One question always crops up in just about every interview I have done as a professional musician. I usually reply to it with a counter-question (at least in my head). This question is: “Are you comfortable being a black musician playing a kind of music that many people might associate with an often at least conservative or maybe even redneckish white culture?” My counter-question then usually is: “Yes I am – and why aren’t there more black people interested in this music?”

“This music” I talk about is today called Old Time music, a very specific type of acoustic North American Folk music that reached a zenith during the 1920s and 1930s. It has roots in African as well as European cultures and is perhaps the oldest form of North American Traditional music after Native American music. It was listened to across racial divides. But to the uninitiated it may sound like a forerunner of Country music, “white music,” that is.

However, what is “white music” anyhow? Many specific moments in the early 20th century led to the idea of “black music” and “white music” being placed into two separate categories: “Race Records” and “Hillbilly Records.” These moments set up the precedent that defines how the world generally thinks and feels about music to this day. And they ended the era of Old Time music.

One of these moments is a business meeting on a day in August 1920. OKeh Records manager Otto Heineman is approached by a black Tin Pan Alley songwriter named Perry Bradford. Bradford is hustling Mr. Heineman about a new idea he has for a record that he knows will be a huge hit. If OKeh Records makes a record that features a “negro” woman singer backed by a “negro” Jazz band he, Bradford, is sure that OKeh will be ahead of the game in reaching out to a new audience: Southern Blacks. In the past year, Bradford has been putting on a loose-knit revue show called “Made in Harlem” in the Theater District of Manhattan. The show has been so well received on the Off-Broadway stages, that Bradford knows for a fact that a record of the lead song, “Harlem Blues,” sung by Ms. Mamie Smith, would sell in the tens of thousands if not more.

Heineman greenlights the project – though with several changes. They would use Bradford’s songs, but these would not be recorded by Mamie Smith. The first song they choose, “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down,” would be recorded by the standard orchestra led by the popular Sophie Tucker, known as the “Last of The Record Hot Mamas.” Tucker was known as a “coon” shouter, which was a white performer who sang “black” songs and styles. But as fate would have it, it turns out that she has an exclusive recording contract with the Aeolian Phonograph Company. With Sophie Tucker out of the picture, Heineman finally approves the use of Bradford’s first choice, Mamie Smith, as her replacement.
Mamie Smith’s recording of “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” with a standard white orchestra was not a great seller. But it was enough for Heineman to put Bradford and Smith back to work again. Bradford later wrote that the reason the recording was not a great seller was that it did not have a “negro” orchestra. He had a finger on the pulse of what was happening and knew that the community would not truly accept a record that wasn’t giving the quality of music that they were hearing in the clubs every night. So this time he gets the approval to use a “negro” Jazz band. Making minor changes to the original “Made in Harlem” revue lead song, “Harlem Blues,” and renaming it “Crazy Blues” the stage was set for a monumental occasion. Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” was different from the coon songs. It showed the emotions that people felt, and it had music that needed to match those new feelings. “Crazy Blues” was the signal for the emerging song of “The New Negro.”

This was a term that came along in the decades leading up to the 1920s, when black troops after the First World War had gotten to see the old world for the first time and returned home. North America’s black community had made great strides to elevate itself and the communities they represented. This was the decade following the era of Booker T. Washington, the teacher, scholar, lecturer, and philanthropist, who pushed the agenda of blacks being self-reliant. With his “separate but equal” approach, Washington hoped to create black-owned business and communities that were not dependent on the mainstream culture. With these new communities of black people coming up from slavery came new entertainment opportunities. Black entertainment troupes began to spring up advertising “the real thing” for blacks. Even the “Jass” musicians came from the bigger traveling “tent” shows that were like black circuses. These orchestras featured a small band that would play all the popular hits of the day. Many of these performers moved up from the circus to vaudeville. Several of them comprised the Jazz Hounds band that then backed Mamie Smith on that recording of “Crazy Blues.” She came from a world before the “New Negro” existed, but with Bradford’s “Crazy Blues” she became the torchbearer for the “New Negro” marching forward into the future. It was all about progress.

As history would have it, Bradford’s claim proved true this time. The record was a million-seller, and the black community left its first true stamp on the music business in the United States. The sales numbers showed in fact that blacks would buy records made by their own people for their own people. And the strategy would prove a solid money-maker. It would create a previously untapped market in the music industry.

But the one question that was left was what would one call this new market for Southern black music that catered to the burgeoning black community of the Great Migration? This is where a young entrepreneur by the name of Ralph S. Peer comes in. Peer had entered the industry during its infancy and had seen the ways that the major record labels had already sold records to different “ethnic” groups who lived in the United States though they had retained a good deal of the old customs of their own culture. As most operations were in New York City, the early record companies found no problem in finding Irish, Greek, Indian, and Ukrainian singers and musicians who were fresh from their homelands ready to record.

OKeh manager Otto Heineman had hired Ralph Peer as his label’s chief A&R man for the “Crazy Blues” recording session. Peer was now given the task of how to distinguish this new demographic in their company catalog. In classifying the music of the black community, Peer chose a term he had heard used in the black communities of Virginia. In the tradition of Booker T. Washington, who was born and educated in Virginia, the blacks referred to themselves as “The Race.” The term was widely used and mainly in the context of describing members of the community “uplifting the Race.” Booker T. himself was known as the “Moses of the Race.” The world that he represented was the world of blacks born into slavery and emancipated – compared to the “New Negro” who was later born in freedom. Though the term was not one that celebrated modernity in the black community, “The Race” was still the strongest term associated with black progress. It was for this reason that Ralph S. Peer termed the new music genre “Race” records.

He would repeat the same process when faced with the music of poor White Southerners. Though he had recorded several acts like Fiddlin’ John Carson, it wasn’t until he recorded a string band led by Al Hopkins that Peer found his answer to the question: What do you call this music? Asking what the name of the group might be, Hopkins told Peer something along the lines of, “Oh we ain’t nothing but a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina.” Peer dubbed the group “Al Hopkins and His Hillbillies” and with their success, the “Hillbilly” genre was born. Yet, unlike “Race” records, “Hillbilly” was not a term that was championed by its demographic. It was a term reminiscent with what we call “white trash” nowadays. Like the “coon,” the “hillbilly” was a slack-jawed yokel who drank moonshine, had no teeth, and didn’t wear shoes. It was a very unsavory term. But it was what caught on.

In the snap of a finger, the music that represented the Southern United States and ultimately the entire United States had become segregated.