A World That Draws a Line: Interracial Love Songs in American Country Music

Richard and Mil­dred Lov­ing, 1965

“Cherokee Maiden” by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys

“Chero­kee Maid­en” was writ­ten by Cindy Walk­er, one of coun­try music’s first major female song­writ­ers, and record­ed by Bob Wills and the Tex­as Play­boys in 1941. Intro­duced by a fid­dle melody rem­i­nis­cent of a Looney Tunes cue, “Chero­kee Maid­en” tells the sto­ry of the singer’s “night of love” with an Amer­i­can Indi­an wom­an, to whom he pledges to return, “straight as an arrow flies.”

Beneath the light­ness of the song lies a rad­i­cal sub­text: at the time in Walker’s native Tex­as, the sex­u­al encoun­ter described by the song was not only frowned on, it was ille­gal. Tex­as had been the first state in the union to pass a law offi­cial­ly bar­ring mis­ce­gena­tion, mean­ing not just inter­ra­cial mar­riage, but inter­ra­cial sex of any kind. After decades of being an unwrit­ten rule, the law was for­mal­ized in 1837, and even­tu­al­ly had coun­ter­parts in near­ly every Amer­i­can state. It was not over­turned until 1967.

That year, Vir­ginia State Police raid­ed the bed­room of Mil­dred Lov­ing, who was of Rap­pa­han­nock Indi­an and African descent, and Richard Lov­ing, who was white. The police hoped to catch them in flagrante—a vio­la­tion of Virginia’s Racial Integri­ty Act. A sub­se­quent Supre­me Court deci­sion estab­lished that anti-mis­ce­gena­tion laws were a vio­la­tion of the 14th Amend­ment, forc­ing state gov­ern­ments to elim­i­nate them. But even then, inter­ra­cial rela­tion­ships remained taboo—when a Star Trek episode the fol­low­ing year pre­sent­ed view­ers with Amer­i­can television’s first inter­ra­cial kiss, NBC near­ly refused to air it.

Yet some­how, a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry ear­lier, “Chero­kee Maid­en” became a coun­try stan­dard, thanks in no small part to Wills and his remark­able band. Bob Wills was the fore­most pro­po­nent of a style called West­ern Swing, an ear­ly sub­gen­re of coun­try music that adopt­ed aspects of jazz impro­vi­sa­tion. Con­tem­po­rary coun­try and jazz may seem to have noth­ing to do with each oth­er, but the strands of their his­to­ries are not so easy to sep­a­rate. One of the sem­i­nal record­ings by the man con­sid­ered coun­try music’s found­ing father, Jim­mie Rodgers, is 1930’s  “Blue Yodel No. 9,” a blues fea­tur­ing trum­pet impro­vi­sa­tions by the man con­sid­ered jazz’s found­ing father, Louis Arm­strong.

This con­ti­nu­ity was not lost on jazz’s most rad­i­cal mod­ernist of the 1940s, Char­lie Park­er, who was known to shock his acolytes by step­ping up to a juke­box after one of his sets and pick­ing out a coun­try tune. “Lis­ten to the sto­ries,” he is said to have told bewil­dered onlook­ers.

“Brown Eyed Handsome Man” by Chuck Berry

West­ern Swing had lit­tle influ­ence on jazz, but, years lat­er, it had a sur­pris­ing effect on the emer­gence of rock and roll. Chuck Berry had drawn atten­tion in inte­grat­ed clubs in the 1950s for being, as his pianist John­nie John­son described it, “a black man play­ing hill­bil­ly music.” Berry’s first sin­gle on Chess Records was a song called “May­belline,” which, depend­ing on who you ask, could be the first rock and roll record. By Berry’s admis­sion, it was a rewrite of the folk song “Ida Red,” which he became famil­iar with through an upbeat 1938 dance ver­sion by Bob Wills.

Though Berry min­i­mized the African-Amer­i­can ver­nac­u­lar qual­i­ties of his dic­tion in his singing, his song­writ­ing fre­quent­ly allud­ed to the expe­ri­ence of being black in Amer­i­ca. He not­ed in his mem­oirs that in his sig­na­ture song, “John­ny B. Goode,” the title char­ac­ter was ini­tial­ly a “lit­tle col­ored boy” who became a “lit­tle coun­try boy” in a can­ny maneu­ver to make white lis­ten­ers feel includ­ed.

This kind of cod­ed speech, which Paul Gilroy has called “meta­com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” is char­ac­ter­is­tic of African-Amer­i­can music, with roots in the neces­si­ty to con­vey mes­sages in secret through work songs and spir­i­tu­als under slav­ery. As for “Brown Eyed Hand­some Man,” it’s a cod­ed descrip­tion of a brown skinned man. Berry wrote the song after trav­el­ing through African-Amer­i­can and Lati­no neigh­bor­hoods in Cal­i­for­nia. One day, he saw a Chi­cano man being arrest­ed for loi­ter­ing as a wom­an plead­ed with the police­man to let him go. If the “hand­some man” of the title is black or brown, it’s implied that the wom­en who find him irresistible—a judge’s wife, for example—are white. The final verse, in which the man wins a base­ball game, would have remind­ed lis­ten­ers of Jack­ie Robin­son.

It was with his pop­u­lar­i­ty as a source of mate­ri­al dur­ing the British Inva­sion of the 1960s that Berry’s music became per­ma­nent­ly iden­ti­fied as belong­ing to a new gen­re, rather than as the out­put of a black man who played both hill­bil­ly music and rhythm and blues. Though the term “rock and roll” had been used through­out the 1950s, the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of the vari­eties of music played by Berry and his con­tem­po­raries under that sin­gle cat­e­go­ry hap­pened in ret­ro­spect. At the time, coun­try icons Ernest Tubb and Buck Owens com­fort­ably record­ed hit ver­sions of Chuck Berry songs, and “Brown Eyed Hand­some Man” was itself lat­er cov­ered by Way­lon Jen­nings.

As Andrew Ross has writ­ten,

for British musi­cians, raised in a cul­ture that would not have to begin to prop­er­ly acknowl­edge its mul­tira­cial con­stituen­cy for anoth­er decade, blues music rep­re­sent­ed an exotic taste, not a lived expe­ri­ence for a racial minor­i­ty. This was not the case with the ear­lier rock­a­bil­ly cul­ture of South­ern kids.

Just as Berry appro­pri­at­ed coun­try, “white trash kids from Bap­tist back­grounds,” as Ross calls them, drew as much from the blues and gospel of black neigh­bor­hoods as they did the coun­try and folk of their fam­i­ly homes. In spite of a his­to­ry of seg­re­ga­tion, racial diver­si­ty was a real­i­ty of the Amer­i­can South, and music was part of the every­day life of neighbors—like the African-Amer­i­can labor­ers from whom Bob Wills learned to play music in his child­hood, on the plan­ta­tion in Tex­as where he and his fam­i­ly picked cot­ton. In Greil Mar­cus’s for­mu­la­tion, the oper­a­tive ethic was not “the abil­i­ty to imi­tate,” but “the nerve to cross bor­ders.”

White musi­cians’ con­tin­ued bor­row­ings from black music are com­mon knowl­edge, but the inverse per­sist­ed after Chuck Berry as well—Cindy Walker’s best-known song after “Chero­kee Maid­en” was “You Don’t Know Me,” a coun­try hit for Eddy Arnold that would lat­er become a 1962 R&B hit for Ray Charles. Al Green, whose Hi Records label shared its Mem­phis home with rock­a­bil­ly insti­tu­tion Sun Stu­dios, was the most promi­nent soul singer to fol­low in Charles’s foot­steps, cov­er­ing Hank Williams, Willie Nel­son, and Kris Kristof­fer­son on his streak of clas­sic albums in the 1970s.

“Made In Japan” by Buck Owens

Coun­try song­writ­ers are obsessed with lan­guage, assem­bling their lyrics from puns, dou­ble enten­dres, idioms, and what­ev­er oth­er fig­ures of speech suit the occa­sion. The occa­sion here, by hus­band-and-wife song­writ­ing team Bob and Faye Mor­ris, is a reflec­tion by an Amer­i­can vet­er­an on his affair with a Japan­ese wom­an he met dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. After a hushed courtship set to a lilt­ing pen­ta­ton­ic scale, the sol­dier is spurned by this wom­an, who is promised to anoth­er man in an arranged mar­riage. The wom­an is described with a some­what crass idiom: she is likened to an import­ed pro­duct “made in Japan.”

This alle­go­ry seems to turn the human rela­tion­ship between the sol­dier and his lover into an exchange of com­modi­ties. This is an often-derid­ed way of depict­ing social life. Con­sid­er Ani­mal Collective’s mil­len­ni­al anthem “My Girls,” which pro­claims, with exten­sive qual­i­fi­ca­tion, “I don’t mean to seem like I care about mate­ri­al things.” But the voic­es of coun­try music describe lives in which car­ing about mate­ri­al things is a mat­ter of neces­si­ty, as part of the his­tor­i­cal­ly speci­fic con­di­tions in which we live. What the authors acknowl­edge in “Made in Japan” is that love and sex exist in a world that also includes mon­ey and war.

This mate­ri­al­ist aware­ness means that in spite of attempts to claim coun­try music for the cause of right-wing nation­al­ism, glob­al­iza­tion isn’t an unusu­al sub­ject for the gen­re. It was the locus of Brad Paisley’s cheer­ful­ly cos­mopoli­tan 2009 hit “Amer­i­can Sat­ur­day Night,” a laun­dry list of icon­ic Amer­i­can tra­di­tions with ori­gins in for­eign coun­tries. This cos­mopoli­tanism is man­i­fest­ed son­i­cal­ly as well—a typ­i­cal ear­ly coun­try record­ing, most like­ly played by chil­dren of immi­grants, might con­sist of Irish fid­dling, Swiss yodel­ing, Hawai­ian steel gui­tars, and the West African ban­jo. But “Made in Japan” invokes a more con­tem­po­rary form of glob­al­iza­tion, in the pres­ence of infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy: the lone­ly for­mer sol­dier awak­ens mem­o­ries of his for­mer lover by dial­ing in sig­nals from Japan on his tran­sis­tor radio.

Tech­nol­o­gy isn’t an unusu­al sub­ject for coun­try either. Though revi­sion­ist accounts of coun­try music affil­i­at­ed with both Top 40 pan­der­ing and indie folk pos­tur­ing claim it as a nos­tal­gic form, coun­try has always been a defi­ant­ly mod­ern prac­tice. Even blue­grass pio­neer Bill Mon­roe, whose music is now incor­rect­ly asso­ci­at­ed with a pas­toral wood­en puri­ty, described his style as a musi­cal repro­duc­tion of the sounds of mod­ern indus­try in an increas­ing­ly mech­a­nized world.

Buck Owens was one of the prog­en­i­tors of Bak­ers­field coun­try, which adopt­ed the elec­tric cur­rent of rock and roll’s over­driven ampli­fiers, in reac­tion to the tra­di­tion­al­ist “Coun­try­poli­tan” sound of Nashville. In a acknowl­edg­ment of its mobile mod­ernism, Owens called the noise of his plugged-in, back­beat-dri­ven band the “freight train” sound, tying it to the tech­nol­o­gy that brought both the black and white work­ing class from the coun­try to the city in the mid-20th cen­tu­ry.

But even though trans­porta­tion and infor­ma­tion tech­nolo­gies offered a poten­tial for con­nec­tion half a world away, coun­try music is a loser’s art. “When it’s night over here, over there it’s break­ing day,” the sol­dier observes, sim­ply and sad­ly. In the end, he can’t cross the bar­ri­ers he faces, those of land, sea, or lan­guage.

“Black Rose” by Waylon Jennings

Along with Willie Nel­son, Way­lon Jen­nings car­ried on the coun­try music insur­gen­cy ini­ti­at­ed by the Bak­ers­field style and mav­er­icks like John­ny Cash. Vet­er­ans of the indus­try, Way­lon and Willie grew so tired of Nashville pol­i­tics they left town. Relo­cat­ing to Austin, Tex­as, they began draw­ing from both their Tex­an roots and the bur­geon­ing local scene of hip­pie freaks. The result­ing music seemed dan­ger­ous enough that it acquired a new name: out­law coun­try.

Pre­ced­ing sub­gen­res of coun­try tend­ed to be named after places. The ”coun­try” itself, Bak­ers­field, Nashville—even “honky-tonk” refers to urban South­ern bars and “blue­grass” to Ken­tucky fields. But out­law coun­try set itself apart: it named the sub­ject. “Out­law” is a more self-aggran­diz­ing ver­sion of the the ter­mi­nol­o­gy of class con­tempt in the Amer­i­can vernacular—words like “white trash,” “hick,” “hill­bil­ly,” “red­neck,” “crack­er,” and so on. The­se slurs are not often con­sid­ered as ugly as racial slurs direct­ed at peo­ple of col­or, part­ly because their pri­ma­ry deter­mi­nant is the less per­cep­ti­ble cat­e­go­ry of class. But that does not mean that they are not also racial­ized. If, as Stu­art Hall famous­ly put it, “race is the modal­i­ty in which class is lived,” the­se words refer in part to some abject state of being too white.

While mid­dle-class white Amer­i­cans are able to main­tain a sub­ject posi­tion absent of racial deter­mi­na­tion, rural whites have his­tor­i­cal­ly been made vic­tims of what Paul Gilroy calls the “spu­ri­ous bio­log­i­cal the­o­ry” that has been more dis­cernibly inflict­ed on peo­ple of col­or. Research by Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray has not­ed that “Eugenic Fam­i­ly Stud­ies” at around the turn of the cen­tu­ry declared white res­i­dents of depressed regions “genet­i­cal­ly defec­tive.” In a new man­i­fes­ta­tion of a long tra­di­tion, class was given a bio­log­i­cal deter­mi­nant that regard­ed the rural poor as an infe­ri­or race. Friedrich Engels had observed in 1844 that to the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment in Eng­land, “the work­ing-class has grad­u­al­ly become a race whol­ly apart from the Eng­lish bour­geoisie.” Under the guise of sci­ence, the same tax­on­o­my was repro­duced in ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca.

Class slurs are more use­ful for mid­dle-class and upward­ly mobile whites than they are for peo­ple of col­or, per­mit­ting a strat­i­fi­ca­tion with­in the cat­e­go­ry of white­ness rather than a mark­ing of its lim­its. They pit “Stan­dard Eng­lish” again­st rural dialects, the office again­st the fac­to­ry or farm, cler­i­cal work again­st agri­cul­tur­al or indus­tri­al labour, sub­ur­ban life again­st rural or slum life, cars again­st trucks, church ser­vices again­st tent revivals, pop again­st coun­try. More direct­ly pejo­ra­tive asso­ci­a­tions are also implied, most notably that of incest. The­se class antag­o­nisms are often hid­den behind the infer­ence of con­ser­vatism, chiefly racism. It’s unre­al­is­tic to ignore the reac­tionary ide­olo­gies that per­sist among low­er-class whites, but antiracism is not the point of the­se slurs. They are a mark­ing of the bound­aries of cul­tur­al cap­i­tal.

The most com­mon of the­se slurs, and the one that car­ries with it the most charged lib­er­al indig­na­tion, is “red­neck,” which coun­try singers of the 1970s like David Allan Coe made cen­tral to the lan­guage of the music. Now used to denote a par­tic­u­lar brand of big­otry, the lit­er­al con­no­ta­tion and ety­mo­log­i­cal orig­in of the word are over­shad­owed. In the 1930s Amer­i­can South, a “red­neck” was a union mem­ber on strike. The term metonymi­cal­ly invoked the Com­mu­nist Par­ty neck ker­chief worn by coal min­ers both for pro­tec­tion and in a state­ment of sol­i­dar­i­ty. The more obvi­ous sub­text, that of the sun­burned neck of a farm labor­er, is hard­ly any less bound up in class antag­o­nism.

Way­lon Jen­nings inau­gu­rat­ed the new cat­e­go­ry of the out­law on an album called Honky Tonk Heroes. It was a col­lec­tion of songs by Bil­ly Joe Shaver, a for­mer truck­er fond of LSD, who threat­ened Jennings’s life to get him to lis­ten to his songs. “Black Rose” describes the protagonist’s affair with a black wom­an, whom the nar­ra­tive implies is mar­ried. The moral­i­ty play that results finds him dwelling “on the dark­er side of shame,” whether over a vio­la­tion of mar­i­tal fideli­ty or in strug­gle with a racist super­ego. But the plea­sure prin­ci­ple wins out in the end, with a cho­rus that per­fect­ly states the out­law sen­si­bil­i­ty: “The dev­il made me do it the first time/The sec­ond time I done it on my own.”

“Irma Jackson” by Merle Haggard

If the out­law was a pow­er­ful metaphor for coun­try music’s van­guard of the 1970s, it was a real descrip­tion of one of the genre’s Bak­ers­field pre­de­ces­sors, Mer­le Hag­gard. His series of incar­cer­a­tions began with juve­nile deten­tion for shoplift­ing at 13, and car­ried into his ear­ly adult­hood. He escaped fre­quent­ly, even from the noto­ri­ous­ly secure San Quentin State Pris­on, where he stuck around long enough to see John­ny Cash play one of his con­certs for pris­on­ers.

Racked with guilt over his crim­i­nal­i­ty, Hag­gard spent his career singing pris­on songs as often as he did drink­ing songs, lament­ing the “black mark” that fol­lows the “Brand­ed Man.” But in spite of the­se songs that gave voice to an embat­tled under­class, Hag­gard is asso­ci­at­ed with an oppos­ing sen­si­bil­i­ty.

“Okie” is an anti­quat­ed pre­de­ces­sor to “red­neck,” belong­ing more to the era of John Stein­beck and Woody Guthrie, but Hag­gard res­ur­rect­ed it for his 1969 hit “Okie From Musko­gee.” It presents the per­spec­tive of a fic­tion­al­ized com­men­ta­tor from the epony­mous mid­west­ern town, who con­demns the day’s cam­pus coun­ter­cul­ture for its deca­dence and priv­i­lege. The song has left Hag­gard with the image of a cranky con­ser­v­a­tive, in spite of its obvi­ous­ly fic­tion­al nature. But as his accounts of pover­ty like “Work­in’ Man Blues” and “If We Make it Through Decem­ber” demon­strate, the over­looked ele­ment in this com­men­tary on the New Left by an imag­ined small-town skep­tic is class.

Phil Ochs, the most com­mit­ted left-wing song­writer of the Green­wich Vil­lage folk music scene of the 1960s, took to play­ing “Okie from Musko­gee” in the ear­ly 1970s, to dis­grun­tled respons­es from his young audi­ences. The song appealed to Ochs due to his con­cern over the schism between stu­dent activists and Nixon’s “silent major­i­ty.”

“The idea of a ‘freak’ coun­ter­cul­ture was dis­as­trous,” he says in an inter­view excerpt­ed in the doc­u­men­tary There But for For­tune. “What was need­ed was an organ­ic con­nec­tion to the work­ing class.”

And of course, Nixon was using that, and get­ting across this image of, “it’s them again­st us. No mat­ter what you think of me, I’m a reg­u­lar straight Amer­i­can guy, if you’re not going to have me you’re going to have some hairy freak, and dope in the streets, and destruc­tion in the coun­try.” That’s the game he played, and he played it very effec­tive­ly.

Leg­end has it, Ochs was once thrown out of a mov­ing lim­ou­sine by none oth­er than fel­low Green­wich Vil­lage folkie Bob Dylan, who told him, “you’re not a writer, you’re a jour­nal­ist.” The dubi­ous­ness of this dis­tinc­tion aside, there was a real ide­o­log­i­cal schism between the two: while Ochs strug­gled to reach the work­ing class, Dylan fol­lowed his class aspi­ra­tions all the way to the top.

On the 1964 record Anoth­er Side, Dylan invert­ed the ral­ly­ing cry of the New Left. The per­son­al was not polit­i­cal, he insist­ed, and the polit­i­cal was no longer rel­e­vant. Social move­ments were a form of arti­fice, with­out the com­plex­i­ty and the depth of per­son­al expe­ri­ence. “‘Equal­i­ty,’ I spoke the word, as if a wed­ding vow,” he sang in “My Back Pages,” before con­clud­ing with the refrain’s trite dec­la­ra­tion of enlight­en­ment: “But I was so much old­er then/I’m younger than that now.” A social abstrac­tion like “equal­i­ty,” Dylan claimed, fell short of the authen­tic thoughts and acts of indi­vid­u­als. Equal­i­ty may have been a mat­ter for soci­ety to resolve, but it was not a real per­son­al con­cern, where­as mar­riage was. Dylan, in this song and most of his sub­se­quent work, chose the per­son­al.

They were words only a white man could have sung. In 1964, Richard and Mil­dred Loving’s mar­riage was still ille­gal. Their wed­ding vows were a polit­i­cal act, one that result­ed in per­se­cu­tion by a state that didn’t think much of equal­i­ty either.

A coun­ter­cul­tur­al bohemi­an like Dylan may not have under­stood this, but Mer­le Hag­gard did. He had writ­ten a song in the late 1960s about an ill-fat­ed inter­ra­cial rela­tion­ship, but Capi­tol Records feared that it would alien­ate lis­ten­ers who had not seen the irony in “Okie.” He remem­bers the head of coun­try music at Capi­tol telling him, “Mer­le, I don’t believe the world is ready for this yet.” This reac­tion to the song end­ed up as an iter­a­tion of its core sen­ti­ment. “There’s no way the world will under­stand that love is col­or­blind,” Hag­gard sang.

“Irma Jack­son”  was final­ly released on 1972’s Let Me Tell You About a Song. It describes a rela­tion­ship that begins inno­cent­ly:

I remem­ber when no one cared about us being friends
We were only chil­dren and it real­ly didn’t mat­ter then
But we grew up too quick­ly in a world that draws a line
Where they say Irma Jack­son can’t be mine.

But the song ends in tragedy. More sen­si­tive to the risks of main­tain­ing the rela­tion­ship in a soci­ety that has nev­er been col­or­blind, Irma Jack­son breaks it off.

She tells me she decid­ed that she’ll go away
And I guess it’s right that she alone should have the final say
But in spite of her deci­sion forc­ing us to say good­bye
I’ll still love Irma Jack­son till I die.

The story’s con­clu­sion is the for­mer­ly inevitable one that the Lov­ing v. Vir­ginia case began to reverse. But its begin­ning resem­bles the courtship between Richard Lov­ing and Mil­dred Jeter, in their rural town of Cen­tral Point. They met as ado­les­cents in 1950, at the Jeter fam­i­ly farm. Mildred’s broth­ers were musi­cians, and they were putting on a per­for­mance for the neigh­bor­hood, in a style Mil­dred called “hill­bil­ly music.”

Richard Lov­ing had trav­eled sev­en miles across town to hear it.


Author of the article

is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn.