Country Music: What Makes it American?

Dear Mister Ken Burns

I really hate to say this to the man who has done wonderful documentaries about Jazz, The Civil War, and the Second World War; but the origins of Country Music are not American but belong in the folk culture of the German, Austrian, Swiss, and Irish immigrants who faced hostility and the tragedy of xenophobic and eugenic ideology in a country at the beginning of industry and technology. I know this because my Great Grampa and Grandma fled from Germany with its tragedy and genocide of the impaired, disabled, and Jewish people which had its roots in America long before Adolf Hitler became ruler of the Third Riche.

Country Music is more than just two four-letter words; it’s about the Landler, Leider, Jodeln, Tanzlmusik, Shanties, Volksmusik, Ballads, and Hymns that we immigrants brought with us that inspired minorities and gave them great opportunities to become the Buddy Boltens, Scott Joplins, and others who used what they knew musically and from us to create Blues, Gospel, Jazz, Mariachi, and La Banda.

Long ago in an era when recorded music was in its infancy people in rural areas of German-speaking countries had always practiced the custom of Jodeln, and it was not only a lyrical artform used in many songs, but it also had many functions for the community of people who lived on the outskirts or far away from major cities. First and foremost, it is used as a prayer or hymn either in the household, a blessing, or in the church in choirs of men, young adults, or boys. Songs like Stile Nacht (Silent Night), and Glokenjodel, would be in the category of a folk-carol sung as a group mass or before the mass to let people know when to enter the church.

These jodeln songs are soft and peaceful and oftentimes the lyrics are learned first before the Jodel part begins. Second is in a similar function to the Islamic Muezzin in the Muslim tradition who calls people into the church or place of work at dawn (Morgen), afternoon (Mittened), and evenings (Abend). Jodelers of this function are featured in songs like the Karwendel Leid which tells us the listener that when the sun sets on the hills of Karwendel that it’s time to go home to the wife and kids (Ja Wenn die Sonn underget im Karwendel…).

Third, is common in all cultures; the work songs and these vary from occupation and through the season and also boost morale about the occupation in dances like the Schuhplatter and Landler one being the famous Tiroler Holzhackerbuam or Lustigen Holzhackerbuam where young men saw and hack logs with axes in sync to a march in AABBAA from which is common in songs like A Spoonful of Sugar and Shall We Dance. Sometimes jodelers would show off their range in ballad singing, and skill in an oral tradition called the Gstanzl where one or more men and sometimes women sing eight lyric lines to insult, harass, or outwit their fellow musicians and singers.

Folksingers Hias and Michel Hartl Gstazl’n

Sea Shanties in Irish tradition worked the same manner depending on the job done on the ship; one famous example recently The Wellerman of New Zealand origin is a song sung when the wailers and sailors prepare to enter the harbor to load on food, supplies, and of course liquor to go on to the next hunt and port. Each sailor sings a lyric joined by the main chorus. Both the Shanty and the Gstanzl are meant to bring people closer together and work together to shape a song despite coming from two different cultures. Because of Prohibition in America, these cultural traditions were vilified and exploited by people like Wayne Wealer and by industrialists like Kellog, Ford, Carnegie, and many others who were part of the Eugenics Movement in America.

At one point Henry Ford used Square Dancing to combat the Jewish Influence of Jazz and Rags without knowing that Square Dancing has both Irish and German origins in both the Jig and Schuhplatter which culminated in the Appalachian Mountains along with Bluegrass the first recorded genre of Country Music. Germans and Austrians would call this genre Eche Volksmuik (Real Peoplesmusic) which was made for entertainment in the home or an owned establishment like a tavern or brewery; it similar to how we say music is Homespun or Traditional either through performative or oral tradition.

Many German and Austrian communities in America had to hide their traditions, language, and music away in their own community because of increasing xenophobia and anti-Semitism; some felt they had to flee to Mexico just to keep their culture alive and gave to the Mexican people the genres of Mariachi with ballads of rivals, fights, and lost love and La Banda with its brassy and powerful melodies and prideful ballads of land, people, and country. The foundation of Mariachi music is still heard in Austrian and German Volksmusik such as in Ursprung Baum’s A Geig’n muass her.

However, there is a difference between Volksmusik and Polka which is a genre created by the record industry to exploit German, Slovenian, Polish, and Austrian folk music. Examples of musicians and bands who had to survive this xenophobic label are The Six Fat Dutchman of Penslivania lead by tubist Harold Loffelmacher, Marv Herzog an accordionist in Frankenmuth, Michigan, Woopee John of Minnesota, and many others. Some musicians and singers like Franzl Lang had the melodies of their songs copied and made into other songs without their credit or recognition.

Original Recording of Im Urlaub Im Der Bergen-Franzl Lang

When American troops left Germany after the Cold War they brought Frazl’s records with them because they used them to trick Russian Hackers from interfering with German and American information on radio signals. Latter the song Im Urlaub im Der Bergan became a Country Song She Taught Me How To Yodel without credit to Franzl Lang.

Volksmusik is called People’s Music for a reason; it does not belong to a company, nation, or one group of people. It belongs to many to share with others and to honor the people who write and work hard to make music. After Covid is over my greatest wish is to form a Volksmuik program called Die Gewerkenshchaft (The Laborunion) to teach college musicians and children our future generation about Volksmuik and who truly owns it.

Without Volksmusik you have no music education in America, you don’t have other genres like Jazz, Pop, Rock, and Country, you don’t have folk musicians who champion unions and the working class and hold record companies and corporations accountable. You don’t have your musical communities like the Penliyania Dutch, Frankenmuth, Milwaukee, St.Paul, the Germans of Columbus, Ohio, The Polish in Chicago, and the Slovenians of Cleveland. When you ignore the fact that xenophobia is an everyday problem for white people too you are telling half the story and not the full story of Volksmuik in America. You are ignoring us to please people in the Country Music industry who are the true racists and xenophobes; my advice is to include our story immigrant story in your documentaries, not an interview with Dolly Parton just for money and giggles. History is not about money and giggles but hard truths and the people who faced them.

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Tuba player, creator of Struwwelkinder and The Flying Circus Orchestra

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Christina Bishop

Christina Bishop

Tuba player, creator of Struwwelkinder and The Flying Circus Orchestra

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