| Flies in the buttermilk
In the Nashville of my childhood, the lines were drawn clearly--and music was no exception. Older blacks loved the blues and listened to Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Bobby "Blue" Bland. My generation, the young blacks who integrated schools, mocked our white classmates with dances like the "White Boy" and the "White Girl" and played records by the Temptations, The Chi-Lites, and Isaac Hayes.
The country styles--bluegrass, old-time, clogging--belonged to Nashville's white folks.
True, there were some black people who liked country music. My great-grandmother listened to the music religiously until she died in the seventies. When I was growing up in the sixties, I knew many people in Nashville's black community who were bluegrass or old-time fans. My teachers made sure we all knew that a black man, Deford Bailey, had been one of the first stars of the Grand Ole Opry--Nashville's premier venue for country music--back in the twenties and thirties.
Nevertheless, it was clear that blacks weren't supposed to be fans. "Everyone" knew that only Ku Klux Klan members and poor white folks listened to bluegrass and old-time. When my great-grandmother wanted to listen, she did so at home--on her radio or television. Growing up, I never saw blacks in the audience at the Ryman Auditorium. We weren't wanted there. And we didn't want to go.
I certainly wasn't impressed with clogging. As a kid, I had joined my great-grandmother in front of the TV set as she watched professional troupes shuffle across the Grand Ole Opry stage. The girls wore white shoes and tights. Their legs looked as long and thin as batons. Their skirts, inflated by layers and layers of crinolines, fluttered just above their knees. It was way too corny for my sixteen-year-old sense of cool. I yearned for a short mini-skirt and a huge Afro--not outfits reminiscent of grade school and Easter presents of patent leather shoes and can-can slips.
Age and maturity softened my resistance to country music. I grew to appreciate the tight harmonies of bluegrass singers and the storytelling style of country music songs. I also began to learn more about my personal connection to the music. My family, like so many other black families, has mixed roots--not just African and American Indian, but also Scotch-Irish. And it was Scotch-Irish immigrants who brought over the musical traditions that, along with those of African slaves and American Indians, eventually evolved into today's Southern country music.
Even so, I struggled with a lot of personal uncertainty as I started the program at Augusta Heritage. Scotch-Irish blood or not, I was still black. My friends laughed when I told them I was coming to West Virginia. They joked about hillbillies, shotguns, and lynchings. I joked back, but inside I was afraid. Was I going to a place that didn't want me, a place where I didn't belong?
As it turns out, I wasn't the only black person at Augusta. Five black men, a gospel group, were there as teachers; so was a singer from Africa. There were a few others. All in all, we numbered eight, maybe ten, out of a hundred or more students. We were just enough to tint the predominately white environment, not enough to threaten anyone's ease by doing things our way.
My father would have called us "the flies in the buttermilk." That was his code for the times, so many times, when he integrated a room, an office, a meeting, and a staff. He'd spent twenty years in the Navy, at a time when a black man from Tennessee couldn't legally vote for his commander in chief.
My father had repeatedly tried and failed to make higher ranks. His tests had often ended up in the trash. But he had risen, picking up his fractured ego and preserving his ambitions until he retired as a chief petty officer. "There'll be lots of times when you'll be the only one," he once told me. White people were everywhere, he said--on television, in the news, in books and magazines. Wherever their eyes fell, they saw a reality centered on them. Black people didn't have that luxury. "That's just the way it is. You can't expect to see black people everywhere," my father said.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived at Augusta and found more blacks than I expected and as many whites as I'd figured. The musicians carried fiddles, guitars, or mandolins. The singers clutched two-liter bottles of water. All day, every day, we walked together from our dorms to our classes, up and down the ridges of the mountains, eager and happy to sing and play.
Flies in the buttermilk