio the other day refer to “Southern music”. I didn’t hear all of his commentary because I was riding in the car and was soon out of range of the radio signal so I tried to imagine what he meant by “Southern music”.
Unfortunately, I think this gentleman was falling into the old habit that many people have of trying to pigeonhole The South. Trying to say that there is only one type of music that defines The South is like saying there is only one type of music that defines The United States or Great Britain or Spain. The South is diverse in so many ways and music is certainly a demonstration of that diversity.
In all fairness, however, despite the wide spectrum of musical styles composed, performed and listened to in The South, there are some types of music which we all perceive to have a uniquely Southern connection. Jazz is arguably called the “only original American music”. Certainly, it had its beginning in The South, maybe in the fields and in the steamy bars of New Orleans. Regardless of its actual origin, nobody will argue that it contains all those elements we associate with the Southern nature: rhythm, independence, joy mixed with sadness and religion.
Jazz is mood music and the kind of jazz you listen to depends on the kind of mood you are in or want to be in. In any case, you have to feel it to play it.
Then there is beach music. I don’t mean The Beach Boys kind of beach music. I mean the kind that is found almost exclusively along the southern Atlantic coastline. Beach music conjures up images of our carefree youth: sea breeze blowing off the ocean and across the sand dunes, seagrass waving gently in the background as couples clad in Weejuns and flip-flops move to the sound of bands like The Embers and Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. There is music, sun, sand, cold beer and friends and time to enjoy it all.
Of course, there is country music, the real, traditional country music, the often mournful, sometimes nasal, recounting of the trials and tribulations faced by most of us. Country music has an emphasis on the lyrics, words with which we can all identify: broken dreams, failed love affairs, hard work, no money, too many bills, unrequited love, and an overpowering craving for beer and pickup trucks among other things. Admittedly, the new “country music” sometimes is more rock and roll than real country.
Shortly after I heard the radio commentator’s comment about Southern music, I stoped at a convenience store just outside Richlands, NC, for my usual snack of a Pepsi and a pack of nabs. As soon as I parked the car, I heard the sound of a guitar struggling for melody and rhythm. There was a little boy about ten or twelve years old sitting on a picnic table under a tree beside the store. He was struggling with the chords and was visibly frustrated with his effort. But then I saw him put the guitar down and begin to sing “This Little Light of Mine” to the sole accompaniment of his clapping hands. That’s when it hit me: that is real Southern music, an expression of personal feeling, a sound individual to the singer, sung because it feels good.