I met the musician and educator professor Nate Holder at the Black British Book Festival we had a good old chat black music and history exchanging ideas and views. It was my chance to share how I’d just solved the one of the great mysteries of my childhood:
|My Dad, Michael N. Ohajuru (1926-1995) (left) Jim Reeves (Right)|
Why did my Dad – a seaman from West Africa - have a fondness for the music of American country and western singers like Hank Williams and Jim Reeves ? Every time I hear Jim Reeves I Love You Because, I’m back in our front room in Liverpool.
Dad passed away in 1995 so he’s no longer here to ask. The mystery was cofounded by Dr Michael McMillan and his seminal Front Room project, as I recall discussing with Michael the huge radiogram the centre of his painstakingly wonderfully reconstruction of an African Caribbean front room from the late 1960s and 1970s. The radiogram I knew was a huge piece of brown mahogany furniture which served as a radio, a record player and album storage unit, we had in the front room of our terraced house in Liverpool.
|Michael McMillan - A front room in 1970 - The Museum of The Home|
Photograph by Em Fitzgerald
Amongst Dad’s album collection which was mostly West African high life music whose album covers featured black African faces, many with titles in African languages. Incongruously there were several albums whose covers had smiling white male faces most times with cowboy hats and titles like The Very Best of … or The Greatest Hits of … As I type I can hear Jim Reeves classic, I Love You Because being played on the radiogram in our front room. Discussing this with Michael Macmillan I learnt that other Black parents had a penchant for playing country & western music on their front-rooms’ radiograms. Why country music was as mystery to me.
Having listened to BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music ‘Take me Home, Country Roads’ I now know why.
Soul Music celebrates music from many different genres from classical to pop that touched folks’ souls with their powerful emotional impact. It was listening the episode featuring John Denver’s Take me Home, Country Roads I learnt how Black folk of my Dad’s generation connected with country & western. The author of Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital Lloyd Bradley explained how at first the reggae version by Toots and Maytals seemed enigmatic to him - a Black Jamaican band playing white, red-neck American music – an enigma I shared with Lloyd, trying to understand my Dad’s country and western music tastes.
The show explained that Caribbean government run radio stations of 60s were staffed by those trained at the BBC. The motherland’s BBC was the model to be followed, as country and western had no part of the BBC’s musical canon at that time it didn’t feature. But it did feature on the many American radio stations whose signals could be picked up in Jamaica. That coupled with how country and western song lyrics spoke to things familiar to country folk, it became popular throughout the Caribbean.
Country Roads is ‘about the longing for home and the desire to be back with the people you love’ Toots substituted ‘West Jamaica’ for ‘West Virginia’ as he sings of country roads taking him home to the place he belonged.
Liverpool or more specifically Liverpool 8 today known as Toxteth, in the 1960s it was a bustling multicultural, multiracial inner city suburb. My Dad had Caribbean friends, they went to each other’s night clubs and shebeens so exchanged ideas and music freely - no surprise my Dad found country and western music.
So, there you have it, mystery solved! .....
My Dad – a seaman from Nigeria - love of the country and western music he played on the radiogram in our front room in Liverpool can be traced back to American radio stations of the 60’s broadcasting country and western ‘Soul Music’ across the Caribbean.
By coincidence I came across another BBC programme - Black Roots -which charted the rise and fall and rise of the Black American influence on country & western music- how Black folk shaped the genre. Rhiannon Giddens the programme's presenter discusses her life and the challenges she's had as a Black, award winning, female banjo player while discussing with guests how the banjo, originally an African instrument became a mainstay of country & western music, while many of the early celebrated fiddle players were Black and the one earliest and most beloved harmonica players was a Black man.
Black Roots: Grammy-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens explores the history of African American roots music through the story of forgotten black pioneers.
Black Roots showing in music, what comes around goes around from the Black Americans in to White Americans in the nineteenth century to the Black folk in the Caribbean to a West African seaman in Liverpool in the 1960s.
With big thanks to Nate Holden, Michael McMillan, Lloyd Bradley and the BBC.