February 11, 2011

Black-and-White Duo Allerton & Alton Occupy Special Place In Country Music History

Portland, Maine, 1947. Two teenagers, one white, one black, rummaged through the record bins at Knight’s Used Furniture store.

The two didn’t know each other, but they scavenged for the same music: Mostly harmony-rich records of duos from the south. Back then it was frequently called “hillbilly music,” and it often arrived in Portland via military personnel who had traveled from southern homes to their Maine station. When recruits were called overseas, they’d often sell their 78 RPM hillbilly records to Knight’s for 15 cents apiece, and the store would sell them to kids like Al Hawkes and Alton Myers for 25 cents each.

But there weren’t a lot of kids like Hawkes and Myers, searching for the plaintive sounds of the rural south, up in Maine. The fact they were of different races seemed less important than their similar taste in music.

“When I saw Alton, I probably thought, ‘Well, he’s a little different,” said Hawkes, now 80. “But we liked the same music, and he told me he was learning guitar. And I said, ‘Why don’t we try to play some music together?’ ”

They did, and though the music did not make any charts, it made long-hidden history. Billed as Allerton & Alton, the pairing of Hawkes and Myers constituted what is believed to be the only black-and-white duo ever in country music. After more than 60 years, their live recordings from Maine radio stations are now available, through Germany-based Bear Family Records, on a set called Black, White and Bluegrass.

“This is a fascinating piece of American musical history,” said John Rumble, senior historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “These guys were standing up there as co-equals, in a duet. Considering the racial climate of the nation then, it really was unusual to have a black man and a white man making music together. It’s something far out of the ordinary.”

As Rumble is quick to point out, African-Americans have contributed to country music as forerunners, influences and stars. Harmonica player DeFord Bailey was a prominent performer on the Grand Ole Opry from 1926 until 1941, when he was dismissed from the show in a decision that held ugly racial overtones: “Like some members of his race and other races, DeFord was lazy,” wrote Opry founder Judge George D. Hay in his 1946 history of the program.

Bailey is now a Country Music Hall of Famer, as is African-American Charley Pride, who notched top hits from the ’60s into the ’80s. Today’s country radio playlists regularly feature Darius Rucker. And a 1998 Country Music Foundation boxed set — From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music — illuminated country multi-cultural roots and branches.

But the notion of an integrated and equal country duo...that’s something else entirely.

Read the rest of the story HERE

(Story and photo via http://blogs.tennessean.com)

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