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.