Making a Case for Nashville as the Home for the National Museum of African-American Music

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Memphis has discovered that we're trying to build a National Museum of African American Music here in Nashville and they are laughing at us:

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Is Nashville a strange place for a National Museum of African American Music? Well, let's be honest. It's a little counter-intuitive. Memphis, New Orleans, Detroit, hell, even Kansas City, all spring to mind long before Nashville. But, I'm with Beecher Hicks, the CEO of the endeavor. From the Nashville Business Journal story that the rest of Tennessee is laughing at:

For Hicks, Nashville is the obvious choice for the museum, given the city's long history with African-American music, ranging from the Fisk Jubilee singers to Jefferson Street labels to modern day gospel. But there is also an opportunity for Nashville to expand its Music City brand with the museum, he said.

Okay, maybe I wouldn't go as far a "the obvious choice," but I'm think we're for sure an appropriate choice. After all, a song slaves were singing here in Nashville in the 1850s, was on the album that won the Album of the Year Grammy in 2000 ("Down in the River to Pray" on the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack). I don't think many other places can argue that kind of prescient taste. Are you singing a song now that's going to win a Grammy in 160 years? I don't think so.

Which leads into my next point — the line between country music and African American music has always been drawn by record company catalog, not by how people actually listen to music. When Ray Charles recorded Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, he wasn't recording songs he'd never heard before. He recorded songs he knew and loved.

Or, for instance, E.J. Stone found slaves singing "Run Nigger Run" in Arkansas back in the day. And now, that song is an embarrassing relic of early country music — recorded by Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, Uncle Dave Macon, and Fiddlin' John Carson in the early 20th century. So, is it a country song or not? Sure seems like it. And, if you look through any old record catalog, you'll find many of the same songs listed in "race records" performed by black musicians as you find in "old-timey" or "hillbilly" listings performed by white musicians and the performances sound the same.

And let's not even get started talking about the banjo — an instrument so thoroughly associated with country and bluegrass as to be almost synonymous with the forms — which came from Africa.

Calling country music "white music" is both fair (sorry, Darius Rucker and Charley Pride) and a way to obfuscate the more complicated truth of the matter. Setting the National Museum of African-American Music within spitting distance of the Country Music Hall of Fame is a way for our city to acknowledge that complexity.

Which brings me to my last point. Nashville should have been a city that comes to mind when you think "African-American Music." But I'm reminded John Work II, a professor at Fisk University, who directed the Fisk Jubilee Singers for many years and who, along with Alan Lomax, was the first to record Muddy Waters. See, the thing about Work is that he was sitting here in Nashville coming up with all these ideas that were, at the time he was having them back in the 40s, completely new — like wondering whether some of the types of rhythms and blue notes he was hearing among the people he recorded in Mississippi had African antecedents — which he was never able, because of his race, to get widely disseminated. Other people had to "discover" ground he'd already covered decades later, because a black man in the 40s, even at a prominent school like Fisk, could only matter to a limited group. He knew things and tried to share things that we missed out on, as a city and as a nation, because of racism.

If the first thing that springs to mind when you hear "Nashville" is "The Grand Old Opry," the second thing that comes to mind should be WLAC, back in the day, spreading R&B to half the nation. And some of this is our own fault. Jefferson Street should be nationally synonymous with great music and great live clubs, but we put an interstate through it twice. But we can overcome our fuck-ups.

And so, though I understand Memphis's laughter, I'd argue that putting the museum here makes more sense than it seems like at first.

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