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.