To purchase his latest book, visit http://lsupress.org/books/detail/in-tune/
Interested in reading more by University of North Georgia history professor Ben Wynne? The author has written “A Hard Trip: A History of the 15th Mississippi, CSA,” and “Mississippi’s Civil War: A Narrative History.”
In one book, author Ben Wynne has managed to combine two of the South’s great loves — history and music.
The University of North Georgia professor recently released his third book, “In Tune,” which serves as a nonfiction examination of the musical inspirations and careers of two legendary Southern artists, Charley Patton and Jimmie Rodgers. Specifically, the book deals with a time when music was one of the only areas of Southern life that rose above racial boundaries.
“Their music reflected the era in which they lived but evoked a range of timeless human emotions,” Wynne said. “As the invention of the phonograph disseminated traditional forms of music to a wider audience, Jimmie Rodgers gained fame as the ‘Father of Country Music,’ while Patton’s work eventually earned him the title ‘King of the Delta Blues.’”
Wynne began the project with the intention of taking two artists from the time period to show their lives reveal the universal nature of folk themes in the South — themes held by both races.
“During this time, music in the South was a great bridge across the racial gap,” Wynne said. “Both races experienced happiness and sadness, joy, regret and heartache. Individuals of both races had the ability to reflect on their past and contemplate their future. They could view and comment on the things going on around them with either laughter or disgust, and they reacted to life’s ups and downs in a similar fashion. And, they were all moved by music, which is as universal as the emotions it conveys.”
Both musicians died young, leaving behind a relatively small number of recordings. While Wynne said neither remains well-known to mainstream audiences, they influenced decades of musicians and the impact of their contributions echoes in the songs of today.
“Their musical progeny includes almost every blues and country performer who followed them up to this very day,” Wynne said. “Both men were poor and seemed to be trapped in a bleak existence, just like thousands of other Southerners. However, instead of being systematically ground into the dust by this repressive environment, Patton and Rodgers created art and expressed themselves musically in a way that moved people.”
Here’s what else the author had to say about his novel, his writing process and the impact music had on the South:
Question: What should I know about Jimmie Rodgers and Charley Patton?
Answer: (They) came of age in a rigidly segregated society designed to hold men back. The fact that we are still talking about their music decades after their deaths proves that despite the sometimes unpleasant nature of the human existence, the human spirit usually perseveres. Southern culture in general is like that.
Q: How did you get the inspiration for your book?
A: My goal was to comment on the notion that while Southern society was legally segregated by race for much of its history, cultural interaction between the races in the South was ongoing. It could not be stopped no matter how many Jim Crow laws were on the books. For generations whites and blacks were not allowed to eat together in the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels, but they still walked the same country roads and city streets, saw the same scenery and breathed in the same air. They lived side by side, within literal earshot of one another, and they always listened to each other’s music. In many ways the early music of white Southerners and black Southerners was the same at its core, with layers of environmental factors creating the social and cultural distinctiveness. It was no coincidence the themes and tensions that propelled traditional country music — loneliness, vice, struggle, escape, God, the devil, lust and love — also dominated the blues. That’s what I was trying to show.
Q: How would you describe your book to potential readers?
A: I wanted to chart the courses of two Southern musicians — one black and one white — who were among the first generation of recording artists in the country. I wanted to use their stories to tell a broader story about race and culture in the South. Many call country music and blues two quintessentially American forms of music. So I wanted to compare the stories of two artists, a white country player and an African-American bluesman, to highlight their similarity and to make a statement that no genre of music is completely pure. In the South in the early 20th century, black and white artists drew inspiration from the same world and influenced one another, especially with regard to blues influencing country music. On the old records a lot of the blues and country lyrics are the same or similar.
Q: How did you decide to focus on Patton and Rodgers?
A: They were both originals and they both influenced everything that came after them. They were very important players in the cultural history of the South, but they are not that well-known to contemporary audiences.
Q: How would you describe these two individuals to those unfamiliar with the musicians?
A: Charley Patton is called by many “the Father of the Delta Blues.” He began recording in the 1920s and influenced many blues musicians who would later become internationally famous. He is also hailed as a musical pioneer by many rock ’n’ roll artists and his records are collector’s items. Jimmie Rodgers was universally recognized as the “Father of Country Music” and was country music’s first national star. He influenced a long line of country performers who later became famous from Ernest Tubb and Gene Autry to Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn. He was a charter member of the Country Music Hall of Fame where the plaque honoring him in Nashville lauds him as “the man who started it all.” He was also among the first performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a “founding father.”
Q: What was the best part about writing this book?
A: Charley Patton and Jimmie Rodgers are both fascinating characters, so there is no shortage of fascinating stories about their lives and careers. I guess the best part of writing the book was discovering those stories. I also met a lot of interesting people while I was doing the research.
Q: What obstacles did you encounter while writing this book?
A: Writing about music is always tricky since popular music is composed to be heard and felt and not necessarily scrutinized or dissected. It is created for the ear and not the eye, so sometimes the essence of the music is hard to capture in print, especially in the blues and country genres.
Q: What role did race play in these musicians’ lives?
A: In Patton’s case, it created an iron ceiling for him as a performer. He was restricted to playing in juke joints and clubs frequented by African-Americans and, like others of his race in the South, he was a member of a legislated underclass. As for Rodgers, although he was white, he enjoyed playing with African-American artists. And he composed a good many songs in the blues style. He blurred the color line somewhat. When he first started out some people called him a “white man gone black” because his performing style was bluesy. Twenty-five years later, people said the same thing about Elvis Presley.
Q: What inspired you to be a writer, to be a history professor?
A: I get a lot of enjoyment out of writing, although it can be hard work. I like to tell stories. It’s also what historians do, so being a writer is part of my job description. I have been interested in history since I was a kid. In the 1820s some of my family helped found Florence, Miss., my hometown, and stories related to that always interested me. I was always proud of it. Like many Southerners, I was also into the Civil War early on. Later on, when I went to college I took history classes from a number of professors who I admired very much and who always encouraged me.
Q: What draws you to nonfiction?
A: As a historian I have to work from facts, so nonfiction is really my only choice. I like to tell stories about real people and real events.
Q: Why did you want to tell this particular story? Why do you think it’s important?
A: Music is such an important part of American culture, and so much of American popular music originated in the South. I thought that was a story that should be told.
Q: What does your writing/researching process typically include?
A: I pick subjects to write about that I have a natural affinity for, which makes researching enjoyable. There is nothing better than finding out new things about a subject that you are emotionally and intellectually invested in. I do the bulk of the research before I write a single word, and organize my material in file folders and notebooks. If I’m well-organized, it makes the writing process somewhat easier, although a lot of times it’s still like writing a really long term paper. The University of North Georgia, where I work, has also supported my efforts, which helps a lot.