Thomas Hart Benton (1889—1975), The Sources of Country Music, 1975. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 120 in. (182.9 x 304.8 cm.).
Credit: Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum, Nashville, Tenn. The Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum is operated by the Country Music Foundation, Inc.
The old music cannot last much longer. I count it a great privilege to have heard it in the sad twang of mountain voices before it died.—Thomas Hart Benton
Thomas Hart Benton conceived The Sources of Country Music, as an action-filled stage upon which the history of an important genre of American music comes to life. His painting is both controversial and personal. The controversy stems from Benton’s rejection of the trappings of the modern art world while simultaneously developing his own unique modern style. The personal is a product of his many travels and sketches of rural American life and music. In his trips down country roads, Benton documented American life and the history of its folk music. These American journeys are a focal point of Benton’s art.
By analyzing The Sources of Country Music, students will see the story of Benton’s America and discover how the processes of modernity changed American life in the early decades of the twentieth century. By listening to folk music, they will understand how advances in audio recording both captured and changed this music. Moreover, they will discover how recording technology and the movies shaped the images of country style music.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to
Thomas Hart Benton was a little pugnacious, very driven, and, at times, isolated. These character traits helped shape the direction of his artistic career. At an early age, he wanted to become an artist and followed that dream despite his father’s wishes. Benton’s passion for art and the desire to escape the confines of his hometown of Neosho, Missouri, led him to explore urban life in Chicago, New York, and Paris. It was in the American urban landscape that he discovered a new American experience, the skyscraper. “It stands,” he noted, “above the crude commercialism that generated it, the first sign of the rebirth of our aesthetic sensibilities”*. His fascination with technology, however, did not blind him to problems of workers in northern steel mills and in southern coalmines, which he depicted in the “Strike.” Yet, Benton was not a revolutionary and attracted criticism from artists seeking social change.
Benton’s rejection of crass commercialism and his search for a new American aesthetic also led to confrontation with the established urban art world with its museums. The self-proclaimed “genius” rejected the European-oriented focus of American artists. He especially rejected the dominating influence of the New York art scene. That pugnacious character of his thus directed him along a different path in search of his art.
His search for a new aesthetic eventually led him to incorporate American democratic themes into his publicly displayed murals and to develop a painting technique that relied on miniature models of his subjects. He found the inspiration for his models in long journeys through rural America, which he described in his autobiography, An Artist in America. Like many, Benton sought American identity in the past and in traditions that were quickly disappearing in the hyper-commercialized society of the early 20th century. Part of that identity could be found in popular music performed by non-professional musicians in barns and rural churches and along the Mississippi.
National institutions such as the Library of Congress (LOC) and the Smithsonian also sought to revive original American culture, finding part of its roots in traditional music. With the establishment of the Archive of American Folksong in 1928, the LOC created a national center for the preservation and study of American folk music (for details, see Folk Center News 2003). By supporting research and recording expeditions, it captured the sounds of the Appalachians and the American West for posterity. This national recognition of American folk music can be seen in the area of foreign affairs as well. When King George VI visited the U.S. in 1939, the King and Queen learned about the traditions of American music by listening to “Wade on the Water” performed by the North Carolina Spiritual Singers (photo) as well as Cowboy Ballads such as “The Old Chisholm Trail.” The official program of entertainment for the Royals’ visit credited John Lomax with the “discovery” of cowboy songs (see the official program).
Presidential support of folk music was just one indication of the increasing popularity of folk music in the post-World War I era. That popularity rested on the fact that folk music filled the needs of various groups. For academic researchers, American identity could be found in the folk music tradition, thus separating the U.S. from Europe. For workers, it provided a platform for political protest. For others, folk music symbolized a mythical past in an expanding urbanized world dominated by new technology. For record companies, it meant profit.
Ironically, the popularization and commercialization of folk music in the years prior to World War II led to the evolution of a different type of country music, resulting in a mixture of styles and genres. At the core of this phenomenon was the process of discovery, recording, and marketing. Recording companies sent agents out into rural America to discover original songs that executives would then copyright. In recording sessions, record company representatives could influence a musician’s playing style and record only those songs that promised commercial success. One early country artist was Eck Robertson who recorded ‘"Sallie Gooden" in 1922. Then, in 1927, hoping to capitalize on the growing country music market, Ralph Peer held a recording session for Victor in Bristol, TN, paving the way for the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers among others. That July 25th to August 5th recording session has become a hallmark of commercial country music.
* Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist in America, 4th Revised Edition (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1990), 29.
The activities in this lesson rely on visual, audio, and written primary sources to document the development of country music. To prepare for this lesson, review all the materials associated with this lesson, including the Picturing America Resource Book Chapter 18A.
Consider using this lesson in conjunction with
In Activity 3, students will examine how commercialization changed traditional music. To prepare for this activity, you will need copies of the following songs, which are available at the Internet Archive.
Step 1: Project an image of The Source of Country Music. Read the following passages from Benton’s autobiography.
There is much traditional music in the hills, profane as well as sacred. This is no discovery of mine. Interested people, better equipped then I, have been ferreting it out for years. It does not seem to survive industrialism and the songs of the coal fields and textile regions are poor attenuations of the old ones and full of the conventions of Tin Pan Alley. Movie halls, phonographs, and radios wreck the old free play music. Young singers, with the references of canned music at hand, sing in the standardized fashion of the cities, where a certain kind of rigid pattern for hillbilly music has been popularized. In the song festival, which have been revived lately in the Appalachians, urban expertness gets too much applause. The old-timers are backing away. (Benton 1990, 112)
Pose the question: What is happening to “free play” music? Elicit answers and write them on the board. You may wish to talk about Tin Pan Alley and the efforts to copyright original music. (10 min)
Step 3: Use “Rye Whiskey” as a bridge to a larger discussion of the singing cowboy tradition and to illustrate how recording artists and the recording industry in general alter songs and create new traditions. Draw students into a discussion of what happens when music is arranged to meet popular tastes. Have students imagine that they have eight (8) versions of a song but can only pick one (1) to be published in a songbook. Which version would they select and what might happen to the other versions? Which version is the original?
Handout worksheet 2 and play "Jack O’ Diamonds" performed by Jules Allen. Then play the Tex Ritter interview along with "Rye Whiskey." Ask students to note what is different about the lyrics. Point out that many versions of the song existed especially during the civil war period. Interested students could then examine the different versions of "Rye Whiskey" as a poster project.
Note: Alternatively, you could talk about Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), "Good Night Irene" to illustrate how songs were altered to conform to perceived public tastes.
Step 4: Play the first minutes of "Hittin' the Trail". Draw students into a discussion of the cowboy image in country music by posing the questions: What are some of the popular myths about the cowboys? Why do you think cowboy films were so popular? How did film change old time music? What cowboy traditions to you see in country music today?
Ask students to comment on the following statement.
The old music cannot last much longer. I count it a great privilege to have heard it in the sad twang of mountain voices before it died. — Thomas Hart Benton
Note: If you wish to expand this activity, you can follow up with Oklahoma! The Cultural Myth of America (ArtsEdge)
Any number of activities can be included here depending on the interests of students. As students will have an opportunity to create a poster on specific musicians and their music, Activity 2 concentrates on two areas of the painting: A) the banjo player and B) square dancing. Each activity requires approximately 45 minutes. Activity 2B could be a homework assignment.
Step 1: Pass out the questions below and then play the streaming video from Folk Stream.
Step 2: Elicit answers to the questions and summarize responses on the board.
If time allows, you can follow this activity with a listening exercise from the Digital Library of the Appalachians. Students will have difficulty understanding the interviews, but they should be able to identify key ideas in context.
Lee Boone — What word does Lee Boone use to describe his picking style? (Dog shabbing)
Uncle Homer Walker — What other style of music can be played on the banjo? (Blues) What musicians/singers does he recall? (Hank Snow, Hank Williams)
Warren Wilson — Where did he learn how to play the banjo and how did he play? (Square dances/two fingers)
Step 1: Divide the class into small groups and pass out a copy of the excerpt from the WPA interview with questions. In addition, you can include written documents worksheet. as well as this excerpted worksheet. (30 min)
Step 2: Elicit responses. (5 min)
Step 3: Play a square dance clip from YouTube. Have students comment on the clip. What types of clothing were the dancers wearing? What were some the names of the dance figures?
Note: If you wish to add another activity, you can mention that Benton played the harmonica and created a musical notation using numbers and arrows. Then move on to a discussion of Sacred Harp music and shape note singing using the Sweet is the Day video. In his autobiography, Benton mentioned the Harp of Columbia and “its signatureless staff of moons and crescents, squares, stars, and triangles” (Benton 1990, 111). For further information on Harp singing, see http://www.oldharp.org/. Alternatively, you can use the recordings of the Carter family available the Internet Archive to illustrate religious style music.
For further activities, see:
In Activity 1, students will identify the sources of folk music based on their own observations and compare their findings to the thoughts of the artist. To prepare for this activity, you will need Internet access. If the Internet is not available, use sections of PBS Thomas Hart Benton as well as sections of the oral history interview with Thomas Hart Benton from the Truman library. If you use the oral history interview, pass out the primary document worksheet.
Step 1: Project an image of The Sources of Country Music on the board and give students a copy of it.
Step 2: Divide the class into pairs or small groups of 3 or 4 students. Have the groups mark sections of the painting that depict music and think about the following questions.
Allow students 10-15 minutes to complete this exercise.
Step 3: Elicit responses to the questions and write them on the board. (5 min)
Step 4: Have students watch The Sources of Country Music video (25 min) [note that this streaming video takes time to load] and complete the following questions. Ask students to write out their answers as a homework assignment.
Divide the class into small groups of 4-5 students. Ask each group to review the list of performers in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Students can either select a performer, such as the Carter family or Patsy Cline, or examine one of the themes covered in the activities, such as the fiddle, the railroad song, or the singing cowboy.
3-4 class periods