And the Beats Go On
Music has proved a wand of empowerment for the vast array of Texans who have wielded it. The state’s native inhabitants ramped up their tribal music in part to free themselves from the incoming Spanish settlers. Later, Mexicans played conjunto to unburden themselves of the white man, while blacks played the blues as a way to loosen those same chains. Even the whites played music to free themselves-from their history, expectations self-imposed and otherwise, and in some cases their homelands.
This between-the-lines conclusion-that music enables transcendence-grows out of Hartman’s thesis: that Texas’ ethnic diversity has engendered a musical cross-pollination that forms the backbone of American music. The manifestation of that notion is The History of Texas Music, a concise primer on the state’s music, examined in social, political, and economic contexts. It’s incredibly inclusive, yet Hartman, founding director of the Center for Texas Music History at Texas State University, omits at least one important musician, avant folkie Daniel Johnston (and Hartman skates over the genre Johnston played an integral part in spawning, a genre that arguably draws on all of its predecessors: indie rock). Just about everybody else who’s anybody-whether they were born in Texas or lived their formidable years here-gets at least a name-check, but rarely more than a few paragraphs.
“Texas music” is routinely mistaken for a genre unto itself, though it’s much more than just the outlaw ballads of Willie Nelson, the crooner classicism of George Strait, and the cooing harmonies of the Dixie Chicks. Assumptions to the otherwise derive largely from country music’s widespread appeal, which Hartman credits to Hollywood’s mythification of cowboys, as enacted by Texans Gene Autry, Dale Evans, and Tex Ritter. Defining Texas music as a sound bound by geography, not style, is therefore one of Hartman’s main tasks. This leads him to countless pronouncements a reader familiar with the subject might find obvious.
“First and foremost,” he writes, “Texas music is extraordinarily diverse. Although many people may think of country music when they think of the Lone Star State, Texas actually encompasses a wide variety of ethnic musical genres and regional styles.”
True enough, and Hartman supports his case with an account of the state’s musical development seen through the lens of its people. Chapters are apportioned among Native Americans, Mexicans, Africans, and Anglos. Hartman’s starting point is the Caddo tribe, some of the more technologically advanced Indians of the Southwest. Hartman’s evidence shows their music found its voice in finely crafted ceramic utensils and metal bells acquired from Spanish traders.
Other Native Americans who’d inhabited Texas, like the Coahuiltecan, Atakapan, and Jumano, also used singing, chanting, and dancing, both as means to religious ends and as soundtracks to daily activities like hunting, farming, and warring.
Hartman pleads lack of documented sources for the thinness of his chapter on these first Texans. But he makes up for it with a thorough account of musica tejana, the collective identity he applies to Mexican music, an assemblage of genres long on talent but sorely underappreciated by the average American listener.
Musica tejana took root in the early 1800s, after European immigrants introduced new instruments that yielded waltzes and polkas. It later flourished in the wake of Texas’ declaration of independence in 1836, when, Hartman infers, once-dominant Mexican communities sought solace for their sudden marginalization in music.
Hartman divides musica tejana into two overarching subsets. Wealthy, sophisticated, progressive Mexicans dug orquesta tejana, big-band music played with strings, horns, and drums in the idioms of jazz and pop. Poor, working-class, rural Mexicans dug conjunto, small-band music played with accordion and bajo sexto (12-string guitar) in the idioms of folk and the blues. These divergent paths would eventually meet in the form of Tejano, a pop-rock blend that boasts the severely injured Emilio Navaira and the martyred Selena Quintanilla as its king and queen, in Hartman’s view.
Two other strains of musica tejana that Hartman dissects are canciones and corridos. Canciones (sometimes referred to as rancheras) are lyrical songs about “the lives, loves, and struggles of humble farming folk.” Hartman’s point of reference for these is Lydia Mendoza, known as the “Lark of the Border.” Corridos, meanwhile, are folk ballads built to encourage hero worship. Hartman expertly conveys their flavor through the border song “El Corrido del Gregorio Cortez,” which tells the true story of a “brave, virile, godlike man whose steadfast courage allows him to prevail against” the rinches (Texas Rangers) after shooting one to death in self-defense (a story famously recounted in Americo Paredes’ With His Pistol In His Hand.)
The one constant throughout musica tejana’s evolution has been the accordion. Hartman cites the instrument, introduced by the Germans and Czechs, as a prime example of the melting-pot sensibility permeating Texas music. It’s versatile, affordable, and can provide melody, bass lines, and rhythm. Hartman considers musica tejana’s use of the instrument to be Mexico’s greatest contribution to the Texas music repertoire.
From the latter half of the 1800s through the first half of the 1900s, black Americans were the other main ethnic group under the thumb of white Texans. Hartman figures that the most significant African-American contribution to Texas music is the art of improvisation. Hartman tracks improvisation’s origins back to the church, where free and enslaved blacks congregated to formalize the call-and-response techniques honed in the fields. From there, Hartman connects the dots to Depression-era Deep Ellum jam sessions involving Western-swing king Bob Wills and blues and jazz cats the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, and Bessie Smith-all native Texans save for Smith, who emigrated from Tennessee.
Improvisation breeds innovation, as evidenced by Hartman’s zigzag through a gamut of black Texas musicians that more or less constitutes a who’s-who of American popular music.
He starts with gospel masters Arizona Dranes of Dallas, Blind Willie Johnson of Marlin, and the Soul Stirrers of Houston (who at one time featured eventual soul pioneer Sam Cooke).
Then he jumps to the blues, the foundation for nearly everything that came after, telling of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, a Texan by way of Louisiana, and the pardon granted him from Angola prison thanks to enterprising Texas folklorists John and Alan Lomax.
Hartman then plugs in, with Albert Collins of Leona, who earned the nickname “the Iceman” because his staccato guitar sounded like breaking ice, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, another Texan by way of Louisiana, whose prowess on guitar, fiddle, drums, mandolin, and viola underscores his facility as a leader of big bands.
Hartman takes one step backward to Scott Joplin of Texarkana, whose ragtime and boogie-woogie piano playing, learned under the tutelage of a German-Texan named Julius Weiss, foreshadowed two jazz geniuses: Charlie Christian of Bonham, whose single-string soloing secured his status as one of the most influential jazz guitarists of the 20th century, and Ornette Coleman of Fort Worth, the Pulitzer Prize-winning saxophonist whose “harmolodics” presaged free jazz. Hartman follows that step backward with two steps forward to the soulful come-ons of Galveston’s Barry White, the gangsta rap of Houston’s the Geto Boys, and the diva posturing of Beyonce Knowles, also from Houston.
Hartman hits a pleasing note of irony in showing how far-reaching the black sway has been on whites-that is, if you delight in seeing the oppressor taking a cue from the oppressed-using as examples axe-wielding Texas brothers Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan. But he misses the beat in communicating the impact of Clifford Antone, the now-deceased white owner of Antone’s, the Austin hotbed for blues and R&B. You’d think Hartman would have devoted more than a couple of sentences to Antone, considering all Antone did to foster mutually rewarding black-white race relations, and given that Hartman dedicates the book to him.
Because the chapter on German, Jewish, Czech, Polish, and French influences on Texas music doesn’t allow for nearly as much name-dropping, Hartman keeps his focus on the immigrants’ inanimate contributions, like dance halls and sheet music. He also furthers his theory of musical mixing-and-matching by showing how French and black musicians jointly progressed from jure to la la to zydeco.
By the time Hartman gets to the predominantly white music that is country, folk, and rock and roll, the names and deeds are more widely known, especially among those who already consider Texas music a genre. A few of Hartman’s examples are common knowledge: The Armadillo World Headquarters initiated Austin’s claim as the Live Music Capital of the World. Port Arthur’s Janis Joplin channeled Big Mama Thornton, a Texan by way of Alabama, and helped fuse blues and psychedelia. And the line of singer-songwriters that runs back from James McMurtry (son of writer Larry) through Townes Van Zandt and Roy Orbison to part-time Texan Woody Guthrie is long and varied. (Read Texas writer Grover Lewis’s Splendor in the Short Grass for an in-depth account of Guthrie’s time in Pampa, in addition to a remarkable literary nonfiction take on Centerville’s Lightnin’ Hopkins.)
Of course, it’s far more rewarding to learn from Hartman that Tanya Tucker of Seminole was selling “sex, dysfunctional family relations, and psychotic behavior” while still a teenager, or that Charley Pride, a Texan by way of Mississippi, had his racial identity concealed by RCA Records at the onset of his career. It’s far more fascinating to read how Crisp native Ernest Tubb’s tonsillectomy helped transform him from a Jimmie Rodgers impersonator to a honky-tonk legend, or how Littlefield native Waylon Jennings gave up his seat on the plane that crashed and killed Lubbock’s Buddy Holly, for whom he’d played bass. Plus, it’s more, well, fun to find out that Dallas’ Stephen Stills, of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, unsuccessfully tried out for the Monkees, the group Houston’s Michael Nesmith ultimately had to beg himself out of, or that San Antonio native Doug Sahm’s Sir Douglas Quintet was so named because it spoke to the mods enamored of the then-current British Invasion.
The History of Texas Music is testament to how many of the state’s sons and daughters were born unto the beat. Hartman succeeds in leading readers to appreciate the profound musical harmonies generated among the races, so much so that he subliminally makes you wonder how peaceful the country-nay, world-might be were it dictated by music instead of politics.
Hartman’s book certainly isn’t the most provocative, insightful, or exhaustive title on the subject-try Rick Koster’s Texas Music for a more colorful take and The Handbook of Texas Music, compiled by multiple editors, for a more extensive one. Hartman’s approach attempts to provide a holistic overview without bogging casual readers down in minutiae and editorials. If you’re left hankering for more than that, there’s the nearly 65 pages of notes and bibliography to pore through.
The only legitimate beef with the book is that it treats indie rock as a black sheep. If Hartman’s thesis is that Texas music is all-inclusive, then he ought to have touched on Texas-based bands like Spoon and the Polyphonic Spree, not to mention Daniel Johnston, the mentally disturbed outsider icon. Talk about a Texan who used music to free himself.
Michael Hoinski is an Austin-based freelancer whose writing also appears in The New York Times, Village Voice, and Austin American-Statesman, among others. For more info: www.MichaelHoinski.com.