• Fri. Apr 12th, 2024

‘Texas Hold ‘Em’: Beyoncé’s country single draws attention to the black roots of the genre

ByJada Horan

Feb 29, 2024

This week, Beyoncé topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart (dated Feb. 24) with the debut of her new single ‘Texas Hold ‘Em’ becoming the first black woman to ever claim the No. 1 entry. Prior, the highest charting black woman was Mickey Guyton in 2015 with ‘Better Than You Left Me’, coming in at No. 34. In the almost seven decades since the inception of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, only seven black women have charted, beginning with Linda Martell’s ‘Color Him Father’ ranked No. 22 in 1969. Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart was first published in 1958, though ‘country music’ had already been around for quite a while under a different name. Before the Hot Country Songs chart was the Most Played Juke Box Folk Records chart which tracked ‘Hillbillies, Spirituals, Cowboy Songs, etc.’, genres widely regarded as the immediate predecessors to country music. While its modern label is thought to have gained popularity in the early 1950s, country music has roots, notably black roots, dating back to the 1800s. With its history in mind, the magnitude of Beyoncé’s recent accomplishments cannot be understated. 

Country music undeniably has a racially charged history, one that is often overlooked and ignored. First and foremost, American country music was heavily pioneered through traditionally Black American sound as evidenced by the genre’s conventions and instrumentals. The banjo, for example, an intrinsic sound in country music, can be accredited to enslaved Africans in early colonial America. Thought to have derived from the akonting of the Jola people in West Africa, the banjo became a symbol of resistance through the shared experience of music. However, the banjo was quickly appropriated and even weaponized against black musicians as it became standardized across the American South. When discussing the history of country music, it is crucial to recognize the minstrel show, a depraved form of entertainment during the mid-to-late 1800s. Marketed as a type of comical theater, white actors would don blackface makeup to act out racist stereotypes and mock enslaved Africans. The practice of blackface minstrelsy was considered the first uniquely American form of theater, a notion that white Americans embraced at the time. Music and dance were a part of many minstrel shows, as the actors would put on a sham performance to mock slave spirituals, field songs, and other forms of specifically black music. In doing so, white Americans embarked on a centuries-long endeavor of appropriating black music while displacing black artists. 

During the beginning of music’s commercialization in the 1920s, racial segregation was widely established and legally enforced through Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow, by the way, was a racist caricature created by an actor named Thomas Dartmouth Rice for minstrel shows. When it came to segregation, the music industry was no exception. Country music was marketed as either ‘hillbilly records’ or ‘race records’. As such, music was advertised under the designation of race, forcing black artists further into the margins of a genre that they pioneered. Several early country hits, attributed to white artists, were written by or arranged by black musicians. The Carter Family’s 1928 song, “Little Darling, Pal of Mine” for example, was taken from a hymn created by a black minister.

Despite their contributions, black musicians were often uncredited or even replaced by white stand-ins by record labels to anchor their marketing to white Americans. This trend of whitewashing country music has continued into the present day, bolstering the notion that country music is ‘white music’. Today, country music in the United States is often associated with aggressive nationalism, right-wing agendas, and, simply put, whiteness. However, it is a diverse genre drawing influence from around the world, from Mexican to Scots-Irish, and most notably African-American. To ignore the roots of country music is to ignore the pivotal influence of black culture on American culture and beyond. Beyoncé’s ‘Texas Hold ‘Em’ from its strings to its lyricism, is an authentically fun country song that continues to break ground. 

If you’d like to learn more about the black roots of country music and other popular music genres like disco, pop, and rock, I would highly recommend the Black Music Project. It was very useful for this article, and you can learn more about it at blackmusicproject.com

Beyonce” by martdiz is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.