Most people would probably look at this terrific little photo from Washington, DC's, Scurlock Studio and wonder what the heck is going on. It seems to make no sense. The date is 1949, at time when DC was as racially segregated as any city in America. The photo, however, clearly shows African-Americans dancing to the music of a band that's just as clearly entirely white. To top things off, it's a country and western band, the to judge from the band's shirts, ties, and instrumentation. But black folks don't like country music, do they?
Actually, we do. In fact, African-Americans love country music. Not all of us, of course. (And many of us who do love it keep things on the DL -- you know, turning down the volume on our car stereos when we pull up to a stop light.) But plenty of us dig it, and we've dug it for a very long time. After all, we helped invent it.
Scurlock Studio: Square dance, Howard University, 1949. (Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. Click directly on the photo to see a larger version.)
It's no accident that a Scurlock was on hand to record this moment. Addison Scurlock was Howard University's official photographer for many years. He opened his Washington, DC, photo studio in 1911 and quickly established himself as the city's leading black photographer. He and his sons, Robert and George, who later joined him in the business, spent much of the twentieth century photographing African-American leaders and luminaries, as well as daily life in DC's black community. (The studio's immensely valuable archive is now housed in the National Museum of American History.)
Daily life would have included this event at Howard, which The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise identifies as a "Square dance at Howard University, following a reception for Mary McLeod Bethune," one of the most important civil rights advocates of the day. (At the time, there was no stigma in the African-American community to liking country music, as there sometimes is today. A few years later, black music fans also fell for Elvis, but that's another story.)
Finding a country and western band to play at the reception wouldn't have taken much looking. In the two decades leading up to 1949, DC's population had nearly doubled. Migrants from all over had been drawn to the city by the tremendous growth in the federal workforce, during the Depression and World War Two. Many came from the South and more than a few brought their guitars, fiddles, and accordions with them.
I'll leave you with this video from the fabulous young group, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Over the last few years, they've been exploring old time string band music and its African and African-American roots. That's another way of saying that they've been bringing country music's past back to life.